In many ways, the success—both commercially and critically—of many iconic sitcoms has come down to one crucial element: familiarity. How relatable are a character’s trials and tribulations to the ones the audience watching has faced? How comforting is the world of a particular sitcom and, moreover, to what extent is it able to serve as an “escape” from reality?
Timeless sitcoms Cheers and Friends are two such shows that exemplify this aura of intimacy between series and viewer. Cheers’ iconic theme song famously boasts the following line: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”––indeed, for eleven seasons millions of viewers came to feel as if they would fit right in among the titular bar’s quirky customers. Similarly, people to this day comment (whether jokingly or not depends on the person) that Friends’ Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross feel akin to true friends—maybe even family.
This is precisely why sitcom bottle episodes (aka an entire episode mostly, if not entirely, confined to the main cast in one primary location) come off as so endearing. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” and Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” are memorable examples of this formula and, while I love and have repeatedly watched both episodes, it is the two expertly crafted bottle episodes from my other favorite (and often the most criminally underrated nowadays, out of the three) sitcom, Frasier, that will be highlighted here.
Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “My Coffee With Niles” (1×24) and “Dinner Party” (6×17)
Like any good bottle episode, these Frasier episodes primarily take place in one setting; in the first, season one’s finale “My Coffee With Niles”, it is the characters’ go to hangout Café Nervosa and in the latter, season six’s “Dinner Party”, it is Frasier’s apartment. What puts these episodes into a league of their own—aside from the witty repartee that exists in every Frasier episode but is at peak form here—are two additional factors. First, each episode is not merely about the show’s core cast; it is primarily about its two leading characters: Frasier and Niles Crane, which arguably double as the show’s primary “relationship” in that a consistent, central theme of the entire show is their brotherly friendship and, more often than not, inevitable rivalry. This leads to the second factor: the two episodes focus on exploring, and attempting to answer, two primary questions that are imperative as much to the episode’s plot as to the show’s eleven-year arc.
1) “My Coffee With Niles”
Relevant Episode Information: Frasier and Niles spend the entire episode chatting about their lives at their favorite coffee shop, Café Nervosa.
Primary Question: Is Frasier happy? Moreover, what does it mean to be happy?
While Martin, Roz and Daphne periodically and briefly speak to the brothers throughout the episode, the crux of the episode is Frasier’s response—and lack thereof—to Niles’ inquiry of whether or not he is happy. Note their initial exchange regarding this question:
Niles: “So, Frasier, now that chapter two of your life is in full swing, do you mind if I ask you something?”
Frasier: “No, go right ahead.”
Niles: “Are you happy?”
[Frasier is silent]
Niles: “Did you hear the question?”
Frasier: “Yes, I’m thinking. It’s a seemingly complex question.”
Niles: “No, it’s not.”
Frasier: “Yes, it is.”
Niles: “No, it’s not. Either you’re happy or you’re not.”
Frasier: “Are you happy?”
Niles: “No, but we’re not talking about me.”
With the show’s first season coming to a close, there could not be a more apt time for Niles to ask Frasier this. By this point, viewers (many undoubtedly initial Frasier Crane fans from his Cheers days) have watched twenty-four episodes in which Frasier has worked to adjust to returning to his home city, tackling a new job, reestablishing relationships with his family and being a country away from his only son. So, is Frasier happy with this life-changing decision? This is not the last time such a question will be asked of him, though it often will take more specific forms, typically regarding his level of satisfaction with his job or love life.
One aspect of the aforementioned exchange that intrigues me so much is the fact that Niles and Frasier differ on the complexity of saying whether or not one is happy. In theory, I agree with Niles; I tend to think and speak of happiness as something akin to love in that it is instinctual—if you feel either, you know, otherwise you do not. In practice, however, I have found myself more on Frasier’s side of this discussion in that I usually take a few moments to reflect on recent events before offering a response.
Furthermore, of course, it is simply not in Frasier’s character to simply say “yes” or “no” to this or really any question without thoroughly weighing the pros and cons. Later in season four, Frasier will spend an entire episode agonizing over whether or not he believes Niles and his first wife, Maris, truly belong together. Even further along in the series, he will also struggle to choose between two women, asking literally anyone and everyone he encounters for input.
In the case of “My Coffee With Niles”, Frasier continues to evade the question until, finally, it is presented to him again, this time by a waitress growing tired of adjusting his order to meet his specificities:
Waitress: “Zimbabwe decaf, non-fat milk, no cinnamon in sight. Now—are you happy?”
Frasier: [really answering Niles’ initial question] “You know, in the greater scheme…yes, I’d say I am.”
Arguably, perhaps it is up to the viewers to decide how true this will prove to be for him as the seasons continue.
2) “Dinner Party”
Relevant Episode Information: Niles and Frasier decide to co-host a dinner party, but struggle to agree on the people they should and should not invite.
Primary Question: Are Niles and Frasier too reliant on one another? Are they odd?
Almost any episode that deals primarily with the brothers Crane rivalry is among the most re-watchable for me. In “Author, Author” and “The Innkeepers”, their egos humorously and inevitably clash as they try to co-write a book and co-manage a restaurant, respectively. In “IQ”, Frasier’s personal ego takes a major hit as he learns that Niles is the brother with the higher IQ—and that it’s more than just a mere couple of points in difference. Many of the show’s best one-liners are also directly relevant to their tendency to one up the other, for instance:
Frasier: “Niles, I would shave my head for you.”
Niles: “A gesture which becomes less significant with each passing year.”
Niles: [filling in for Frasier’s radio show] “Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there’ll be no blaming mother today.”
Indeed, “Dinner Party” is not without its bickering moments between the two. Nonetheless, aside from the joy of watching these two play off no one but each other for most of the episode, what makes this episode so memorable to me is that it poignantly touches on the fact that Niles and Frasier do, ultimately, have a loving and very close relationship despite everything. Still, a running joke throughout the series questions if they in fact spend too much time together; other characters repeatedly tease them for bringing the other as a “date” to one function or another.
Here, the brothers accidentally hear someone they are planning on inviting to their party refer to them as “that one” and “the other one”; it is unclear which is which but the underlying suggestion that the two are almost interchangeable to some is clear. Niles and Frasier proceed to over-analyze and debate its meaning:
Frasier: “Perhaps she has a point. Ever since your divorce you have become more and more attached to me. Maybe that’s why she said what she said.”
Frasier: “You get Frasier, you get that Niles!”
Niles: “She didn’t say that. She said, “you get the one, you get that other one.” What makes you think that you’re the one and I’m that other one?”
Frasier: “I am the one giving the party, and you are that other one!”
Niles: “I’m the one that invited her, so that makes you that other one!”
And, in one of my favorite exchanges of the episode:
Niles: “Why is Joaquin on such a strict diet?”
Frasier: “Because the Joaquin they’re bringing to dinner is… their foster child, from a tiny village on the Pampas. He speaks no English and he gets nauseated when he eats American food.”
Niles: “So, he’s not the conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic?”
Frasier: “Oh, you are so “that other one”!”
This episode’s key question is not given a clear answer. Niles and Frasier bicker (whilst becoming increasingly disenchanted with the idea of throwing this party at all), Martin maintains that they are not odd (“just special”), and the episode ends with the brothers resolving to not care what others think and enjoy each other’s company at dinner—before quickly changing their minds.
Well then, are Frasier and Niles too dependent on one another? I am an only child and so cannot personally identify with a sibling relationship. At the same time, I—as, I believe, can most people—understand how rare and wonderful it is to find even one person with whom you can talk endlessly and share similar interests or ways of thinking and that there is nothing wrong with valuing such a friendship. To paraphrase Frasier’s final response in “My Coffee With Niles”, perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is one of the keys to lasting happiness.