A strong episode that tackles a perhaps-unlikely subject for "Frasier": race relations.
The introduction of "Dr" Mary, as played by the superbly capable Kim Coles, puts Frasier in an uncomfortable situation at work... something that is quite rare these days, with KACL his unopposed domain. With Roz off producing Gil's show, Frasier is left with no support against this imposing woman who doesn't mind introducing a more relaxed, less strictly medical approach to her patients. The episode builds tension out of both Frasier's spinelessness and his sometimes hypocritical approach to his ethics, as well as his dislike of competition. It all makes perfect sense and, had they left it at this (ala Dr. Nora), it would still have been an above-average episode. By introducing the fact that Frasier suffers from "white guilt", the situation is really elevated.
There was a lot of talk at the end of the '90s about the perceived whiteness of mainstream sitcoms. "Friends", "Seinfeld", "Everybody Loves Raymond", these all focused around strictly white characters. Of course, the definition of white is stretched (George and Jerry are Jewish, the Romanos are Italian, and of course the Cranes are a family), but overall the argument made sense. As networks scrambled to introduce token characters (around this time, NBC added a young black character to the second episode of its new upmarket series "The West Wing"), "Frasier" instead does exactly what it did when viewers started to question why, because of formula, the series' characters had to stay single and keep the same jobs: it analyses them from within. It makes sense that Niles and Frasier are reasonably racially confined (Frasier: "Owning the CD of 'Ella Sings Gershwin' does not qualify you as a soul brother"). They live in Seattle, Washington, in gentrified neighbourhoods with "old money" pursuits. The episode doesn't argue that somehow they should suddenly have numerous African-American friends, it instead asks what it is that prevents Frasier from being as honest with Dr. Mary as he would with a white woman doing the same thing.
It helps that the issue isn't just that Dr. Mary is black. All of Frasier's other flaws contribute, but ultimately... that's the one. To do an episode looking at race, "Frasier" finds its own piercingly funny way. The show's popularity DOES rise because of Dr. Mary and Louise, but it's not the same show that Frasier wanted it to be. It's also, to his mind, no longer appropriate for him as a practicing medical professional to be associated with advice that has no clinical basis. Coles' performance as Mary is justifiably acclaimed, and Kelsey Grammer is in fine form during the scene where he impersonates a (deliberately stereotyped version of her (Niles: "She's not going to say 'Massa'). Martin looks suitably awkward throughout, and I think he exists as a kind of audience surrogate. The studio audience response is positive, but also a little bit shocked: it's funny to think that - at the end of the 20th century - talking about race on a mainstream sitcom was still a big surprise, but there you have it.
I really enjoy the Grandpa Willie quotes, particularly:
"A cat can have kittens in the oven but that don't make 'em biscuits"
"If the show don't fit, then that ain't your shoe"
The sideplots are a little less eventful. David Hyde Pierce has some fine physical comedy throughout his kickboxing storyline, and I appreciate the joke about Niles leaving the little card out for cocoa delivery, but it doesn't rise above pedestrian fare (at least, pedestrian by "Frasier" standards!). And I'm not really sure what's going on with that guy's speech impediment. Although Peri Gilpin playing "on the verge of cracking up" is always funny, and I must admit giggling at the word 'wastafawwian'.
Still, it's the thoughtful examination of Frasier and Mary that sells this one. Her understanding approach to his final confession is particularly well done. This time, the situation wasn't entirely in Frasier's head, but he was still overthinking what should have been an honest confrontation. Neat.
A sparkling episode that dares to address the subject of race and does so in a way that's both perfectly judged and frequently hilarious. It begins with Frasier looking for a replacement producer for Roz while she's on holiday and, in an effort to avoid reusing his previous choice of replacement (named after ex-'Frasier' writer Chuck Ranberg) who suffers from an unfortunate speech impediment, he decides to give a chance to someone less experienced - in this case Mary Thomas. Kim Coles' performance as Mary is truly wonderful, with her constant butting in with words of wisdom from 'Grandpa Willie' and habit of ending every sentence with 'OK? OK!', although credit must also go to writer Jay Kogen. His finest script for the series, it's full of wit and invention, most notably in the wonderful running joke where we see the side of a passing tram carrying an advert for Frasier's show, each time with the addition of a new face. Martin's constant attempts to get Frasier to face up to his problem of dealing with Mary via interjections of 'because she's black' are also highly amusing. Undoubtedly though, this is Kelsey's Grammer's show, with both his attempts to get a word in edgeways during Mary's constant interruptions and the resigned look on his face as he tucks into a piece of cheese when Mary and new producer Louise are talking over each other proving very funny indeed while I like the fact that at one point Frasier even starts quoting Grandpa Willie himself. However, the obvious standout in Grammer's performance here is in the scene where Frasier role plays as Mary against Niles (with the latter playing Frasier). Losing himself in an exaggerated impersonation of Mary's persona, it's a truly outstanding performance from a comic master. On top of all this is a highly amusing subplot concerning Niles attempting to master the art of kickboxing which leads to the hilarious (albeit painful!) moment where he kicks Daphne up the backside, sending a whole tray of snacks flying in the process. Niles' subsequent nursing of Daphne adds further humour, not least for the way Martin shamelessly takes advantage of his son. The ending where Frasier finally plucks up the courage to confront Mary with his true feelings is also very nicely handled. Warm without being trite or preachy, it's perfectly summed up by Mary's parting shot of 'God bless your guilty white ass!'. With an episode as much fun as this, I couldn't agree more.