‘Frasier’ Explored What It Means to Be Happy in its Real-Time Bottle Episode, “My Coffee with Niles”

My-Coffee-With-Niles‘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

“Now, are you happy?”
“You know, in the greater scheme of things, yes, I’d say I am.”

Frasier is a sophisticated show that prides itself in how much it exudes sophistication. It was certainly no stranger to attempting ambitious, higher-concept degrees of storytelling, with many of Frasier’s episodes feeling like pieces of theater. My Dinner With Andre, the source material that the episode is loosely paying reference to, also isn’t exactly the most palatable piece of pop culture to play with either. The only other show that I can think of that bravely lampoons the 1981 film is Community, but on Frasier, My Dinner With Andre feels like the absolutely perfect snooty film for the series to homage. It’s a fit as natural as The Big Bang Theory taking on superhero blockbusters. Therefore for the show to do an episode that’s simply a conversation playing out in real time, it feels right within their wheelhouse, and a sort of sublime experiment for a show that is so centered on therapy. This is a character whose catchphrase on KACL is “I’m listening,” after all.

“My Coffee with Niles” operates as essentially the classiest finale that Frasier could have done for their first year. It’s worth noting that in the future Frasier would traditionally end its seasons in cliffhangers or big event episodes, whereas this one is almost a review or therapy session on the year itself. Even if this bizarre spin-off experiment to one of the most successful comedies of all time had been a failure, they at least would have gone out on the most noble of notes here. A lot can be said for sticking a landing and having a fitting conclusion. The failed Joey certainly wouldn’t have turned into a hit, but it would have gained a lot more cred if its first season finale had seen him stuck in the waiting room for an audition for the entire episode, going over his new life and analyzing the decisions he made, rather than him trying to hunt down his discontinued favorite sandwich spread.*

This is a show where one of the episode’s broadest jokes is Frasier and Niles ordering a “Zimbabwe latte” and a “Kenya cappuccino.” You’re not going to be seeing Frasier falling face-first into the pastry bar because his shoelaces are tied together. The episode is deeply Frasier and Niles-centric, which acts as a reminder of how strong a bond not only these two characters, but these two actors, have built in a short amount of time. The episode cleverly peppers in the rest of the cast, with everyone getting their due, but in the end this is without a doubt a showcase of the Brothers Crane, with the series learning this would be one of their most reliable pairings. Some of the best moments in the episode are when the two of them are simply bonding over Martin’s stubbornness and just being brothers.

The episode contains a number of moments that makes this minimalist outing appear like it’s going to be the series’ equivalent to Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant.” The first act is preoccupied with Frasier trying to perfect his drink order, and Niles and him trying to claim a table at the crowded Café Nervosa, and granted, an entire episode about them trying to acquire seating while they’re shuffled around could be very entertaining, especially considering Niles and Frasier would pretty much be acting in the complete opposite way of how Jerry, George, and Elaine would. There’s even some a sly meta moment where Niles reveals that he’s used the episode’s commercial break to go to the bathroom. This round of musical chairs minutiae (and the horrors of toast sweat) is soon ditched for what the episode’s real focus is.

Early on the episode initiates the dialogue between Niles and Frasier:

“So Frasier, now that chapter two of your life is in full swing, do you mind if I ask you something: Are you happy?…Did you hear the question?”

“Yes, I’m thinking, it’s a seemingly complex question.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it’s not. Either you’re happy or you’re not .”

The subject matter of the finale becomes interested with the very simple (yet deeply complicated) question as to whether Frasier Crane is happy after his first year settled in Seattle, away from Boston. It’s repeated to him constantly throughout the episode with the answer being perpetually interrupted while he helps put out other people’s fires. It’s a topic that feels especially perfect for Frasier, considering the main character’s job is to try and provide people inner satisfaction and find their happiness, so turning the tables onto Frasier is an all too appropriate idea. Some terrific mileage is gotten out of this as both Niles and Frasier weigh out their lives and strip away the possessions and see what they have left. Some surprisingly poignant topics are addressed like if they’re just in psychiatry for money at this point, while still eschewing the idea perfectly to the other extreme by comparing the hollowness of their $400 designer shoes against those of third-world orphans.

While as much as this episode is concerned about Frasier’s happiness, Niles’ fulfillment is just as central to the story. In fact, Niles’ life is used as the darker counterpart to help Frasier realized how fond of his life that he is. Niles laments over how he has the perfect life on paper, but it means increasingly little to him, while he’s come to realize he’s actually in love with Daphne (the first time this is admitted in the series). It may not seem that grim, but it’s still a relatively shocking place to take the character when you take away all the humor. At the same time, it takes moments like Frasier realizing how much his father frustrates him and the compromises of living with him, to understand how much he actually appreciates the new presence in his life.

While most bottle episodes have seen structures trapping their respective passengers, here the only thing keeping Niles and Frasier in stasis is their psychological barriers and mental locks that trap them. Just like you can’t leave a therapy session until the time is over (in theory), here the two are determined to hash it out to the point of satisfaction and only then will they leave.

It’s surely coincidental, but it’s worth noting that the opening moments of the episode see Niles trying to guide and navigate a lost Maris, over the phone. He explains that she’s wandered into the kitchen and become lost, and in spite of it meaning to be a joke about his ever-frail wife, Maris too seems to be trapped within her own bottle episode that also has no actual boundaries keeping her in place. She is unable to escape the kitchen (and ultimately her home), while Frasier and Niles are stuck within the coffee shop, with their collective mental states being the only things keeping them stationary. It’s a quick aside, but Maris’ situation also reflects that the larger commentary going on here is that we are our own gatekeepers.

“My Coffee with Niles” is a satisfying entry and a restrained bottle episode in its own right, but it becomes even more fascinating when you take the final episode ever of Frasier into consideration. Here, we’re presented a life where Niles is unhappy with Frasier being otherwise, having just made some time in Seattle. Frasier’s series finale however has Niles content, having reached his happily ever after some time ago, with Frasier being the unfulfilled one to the point that it pushes him to leave Seattle. “My Coffee with Niles” functions not only as a brilliant introduction to the series, a great capper of their first year, and now even after the end of the series, it works as a strong counterpoint and piece of foreshadowing to where the series would ultimately end. If a Frasier reunion were to ever happen, it would absolutely be a return to Cafe Nervosa, with Frasier and Niles looking at where they both were at and if they were ultimately happy. It’s what friends do. It’s what everyone should do every few years. And it’s what Frasier tried to do here with its first season finale.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a weird craving for tossed salad and scrambled eggs…

*this is not the actual plot of the first season finale of Joey, as plausible as it may be.

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