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Mind Over Pop Culture:Frasier – “The Impossible Dream” (Season 4, Episode 3)
August 8, 2013
Dr. Frasier Crane has been overlooked in the last few years, but for many people, Kelsey Grammer’s psychiatrist was the mental health professional they knew best. For some, he might have been the only one. Through Cheers and its spin-off Frasier, he brought the good natured doctor (and some genuine mental health knowledge) to TV for 22 years.
The show Frasier is set after Cheers finished, moving Dr. Crane to Seattle. There, he lives with father Martin, a blue collar former cop injured on the job, and the older man’s nurse Daphne, a flighty English nurse, and spends time arguing with his psychiatrist brother Niles, who might be more pompous and ridiculous than he is. He hosts a call-in radio show where he gives mental health advice to callers, who usually have preposterous problems that he solves with silly solutions. His co-workers at the office, including his producer Roz, give a different perspective to his high-brow, pompous view of the world. He still fights with his ex-wife Lilith about raising their son Frederick.
In Season 4, the show took a detour into actual therapy to analyze a dream Frasier has about Gil Chesterton, the gay male food critic at the radio station. Frasier dreams that the two men are in a hotel room in bed together and fears that he is attracted to him. He and Niles set to work trying to interpret the dream to mean anything other than Frasier being attracted to Gil, which leads to a short, funny rundown of Freudian and Jungian dream analysis. In the end, Freud shows up in a dream to inform Frasier that the dream was a way to challenge the bored psychiatrist with a real problem.
Right off the bat, this episode is not LGBTQ friendly at all. Gil is a stereotype of homosexuals (albeit a very well-developed one as he was part of the show for the entire 11 year run), and the whole episode is based on Frasier’s gay panic. It also had no minorities in it all, and had nothing to say about the world in 1996, except that smart people were afraid of being labeled gay. The whole attitude is so different from today's attitudes that the 17 years between then and now is remarkable. The show was never one to push boundaries or challenge people’s opinions, and this episode is no different. The show also doesn’t honestly have much to say about mental health and mental health conditions, other than to acknowledge they exist.
What the show did do, and this episode in particular, is expose a lot of people to psychiatry in a positive light. Audiences were comfortable with Frasier, who used to dispense small bursts of insight on Cheers, and his friendly, helpful attitude to mental health no doubt helped make it more accessible. This episode showed that there was more psychiatry than Freud, something many pop culture creators still don’t know. Most of the characters on the show offer interpretations and Frasier and Niles got through their textbooks listing potential interpretations, showing that there are many ways to deal with mental health concerns. His advice to his call-in patients is closer to an advice column than actual therapy, but the idea that you could get help from a professional without fear is common throughout the show. Both Frasier and Niles are considered smart, helpful people, and most of the characters on the show ask them for advice. While it definitely helped continue the myth that therapy was only for rich white people, the show definitely took some of the fear away from mental health professionals, and some of the stigma as well.
I can’t honestly recommend this episode without reservations, due to the terrible treatment of Gil, but I can tell you that it had something to say underneath the surface (just as Freud would want). Dr. Frasier Crane was a bigger influence on the way mental health is treated in America than we think about today, and overall, that’s a really good thing. I might review an episode of Cheers to compare what his work looked like in the bar where everyone knew your name.
Next week, we’ll take a look at Ordinary People, an Oscar winning family drama from the 1980s. Did you watch Frasier? How did it compare to Cheers?