Second Look: Frasier Season 1 Episode 1 – “The Good Son”

Frasier Season 1, Episode 1 “The Good Son”
Written by David Angell, Peter Casey & David Lee
Directed by James Burrows
Aired September 16, 1993 on NBC

The legend of Frasier‘s genesis is an interesting one. Did you know at one point, it was being developed as a show about a genius paraplegic with a “street smart” Latina house maid? (What a… classic that show would’ve been.) Frasier‘s early development follows a path from the series finale of Cheers (on May 20, 1993, to be exact), a cameo by Kelsey Grammar on Wings, a pitch to NBC, and then a lot of tweaking to create the show that would eventually air longer than both Seinfeld and Friends – and nearly match Cheers‘ run on the network, ultimately falling a mere eight half hours short of its predecessor’s whopping 271-episode run.

Also fascinating is how the show ended up taking place in Seattle; Frasier was originally going to be set in Denver, until Colorado voters passed a massive initiative banning gay rights laws in the state (later that year, the courts would determine Colorado’s initiative violated the Constitution). So the writers of the show decided to move Frasier even further west, inadvertently allowing it to truly separate itself – at least in terms of mileage – from the iconic series that introduced America to Frasier Crane (and to allow the writers to not have to constantly be pressured into having Cheers actors guest star on the show).

(Ironically, it would provide what I think most East Coast millennials like myself would consider their driving perception of mid-1990s West Coast life – you know, with its coffee shops, flannel shirts, and New Age sensibilities, all of which have their moment in the sun during Frasier‘s extended run.)

After its tumultuous development period, “The Good Son” premiered on September 16, 1993 (a mere four months after the end of Cheers)… and was hardly the rushed spinoff cash-in I think many would’ve expected it to be. With a pilot embracing its unique setting (note the skyline behind Frasier’s apartment, and its use of a West Coast-style coffee shop as a regular setting), “The Good Son” takes its rather complicated conception, and amazingly, quickly finds a rhythm to build the foundation of a series on – no small feat for a 23-minute pilot (even if they’re 2.5 minutes longer than sitcom pilots in 2023).

It opens almost unceremoniously, with Frasier summing up the six months between the end of Cheers until now to a random caller to his radio show. Feeling his life had grown stagnant after definitively splitting from Lilith, he moved to Seattle to start a new career as a radio host, and a bachelor with a taste for fine European furniture (no sherry in the pilot, unfortunately).

As overt as that opening monologue feels (with Frasier noting that he “was clinging to a life that wasn’t working anymore”), it is an important establishing moment for the young comedy – almost like the writing staff extending an olive branch to possibly hesitant audience members, setting the emotional tenor of Frasier‘s first episode in a way accessible to any Cheers fan with its embrace of middle-aged existential dread, but with a decidedly more cerebral bent to its ruminations on the things that bring us together as human beings.

From there, “The Good Son” takes a fairly pedestrian path to introducing its characters through its first and second acts; one by one, each of them is brought into the rhythm of Frasier’s everyday patterns, most of them in their own short vignette preceded by the ever-familiar Frasier interstitials. While the manner in which characters are introduced is abundantly familiar, the writing informing it is unusually strong (not to mention the performances) for a network pilot episode.

Take Niles, who we meet in the coffee shop, offering up his first Maris story and an insight into his many idiosyncrasies, beginning with his deliberate movements and rampant germaphobia. With their immediately familiar rapport, Frasier begins to develop the high-brow wit it would be equally (and rightfully) acclaimed and ridiculed for over the next eleven years – though without the deeper psychological tenants some of its later episodes would explore with the brothers Crane, of course. But it’s all Wasilly chairs and arguments with the gardener in “The Good Son” – and though it serves its purpose wonderfully, it is hardly the most rewarding story of Frasier‘s first half hour.

Niles is quite a distinct character in “The Good Son” (mostly in how he differs from brother and patriarch, giving voice to the complex, occasionally traumatic Crane family history); as is Marty, Frasier’s father, the true (and obvious) emotional core of the pilot. How “The Good Son” builds out the relationship – or lack thereof – between Marty and Frasier is the highlight of this first episode, their unfamiliarity explained by their dismissal of each other’s lifestyles and how uncomfortable they clearly are trying to share the same space. Marty doesn’t want to be living with his uptight son, and Frasier doesn’t want his father’s ugly armchair messing with the “clean slate” he’s built for himself.

As he begins to learn, of course, there’s no such thing as a clean slate, and we’re all just carrying around our dirty, duct-taped garbage bag of emotions and failures with as much decorum as we can muster (which in some moments, is near none – like Frasier screaming at his father for never saying “thank you” for taking him and his antagonistic dog Eddie in).

With Frasier still recovering from his divorce, and Mary’s retirement plans ruined by his hip injury, father and son find themselves reluctantly drawing closer to each other – but as old conflicts linger, so do personal reservations, and “The Good Son” is all about unwinding the tension between Frasier and his father, a tough task to do in a 23 minute window (especially as the conflict really only has a few scenes to build to its climax). It’s a testament to John Mahoney’s (eternally underappreciated) performance as Marty that this dynamic works so well in the pilot; his ability to quietly balance resignation, stubbornness, and vulnerability without dialogue is often a bedrock of the show’s most powerful moments, and “The Good Son” gives us a delicious preview of what’s to come as the series would evolve.

Here, it sets the stage for the wonderfully written scene where Marty calls in to Frasier’s radio show to hash out their resentments towards each other. Though Mahoney’s performance in the climactic scene preceding it is so good, it’s a smart decision to keep him off-screen here; it not only speaks to how difficult it is for Marty to express himself and expose his feelings, but to how much they both need each other to heal and move on from the things they’ve lost, the theoretical lives they’ve had to leave behind… and more overtly, visualizing the emotional distance they’re trying to close between each other.

That moment is one all pilots aim for (and many miss) – and after a solid, if unspectacular first two acts, resolves the most important goal of any good pilot: to provide a direct line to the heartbeat of the show. In tumultuous periods of life, our instincts are to turn to family (even in moments we’d rather not rely on people who know us); “The Good Son” never forgets that, and ends on one of the strongest scenes you’ll ever see in a show’s first episode, balanced by the juxtaposing sounds of Marty’s silence and wiseass-ery, and Frasier talking to his next guest about mourning about loss in its many forms – perhaps the only ubiquitous experience we all share as adults, and something Frasier starts to realize his father is experiencing alongside him, rather than in spite of him.

Of course, such a heavy focus on this relationship in the second half doesn’t give a lot of room to expand on Niles, Daphne Moon (Marty’s new physical therapist), and Roz Doyle, Frasier’s producer; but they are sidelined in service of an integral moment between father and son (and with 263 episodes to follow, there’s plenty of time to get to know the rest of people in Frasier’s orbit). Frasier‘s a show with a terrific support of supporting players – the extent of which doesn’t really fill out for six or seven seasons, and in the pilot, is but a mere whisper amongst the backdrop of Crane men. Thankfully, their brief introductions are sharply crafted – and more importantly, Frasier and his father’s dynamic is strong and complex enough to carry the weight of that second half, to give Frasier a true pathos beyond “cashing in on that sweet Cheers fandom”.

People always talk about how a comedy needs to feel “lived in”; with such a well developed rapport between actors, the only thing “The Good Son” had to do was build those out with interesting details with its main cast of characters – and in fact, goes beyond that, with the father-son dynamic on display in the episode’s closing scenes. 30 years after its debut, Frasier‘s first half hour still holds up – both as a prime example of how to introduce a world of characters, and how a strong emotional foundation is really all a pilot needs to set a series up for success (especially one trying to separate itself from its iconic past).

Grade: B+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • With the impending Frasier reboot premiering in a few weeks… what better time to begin the (almost) Month of Frasier with a full review of the first season, which celebrating its 30th anniversary two days ago. Yes, we are 23 days away from the premiere of the revival… which means a new Frasier review every day until Frasier officially returns to the east coast!
  • Frasier’s advice to a caller depressed over a breakup: “You’re not mourning the loss of your boyfriend. You’re mourning the loss of what you thought your life was going to be. Let it go – things don’t necessarily work out how they were planned. That’s not bad; things have a way of working out anyway.”
  • Frasier‘s first closing montage features Frasier, Daphne, and Marty watching TV, while Eddie stares intently at Frasier.
  • “Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating.”
  • “Have I ever told you the story of Loopie Velez?”
  • Frasier to Roz: “Do you think I’m fragile, like a piece of Lalique?”
  • “I thought you liked my Maris.” “I do, from a distance…. she’s like the sun, except without the warmth.”
  • Jane Leeves stretching out the word “psyyyyyy-chic”; is there anything more fun to watch on TV?
  • “Golden Acres: We Care, So You Don’t Have To”.
  • The double entendres of Frasier are glorious from the get go: “I need to do something to calm me down. Double espresso, please!”
  • Who has an apartment where the bathroom is attached to the living room, right next to the door? Such an odd location – and one the show would keep for years, including an episode where John McGinley fixes a toilet.
  • Frasier: “I’m supposed to give up my study, where I have my most profound thoughts?” Marty: “Use the can like the rest of us!”
  • “Remember what Mom used to say: a handshake is just as good as a hug.” If anyone remembers Frasier’s mother from way, way back in Season 3 of Cheers, that sounds exactly like Dr. Hester Rose Crane.
  • The first two celebrity callers to Frasier’s radio show? Griffin Dunne and Linda Hamilton.

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