‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“After an unusually protracted round of dueling datebooks, Niles and I have finally set upon a mutually acceptable evening for our intimate soiree.”
Six seasons in, a series has done most of what it’s wanted to do. They’ve gone past 100 episodes assumedly and most of their hypothetical television bucket list has been checked off. So sixth seasons are a particularly fascinating time for a series to either begin to increasingly phone it in and embrace the laziness that is so easy at this point, or work especially hard to churn out quality and push your product to its limit. Frasier managed to be a little bit of a mixed bag of both of these extremes, with the creeping dominance of romantic storylines in the show not being everyone’s cup of tea at Café Nervosa. But regardless of the larger creative issues going on at Frasier, the sharp, intelligent writing that went into the scripts never fluctuated, and in the case of its sixth season, led to some welcome experimentation, like in this episode, “Dinner Party.”
The plot of “Dinner Party” is almost as mundane and typical as Frasier can get, as it chronicles Frasier and Niles’ attempts to plan and throw a dinner party – an event that happened to a near-parodical degree on the show, happening almost as regularly as Community’s Greendale resorted to dances. The simple, overdone setup is almost essential here though. This isn’t about Frasier and Niles embarking on some new journey, but rather something we’ve seen them do countless times before because what this episode is actually about is the ”special,” “odd” relationship between Frasier and Niles. And as an examination of who they are and how they work together, it’s pretty much flawless. Simple acts like seeing the two of them flip through their calendars trying to coordinate a date for their party (or, “after an unusually protracted round of dueling datebooks, we finally set upon a mutually acceptable evening for our intimate soiree” as Frasier elegantly puts it) or decide upon a caterer is like watching a well-oiled comedy machine at work. And just like Frasier’s verbosity, the episode does a lot with a little.
Part of the reason that all of this works so effectively is because six seasons into the series, we understand these characters just as well as they do each other. An episode like this could have been attempted much earlier in the series’ run – and arguably, it was, albeit in a milder version of this – but there’s so much more mileage on the concept here. Watching Frasier and Niles simultaneously try and book a caterer, going through precise dialogue and pacing, all of which overlaps and augments each other like a carefully choreographed play (and ultimately leading to them dropping their identical cellphones and mixing up their calls) is a delight. The whole thing is just watching these two ragdolls get tossed around in their dollhouse for 22 minutes, and it’s possible because Frasier and Niles are perhaps as well defined as a Barbie or Ninja Turtle toy at this point. You know what these two represent. You wind them up. And you watch them go. It might not be the most ambitious piece of television, but there’s no denying that there is just so, so much fun being had here.
It’s also all a testament to Frasier and Niles’ ability to get so caught up and excited in something, only for it to come crashing down around them. This episode lives in hyperbole, and when it starts they’re on the top of the world with a hypothetically stocked guest list, and by the end they’re at the literal opposite of it all. The blowup culminates in this beautiful scene that really accentuates everything that’s been talked about here. The whiplash-inducing nature of the episode is a great distillation of these brothers, not to mention a number of the mental illnesses that they so often diagnose.
It’d be one thing to just focus on an episode devoted around Frasier and Niles throwing a party, but this is all strengthened by the fact that this is a bottle episode (and a real-time one too, mind you, as their party crumbles apart naturally before your eyes). The final act of the episode explores that Frasier and Niles’ relationship with one another might be verging on the unhealthy, as they spend too much time together and never leave their respective bubble. The episode raises this idea, but then also forces Frasier and Niles to be together, unable to escape their surroundings for the duration of the episode. Even if they don’t agree with the public’s assessment of them, the episode is forcing them into these roles. As we hear the voices of Frasier and Niles’ prospective guests commenting on their weird behavior, we spend the entire episode watching Frasier and Niles commit weird behavior together. If Frasier and Niles were ever to find themselves trapped in some sort of Purgatory, it would no doubt be the two of them endlessly planning a dinner party that never comes together. And here they are.
While Frasier was never a show to grow too meta, this is maybe one of the series’ greater dalliances with it. A real discussion is brought up about Frasier and Niles’ relationship, and while it’s perfectly woven into the storyline, fans themselves might have had issues with the increasingly ridiculous antics of the Crane Brothers, perhaps even beginning to lose credibility as six seasons can start to bring on the broadness of plotlines. “Dinner Party” is a smart way of not only having this discussion legitimately and re-grounding the characters, but also doing so through the extremely silly situation that the episode has built to. There’s even a sly comment from Daphne and Roz regarding Frasier’s poor treatment of them that also feels a little too self-aware and winking at the camera in response to the events of the year. In cases like this, an introspective bottle episode can even be used to get back to a show’s roots or curb something that could grow into a problem with time. It’s really an economical 22 minutes.
Obviously Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce’s performances are the true secret weapons of this episode, and when you have actors of their strength, bottle episodes seem more and more like an asset rather than a detriment. There’s still a very smart script in place here that never draws attention to how much time is passing, and in spite of how very little actually goes on here, you’re flying through it all in a manic haze just like Frasier and Niles are. Frasier’s usually brilliant wordplay and wit is somehow turned up even higher here, causing the dinner party panic to feel even more frantic and sprawling. There’s a moment where Frasier and Niles veto two party guests, Nina and Archie, as Frasier immediately jumps in with, “Well, don’t cry for me, Arch and Nina!” in one of many unbelievable jokes that continually happen here. It’s kind of magical just how much chaos is generated here while essentially nothing happens (the action is a dinner party doesn’t get thrown), as you watch these two brothers lose more and more of their minds. There’s a nice touching bow that is tied on the end of all of this with Frasier and Niles saying who cares if their relationship is a little weird if it’s still something that means a lot to them and has value. It’s deeply moving and a satisfying note to close on. Interestingly enough, it’s only after this moment of acceptance that they’re able to finally leave the apartment.
Six seasons. Twenty-two minutes. Two high-strung brothers. One location. Dinner is served, indeed.