It’s funny how TV shows can be forgotten. “Murphy Brown”, a sitcom starring Candace Bergen about a tough TV journalist ran for ten seasons (1988-1998), yet is practically forgotten. When was the last time you saw it repeated? Yet this was a popular show that was well known and well watched for most of its broadcast life and is, curiously, looking at a reboot(!).
“Frasier” hasn’t quite been forgotten. It is repeated on satellite channels, and still has its fans. But it never quite received the heights of pop culture endorsement that “Friends” did.
For the benefit of those who don’t know the show well, “Frasier” ran for 11 seasons from 1993-2004. It’s a spin off from “Cheers”, which was a massive sitcom which also ran for 11 years from 1982-1993. “Cheers”, set in a Boston bar, was a huge ratings winner, very much “must see TV”. People stayed home to watch the finale, and it made the careers of many, including Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Shelley Long, and of course Kelsey Grammar who started out as a minor character, Dr Frasier Crane.
Like many, I was surprised when I first heard that the “Cheers” spin-off would be Frasier, as he was not a particularly loved character. Indeed, most “Cheers” fans would have expected if there was to be a spin-off it would be of the two greatly-loved barfly philosophers, Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin.
But the producers had been right: Norm & Cliff would have been a “Cheers” carry-on, whereas “Frasier” told a whole new story about Frasier returning home to Seattle to work as a radio psychiatrist and live with his working-class father Martin (John Mahoney) and see his prissy brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce).
As a concept, it could easily have been a one season experiment that didn’t work. Remember the “Friends” spin-off “Joey”? No? Good for you.
But “Frasier” worked, on an extraordinary level. The cast worked on an ensemble level which was not dissimilar to “The West Wing”, where characters and actors gelled together almost perfectly. You believed this was a family. All five main characters could communicate with a single look.
The scripts were sharp, swinging from cultural zingers to almost slapstick physical West end farce comedy. Just watch David Hyde Pierce’s Mr Bean style brilliance in the episode “Three Valentines” where he nearly burns the apartment down. “The Ski Lodge” is another, almost “Noises Off” in its door slamming mania.
Whilst the scripts were very strong, what really made “Frasier” work were its cast, and the fact that for sitcom characters there was surprising depth. Frasier was a man of great charm and erudition, yet in perpetual mid-life crisis, essentially lonely. Niles was wracked with indecision between staying in a cold but socially ascendant marriage with his bullying (never seen) wife Maris and his genuine hidden love for Daphne. Martin was the old style blue collar father struggling with his own aging, his sons’ social notions and the fact that he still missed his dead wife. The two women in the main cast, Daphne and Roz, were if anything underwritten and as a result even more of a credit to the two actresses who played them, Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin.
The show was also hugely aided by a string of brilliantly cast recurring secondary characters such as Dan Butler’s boorish Bulldog Briscoe, Harriet Sansom Harris’ brilliantly amoral and coquettish agent Bebe Glazer (a running joke was that she was the devil), or Edward Hibbert’s snooty food critic Gil Chesterton.
As to the claim that “Frasier” is the greatest (English language) sit-com, I can think of a dozen sit-coms that could make a play for the title, from “Porridge” to “Father Ted” to “Only Fools and Horses” or “One Foot in the Grave”. Yes, “Seinfeld” was great.
But’s here’s why I think “Frasier wins:
1. It hasn’t really aged. Unlike “Murphy Brown”, which was so full of current political references as to destroy it in syndication. It’s about a family, and about men getting older and looking for love.
2. It maintained a consistent quality over 11 seasons and 264 episodes.
3. It’s non-comedic elements were genuinely moving, such as the relationship between Daphne and Niles and the revelation (spoiler alert!) that Frasier and Niles’s sainted mother Hester had cheated on Martin.
If I were to be trapped on an island with one boxset, “Frasier” would be it.