Episode Eleven: Death Becomes Him, and Linzertorte Cookies

I regret the hiatus between the last episode and this one. It’s not because of waning enthusiasm – obviously my interest in talking about Frasier is, in fact, alarmingly all-consuming. In all honesty it’s because (and new-money-wishes-he-was-old-money Frasier would probably gasp and clutch the nearest pearls to learn of it) every time I’ve attempted to buy ingredients for the accompanying recipe, I just…haven’t been able to afford it. I wouldn’t say this week is any different but with some judicious duplicity and prioritisation, here we finally are.

This episode sees Frasier confront his own mortality, and in typical fashion, wringing his hands where hands need not be wrung. It all kicks off when Martin has evaded a doctor’s appointment, with his old-school attitude of only needing the quack when something actually hurts, and even then, regarding the entire process with suspicion. Frasier and Niles put their heads together and recommend Dr Gary Newman (Niles: “I saw a Lichtenstein hanging in his office.” Frasier: “Ooh, Lichtenstein, he sounds perfect”) and Frasier duly insists upon escorting his father to make sure he doesn’t do a no-show again.

Unfortunately, the no-show comes from Dr Gary Newman, who dies of a heart attack.

The Very Special Episode is a classic sitcom trope, notably thrashed by teen comedies in the 80s and 90s, where out of nowhere a lighthearted show would tackle some kind of dark storyline – a death, drug abuse, literally whatever – with tooth-clenching earnestness, usually at the extreme expense of some one-off character who would show up to suffer and then disappear once the lesson was learned, leaving you with nothing but a sense of tonal whiplash, silence where there should be a laugh track.

This is no such episode. Frasier does dabble in it down the line – towards the end of the series Niles has to undergo heart surgery and naturally, everyone feels their feelings, but this episode’s use of death is really just a means for Frasier to flap about and annoy everyone. And thank goodness! We’re not ready yet for any kind of heavy-handed heaviness. The series is still fresh and new and needs no such ratings-grabbery.

Frasier, full of vigour for his impending doom, gathers Martin, Niles and Daphne around to discuss getting his affairs in order: who wants his African fertility mask, which caterers to use for his funeral, that sort of thing. Martin tries to give him some straightforward advice to ease his anxiety, but Frasier is not to be swayed. The doctor and he had so much in common – “same determined chin, sweater vest, and ever-so-slightly receding hairline,” so what is it that’s keeping Frasier alive and this doctor, well, not?

(Hypothetical funeral caterers) Niles: “who are you using?” Frasier: “Michealson’s”. Niles: Oh, they’re very good! Excellent!”

The best way to get to the bottom of this, thinks Frasier, is to barge in on the family sitting Shiva. Yes, this is what a family in the middle of their mourning ritual needs, for a self-centred stranger to appear and question them about the eating habits of their deceased relative. But to be fair, it’s a nice scene. Frasier is repeatedly met with “you’re not Jewish, are you” from doubtful attendees; he has to process the fact that the late Dr Newman was a fiendishly healthy exercise fanatic, and finally he manages to step outside of his own ass to offer some condolences to Dr Newman’s wife. And then, like some kind of reward for being alive, Frasier is stopped by an attractive woman who witnessed him comforting the doctor’s widow and gives him her number.

I like that there’s no real moral to this story, it is a very unspecial episode: yes death happens, yes it’s completely irrational and makes no sense, yes meeting someone hot can distract you rapidly from the depth of a situation. It’s not so much about the ramifications of death as opposed to coming to terms with that which you cannot control. And let’s face it, there’s very little you can control; only your own actions and reactions. Not a single other thing. That’s right, I’ve read 1 (one) self-help book so I’m quite the expert on this. The thing with this episode as well though, is that it’s not only that you can’t control anything, but also you can’t outrun it by investigating it into the ground. Frasier kept uncovering more and more information, but the more he found out about the doctor, the less anything made sense. Frasier will not learn now, nor any time soon, about letting go, but this is a start. The woman giving him her number at the end could be a cheap laugh, but in fact: look how life goes on.

The recipe to accompany this episode is inspired by the mention of Linzertorte at the Shiva. Rather than make an actual pie type thing, I went smaller, easier: little cookies, with a thumbprint indent that you fill with jam. Rich with almonds and honey, these rough-and-tumble cookies are easy to make and delicious to eat. I recommend just using the cheapest jam you can find, especially since almonds are kind of expensive. The cookies are quite fragile and crumbly, but so is life, I guess.

Linzertorte Thumbprint Cookies

  • one cup ground almonds
  • two and a half cups flour
  • one teaspoon sea salt
  • one teaspoon vanilla extract
  • three tablespoons honey or agave syrup (or similar)
  • half a cup plain oil, such as grapeseed or rice bran 
  • about half a cup of jam, I went for strawberry 
Mix the almonds, flour, salt, vanilla, honey and oil in a large bowl with your hands, mulching it all together till it forms a soft, crumbly dough. Place it in the fridge for an hour. 
Set your oven to 180C/350F and line a cookie tray with baking paper. 
Roll spoonfuls of dough into balls using your hands, then flatten slightly on one side and make an indentation with your thumb. This is where the jam will go later. Place the cookies on the tray and bake for about 7 minutes, till they’re crisp and browned around the edges. Once cooled, fill each indentation with a small spoonful of jam. And there you have it. 

Tragically Maris doesn’t warrant a mention in this episode which like, what is the point of anything, but there are still some excellent moments – Daphne talking about how she’s attracted to “gents more on the manly side” while Niles is studiously folding napkins into shapes. The way she says “was that a little swan?” in a small voice as he immediately flattens it, is just perfect. Roz appears briefly but nevertheless shines. I love that when Frasier is like, “why is it that every time we try to have a serious discussion, we end up talking about your sex life,” and Roz, the walking mic drop, is all, “because I have one.”

Final note: I did find it distracting that the doctor was called Gary Newman, anyone else?

“I suppose the best we can do is live for the little joys and surprises that life affords us. You can’t spend your life being obsessed with Death.” 
“You’re not Jewish, are you?” 

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