Frasier, which I religiously watch to this day, is one of the greatest, smartest, most emotionally compelling sitcoms ever.
Created and produced by David Angell, David Lee, and Peter Casey, the Cheers spinoff revolves around pompous psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), who moves all the way from Boston to his hometown of Seattle, Washington to work at KACL 780 AM as a radio shrink in order to move past his recent divorce. He thinks he has everything set in place, but things get shaken up when he reluctantly lets Martin (John Mahoney), his cantankerous and macho police detective father who had to retire after getting shot in the hip, move in with him. Martin’s Jack Russell Terrier, Eddie, comes along as well, with an odd inclination toward staring at Frasier for prolonged periods of time. Rounding out the main cast are Niles (David Hyde Pierce), who is even more uptight than his brother Frasier; Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), a naive, offbeat expatriate from Manchester, England with self-proclaimed psychic abilities whom Frasier hesitantly hires to live in his condo as a physical therapist and housekeeper for Martin; and Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), Frasier’s cheeky radio producer whose promiscuity is often a target for gibes, especially those given by Niles.
Airing on NBC with the pilot “The Good Son” on September 16, 1993 and ending on May 13, 2004, with Season 11’s “Goodnight, Seattle,” Frasier ran for a total of 264 episodes. I have watched all eleven seasons over and over (and over) again, so I’ve been able to analyze how much change the characters make throughout their arcs. At the beginning, there’s a blatant, frigid distance between the three Crane men that gets exaggerated by their personalities. Both Frasier and Niles are fussy, elitist, and sarcastic, although the latter brother is much more neurotic—e.g. habitually dusting off chairs with a napkin he always keeps on his person before sitting down. Both of them are very well-bred, with their wine, classical music, opera, hand-tailored suits, everything that represents culture and refinement. On the other hand, Martin, a blue-collar guy who’s not only into sports and beer but is also a Korean War vet and a former police officer, has machismo-driven tendencies to take digs at his sons for their dainty lifestyle and for the numerous moments when they don’t uphold the archetypal image of masculinity. But as time progresses, they soften up and gradually get more comfortable with themselves and with each other, forming a bond that leaves them closer together than ever before by the series finale. The palpable evolution in their dysfunctional family dynamic becomes one of the most rewarding elements of the show.
Another prominent part of the show is Niles and Daphne’s relationship. He becomes besotted with her from the moment he meets her in “Dinner at Eight,” the third episode of Season 1; however, he’s already married to Maris (more on her unique character design later), leading to a very lengthy will-they-won’t-they situation until they actually get together. I’ll admit, the obstacles feel unnecessary and drawn-out sometimes, and Niles makes plenty of overly suggestive remarks, especially in the first few seasons, that are borderline creepy. Yet some of my favorite episodes are the ones that focus on this affecting couple. It’s delightful to see Niles gradually go from nursing a persistent crush to genuinely loving Daphne. Meanwhile, she initially views him as a close friend and then, once they’re together, is fully loving towards him too—although I wonder whether she was secretly in love with him in the beginning but wasn’t consciously aware of it.
While the show isn’t awfully progressive, in a way, it promotes the strength of feminism through Roz, a woman who treats her sexuality with an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” attitude. No matter what snide taunts Frasier, Niles, or any of the other men make about her, she never lets them push her down. One of the best examples is S2 Ep. 16 “The Show Where Sam Shows Up,” in which, upon Ted Danson’s Sam Malone from Cheers visiting Seattle, Roz flirts with him and offers him her number on a vivid pink card. “That’s a snazzy card,” he comments. Frasier sneers, “Yes, glows in the dark,” and Roz quips, “So do I.” She knows she’s got sex appeal, and she is proud of it. There are also numerous noteworthy points in the show where she embodies the women in real life who face off against double standards. One instance is the opening scene of S2 Ep. 11 “Seat of Power,” where Frasier expresses disapproval in Roz wanting to date a guy at the radio station who’s considerably younger than her. “Why is it all right for older men to date younger women,” she observes, “but it’s not okay for older women to date younger men?” Frasier’s response is, “I don’t make the rules, Roz, I just enjoy them.”
A popular opinion about Frasier is that the writers were always talking up, not down, to the audience, and assuming that we were quick-witted enough to appreciate their writing. They succeeded with this the majority of the time, even with the plots that hinged on farce, which can become ridiculous and trite if handled carelessly. And more often than not, they did a good job writing Frasier’s dating life, making it so plagued with incessant tough luck that he becomes more amusing and endearing to the audience. Yes, there were a few duds out of all the episodes that were filled with unoriginal gags and storylines or a gratuitous heap of farce. But there has always been a cleverness at the core of the show that helped it stand out from the rest of the crowd—a rare quality that’s absent in many of today’s offerings. I won’t name names, but I can think of several current shows that dumb themselves down in order to get a wider audience to go crazy over it. Frasier didn’t have to do that, and look at how much respect and admiration it has won over two and a half decades—along with thirty Emmy Awards, including “Best Comedy Series” for five straight years.
It is often said that a fleshed-out setting in a story can turn into its own character. This holds true for one of the most iconic elements of the show, Frasier’s condo. I could probably spiel all my opinions about it for an entire article, but I’ll keep things concise here. Frasier is sophisticated and refined at heart, which is illustrated by everything in his spacious pad—the couch that he brags about being an exact replica of the one owned by fashion designer Coco Chanel in her Paris atelier (although the real couch is actually a bit larger), the doors, the fireplace, the high ceiling, the African statuary, the sundry paintings and objet d’arts. Oh yes, and I can’t forget to mention what may be the most signature part of the condo—as Frasier once described it, Martin’s pea-green and mud-brown striped recliner with the occasional spot of stuffing popping out from underneath a strip of duct tape. Good heavens, the thing really was a monstrous sight, but I loved it every second it was on screen, especially when the writers used it as the focal point for multiple gags and even a few storylines. Cafe Nervosa, inspired by the now-defunct Elliot Bay Cafe in Seattle, is another wonderful setting, giving off a pleasant and breezy atmosphere as Frasier meets up with Niles and various other people daily for coffee.
The main characters are already entertaining enough to watch—no one but Grammer and Pierce, both Emmy-winning actors, could have executed such stellar performances as those silly little Crane brothers—but they also have to compete with an equally fun roster of recurring characters. My favorites include Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert), the effeminate host of Restaurant Beat; Bob “Bulldog” Brisco (Dan Butler), the lascivious host of the Gonzo Sports Show; Noel Shempsky (Patrick Kerr), the sales department Trekkie with an unrequited crush on Roz; Bebe Glazer (Harriet Sansom Harris), Frasier’s cutthroat agent; and Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), Frasier’s psychiatrist ex-wife from Cheers. It’s funny, because Frasier became a core part of Cheers after an initial plan of featuring him for only a few episodes. This essentially happened again on Frasier, with the writers testing out the recurring characters to see if they would make a good fit for the cast.
Maris, a woman of wealth and eccentricity, has to be the most hilarious character of them all despite the fact that she never appeared in a single episode (aside from the time they showed her silhouette in S5 Ep. 6 “Voyage of the Damned”). But people in the show talk about plenty of her uproarious foibles, especially in the earlier seasons, which is precisely what makes her so funny. By relying on those peculiar references, we’re free to imagine her almost any way we want, knowing at the least that she’s extremely skinny, has a fragile build, and eats very little food. Let’s not gloss over the details, though; she was very cold and selfish toward Niles, and she played a significant role in stopping him from getting together with Daphne for years. But still, props to the writing team for coming up with bits such as the slight webbing of her fingers, the fact that earrings are heavy enough to make her head droop, or the trip she took to Antwerp to get her elbows done. Here are a few of my favorite Maris gags:
S2, Ep. 10 “Burying a Grudge”
Niles: (having mentioned that Maris is in the hospital) It’s nothing serious, cosmetic surgery. Her chin, her lips, her cheeks, her eyelids . . .
Martin: Maybe it’d be faster if you told us what she’s leaving alone.
S2, Ep. 17 “Daphne’s Room” (Niles is struggling to figure out how to make things up to Maris after not reading the hint she had dropped to throw her a surprise birthday bash)
Martin: Why don’t you get her a nice bottle of perfume?
Niles: She gets hives.
Martin: How about candy?
Martin: Then get her a dozen roses.
S3, Ep. 4 “Leaping Lizards” (Niles has brought medicine to help Eddie calm down during a thunderstorm)
Niles: The doctor gave very specific instructions. (reads off the pillbox) “Take one tablet per hour or as needed until trembling subsides.” (pauses) I’m sorry, these are for Maris.
Of course, watching the show today, you have to acknowledge that it’s not very laudable from a socially progressive standpoint. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly white sitcom, isolating the main characters in their own cultural cocoon and making virtually no effort to break it. There could have been plenty of opportunities for the writers to create witty, racially subversive stories to shake up, as Niles once put it, Frasier’s exclusive, lily-white world. But instead they churned out unabashedly racist material, such as the tokenism in S1 Ep. 10 “Oops,” which is the first time a black actor gets a speaking part, albeit a very minor one, in the show; the execrable plot point of the wife of Martin’s black friend in S2 Ep. 10 “Burying a Grudge” having a large butt; and Frasier’s absurdly prejudiced monologue in S7 Ep. 16 “There’s Something About Dr. Mary,” where he imitates the stereotypical mannerisms of the Angry Black Woman trope. Perhaps Cam Winston, his upstairs neighbor whom appeared in three episodes in the ninth season, could be an exception; he had a fairly good character design, sharing Frasier’s inclinations toward art and culture.
I also get turned off when the show spends time making flippant jokes out of homosexuality. This includes the inordinate amount of stories based on people mistaking Frasier, Niles, and/or Martin for being gay. The show’s homophobia only becomes more baffling when you analyze the quasi-romantic aspect of Frasier and Niles’s relationship. It makes you curious as to how Pierce, Mahoney, Butler, and Hibbert—the majority of the male cast—felt about this, since they were gay. Granted, Frasier started back in the ’90s, a period that can’t hold a candle to our progressive perspectives today, and there were a couple episodes where gay characters were treated respectfully. But these issues are worth considering, especially with regard to the inevitable revival and whether it will be written with an awareness of modern social concerns.
After examining all the seasons, I’ve realized how much I love Season 3, what with it boasting some of the show’s strongest episodes—”Martin Does It His Way,” where Frasier and Niles help Martin send a song to Frank Sinatra; “Moon Dance,” my favorite Niles-Daphne episode, where she teaches him how to dance for the Snow Ball; “Look Before You Leap,” which follows the outrageous consequences of Frasier advising everyone to “take a leap” into new endeavors on February 29th; and “You Can Go Home Again,” which not only takes a look back at what unfolded on the day Frasier arrived at KACL for the first episode of his radio show but also illuminates the character growth regarding him and his family. I also love S1 Ep. 24 “My Coffee with Niles,” S2 Ep. 1 “Slow Tango in South Seattle” and Ep. 21 “An Affair to Forget,” and S6 Ep. 17 “The Dinner Party.” And I can’t forget to mention that the show even achieved the rare goal of presenting an immensely satisfying conclusion in “Goodnight, Seattle,” the finale of the eleventh and final season (people loved it much more than the Game of Thrones finale, I can tell you that much). It honored all the hilarity and emotions built up through the seasons, threw everyone into one last crazy adventure, and left them ready to move on to the next phase of their lives.
I’m waiting for the announcement of a premiere date for the revival as impatiently as anyone. But they need to make the right decisions to reintroduce us to Frasier’s life and maintain the intelligence of the first eleven seasons. It could imitate Will & Grace by returning to NBC, but I think it would do equally well on a streaming service like Hulu or Netflix. Grammar has stated that he wants the original cast to reprise their roles, although we won’t see Martin again (RIP John Mahoney). Personally I would love to see Laura Linney return as Charlotte, Frasier’s matchmaker-turned-girlfriend in Season 11. It would be nice to see that the relationship actually worked out, after all the romantic disasters Frasier has had to endure. And the revival will not survive in today’s environment unless it takes a progressive stance. Let’s hope they play their cards right and take this fantastic show to new heights.
Windup score: 96/100