Brave New World, Wise Ole’ Mr. Feeny

A few days ago marked arguably the most significant milestone of my life thus far: I graduated college. I donned my cap and gown (and struggled to adjust my graduation hood), sat amongst my fellow seniors and anxiously awaited my name to finally be called. Afterwards, I nabbed any friends I could find for a quick photo, rode the ram (it’s a Fordham thing, don’t ask) and joined my family for a celebratory dinner.

That night, I could not help but think to myself: “OK, so…now what?” I mean, I technically know what’s ahead. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll wrap up an internship, begin a full time job, continue to unpack everything I brought home from my dorm and enjoy another New York City summer as much as possible. But what I was wondering at the time, I suppose, is what the next lesson for me will prove to be if I’ve officially closed my college textbooks for good. I have always been a big believer in the idea that learning does not need to take place within the confines of a classroom, but this does not make the idea of going out into the “real world” any less daunting.

As I continue to think about what lies ahead for me in my future, I find myself also reflecting on my past: lessons already learned both inside and beyond the classroom, evolving into the person I am now and, of course (you saw where this was going, right?), the television shows that have heavily impacted my youth. So far, I have written about some of these such as Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond (and will continue to write more on those as well as others), but there is another one I love which seems particularly relevant to the transition I am currently undergoing, a show that is itself about a young individual growing and changing, learning to become an adult and applying lessons taught in the classroom to real life (or vice versa): Boy Meets World.

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            Fe-Fe-Fe Feeny! Plays with Squirrels. Cory and Topanga. I know I am far from the only person my age to remember Boy Meets World so fondly (or to cry every time I rewatch the series finale):

Sitcom Study: Boy Meets World’s “Brave New World” (7×22 and 7×23)

Relevant Episode Information: In the series finale, Cory, Topanga, Shawn and the rest of the gang face life-altering decisions as they contend with what life may hold in store for them once they are no longer in college—but not without some final words from Mr. Feeny.

One of the greatest aspects of Boy Meets World (aside from the memorable characters and clever, funny writing) was the fact that, despite being a “kids’ show” in many ways, the series never shied away from addressing such heavy topics as death, child abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and bullying. In fact, it’s because of shows like Boy Meets World that a blog such as this—dedicated to the applicable, deeper themes and ideas explored in sitcoms—even makes sense. Boy Meets World consistently respected its viewers and took them seriously which is why, in turn, viewers could take an episode’s message to heart as a legitimate, worthwhile lesson.

This respect was never more apparent than in the series finale, “Brave New World.” Divided into two parts and full of numerous clips highlighting some of the most iconic moments of the show’s seven year run, “Brave New World” finds Boy Meets World’s protagonist Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) attempting to grapple with the possibility of moving from his native Philadelphia to New York City when his wife Topanga Lawrence (Danielle Fishel) is offered a dream internship in the Big Apple. If you’re even a casual viewer of the show, you will know that Cory does not handle change well. Ever.

Enter George Feeny (William Daniels). The Matthews’ next door neighbor, Cory’s mentor and the gang’s teacher in nearly every class from junior high through college (something the show cleverly and frequently jokes about), Mr. Feeny helps Cory realize that maybe Topanga is also hesitant about the move, since such a big change means there is the possibility she may fail; he warns, however, that staying where they are will also hinder growth. As Cory and Topanga finally commit to moving to New York City, with Cory’s older brother Eric (Will Friedle) and best friend Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) in tow (the Cory/Shawn bromance is too important to be sidelined in this post and will require its own post in the future), Cory advised his younger brother Joshua:

Cory: “Cory: “You’re gonna learn something from [the world] every day, you’re gonna make mistakes…Mr. Feeny will probably teach every grade you’re ever in…even though it seems like the world’s going out of its way to teach you its hard lessons, you’re going to realize it’s the same world that’s given you your family and your friends…Boy Meets World, now I get it.”

Even more memorably, the episode concludes with Cory, Topanga, Shawn and Eric awaiting Feeny in his classroom, eager for one final lesson (and reluctant to say goodbye):

Mr. Feeny: “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.”

Topanga: “Don’t you mean do well?”

Mr. Feeny: “No, I mean do good.”

While Mr. Feeny’s words should undoubtedly be taken to heart, it is what he does (or, rather, what he does not do) in the following moments that should also be remembered. Despite the group’s request, Mr. Feeny refuses to verbally admit that he loves the four of them, saying he is intent on keeping some boundaries. “You haven’t even talked to another student for seven years,” Cory retorts. Sill, he refuses. One by one, the four of them bid him farewell, thanking him tearfully for things such as being the reason they will be good people and, in Topanga’s case, being more of a father than her biological one. It is only when they finally leave the room that Feeny finally admits: “I love you all. Class dismissed.”

Thus, it’s by looking back on my past (through the lens of my love and appreciation for Boy Meets World) that I have come to two important lessons to help guide my future:

1) Don’t shy away from telling someone they matter. You don’t always know when you will see each other again. In a similar manner, also don’t shy away from admitting what you care about, either.

2) Don’t just do well. Do good.

Bottling Frasier’s Success

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.

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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.”

Niles: “What?”

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.

Tossed Salad and Bulletproof Bracelets

Author’s Note: My apologies for the delay between posts, I recently returned from a few weeks of study abroad in London. 🙂

            Whenever I give my father a card for a holiday such as his birthday or Father’s Day, I always mention Frasier. Amidst thanking him for things like, you know, paying for my college tuition and co-raising me, I thank him for introducing me to TV’s snobby yet lovable Seattle-born psychiatrist. From frequently quoting the show in everyday life (“If you need me, I’ll be at my club” and “I am wounded” being two of my favorites) to rejoicing when Kelsey Grammer retweeted me on the 21st anniversary of the sitcom, Frasier has definitely left its mark on me. Incredibly smart, funny and critically acclaimed (it currently holds the record for most Emmy wins of any sitcom), it is safe to say this will not be the only post I dedicate to Frasier. While it would not be Frasier without Frasier Crane (and he’s also the character my dad and I both identify with most on the show, go figure), this post will not focus on the titular character; this one is for Roz Doyle (and Wonder Woman).

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Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “Room Full of Heroes” (9×06)

Relevant Episode Information: Frasier hosts a Halloween costume party where he asks his guests to come dressed as their personal hero. When Roz shows up as Wonder Woman, he belittles her decision, thinking she confused “personal hero” with “superhero”––but did she?

Years before Sex and the City premiered and introduced the self-described “try-sexual” (aka she’ll try anything once) Samantha Jones, Roz was a character who took almost as much pride in her active sex life (despite frequent jokes from Frasier and his brother Niles) as she did in her career-driven nature. She was never afraid to speak her mind or go after what she wanted, two undeniably admirable qualities despite what you (or Frasier for that matter) may think of her love life. It is because of Roz’s flirtatious nature that Frasier jumps to the conclusion that she is not taking his game seriously and merely wanted to wear something “frivolous.”

Roz initially pretends to have simply misunderstood the rules of Frasier’s game before finally coming clean: “Actually, I didn’t misunderstand anything. You made so much fun of my costume, I got so embarrassed, so I lied. Wonder Woman really is my hero! I mean, she’s smart and beautiful, moral, and totally independent.” Realizing that Roz took the game seriously all along, Frasier offers her a sincere apology.

There are several reasons why I find this scene so poignant, but there are two in particular that stand out to me. First of all, like Roz, I have always admired Wonder Woman. Ever since my dad introduced me to Justice League (thanks again, dad) in fourth grade and my mom introduced me to the Lynda Carter series around the same time (thanks, mom), I have been a diehard fan: I have dressed as her for Halloween (but Roz’s costume was more authentic looking than mine), pretended to fight crime as her, read countless Wonder Woman comics and graphic novels, enjoyed the 2011 animated film about her and became thrilled to know she is finally starring in a live-action movie (if you have not yet seen the Batman v Superman trailer, go do so…and then watch some Frasier, of course).

Secondly, also like Roz, I recognize the merit in admiring fictional characters. While reality is full of admirable figures (here’s thinking of you, grandpa), there is a reason why “which character from show X” quizzes are so popular. There is something special about recognizing that a fictional character resonates with us. I have seen each episode of Frasier several times, but maybe the show would not be as important to me if I were not able to have those moments where I realize I can relate to a particular character’s situation or personality. Frankly, I find it fun to be able to say that the Friends character I am most like is Monica (with Chandler’s humor and a few of the other characters’ elements, as my About page says) and the Disney heroines I identify with most are Jasmine and Megara. So, the next time someone you know finds comfort in a work of fiction or is proud of identifying with a certain character, remember it is perfectly okay—and we all do it.

The One With the Sensitivity

There are several sitcoms worth analyzing, praising and re-watching several times; none is ever completely above the struggle to master the magic formula that makes certain sitcoms so memorable. This, of course, includes the struggle for a sitcom to be innovative while honoring an already successful formula, and having distinctive characters while inevitably including more familiar tropes. We have seen such tropes a million times and can recognize them a mile away: the ladies’ man who never seems to want to “settle down” (i.e. Friends’ Joey Tribbiani or Happy Days’ Arthur Fonzarelli), the “mother hen”-type woman who cannot wait to wed (i.e. Sex and the City’s Charlotte York or Friends’ Monica Geller) and the “mother-in-law from hell” (i.e. Bewitched’s Endora or Everybody Loves Raymond’s Marie Barone) are just a few. All of these tropes are understandably exaggerations, some more harmful than others, but there is one that particularly annoys me: the guy who cannot (or will not) show his sensitive, emotional side because it is “wrong.”

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Sitcom Study: Friends’ “The One With the Male Nanny” (9×06)

Relevant Episode Information: To Ross’ chagrin, Rachel hires a “manny” named Sandy (Freddie Prinze Jr.) to watch over their daughter, Emma.

That’s right, I am starting with Ross Geller, Friends’often-maligned yet undeniably hilarious (ie. “I’M FINE!” and Unagi) dinosaur-loving leading man. If you are anything like me and know Friends very (perhaps too) well, you will probably agree that, this episode aside, Ross typically does not fit into this trope. He is a loving father to his children, Ben and Emma. He is repeatedly romantic and sensitive (if not also deeply insecure, but that is for another post) during his relationship with Rachel. In this episode, however, he is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a male nanny. Meanwhile, Chandler jokes about Rachel hiring a “manny” and Joey, arguably the closest to a “guy’s guy” on Friends, proves to be the most comfortable around Sandy and even develops a friendship with him. If Joey does not see anything emasculating about Sandy, why should Ross?

Ross explains to Sandy: “You know, I’m just not, um, that comfortable with a guy who’s as sensitive as you.” Ross eventually reveals that his dad would often make him feel as if he were not a “real boy” since he was not particularly athletic as a child. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Ross’ real issue with Sandy is not really because he thinks he is “weird” (as he previously claims), but because he equates Sandy with how he fears his father saw him when he was younger: too sensitive.

While the fact that Ross becomes increasingly sensitive and emotional while explaining this to Sandy is undeniably done for comedic value, it also addresses a key issue I have seen countless men (both onscreen and in real-life) confront: What is the line between being sensitive and “too sensitive?” Can a guy be romantic and sensitive toward a significant other while also maintaining his “bro” side in addition to his independent self?

Here is what I have concluded: the very obsession with this question is in and of itself the problem and it is something that desperately needs to change. I know it is far easier said than done, but if a friend or romantic partner ever makes you feel like you are not being “man” enough, run away as fast as you can. Stereotypically, it is considered “hot” if a girl loves something like Star Wars or South Park, while I have witnessed several guys ashamed to admit to enjoying Disney movies or Sex and the City. This is absurd, especially because if you can honestly look me in the eye and tell me there is not at least one Disney film that owns your heart (mine is Aladdin by the way), I will know you are lying and probably are also lying about your name and where you obtained a magic carpet (but then I would know you definitely watched Aladdin, and that would just be awkward for everyone involved).

The real question, where this subject is concerned, should not be a guy worrying about being “too sensitive”, but moreover if a guy is being respected. Now, I have always had several guy friends from varying backgrounds, so I am acutely aware that the “aw how cute, so-and-so has a new boyfriend/girlfriend” teasing is to be expected, and most of the time it is all in good fun (and I have done it too, to be fair). When the “teasing” turns into guys calling their supposed guy friend a “pussy” or making him feel bad for, say, not being able to have a guys’ night due to established plans with a partner, that is when it is a problem. That is when it is not okay. Thus, it is imperative to know the difference.

If you enjoy holding hands in public or surprising your girlfriend with flowers to remind her you love her, there is nothing “too sensitive” about that—it is actually extremely sweet. Even Ross knows: “It’s always great when someone tells you they love you.” Despite this, several guys still seem terrified of being labeled as “that guy”, always saying this in a tone that implies “that guy” has a death sentence in a few hours, when in reality “that guy” is truly and simply one who is mature and confident enough in himself to show his partner that he or she is loved. Whether it is Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass or Sex and the City’s Mr. Big, we are all guilty of being enthralled by at least one fictional, emotionally unavailable and utterly damaged character. In reality, however, the “too cool to show his feelings” guy is far from attractive.

My own father is one of the most level-headed, mature “manly” men I know, and even he recognizes the importance of and maturity in being forthright with one’s feelings and showing affection for those he loves. Back to Friends, each of the show’s three male characters are in no way hindered by their sensitive, romantic sides—and neither should anyone else.