15
Jan
2012
Bottle Up and Explode
The Dinner Party
Jordan
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"Dinner is served."-Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar)

Every sitcom has a few beats that it returns to again and again. By its very nature, the situation comedy is developed around a premise that is flexible enough to be adaptable but static enough that viewers can (as a rule) tune in or out whenever they feel the need and miss very little in their time away. For Frasier, the main concern of the show is the relationship between Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar) and his family, an irascible live-in father Martin (John Mahoney) and an equally pretentious and neurotic brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce). Episodes of the show usually deal with Frasier's attempts to break into the Seattle cultural elite, the clash between his taste for the finer things and his father's blue-collar sensibility, or the often-turbulent relationship between Frasier and Niles.

In this regard "The Dinner Party," written by Jeffrey Richman and directed by David Lee, is pretty much your standard Frasier episode. Frasier and Niles decide they are going to host a dinner party in order to get to know a couple they met at the symphony better. This becomes a problem because Martin plans on hosting a poker night on the same evening, and the two go through several additional complications as they continue to plan the party, losing Seattle's two best caterers by making it apparent they were asking both of them to cater the party at different points, being forced to invite a pair of lushes (who ask to bring a guest that Frasier and Niles assume is a renowned conductor before discovering he is the couple's foster child) to ensure their guests of honor attend, and being deeply disturbed when a phone message from a guest continues on after she thought she hung up, just long enough for them to hear her tell her husband she doesn't like one of them and finds their close relationship a bit suspect. All the while, Daphne (Jane Leeves) and Roz (Peri Gilpen) are preparing to go to a fancy event and looking for something for Daphne to wear.



This is all fairly standard Frasier plotting, and the comic escalation as Frasier and Niles begin bickering over who is the unliked Crane is all very fun. "The Dinner Party" stands out for two reasons: it is a bottle episode, taking place entirely within Frasier's apartment, and the entire episode is devoted to the evening spent planning the party, a seemingly catastrophic event we never get to see play out.

Instead, most of the episode is given over to the interplay between Frasier and Niles, which allows for the superb chemistry that Grammar and Pierce had developed by that point to shine. Over the course of the series Niles became the break out character for the show, and his relationship with Frasier became more central as a result. The way the two are able to go from amiably planning a party to frantically bickering to being terrified at the prospect that they are "kooks" who spend too much time together so naturally is a credit to both actors, who were richly rewarded throughout the show's run (both won four Emmy's for their roles).



Yet despite all of its conceptual gimmickry, "The Dinner Party" is really not all that interesting an episode of the show. It is a bottle episode, but that seems almost incidental to the plot; a subplot taking place outside the apartment could have been added and the episode wouldn't even give off a hint that it had been written as a bottle episode. It isn't necessary, of course, for a show to use a bottle episode as an excuse to experiment with their standard format; most of the time bottle episodes play out more like "The Dinner Party" than like many of the episodes I have covered so far in this space. Rather than feeling like a special episode, most of the time, bottle episodes are just another episode of the show.



For a show that was as endlessly clever and intelligent as Frasier, though, I would expect something more. The show was so based around conflict that having the entire cast in the same room for 22 minutes could have made for an excellent study in the various ways the characters see and interact with each other. Instead, what we're left with is just a standard (actually, subpar) episode of the show that feels, if not weighed down by its constrictions, then entirely indifferent to them. It may be a sign of the show's confidence in its formula by the midpoint of its run, but it comes off, as its lead so often does, as arrogant, if not woefully misinformed. "The Dinner Party" isn't a great episode of Frasier, but then again, nothing about it even implies it's supposed to be. It may have been a cost saving maneuver for the show, but everything about this episode screams business as usual.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

1/29: "The Apartment," Californication

2/12: "The Conversation," Mad About You

2/26: "Fly," Breaking Bad

3/11: "Spin the bottle," Angel

Tags: Frasier
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