A Multi-Cam Hero: James Burrows and My Favorite Episodes

On Sunday, NBC will air a two hour special honoring a man that not many may realize has had a hand in creating some of the most beloved sitcoms over the past 40 years: James Burrows.

The Internet has been freaking out since the Television Critic’s Association meet-up in January, where NBC announced it. It’s not that everyone is crazy about James Burrows, at least not consciously. No, it’s because news sites used misleading headlines… like “A FRIENDS Reunion is Finally Happening” or “Will & Grace Reunion Special to Air on NBC Next Month.” That’s what made the Internet lose its damn mind. And yes, many of these casts got back together. But not for us or for themselves. For one man. The man who had a huge part in their careers.

Mr. Burrows is THE multi-camera sitcom director. Starting on such hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Laverne & Shirley, he found his first moment with a little show called Taxi, where he directed 75 episodes. A few years later, he co-created Cheers, directing 237 (out of 271) episodes. He favors pilots, giving him the opportunity to help a fledgling show find its voice. NBC is honoring him for directing his 1,000th episode of television.

James Burrows has been an idol of mine for 15 years now. Not long, considering his massive career. But his style of directing multi-camera comedy cannot be matched. He knows good writing and respects the theatricality of filming in front of a live audience. Since Mr. Burrows is behind 3 of my all-time favorite shows, I decided to put together my own list of my favorite episodes of those shows, in no particular order, directed by the man of honor.

The BIG episodes: Pilots, Season Finales, Weddings, and Break-Ups:

You know the ones. They’re important to a series structure, sometimes an arc that writers have worked on for months. And networks know they usually could bring in big ratings. No pressure, there.

Cheers

Give Me a Ring Sometime (S1.E1): Most likely the greatest pilot of all-time, and a constant threat to my own attempts at penning a pilot, this episode set the stage without feeling like it. The actors instantly own their roles, nailing delivery, many times in a subtle way, setting the tone for Cheers’s natural, bar-banter humor.

Show Down Pts 1 & 2 (S1.E21-22): The season one finale that gave us all that we wanted from Sam and Diane – a memorable fight culminating in a passionate kiss we’ve been waiting for. And though it could’ve been easy for the rest of the cast to allow Ted and Shelley to carry the entire thing on their own, they give it their all with the subplots: their love for Sam’s (unseen) brother, Coach’s attempt at speaking Spanish, even the ladies ordering their drinks (“I haven’t had a beer since I don’t know when”). It feels so effortless for such a big moment. There would certainly be more moments, but none that top this one.

I’ll Be Seeing You, Pts 1 & 2 (S2.E21-22): A brutal break-up episode, we see the dissolution of Sam and Diane’s relationship. Sam’s ego and vanity and Diane’s impossible expectations where never a match – we love them apart, but they’re a terrible couple. They had to crumble. Christopher Lloyd, whom Burrows worked with extensively on Taxi, plays an aloof artist infatuated with Diane. It was almost too easy. The arc’s pinnacle moment is the difficult argument between Sam and Diane, that begins with childish slapping and nose pinching, but quickly delves into the seriousness of their emotions. The weightiness of their relationship is powerful. There’s a long silence between Diane walking out and Sam opening the painting, giving a simple, sincere “Wow.” That one word held so much, and was an impactful way to end the season.

An Old-Fashioned Wedding (S10.E25): A classic farce that could pay well on stage,  it has everything a farce needs: a wedding, a dead body, a drunk uncle and a jealous German husband. The revolving door of issues means timing is everything, from Sam’s exits and entrances to Carla’s unfortunate dumbwaiter trips. While it seems absurd that so much can go wrong on one day, the actors never miss a beat, so you don’t get too caught up in one story.

Frasier:

My Coffee with Niles (S1.E24): Not always ranked high on usual best lists, I always loved this episode because of its dark underside: Frasier may not be happy. It’s a deep topic, particularly for a sitcom character, and both Grammer and Pierce pull it off brilliantly. The entire episode takes place in the coffee shop, practically in real time, as Roz, Daphne, and Martin come in and out, bringing out different sides of Frasier during their interactions, along with the poor barista attempting to get his coffee order correct. For a series that so often looks at others’ internal psyche, it’s a rare meta moment of introspection and a quiet way to end the first season.

Friends:

The One with the Prom Video (S2.E14): An instant classic, and the reason why so many sitcoms afterward delved into character flashbacks. Monica and Rachel, in typical ’80s fashion, are preparing for prom. Unbeknownst to Rachel, a nervous Ross was ready to step in as her date, at the encourgement of his parents. When Rachel’s date shows, they leave Ross heart-broken, holding the flowers he just pulled from a vase. The killer moment is Rachel’s long, slow walk from the living room to the apartment door, as she realizes what Ross did for her, all these years later.

The One with the Morning After (S3.E16): This one is tough. I have to really gear myself up to watch it, but that’s because it makes me feel so strongly. The episode wisely puts us in the position of the rest of the gang, trapped in Monica’s bedroom, unable or unwilling to interrupt this blowout. Ross and Rachel were at an impasse, and their hours-long argument feels real and painful for both sides.

The Regular episodes that left a mark:

Season openers and closers, big break ups, and wedding episodes naturally lend themselves to good TV, if all the players are present, of course. But it’s the middle of season episodes where it’s harder to stand out. So when they do, they’re even more impressive.

Cheers

Diane’s Perfect Date (S1.E17): What seems like a typical sitcom set-up (two characters who are obviously into each other deflect by setting each other up with somebody else) plays with hilarious consequences here. Sam’s sly cockiness that Diane is setting herself up with him is both dumb AND revealing. When he sees he was wrong, we’re introduced to the unassuming, homicidal creep that is Andy Andy. The double-date that ensues is comical and terrifying. The final scene, where Sam and Diane engage in school yard “I’ll say I like you if you say you like me” tells us all we need to know about this relationship.

Pick a Con… Any Con (S1.E19): Harry Anderson plays Harry the Hat as a smooth if geeky conman, at once a throw back and completely relevant. He’s a known swindler, but when it looks like Coach is being taken advantage of, Sam knows who to call. This episode is wrought with tension, as the gang is trying their damnedest to win back not only Coach’s money, but his dignity. When Harry reveals how he pulled the ultimate con, it’s a testament to the directing that we in the audience are just as shocked as the gang.

The Triangle (S4.E15): Frasier has lost his mojo. Diane and a reluctant Sam scheme to help him out, but their assists result in an unexpected emotional explosion from Frasier, where he calls the pair out for their infantile, petty relationship. As a teeny-tiny subplot, there’s Norm and Cliff’s argument over Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, which is brilliantly executed by comically punctuating the very serious situation happening with Sam, Diane, and Frasier. Though Kelsey Grammer’s monologue is one of my favorites, it’s the following scene that shines. Sam and Diane sit in awkward silence, sneaking glances at each other. Diane fidgets, Sam leans back, then they tepidly discuss what the good Doctor has revealed. It’s yet another moment that’s heavy with emotion, and it’s what makes Cheers the sitcom by which all should be judged.

Abnormal Psychology (S5.E4): At five seasons in, it’s good to see Cheers wasn’t afraid to create a budding new relationship. With Sam and Diane on a clock, it was time to find a new pair to exchange testy banter. Enter Lilith. Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier was already well-developed, but Bebe Neuwirth matches him line for line, heated glance for heated glance. To frame their contested conversation within the bounds of a TV screen at the bar makes the sexual tension even more palpable.

Thanksgiving Orphans (S5.E9): Crescendoing to an epic food fight, this is episode takes the cake. One of the original “friendsgivings,” the Cheers gang ends up spending the holiday together because they all have no where else to go. They prove, however, that friends ARE family, complete with family-sized arguments over football, turkey, who’s really thankful. The food fight is just plain fun.

Everyone Imitates Art (S5.E10): A personal favorite, because it reveals a side to Diane we don’t often see: intellectual inferiority. Shelley Long brings a manic obsessive energy to the episode, while Ted Danson perfectly underplays (as usual), giving Long the power to control her scenes. Diane goes through a whirlwind of emotion here, and we, like the rest of the bar gang, just sit back and watch.

Frasier:

The Innkeepers (S2.E23): An episode that highlights the delusions of grandeur the Crane boys suffer from, it’s so fast-paced, you don’t really have time to consider just how unrealistic it might be. David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves are particularly great here, working together in the kitchen.

The Show Where Diane Comes Back (S3.E14): Again, a personal favorite because of how much I love Diane Chambers. She’s written a play that’s being produced in Seattle, which she convinces Frasier to help support. Frasier thinks he might actually be falling for Diane again, and it’s interesting how the series handles Frasier’s past here, recognizing how painful it was for him to be left at the alter. The slow-build during the first act, where Diane admits her troubles leads to a brilliant pay-off, and an epic rant performed by a still-bitter Frasier. Considering Long left Cheers nearly 10 years prior, she falls right back into her role easily, as does Grammer with her.

Friends:

The One with the Blackout (S1.E7): A standout for Matthew Perry, as we get to see his nerdy awkwardness without nerd-stereotyping. The rest of the gang is huddled in Monica’s apartment, doing what you do in a black-out – swapping stories, having singalongs, and getting attacked by stray cats. It’s also one step forward and three steps back for the Ross-and-Rachel relationship, an episode that brought “friendzone” into the pop-lexicon.

The One Where Nana Dies Twice (S1.E8): Death and comedy can go hand-in-hand. This episode handles the death of Ross and Monica’s Nana with poignancy and laughs. Ross helping pick out his grandmother’s burial clothes, Monica’s difficulty with her mother, and Joey sneaking in the football game all make the funeral events feel believable.

The One with All the Poker (S1.E18): A fun episode with a basic premise, it’s chock full of quoteable lines. Even though it’s tad bit sexist that none of the women know the game, it lends itself well to some great comedy and the girls finally do come around to playing with some skill. The final showdown between Ross and Rachel is incredibly revealing, since unlike Rachel, we as the audience know how Ross really feels. Did he let Rachel win? Maybe. “But look how happy she is.”

 

“Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows” will air Sunday, Feb. 21st at 9pm on NBC.

 

Advertisements

The ABSOLUTE DEFINITIVE Ranking of Frasier Christmas Episodes

In our household, both in my current home and the home in which I grew up, traditions often revolve around the TV. Around the holidays, this means nights full of Christmas movies and TV specials. One tradition that seems to cross past and present is Frasier Christmas episodes.

Though they weren’t constant or even necessarily a big deal, Frasier managed to pull off some of the most memorable episodes, without the help of special guest stars or musical numbers (usually).

Out of 11 seasons, they did 8 Christmas shows. I’ve watched each of them dozens of times. Which is why I am completely qualified to give you the absolute, definitive ranking of Frasier Christmas episodes. This is it.

#8. Season 8 – Mary Christmas

Terrible. Just awful. Season 8 is notoriously weak, so this one fits right in. Frasier pushes his way into hosting a popular Christmas parade like his broadcasting hero, only to find out he’ll be hosting with “Dr.” Mary, a fellow radio host who offers advice with a medical degree from “the school of hard knocks,” much to Frasier’s chagrin.

The majority of the episode dwells on Frasier’s selfish insistence that things go his way and his ever-growing frustration with Dr. Mary, culminating in an accident sending Santa to the hospital. There’s a somewhat redeemable moment where Frasier meets his hero, and they share some “banter,” but that’s about it. There’s only a minuscule B plot about Niles, Daphne, and Martin opening all the presents early.

Ultimately, it feels like a heartless episode, completely lacking of any real Christmas sentiment or laughs. SKIP.

#7. Season 7 – The Fight Before Christmas

While not an all out terrible episode, on the Christmas scale, it lands low on the list. The aforementioned fights are between Frasier and his upstairs neighbor Cam Winston, not seen on screen here, who are hosting competing Christmas parties. The other is between Niles and his girlfriend Mel, who catches Niles in multiple lies about where he was the night before.

The funniest moments are when Frasier gets enthusiastic about his own Elizabethan themed event. And there’s a sort of interesting point here where Daphne, who is aware of Niles’ feelings for her, panics when Niles gives her jewelry as a gift.

While not inherently bad, it’s just a forgettable episode that makes Christmas feel like a background detail.

#6. Season 1 – Miracle on 3rd or 4th Street

For a first season episode, this one is about on par. Frasier, excited to see his son Fredrick, is abruptly disappointed when he learns Freddie and Lilith are changing their plans. After fighting with Martin over the Christmas decorations, a common theme throughout the series, Frasier agrees to cover Bulldog’s Christmas Day shift at the station, unknowingly forcing Roz into work as well. After hours of miserable, depressing calls, Frasier leaves work, stopping at a diner for dinner. At said diner, Frasier, sloppily dressed and unshaven, realizes he forgot his wallet. The other diners take this to mean Frasier’s too poor to afford the dinner he ordered. Many customers are poor themselves, so they collect enough among each other to cover for Frasier.

It’s a  middle-of-the-road episode that’s heavy on the Frasier/Martin conflict, which was the main theme of the first season. Some clever jokes and well-laid punchlines lighten up the script, but overall it’s heavy-handed in its lesson-learning.

#5. Season 3 – Frasier Grinch

With a relatively typical Christmas plot (kid wants sold-out toy that dad didn’t think to get), this episode does really well with the little things. Frasier’s panic doesn’t come from not getting the popular toy, but not having all the brainy toys he thinks Fredrick will enjoy. It takes Martin to clue Frasier into his gift-giving issues. The B plot, where Niles is separated from Maris, who cuts off his credit cards and services, is wisely used a few times throughout the episode. It’s also the first time in the series we see Martin’s true love of decorating for the season. A great visual is Frasier walking into his own apartment, barely recognizable under the colored lights and plastic figures adorning the usually pristine space.

#4. Season 5 – Perspectives on Christmas

A fun episode with little vignettes of comedic situations each of the characters find themselves in, weaved together through their own individual recounts during a massage session.

Martin got talked into a Christmas pageant, which he keeps under wraps until his fear of hitting the high note in O Holy Night (ya heard of it?) gets the best of him, and Frasier and Niles offer their assistance. Daphne, still in the dark about it, notices Martin’s secrecy and she’s convinced Martin is dying. Roz is having a rough patch in her pregnancy, not helped by Frasier who lets the cat out of the bag to Roz’s mom. Niles gets stuck in an elevator and is forced to climb a Christmas tree in his brand new suit to save the day.

With tensions running high, Frasier’s original plans of a happy Christmas gathering while he tells each person how he feels about them do not go over well, so instead he arranges massages for all.

An interesting take on the comedy standard of different viewpoints of the same situation. And while there’s no overhanging emotional story or deep moral, the individual instances are comical and the cast plays them off ingeniously.

#3. Season 10 – We Two Kings

A delightful gem in the 10th season, We Two Kings takes classic farce with a Christmas twist. It’s another great example of taking a relatively common comedic trope and executing it with intelligence and nonstop jokes and asides.

After bickering over who will host Christmas dinner, Martin’s had enough. He’s just going to work that day, and blames Niles and Frasier for ruining Christmas. Feeling terribly guilty, the boys come up with a plan. They’ll celebrate Christmas with Martin at his job, a plan that includes swapping out the fake gifts under the tree for the real ones. In the ultimate comedic twist, on Christmas morning, Martin surprises them by having the day off. Meaning all the gifts are locked up in the building where Martin works.

This one’s B plot involves Roz’s major crush on the Santa Claus she’s elfing for. Not the guy playing Santa (who, by the way, is Dean Cain). No, Santa himself. Simple, not a big effect on the overall story, but seasonally and characteristically appropriate.

This episode falls higher on the list because it’s really about the Christmas spirit, and Frasier and Niles finally appreciating Martin’s love of the holidays.

#2. Season 11 – High Holidays

This decision was difficult. I LOVE this episode. I crack up every time, even though I know it by heart.

In its final seasons, the original creative team came back to give the show back some of its former life. It’s very evident in this episode.

There are three plots happening: Frasier’s now teenage son Freddie has come in for Christmas and to everyone’s surprise, he’s a faithful Goth kid, black eyes, black trench coat, chains – you remember the look. Frasier is horrified and confused, until we see Freddie’s new friend Andy, a Goth girl. Frasier is frustrated that Freddie wants to spend all his time in Seattle with his “little ghoul-friend,” as Niles calls her.

But Frasier manages to keep himself busy by filming a tourism promo. He’s attracted to the French girl organizing it, and after meeting Eddie, she insists Frasier bring the dog to the shoot.

The final, and perhaps “major” plot is Freddie’s appearance leads to a discussion about rebelling, where we learn Niles never had a “rebellious period.” This upsets Niles, so he decides to rebel now by “getting high on reefer.” Again, in a brilliant mix-up, Martin eats the pot brownie meant for Niles, unaware of its extra ingredient. He replaces the brownie with a normal one, unbeknownst to Niles.

True comic genius follows, as Martin has wandering conversations and laughing fits and Niles relies on research for his anticipated trip.

The writing is dead on here, as all three plots converge, Frasier’s promo dovetails into an amazing bit on stoned Martin, while Frasier’s eventual heartbreak over the French girl coincides with Freddie’s own heartbreak.

#1. Season 6 – Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowicz

One of the best Christmas episodes of television EVER, this genius take on the farcical trope on pretending to be something you’re not.

Frasier winds up on a blind date with Fay, arranged by her pushy mother. In the meantime, Daphne is directing a Christmas play and asks for Niles assistance.

On Christmas Eve, Fay and her mother stop by Frasier’s before their flight to Miami. Fay sees a tasteful wreath above the fireplace, and questions if Frasier’s Jewish. Turns out, Mrs. Moskowicz spied Frasier purchasing a menorah (for Freddie, who is half Jewish), and assumed. Frasier agrees to take the wreath down and play the part until they leave. Through circumstance, he ropes Niles and Martin into the charade as well. But Niles gets called into Daphne’s play at the last minute, so he disappears.

Just as Fay and Mother are about to leave, Frasier’s tasteful Christmas tree arrives, which promptly gets shoved into the powder room. While they are distracted, a beard-clad Niles bursts in, sniffling. The hay from the manager scene is activating his allergies. His surprise appearance allows for the greatest line in the whole episode, with Kelsey Grammer’s perfect delivery, “JESUS!”

Eventually, the jig is up, and Fay and her mom have a loud, emotional, but quick argument. Martin and Frasier try their hand at letting their feelings fly, but they soon realize they’re a bit too WASP-y for this.

—–

And that’s it. The absolute, definitive ranking of Frasier Christmas episodes. Do you see a flaw in my reasoning? Let me know your thoughts!