“Frasier” was a paragon of warm, clever comedy

FRASIER CRANE’S life is not going to plan. Almost as soon as he has started afresh in Seattle, his father Martin (John Mahoney) suffers a debilitating hip injury and moves in with him to convalesce (a retirement home—which offers care “so you don’t have to”—has been vetoed by guilt-ridden relatives). Martin brings with him his scruffy dog Eddie, Daphne (Jane Leeves), an eccentric live-in physiotherapist and, worst of all, a hideous sludge-green armchair. The dream of a carefree existence in a stylish high-rise bachelor pad has faded before Frasier’s eyes. But life’s unpredictable twists happen for a reason, or so the saying goes, and there were plenty of them in the 11 seasons of “Frasier”. Premiering 25 years ago on September 16th 1993, the show’s blend of dark humour and warmth made it one of the most successful sitcoms of all time.

It began as a spin-off of “Cheers”, a comedy set in a bar in Boston, which ran from 1982 to 1993. Kelsey Grammer was persuaded to reprise his role as Frasier on the condition that his character had divorced and changed profession from a psychiatrist to a radio talk-show therapist. There were plenty of other changes to distinguish it from its forebear. Joining Frasier’s new life is Niles (David Hyde Pierce), his younger brother and antagonist who thinks that “a sketchy neighbourhood is when the cheese shop doesn’t have valet parking”, and Roz (Peri Gilpin), his no-nonsense colleague and confidante. The motley crew created fertile ground for comedy as characters chafed and chimed with each other. But heartwarming moments also abounded as they showed insight and kindness.

Though its format may be standard sitcom stuff, “Frasier” was not afraid to take risks. Both Frasier and Niles are out-of-touch, preening, snobby and childishly competitive: an entire episode revolves around the brothers vying for membership of an exclusive gentleman’s club. They delight in long arguments over wine, fashion and philosophy, and take themselves so seriously that their whole outlook invites ridicule. Their idea of a zinging put-down is “Copernicus called, it turns out you’re not the centre of the universe!” They are, in short, the antithesis of cool.

Yet they are still likeable, and it is a testament to the writers’ skill that they found a way to make the audience relate to the characters. It was a time before the term “metrosexual” had been coined, and when most shows were led by Average Joes like Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli in “Happy Days” or Sam Malone in “Cheers”. Supporting characters were deployed to balance out the brothers’ most excessive pretensions. Niles’s kindness—particularly to his ex-wife, Maris, despite her abominable behaviour—and his infatuation with Daphne (one of the great will-they-won’t-they storylines) invited sympathy.

Their pomposity was constantly undermined in satisfying ways, particularly by Roz. When Frasier rambles about where the best wine corks in the world come from, she quips that she wishes she “had a cork right now”. Martin provided another counterweight, discussing the tactics of his beloved Seahawks over a beer and mocking his sons’ lack of sporting aptitude. The alchemy of the cast was carefully wrought; there was a range of comic styles to suit viewers.

Today, “Frasier” would be criticised for its lack of racial diversity and its occasionally uncomfortable jokes—particularly a long-running gag about Maris’s eating disorder—but it was ahead of its time in some ways. Roz became something of a feminist icon, openly discussing her sexuality and decrying society’s unfair expectations of women. In an early episode she explains her hatred for family reunions. “My relatives crowd around me and I answer the same questions. No, I’m not married. No, I don’t have any kids. Yes, I still have that tattoo. No, y’can’t see it,” she says. “It would just be so nice if I could at least say: ‘I have a great career.’” She works hard and forges her own path, themes which resonate even more strongly with young women today.  

A quarter of a century on, it is difficult to look back at the “Frasier” era without a hint of nostalgia. In 2004, the year that both “Frasier” and “Friends” ended, NBC moved “The Apprentice” to the coveted Thursday night slot originally reserved for sitcoms; shouty finger-pointing replaced witticisms and wisecracks. With reruns, distribution on Netflix and even some speculation of a reboot, it is clear that audiences still demand the sort of intelligent and heartfelt comedy that “Frasier” provided.

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