May 18, 2000
By Daniel R. Coleridge
If soap opera writers and sitcom scribes have one thing in common, it's their penchant for creating star-crossed supercouples and then throwing up obstacles to keep them apart until the audience can scarcely stand it anymore.
Indeed, the key to hooking long-term viewers is best summed up in the classic stratagem of All My Children creator Agnes Nixon: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait." Just think how long we've rooted for lovelorn Friends Ross and Rachel, who won't get back together but can't stop sabotaging one another's dates. Or how we've champed at the bit waiting for our favorite sparring sweethearts ‹ like Moonlighting's David and Maddie or Cheers's Sam and Diane ‹ to make love, not war.
The best recent entry into the pantheon of tortured sitcom lovers is surely Frasier's Niles and Daphne. Is it likely that an elderly man's home-care aide would spurn the affections of a wealthy, adorable psychiatrist? Probably not. But David Hyde Pierce has kept us in stitches ‹ and suspense ‹ for seven seasons with Niles's reluctance to confess his secret love for his oblivious British beauty, Daphne (Jane Leeves).
Rather than allow Niles's mooning over Ms. Moon to grow stale, the show has cleverly turned the tables by opening Daph's eyes to Niles's charms just as their commitments to other lovers are becoming more permanent. Niles is currently the plaything of Dr. Mel (Jane Adams), a bossy harridan who dominates him like his ex-wife, Maris, did. But while Niles's romance with Mel makes sense ‹ he's just following old, self-destructive patterns, as Frasier might say ‹ Daphne's engagement to Donny (Saul Rubinek) does not.
Donny's pleasant enough, but his character isn't clearly defined; he lacks a personality that engages the viewer in any way. Daphne seems to be marrying him simply because he's there, which is disappointing because this scenario could've been mined for even more drama and laughs had Niles been given a more interesting rival for Daph's heart.
Nevertheless, things come to a head in tonight's season finale, as Niles and Daphne finally meet for an emotional tête-à-tête on the eve of her wedding. But if you're looking for a happily-ever-after resolution, you might catch the sting of soap in your eyes. Besides supercouples, sitcoms and sudsers both love to employ another viewer-grabbing device: the cliff-hanger.
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