Best Episodes Ever: The Bottle Episode
Thanks to everyone who tuned in last week for my look at Bojack Horseman and the flashback! This week, I’m diving into Frasier’s first season, and a good old bottle episode.
Firstly: what actually is a bottle episode? By most standards, a bottle episode is a single episode of a show that takes place in one location (often in one room). It’s an ambitious angle for a show to take, and requires both a firm grasp on characters and the ability to construct twenty minutes of real-time interaction that doesn’t feel pointed in it’s single-location setting. The best examples of bottle episodes usually come from comedies – Community with Cooperative Calligraphy, Friends with The One Where No-One’s Ready, Archer with Vision Quest, It’s Always Sunny with the superb Charlie Work. But, when it comes to writing about sitcommery, there’s only one show that was going to steal this spot, and that’s Frasier.
Frasier is one of those shows that I can sink into like a warm bath after a long day: comforting, familiar, a little bit sexy (or maybe that’s just my crush on the late, great John Mahoney speaking). I’ve probably watched it start to finish three or four times in the last few years alone, and I show it to everyone I know and judge them intently off whether or not they love it like I do. No show has married comedy and pathos with quite the skill that Frasier does, and it’s effortless wit and near-perfect eleven-year run have scored it a place in my heart for life. This week, I’m taking a look at the season one finale, My Coffee with Niles (and trying not to tear up when John Mahoney and Kelsey Grammar interact and I’m reminded of this all over again).
The episode revolves around Frasier and Niles in their local coffee shop, where Frasier is reflecting on a full year in Seattle after his move from Boston (/Cheers). Niles poses him a seemingly simple question: is he happy?
Now, a good bottle episode is built on a simple premise, and My Coffee With Niles puts forward a deceptively simple one – we just need to find the answer to this question by the time this twenty-one minutes are up. But it’s actually a pretty audacious thing to close out your first season on. Frasier as a show has always been imbued with a kind of melancholy, whether it’s Martin Crane reflecting on the loss of his previous life or Frasier facing down a long, lonely road after his separation from his wife, or Niles and his grinding ennui in his marriage and life as a whole. Only a show like Frasier could offer us a question like this and have the answer not immediately obvious, and it requires twenty minutes of concentrated work to find that answer.
Bottle episodes are built for introspection, since they’re really just about the characters interacting and what that says about them as people and as friends, lovers, and family. This kind of introspection fits so neatly within the bounds of Frasier, since two of it’s leading characters are psychiatrists; posing such a loaded question and delving into it so deeply over the course of this twenty minutes feels natural for a show which is always turned inward, the characters constantly musing on their failures and their choices. Frasier and Niles bantering over their respective happiness (or lack thereof) feels normal for a show in which there’s a near-constant commentary on the psychological states of everyone on-screen.
But that introspection can also throw cracks in the show’s visage into sharp relief, since it requires as an audience to look so closely at what’s in front of us. I can’t think of a show that’s done a bottle episode so soon into it’s run, and it speaks to the immense skill behind Frasier, even this early on, that they’re able to pull it off. A great deal of work has been poured into laying out the groundwork for this episode, for where our respective characters (and the entire main cast turns up here, at one time or another) find happiness: whether it’s familial, romantic, professional, or a combination of the above, we’ve learned much of what makes these people tick – and the things they’re still lacking in their lives. For Niles and Ros, it’s a fulfilling romantic relationship – for Martin, it’s respect from his family after the perceived loss of his independence. For Frasier, there has been a sense of what’s lacking for the entire show’s run thus far – his son, his marriage, being taken seriously in his career.
What My Coffee With Niles explores are those lack-ofs and what they mean to the characters, and whether genuine happiness can be found despite all that. It’s an appropriately un-mushy episode that speaks to the work put in to invest us in these characters so far, because by the time the end rolls around and Frasier decides that he is, despite it all, happy, I believe it. Framing this as a bottle episode and forcing a twenty minutes that is nothing but close-quarters interaction with the people around Frasier underlines the point that for all he has lost, he has gained an enormous amount too, and that’s what sells it. Inward-facing and introspective, My Coffee With Niles is a masterclass in how you can say everything you need to without saying anything at all if the work has been so meticulously done beforehand, and drawing it out in a carefully-constructed bottle episode like this one is the perfect pin in an excellent first-season arc.
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(header image courtesy of Frasier Denied)