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Resurgent 'Frasier' takes on Dr. Laura

"Frasier" continues its comeback from a less-than-great string of episodes last fall. This week's installment truly is must-see TV on Thursday -- an episode that takes dead aim at Dr. Laura.

You know, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the real-life radio personality who dispenses tough -- some would say rude -- advice to her callers.(The same sort of advice she dispenses in her weekly newspaper column, which runs Sundays in the Deseret News.)

On Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC/ Ch. 5, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) runs up against Dr. Nora, a Dr. Laura clone who's deliciously played by Emmy-winner Christine Baranski ("Cybill"). Dr. Nora applies for the post-Frasier time slot at the radio station, and after lulling him into complacency she does a sudden U-turn and begins berating her callers.

(Anyone who has ever listened to a certain real-life radio therapist will notice definite similarities.)

Dr. Nora's approach is the exact opposite of Frasier's feel-good, "I'm listening" approach. And he, of course, is aghast.

"Just how were you helping that confused bisexual woman by calling her an equal opportunity (tramp)?" Frasier exclaims.

As for Roz (Peri Gilpin), she wants to deck Dr. Nora after the therapist attacks women who have babies without the benefit of husbands. She offers to take their dispute outside to the street, but Dr. Nora declines, citing Roz's "home court advantage" there.

Roz and Frasier want to get rid of Nora, but she proves very popular. However, Roz discovers that, like Dr. Laura, Dr. Nora's past doesn't quite match her advice. And, like Dr. Laura, Dr. Nora has no relationship with her mother. So Roz finds the woman (played by guest star Piper Laurie), and Frasier attempts to effect a reconciliation.

It's wildly funny stuff -- as funny a half-hour of television as you'll find anywhere. And funnier than 99 percent of the theatrical comedies you could spend your hard-earned money to go see.

And, given those episodes that weren't up to "Frasier's" extremely high standards in the first part of the season, it's nice to be able to say, "Welcome back. We missed you."

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO: Lots of shows have had characters you never actually saw -- from Charlie on "Charlie's Angels" to Norm's wife, Vera, on "Cheers" to Carlton the doorman on "Rhoda."

(Although we did catch glimpses of the latter two characters from time to time.)

But no show has ever used an unseen character the way "Frasier" has used Maris -- the now ex-wife of Frasier's brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce). Despite the fact that Maris never made it on camera, she was a big part of the show. And her breakup with Niles wasn't easy for Pierce.

"It's the weirdest thing," he said. "When they first wrote the script where I was breaking up with Maris, we sat down to read it in the conference room and I couldn't get through it. I was completely overcome. I mean, I had this relationship with this woman. After five years, you develop this dependence and the thought of splitting up with her was actually upsetting.

"I mean, I got over it."

Regular viewers of the show became well acquainted with Maris and her quirks -- from her apparent anorexia to her controlling attitudes to her romantic preferences. She became a real, if unseen, person.

"That's a testament to the writers," Pierce said, "because they have created such a wonderful character in her and also such an interesting relationship between me and her and Daphne and, all of that stuff that it plays.

"Something my mother said was that doing Maris the way they did was such a gesture of respect for the audience. They could just give you a hint and allow the audience to imagine the rest rather than just spell it out and here she is and what she looked like."