I Can’t Stop Watching Frasier. I Can’t Stop Thinking About Maris.
The invisible woman of the classic sitcom, which leaves Netflix at the end of the year, is a case study in the way TV shows can turn people into punch lines.
Frasier, you might have heard, has been enjoying a renaissance. That’s partly for logistical reasons—the NBC sitcom has been streaming on Netflix, introducing its antics to a new generation of viewers—but also for artistic ones: Despite its mid-’90s vintage, the show is extremely well calibrated to this moment. The misadventures of Frasier Crane, a talk-radio psychiatrist, are soothing. The show’s rhythms are soft and soporific. Frasier combines theatrical absurdity with earnest emotion. Its anxieties are slight, its stakes low. “Frasier,” The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs wrote in 2017, “is neither aspirational nor relevant, but rather pleasantly restorative—the modern binge-viewing equivalent of a much-needed bath.”
Frasier, tragically, is leaving Netflix at the end of December, and I’ve been watching a lot of the show before it makes its departure from the platform. As I get in those views, I keep getting distracted by a character who isn’t there: Maris. Niles’s wife is technically part of the Crane family. But she is definitely not, in the show’s estimation, a real member of the Crane family. You know that primarily because Maris spends all 11 seasons of Frasier invisible to viewers. In the manner of Mrs. Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory, Peggy’s mother in Married … With Children, and Vera in Cheers, Maris is often talked about but never seen.
I watched Frasier when I was younger, but I never gave Maris much thought. That is probably because the show itself suggests that Maris does not deserve much thought. She is not a character so much as she is a collection of punch lines: about her appearance (she is, Frasier’s characters imply, excessively skinny), about her class (she is excessively wealthy), and about not much more than that. She is the show’s proof that it is in fact entirely possible to be too rich and too thin.
Watching Frasier now, though—as an adult, in 2019—I keep finding myself thinking about Maris. I keep thinking about how uncomfortably her character sits within the show’s velveteen warmth. Sitcoms are constrained universes, small in their scope and narrow in their sympathies; that is their promise, and also their problem. Frasier embraced its brevity, and that helped to give the show its bubbly and bath-y quality: the same people, basically, rearranged on the same board, episode after episode. The show ran on the fuel of familiarity. It filtered out the world beyond its fictional borders. It was, in today’s terms, a curated collection.
But sitcoms are also products of their times, whether they self-consciously accept that fact or not. Frasier premiered on NBC in 1993, soon after Seinfeld and a little before Friends—and right in the middle of a time of particularly lurching transition in American culture. The show made its debut just after Bill Clinton won the presidency in part because of the rebuke he claimed to offer to the greed-is-good excesses of Reaganism. It arrived amid intense cultural and political backlash to the women’s movement.
Maris, in many ways, functions as Frasier’s acknowledgment of that context. You could read her as a running joke—as a low-stakes gag in a show that was full of them. You could read her, too, as evidence that Frasier’s defining kindness had a mean streak. But you could also read her as an argument: that Frasier, a show that delights in the antics of rich people, also understood that wealth had its dark side. She is a human caveat. The show takes for granted that Frasier and Niles, who collect pomposities as readily as they collect French wines, deserve to be teased for their affectations. But Frasier mocks Maris. It treats her, as the show’s seasons go on, as something of a monstrosity. Watch enough episodes, and her absence begins to look less like a gag and more like a trick: a way for the show to make jokes that could not be directed at an embodied woman.
Maris was not meant to be missing, originally. Not permanently, anyway. She was at first going to be absent only for the first few episodes of the show—a winking callback to Vera on Cheers, and a playful recognition of the fact that Frasier had begun its life as a spin-off. David Lee, one of Frasier’s co-creators, explained the thinking like this: “Let’s do that for a few episodes, and then surprise—we’re actually going to see her, so we weren’t ripping off that Cheers thing after all.”
But then a problem emerged: Frasier’s writers had, even by that early point, so laden Maris with jokes—some of them about her dour personality, but most of them about her slight body—that they had made it logistically impossible for a human woman to portray her. “Two or three episodes in, she was already so bizarre, she was uncastable,” Lee said. “So we just went, ‘Well, we’re never going to see her.’ Although we did see the shadow of her behind a shower curtain once.”
What the show’s writers did instead will be familiar to anyone who has watched Frasier: The writers took Maris’s absurdity and ran with it. She became an experiment without a control. A German acquaintance who meets Maris in the show describes her, in absentia, as “Nichteinmenschlichfrau”—a “not quite hooman vooman.”
You’re supposed to laugh at this. And I do! Frasier, at one point, refers to Maris as “ounces of fun,” and it’s a good joke—just as it’s a good joke when he compares his sister-in-law to a bag of flour: “bleached, 100 percent fat-free, and best kept in an air-tight container.” The lines work, in part, because they, too, exist in an air-tight container: They’re jokes made at the expense of another joke.
Lilith, by contrast—Frasier’s ex-wife, and Maris’s most direct counterpart on the show—becomes notably more human as the show goes on. She becomes more complex as a character, expanded rather than reduced. That’s mostly because Bebe Neuwirth is such a richly compelling actor, able to bring warmth even to Lilith’s defining coldness. It is also, however, because of the simple fact of Lilith’s personhood. Even when you are a show that marries vaudevillian whimsy with the cadences of the sitcom, you can spend only so much time making fun of a character to her face before the humor starts to wear thin.
Maris’s absence, though, doubles as a kind of permission. While Frasier mocks Maris for her looks and her weight and what is pretty clearly an eating disorder, the jokes don’t typically register as cruelty, because, strictly speaking, they aren’t ever directed at anyone. They’re mocking someone who doesn’t exist.
Frasier premiered during the backlash era, as Susan Faludi frames it, and the show’s historical context is most clearly evident in the character you cannot see. Maris is a caricature, and the features exaggerated in the show’s sketch of her can suggest American culture’s worst views of women: that they are weak, that they are self-absorbed, that they are manipulative, that they are vapid. Maris is excessively self-conscious about her appearance, and the mental state leads to physical deficiency. The jokes about her smallness accumulate: She can’t wear earrings because their weight makes her neck droop. She once sprained her wrist from holding a cracker laden with too much dip. She makes no tracks in the snow. She had youthful dreams of becoming a ballerina, but could never manage to get her weight up. A disgruntled servant once left a whoopee cushion on Maris’s dining room chair, aiming for revenge. “Fortunately for all of us,” Niles says, recounting the incident, “embarrassment was averted when my little fawn proved too light to activate it.”
Maris has overlearned the scripts that have been written for her. American culture tells women to take up less space; Maris, complying, shrinks herself. American culture tells women that they will be judged primarily according to the appeal of their body; Maris tries, in vain, to purchase her way into beauty. She tries too hard, and cares too much, and that is the show’s ultimate joke about Maris. It’s considerably less funny than the others.
That’s not to defend Maris as a character, such as she is. She is not the witch of Wicked, mistold and thus misunderstood. She is certainly not the Mrs. Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea. Maris, when Frasier does offer revelations about her personality, is selfish; she’s hyperbolic; she’s the kind of person that Frasier, were someone to call in to his radio show with a complaint about her, might describe as “toxic.”
Maris is also a horrible snob—not in the relatively lighthearted manner of Frasier and Niles, with their affected affinities for Wagner and cashmere, but in a more sinister way. Maris, the show suggests, truly thinks she is better than other people: that her wealth is not an accident of birth, but rather a ratification of life’s hierarchies. Frasier was a transitional show, airing between the time when American sitcoms cared deeply about class and when they largely ignored it. And Maris-the-heiress was one way of signaling to audiences that the show was in on its own jokes. She was an apology—for the show’s insularity, for its whiteness, for its wealth. Frasier wasn’t just celebrating this rich guy and his rich brother; it was laughing at them, too. You know that in part because the show made such regular fun of the richest of its characters, a woman who would be reminiscent of Marie Antoinette had her intense fear of carbs not kept her from eating cake.
Often, in these collisions, the jokes told about Maris can take on the suggestion of punishment. Late in the show’s run, Maris’s greatest fear befalls her: Depressed after she and Niles finally divorce, she gains weight. “Look, you see that rotund woman coming out of Chock Full o’ Donuts?” Niles says to Frasier and Roz. “Watch. Before she gets to her car, she’ll finish that bear claw, and then go back in—this is her third time.”
Roz is offended at Niles’s superficiality. “It’s rude,” she says.
“It’s childish,” Frasier adds.
“It’s Maris,” Niles says.
In the last major arc Maris had on the show, she murdered her new boyfriend, an Argentinian polo player—in self-defense, she claimed. Her final “appearance” in the show found her locked away in a sensory-deprivation chamber—sipping a diet drink administered by her faithful maid, Marta, through a hole in the chamber wall. And then, audiences soon learned, she fled the U.S., escaping to a private island from which she would not face extradition. Frasier’s invisible character was sentenced to hiding, still, in plain sight.
It is an ending that is fittingly lacking in dignity for a character who was never given any. Whatever else Maris was, she was also correct. The assumption that informed nearly everything she did on the show, from her diets to her surgeries to her final escape, was that the world was not interested in who she really was. That it was, in fact, judgmental and impatient. Maris was Frasier’s evidence that femininity was funny, under the right conditions; the show was Maris’s evidence, too, though. Her fears were founded. They made a running joke of her defining trait: her ability to disappear.
More than 20 years later, the joke itself chafes. Frasier’s dismissal of Maris, its appointed villain, may be aligned, in some ways, with the era of canceling billionaires; its mockery of her may well make arguments that neatly anticipated the current moment. But Maris’s absence, in the end, now feels out of step and out of place. Frasier also aired in the early days of the digital revolution, and one of the ethics of the social-media age is the idea that authorship is its own kind of dignity. People, whoever they are, have a right to tell their own stories, on their own terms, in their own words. Frasier, a show about a radio psychiatrist that aired on network television, is rooted in the logic of broadcast. Its notions of authorship are narrow and one-directional. Maris is a reminder of that, too.
So while, in one way, thinking about Maris is silly, in another way it’s difficult not to. She is a question with no answer, a rumor with no story. Maybe she’s as terrible as her in-laws say she is. Maybe she’s even worse. Maybe she really is just a joke. She is certainly just a fiction. Still, I wonder what she might say for herself when others aren’t doing the speaking for her.