Niles Crane was in a panic.
Maris was missing.
And that was cause for alarm. And laughs, as anyone who's a fan of NBC's "Frasier" can attest after watching the recent episode "The Last Time I Saw Maris."
Her temporary disappearance led to marital disaster and the possible end of Maris.
Let's hope that never happens. We'd miss her.
We've heard a lot about Maris, Niles' severely blue-blooded wife. We know her well, in fact.
We've just never seen her.
Like so many of TV's unseen stars, Maris is one of our most beloved characters, someone we're free to color in the way we choose, a figure who adds mystery, imagination, an X-factor to the show.
Remember "The Millionaire," the '50s classic where each week, eccentric multibillionaire John Beresford Tipton (the voice of Paul Frees), his back to the camera, would call personal secretary Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) into the study of his mansion, hand Anthony a check for $1 million and send him off to change the life of some unsuspecting soul?
As if to tweak the viewer just that much more, the magnanimously motivated Tipton demanded only one thing from the recipients: that they never attempt to discover his identity.
And speaking of the rich and faceless, how can we forget Charlie Townsend (the voice of John Forsythe), the man who called the shots on the detective show that defined jiggle TV in the '70s, "Charlie's Angels"?
Again, we got a glimpses of Charlie, little insights into his character. But no mug shot. Never the full picture.
On "Magnum P.I.," private eye Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) lived it up in Oahu on the beachfront estate of super-successful writer Robin Masters, ostensibly serving as his security guard. Magnum borrowed Robin's car, had the run of his house, etc.
But Robin never showed. Or did he? At the end of the series, it seemed as if Robin had been there the whole time, masquerading as his own short-tempered manservant Higgins (John Hillerman). Why he would do such a thing defied logic even by television standards. The only possible explanation, and one often supported by TV, is that money--lots of money--makes people eccentric.
Like "Frasier," many shows--sitcoms in particular--seem to have a lot of fun keeping spouses off camera.
On "Cheers," for example, the show from which "Frasier" was spun off, Norm Peterson (George Wendt) went on and on about his wife, Vera, at the bar (which is where he obviously went to avoid her). We saw Vera's feet once and might have caught a glimpse of her face had it not been covered in that one episode with pie (Wendt's real-life wife, Bernadette Birkett, did the honors).
On "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) talked often and at length about her husband, Lars, who actually owned the building but never walked into a scene.
Sometimes TV will let us get close--tantalizingly so--and then pull back.
ABC's "Home Improvement" has turned partial masking into an art form with the character of good neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman), a kind of backyard guru to Tim Taylor (star Tim Allen).
Still, once TV characters are obscured from view, it's obvious we like to keep them that way.
Think back to "Columbo," one of the most entertaining detective shows ever on television. The perpetually disheveled Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) couldn't get through a case without talking about "the missus." Sometimes it was just because he loved her, often it was a bit of idle conversation meant to distract the killer in the course of Columbo's investigation.
The series lasted in one form or another for more than 20 years.
And we never saw Mrs. Columbo.
But in 1979, somebody in Hollywood decided it was time to show her face. Give her her own series: "Kate Columbo" (played by Kate Mulgrew). The show was canceled before the year was out. And to hear Mulgrew (now of "Star Trek: Voyager") speak of the experience now, she was lucky she was ever able to show her face on television again.