Chess Pains is Rob Greenberg’s first solo script credit—and Gordon Hunt’s first episode directing—but it feels like a familiar (good familiar) “Frasier” mix, albeit right down to Peri Gilpin getting a filler subplot. Gilpin’s getting her hair cut and has nothing to talk to her stylist about; it’s just there to give Kelsey Grammer something to do outside the apartment—they’re at the coffee shop—and it’s still got its laughs, albeit fairly easy ones.
There’s also the David Hyde Pierce subplot, which is as outstanding as the Gilpin one is mundane; lonely separated Hyde Pierce—encouraged by Jane Leeves—gets a dog and it’s the closest thing to having his infamous wife, Maris, on screen for an episode we’ve gotten to date. It provides some excellent conversation fodder for Grammer, Leeves, and John Mahoney, and some great laughs for Hyde Pierce, who’s doing all dialogue humor, nothing physical.
The episode will give all the physical to Grammer, who’s got a son and father episode with Mahoney. Grammer’s just bought a fancy new antique chess set and—after initially being so obnoxious no one wants to play with him—talks Mahoney into a game. It’s a sitcom so of course ex-cop, beer out of a can drinker Mahoney beats the pants of Harvard-educated snob Grammer. Soon Grammer’s obsessed with beating Mahoney but completely unable to defeat him.
The episode gives both Grammer and Mahoney a chance to go to extremes, with Grammer getting to do a whole physical comedy arc as he becomes more and more obsessed and Mahoney gets more and more exasperated with the behavior. When they finally give up the good sportsmanship, there’s just this fantastic trash talk going back and forth. It’s fantastic.
There’s a nice, wholesome finale and a good postscript during the end credits; outside Gilpin’s nothing doing subplot, it’s an excellent solo premiere for Greenberg.
Also—Leeves gets some really good material; not a lot of really good material, but she’s got at least two great laughs.