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Why the return of Frasier Crane means so much to TV itself

The most interesting part of the new ‘Frasier’ is in observing Kelsey Grammer recognisably play Frasier as an old man, still trying too hard, still a misfit

A few decades on, Frasier endures
A few decades on, Frasier endures

In the opening episode of Frasier—first telecast in September 1993—we see radio psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane in his Seattle home, a gorgeously bedecked apartment with a view of the Space Needle, where his father is unimpressed by the Eames chair or the Corbu lamp. “Nothing matches,” says Martin Crane, a retired policeman far removed from the pretentious protagonist. Here Frasier patronisingly explains “eclectic” style. “The theory behind it is if you’ve got really fine pieces of furniture, it doesn’t matter if they match, they will go together.”

Martin then brings in his recliner, a rattily upholstered BarcaLounger that jars violently against the cultured decor. Frasier is appalled. Cue the laughter. Thus kicked off 11 seasons of a television classic—that won 37 Emmy awards— where the comedy was unapologetically highbrow yet defiantly slapstick. Frasier made bookish gags about Kurt Vonnegut, yet its best episodes were bedroom farces. As the shrink said, Eclectic.

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Frasier was a spinoff of Cheers, an even more iconic comedy. Set around a Boston bar, the show consistently, and casually, subverted television tropes. In its third season (circa 1984) we met the character Frasier Crane, a psychiatrist in love with Cheers’ pseudo-intellectual heroine Diane. The uppity psychiatrist proved a sharp contrast to the show’s barflies, and became a regular cast-member, helping characters with troubles, confronting his own, and making friends along the way. It was on Cheers that Frasier fell in love, married, became a father.

On Frasier, he was 41, divorced, and trying to find his footing all over again in a new city. A moderately famous radio host—yet not successful enough to win the awards he covets—Crane constantly fumbles life, love and relationships. By the time of the 2004 series finale, he succeeded greatly with family and friends, but the remaining boxes stayed unticked. So, after decades of rumours, Frasier is back in 2023 for yet another go around—one more Frasier featuring, as bravely as the first spinoff, a whole new cast. Only Crane remains, still listening.

The new series—where Frasier has returned to Boston, having cashed out his credibility for a lucrative TV career, and plans to rebuild fences with his son Freddie—wrapped up its first season last week. Laugh-tracked and clumsily written, it feels like an artefact of another time—a show Frasier Crane would have turned his nose up at. Quelle surprise. It’s never brilliant or overwhelming, or nonchalantly insightful in the way bartenders or psychiatrists can be on screen.

What it has is nostalgia. Despite the tediousness of the early episodes and the forced jokes, I watched on, desperately hoping for flashes of the original greatness. Then the great Bebe Neuwirth showed up for an episode as Frasier’s condescending ex-wife Lilith, instantly rekindling sparks of war. “We need to keep you separated, like South Korea and North Korea,” says their son Freddie. “She’s North Korea,” declares Frasier, instantly. “I’m North Korea,” agrees Lilith, nodding happily. To her, dictatorship is a compliment she has earned.

That classic moment shows that Frasier Crane is still the same, he just isn’t getting to play off those great characters. Cheers was one of the best comedies in TV history with a powerful ensemble, and Frasier could work only because its first episode gave us fully-formed and iconic characters, like his father, played by the late John Mahoney, and Frasier’s brother Niles Crane, played with flawless fastidiousness by David Hyde Pierce. Niles, in many ways, is the über-Frasier: he’s more respected, more persnickety, has a plusher apartment, and eventually found lasting sitcom love. In another world, he’d be the leading man.

Perhaps the reason Frasier endures is because he is the foil, not the favourite. Jilted at the altar in Cheers, mocked by friends at the bar there and at the radio station in Frasier, the man can be an oaf. He’s a highly educated and articulate psychiatrist with a wondrous baritone and sophisticated tastes, and also an impulsive bungler and self-saboteur falling prey to many insecurities. The psychiatrist really ought to know better, but—perhaps because he’s a stubborn Freudian—his hauteur gets in the way of betterment. For all that refinement, he loves puns too much.

Now, the character has a lot more money and is teaching psychiatry at Harvard, and the most interesting part of the new Frasier is in observing Kelsey Grammer recognisably play Frasier as an old man, still trying too hard, still a misfit. The show isn’t very good, but Frasier is still Frasier, first mentioning an “old polo injury” and then, when pressed, admitting that he “slipped trying on a pair of chinos at the Ralph Lauren store.”

The best thing about the new show may be how it compelled me to dig out my old DVDs. In that first 1993 season, Frasier complains to his father’s Jack Russell terrier. “How I envy you, Eddie,” he groans after one of many high-strung breakups, “The biggest questions you face are ‘Who’s going to walk me?’ ‘Who’s going to feed me.’ I won’t know that kind of joy for another 40 years.”

We are, surreally enough, just 10 years away from that, from seeing Frasier Crane as an octogenarian. The character has grown before the audience’s eyes, across shows made by different creators, and I believe there’s something charming about not getting it right straight off. Like Frasier himself, the show is unable to fit in. He is, however, trying, which is touching. TV comedy has progressed leaps and bounds in the last 20 years, our comedic palate is more refined and exotic, and this 1990s-y remnant jars against modern sensibilities. The new Frasier stands out like a gnarly old recliner sofa, shabby and well past its prime. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get used to it. It doesn’t matter if it matches.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Headliners Only (Netflix) is a comedy special charting the contrasting but highly eventful — and unlikely — careers of Chris Rock and Kevin Hart, friends with very different comedic trajectories and styles. Solid fun, solid laughs. 

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.

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