The Gift Horse is from a one-time writer (Ron Darian), which might explain the soft retcon regarding John Mahoney’s birthdays on the show. This episode turns the gift giving into a competition between Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, as each tries to out do the other on the gift, leading to Grammer going all out with a big screen TV only to discover Hyde Pierce still has him beat. Then there’s a lot of nice character stuff for Mahoney at the end with his eventual gift.
But the show’s had Mahoney birthday episodes every year and they’re never anywhere near as happy of events as this episode. And not just because Marsha Mason’s around trying to make sure Mahoney’s got the best “sexty-fifth" birthday party ever. Mason’s mostly in scenes with Jane Leeves, assigning her party-related grunt work; it very much does not seem any of them would be in Leeves’s job responsibilities. But whatever, it’s fine. Leeves gets to be there for some of the TV stuff and even gets a quick moment opposite Peri Gilpin, which is too rare.
Speaking of Gilpin, she doesn’t get much to do but she’s got the great opening when she’s trying to convince Grammer to help her make an ex jealous. The punchline involves Hyde Pierce and is a particular excellent one. Darian’s script might not do the continuity—I mean, it’s a sitcom—but he’s got some good jokes and his Grammer and Hyde Pierce competitiveness stuff is outstanding.
The Pamela Fryman direction is good throughout but it really shines in the finale, when Mahoney gets to do some more dramatic stuff related to the birthday and his gift. While there are some laughs in it, the scene is mostly just character development material for Mahoney who does some fine work.
There’s also a reference to Mahoney having a perm in his youth—old pictures for the birthday are a thing, though we only get descriptions—and I’m fairly sure… Mahoney did have close to a perm in at least a couple movies (Say Anything and Tin Men). It’s neat to be able to accurately imagine thanks to actual recall.
It’s a funny and good episode—the continuity “errors” are only because no one ever intended home video marathons of the show—and the end tag has a decent (albeit slightly unbelievable) resolve to a hanging plot threads. There’s also a nice character arc for Grammer and Hyde Pierce with their competitiveness.
Makes me wish Darian had come back to write more.