We call in to Seattle to see everyone’s favourite radio psychiatrist. Are the Cranes still flying high?
Frasier has been called the “Mercedes of sitcoms,” and it’s tough to really argue with that assessment after revisiting the long-running spin-off to Cheers. Eleven seasons, more Emmy’s than you can count, and a beloved cast are testament to that, but it’s easy to forget how much this show revolutionised what was capable with the archaic three-camera setup. Here’s an American comedy with no shortage of brains or wit, showing up modern alternatives for the shallow pretenders they are. Really, only the likes of Parks & Rec or even Arrested Development have been able to follow its comedic greatness, and they didn’t have to perform before a live studio audience.
With the series currently getting repeats thanks to Channel 4’s morning lineup and a new Kevin Smith podcast devoted to it, the time seemed right for me to dust off the exploits of Kelsey Grammer’s Dr. Frasier Crane. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I soon remembered how hilarious this show is and why I prefer it over the same era’s Seinfeld. This is smart humour that actually assumes you’re intelligent enough to get it, and has a great deal of warmth behind its “snobby” exterior. The pilot, originally broadcast all the way back in 1994, is amazingly perfect. “The Good Son” is pretty much a textbook example of how to debut a series of this sort, setting up the world and the core cast so efficiently that we feel like we’ve known these people forever. It’s all the more amazing when you consider that it took a total two hours to film. That nearly sums up the consummate professionalism of Frasier.
Cold, rainy Seattle is where we find Dr. Crane, now putting his psychiatry expertise to good use with a radio talk show on KACL. Though lamenting the amount of time he spent in a certain Boston pub, this reinvigorated Frasier seems a lot happier now. He’s divorced from icy cold Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) and living in a cosmopolitan apartment almost too good to be true (at least Frasier has a fancy job to explain it away, unlike the combined cast of Friends). However, his newfound zen is about to be shattered when his brother, fellow psychiatrist Niles (the amazing David Hyde Pierce), talks him into providing a home for their father, Martin (the equally-amazing John Mahoney), an ex-cop retired after taking a bullet. Instead of putting the stubborn old git into a nursing home, Frasier relents and has to endure his dad’s signature, tattered armchair destroying his pad’s “eclectic” style, not to mention his dog Eddie, a mutt with an almost supernatural-level IQ. This canine (originally played by Moose and later Enzo) pretty much became the show’s mascot, and it’s hard not to fall in love with the uber-talented pooch who knows how to spell and delights in making Frasier’s life a misery.
Making matters worse for Frasier’s bachelor lifestyle is the need for a live-in physio therapist for Crane Sr., resulting in the hiring of Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), an eccentric Brit who claims to be psychic. She’s also an object of lust for Niles, who falls head over heels in love with her. This is in spite of his marriage to the never-seen Maris (a reference to Norm’s talked-about wife on Cheers), a figure exaggerated to such an extent that the producers conceded that no real actress could ever play her. Niles’ twisted off-screen love life and his, um, mooning for Daphne is one of the show’s most drawn-out comedic conceits, but damn if the brilliant Pierce – cast primarily because of his resemblance to a youthful Grammer – doesn’t take the ball and run with it. Niles starts out as a soundboard for his brother’s daily woes and slowly becomes the lead’s equal due to peerless timing and a handling of physical comedy that Charlie Chaplin himself would approve. Just checkout this legendary clip from the Grammer-directed “Three Valentines,” in which the younger Crane makes ironing a pair of trousers look like Mission: Impossible.
Then there’s everyone at the radio station, spearheaded by Frasier’s producer, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), a lady who will sleep with anything that moves and provides a caustic counterbalance to her boss’ stuffiness. She also grows to be a dear friend to our lead as they suffer through a million-and-a-one callers to Frasier’s therapeutic talk show (usually voiced by celebrities literally phoning in their performances). Then there’s recurring third-stringers such as the hotheaded sports correspondent Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe (Dan Butler), effeminate restaurant critic Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert), and Star Trek-obsessed techie Noel Shempsky (Patrick Kerr). Not to mention the never-ending procession of station managers that often threaten the group’s job security. Frasier most definitely rivals its predecessor for the amount of colourful characterisations, stopping what is essentially a theatre-friendly collection of dialogue exchanges and pratfalls from becoming boring. Whether the action is limited to Frasier’s condo, KACL or his personal Shangri-La, Café Nervosa, the ensemble keeps us laughing along.
It would have been all too easy to make Frasier a carbon copy of Cheers, or even cast one of that show’s other personalities in support, but creators David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee ensured that they were very different shows. Apart from Lilith’s understandable appearances and the odd guest spot for the likes of Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson, they didn’t lean on our nostalgia for Cheers. Frasier, as befitting the character’s occupation, is a much more thoughtful, dare I say cultured effort that covers just about every social or mental dilemma possible in the 264 episodes produced. I mean, just compare our lead to Danson’s salt of the earth ladies’ man Sam Malone; the good Doctor is a little bit pompous, arrogant and rarely successful with women. This specific outlook therefore colours the spin-off and makes the two distinct. Which isn’t to say Frasier can’t be farcical like its predecessor. Grammer’s Doc may be smarter than almost everyone in the room, but he still gets himself into a myriad of ridiculous and embarrassing situations that are consistently side-splitting. Really, we shouldn’t like this pretentious oaf, but we know he means well and we love seeing him taken down a peg or two. The show straddles that fine line between intellectualism and slapstick wonderfully.
The cast is the main reason to watch Frasier, just like any sitcom worth its salt. They all play their characters to a tee, but unlike a good many shows in this wheelhouse, they are allowed to grow over time. Grammer is the rock as our title hero, and while he doesn’t change too much as a protagonist, he certainly grows wiser and more understanding. This softening is brought on by his father, and both Grammer and Mahoney delight in playing the evolving nature of their relationship. It’s also worth noting that two of our main characters hook up around the season seven mark (no surprises there), forever changing the dynamic of the show and shifting it one step closer to being a true family saga. The right title for this series would have been The Cranes, but maybe they got cold feet after the failure of previous Cheers tie-in The Tortellis.
Many have opined that the show starts to lose some steam around the season 8 mark, and how could it not? While a slight dip is readily apparent (perhaps due to real-life tragedy), it never lose its ability to entertain and is all but redeemed in time for season 11. Even weak Frasier is better than most of the sitcoms currently on television, and I’m happy to report that I never once saw an unwatchable episode in the combined eleven seasons. Frasier has aged gracefully, remaining a warm hug of a TV show that is by turns smart, witty, dramatic, thoughtful, and above all else, hilarious. If this isn’t the greatest spin-off of all time, what is?
- Kelsey Grammer used an acting method that he called “requisite disrespect.” He would rehearse each scene only once and he would not learn his lines until moments before each scene was shot. Grammer felt that his method brought energy and realism to his performance. The cast and crew got used to it but guest stars did not like his method.
- David Hyde Pierce has said that, prior to this series, he had no strong interest in either wine or opera. Ironically, he was introduced to both by John Mahoney, whose Martin Crane character eschews anything cultured.
Each season of the show can be distinguished by the color of “Frasier” in the opening title frame. In order: blue, pink, green, purple, yellow/white, brown, yellow/orange, bright/neon green, orange, silver, gold.
In the 11th season, guest star Laurie Metcalf, playing Frasier’s first wife, Nanette, asked him, “Do you know what it’s like to play the same character for twenty years?” Grammer had been playing Frasier Crane since 1984.