“Are you happy?” The simple question that initiated the notable, coffee-fueled talk would be the catalyst to spark the next ongoing twenty minutes of contemplation. After eleven seasons from 1993 to 2004, Frasier is definitely among the television-show greats as a classic. It was during My Coffee with Niles – the season one finale of this prolific series – that everyone’s favorite radio host captured a unique blend of philosophical style while still delivering its usual comedic genius in this widely introspective episode.
The two main characters in this episode are the brothers, Frasier and Niles Crane. Like usual, they met up at their favorite coffee shop, Café Nervosa, to discuss the day’s new developments, but this particular day in the Crane world proved to hold a much heavier talk than usual. It is the anniversary that Frasier moved to Seattle and his father started living with him. Though a momentous occasion, it held many unintended results for their relationship. After Niles asks his older brother whether he is happy or not, this episode takes a glance at several of the bonds both of the Crane brothers hold, as well as some subtle insinuations that can be taken.
Before discussing any more of the episode, I feel I should mention the coffee order of Frasier. The two must wait for an open seat for quite a bit once Frasier arrives late to the café, but after deciding to find a spot outside – a seat they rarely partake – they order a latte and cappuccino. Their coffees arrive promptly after Niles returns from the restroom (during the commercial break), yet Frasier’s order is redacted once he realizes he did not order decaf, as he says “Oh, I’m sorry. Y’know if I drink the regular stuff, it will keep me tossing and turning all throughout my brother’s conversation.” Frasier’s unacceptable coffee order becomes a larger motif for the entire episode, as he realizes he has many unsatisfied quirks with his typical drink (life), while the patient barista kindly tends to her picky customer’s demands.
It is quickly understood why Niles asks the daring question of Frasier’s happiness when he admits he has never experienced the type of bliss he recently witnessed on a documentary, where a child during the Great Depression received new shoes. This lackluster feeling drives him to wonder why would he not feel happy since he has a lucrative practice in psychiatry, a loving wife, and rather good health. While delving into the younger Crane’s questionably deep relationship with his spouse, the conversation is once again directed to Frasier’s happiness.
Interrupted mid-sentence, Roz, Frasier’s friend and radio producer, greets the two before going inside the café for her date. Excited and optimistic to meet her date, Roz concedes she thinks, “this might be the one,” a sentiment often gone awry with this character. Roz’s expectation of finding love, in spite of her many failed attempts reminds me of a certain quote.
“I can understand companionship. I can understand sex bought in the afternoon. But I cannot understand the love affair.” – Gore Vidal
Simply put, love between romantic partners is nothing short of a mythical act, since it combines the platonic aspects of a bond with the instinctive desire to have sex – whether for mating or pleasure – in a marriage unique to itself. Like Gore, I can easily see why the fusing of companionship and sex is a tricky product, better left divorced from each other, as one views a person as a subject and the other views a person as an object. Where the lines become blurred is beyond me, but for the character Roz this is a line worth walking.
At this time, Frasier’s coffee is brought to him right before he asks if there is nonfat milk in it. To which, the calm and collected barista grabs the cup to correct it.
Due to a sudden downpour, the brothers are forced inside where they finally find a seat at a table near the rain-spattered window. Frasier then tells a story of the quarrel he had with their father that morning, and opens up the episode to the rocky relationship Frasier has with his father, Marty.
Once again, I feel obliged to mention another subtle act, this time during their conversation. After Niles admits that Roz’s date is handsome as she had suggested, he ponders the act of him noticing and commenting another man with such gratuity and says, “Hmm, wonder if that means something.” Frasier’s response is, “Yes, that means you’re a gay man,” and continues on with a sarcastic tone to saying that his marriage with Maris is nothing but a sham. Though the dialogue between the psychiatrists is funny enough, the action by David Hyde Pierce warrants an extra laugh when he briefly glances at the camera while drinking his camera, as he is indeed”a gay man.” A simple yet effective comedic ploy by this show.
With the arrival of Marty comes an argument between him and Frasier of a particularly inane topic: the dew left behind from toast. Both, father and son, quickly become annoyed with each other and start to list off their grievances.
The twice-reformed coffee of Frasier returns with a hopeful barista, this time shot down due to its critique of a lack of cinnamon. A minor imperfection along the path to contentment.
Frasier and Marty fervently bicker over minute matters without either giving in. Their spat continues until Marty prepares to leave in an fluster while claiming he will leave Frasier’s apartment in search of his own residence. After Marty receives his simple order of black coffee, he leaves in a hurry with Daphne, his physical therapist. Not only is the relationship between Marty and Frasier center staged now, the lingering feelings Niles has of Daphne are brought to the light.
Considering the Crane brothers had been at the cafe for some time, the barista now delivers Niles’ second cup of coffee. When asked where his coffee is the server responds that “a team of specialists are working on it.” Of course the one that resolves others’ dilemmas is plagued with a plethora of issues himself. This seems to be a problem specific to Frasier as his theme song suggests, “but I don’t know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs, they callin’ again.” Emblematic of his constant compulsion to help, while he struggles with conflicts of his own. Now reflecting on his past year in Seattle – quite literally all of season one – he is forced to come to terms with his own well-being.
Once again, cut off in the middle of his answer to the question of his happiness, Marty returns to apologize for his recently argumentative attitude. The two sons and father smooth the tension over as they come to understand that Marty’s birthday was forgotten. With the promise of the restaurant of his choice, Marty forgives his sons. Upon arriving to the cathartic scene, Daphne receives an apology as well for the harshness Marty has recently placed on her. Niles, Daphne, and Marty then leave together, though planning to meet Frasier later that evening.
Finally, the Nervosa server delivers Frasier’s coffee with its addition of cinnamon, non-fat milk, while being decaffeinated and asks, “Are you happy?” Frasier’s long-awaited answer is “Y’know in the greater scheme of things, yes, I’d say I am.” An answer we’d expect from the lovable psychiatrist, though it is a bit indefinite. Possibly for a reason.
One of my favorite aspects of this episode is that neither character fully describes what it means to be happy; probably due to the incredible depth of such a task, nonetheless it is a subject of considerable density. Is it something that is found, experienced when it naturally comes about or is it an attitude that must be conceived, regardless of the circumstances? Does ‘love’ have some intrinsic value or is its value garnered after sufficient experience? It is questions such as these that make me feel something I might call ‘happiness.’