Like many of you, I have been following coverage of the potential upcoming revival of Frasier with equal parts enthusiasm, curiosity, and ... well, concern.
Frasier was more than just a very popular TV sitcom. Dr. Frasier Crane, the insufferable psychologist turned radio shrink, is the single most enduring sitcom character in American television history. He strolled into the Cheers bar at the beginning of Season 3 as a short-term love interest for Shelley Long’s Diane. He wound up walking out with the whole gang on the final Cheers in 1993 and right into his own eponymous show.
On Frasier, he spent 11 seasons being upstaged by his neurotic, allergy-laden younger brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce). That’s 20 years as one character. Ozzie Nelson may have appeared in more episodes of his sitcom, but as Jack Paar said when told that Steve Allen had written more than 5,000 songs, “Name two.”
Today on The Overlooked, I’ll give you a dozen memorable episodes of Frasier you can enjoy this weekend and decide for yourself if a revival of this classic comedy is a good idea.
Frasier was basically America’s Britcom — a roomful of well-heeled characters trading highbrow insults and getting themselves into outlandish capers. Beautifully written, with a tight, talented ensemble, Frasier won 37 Emmy Awards, the most ever until Game of Thrones came along. Even more impressive is the fact that unlike actual Britcoms (or Game of Thrones), it followed a punishing production schedule of 24 episodes per season, for a total of 264 half-hours.
Two questions come to mind about this show now that a revival is in the works. First, how did they keep the quality going for so long? And can they do it again? Or to put it more harshly — has Frasier’s time come and gone? Comedy has undergone a bit of a shakeup since the 1990s, after all. Politics, the rise of women’s voices, and the demise of the live-studio-audience sitcom would all seem to be arguments against bringing back a male-centric comedy filmed before a live audience.
To answer that question, I went back to what is arguably the most overlooked of Frasier’s 11 seasons on NBC: the fourth, which aired at 9 p.m. Wednesdays from September 1996 to May 1997. That season, the show’s audience bottomed out at a mere 18 million viewers per episode. Back before DVRs, one’s lead-in mattered a great deal, and Frasier’s 8:30 p.m. lead-in that year was the forgettable (and ironically named) Something So Right. Creatively, though, the show was hitting on all cylinders — or as Niles might say, they nailed every aria.
Season 4, Episode 1, “The Two Mrs. Cranes.”
The best way to explain Frasier’s success is that the planets aligned. An established comedic character was matched with four bete noirs — besides Niles (whose casting was entirely fortuitous), there was their crotchety dad Martin (the late John Mahoney), Dad’s British caregiver Daphne (Jane Leeves), and Frasier’s radio producer Roz (Peri Gilpin) — resulting in a seemingly infinite number of uncomfortably funny permutations for the show’s writers to play with.
In the season opener, Daphne is visited by an old flame who wants to reunite. Niles, as always doing a terrible job of hiding his interest in Daphne, informs her ex that he and Daphne are married. That sets off a fabulous chain reaction of can-you-top-this lies that eventually ensnares Roz, who conveniently walks in mid-episode. You know it’s all going to end very badly, but that’s the deal with farce: it kills you anyway.
Season 4, Episode 7, “A Lilith Thanksgiving.”
Frasier flies the whole family to Boston so that he and ex-wife Lilith (fellow Cheers alum Bebe Neuwirth) can personally lobby the headmaster of a toney prep school to admit their boy Frederick. Slyly underscoring the fact that this is all about them, Frasier and Lilith come and go from the house oblivious to the fact that their boy is suffering mightily in the care of his uncle and grandpa. You’ll never laugh harder at the misery of a child.
The episode is also notable for how the writers take advantage of our familiarity with Lilith. When she asks Niles to take over turkey-roasting, he replies, “I think I can fumble my way through. How far along are you?”
“I’m nearly done defrosting,” Lilith says — and immediately the studio audience starts to titter.
“And the turkey?” says Niles, right on beat. Lilith and Niles exchange comically sour faces as they wait for the laughter to clear.
Then Lilith fires back, “Might I suggest you stuff it?” Twenty seconds, three big laughs.
Season 4, Episode 9, “Dad Loves Sherry, the Boys Just Whine.”
Titles are very important in Frasierdom; even the acts within the show have them. Not only is the title of Episode 9 a bad pun but, given the writers’ penchant for referencing earlier jokes, it’s almost certainly a nod to Episode 1, when Martin explained that his army buddies have nicknames like Jim and Bud because that’s what they drink.
Anyway, this is the episode where Martin dumps his old girlfriend Maureen (Jane Kaczmarek) in favor of a brassy bartender named Sherry (Marsha Mason). She is everything the boys are not — loud, shameless, a lover of banjos and Cold Duck — so naturally, Martin wants to bring her everywhere, including a fancy dinner in honor of Niles. Though not the strongest episode of the bunch, this one gives you a taste for how much storyline Frasier’s writers could pack into 22 minutes.
Season 4, Episode 10, “Liar! Liar!”
Speaking of 22 minutes, when I was at the Kansas City Star I once caught a local station surreptitiously using what was known as a TV time machine to speed up reruns of Frasier. I clocked one episode at just 19 minutes, leaving the remaining 11 minutes for the station to fill with ads. Not for nothing was broadcast TV once known as a license to print money.
This fast-moving episode begins with a philosophical discussion over whether it is ever morally proper to tell falsehoods and ends with Frasier in a sleazy apartment fearing for his life.
Season 4, Episode 11, “Three Days of the Condo”
In one sense, Frasier will be impossible to repeat. Like landline phones, AM radio, and coffee shops with table service — all part of the show’s firmament — it harkens back to a different time, to which there is no going back. Even Chuck Lorre, the king of multi-camera comedies, has gone single-camera.
This episode is from a time when condominium boards could make a person’s life into a living hell and when viewers could be trusted to identify a Deep Throat reference from All the President’s Men. It still holds up.
Season 4, Episode 12, “Death and the Dog”
This one takes the form of a flashback, as Frasier deals with a slow day on the air by telling the story of how Eddie the dog came down with a severe case of “depression” that required the hiring of a “dog psychiatrist.”
If you saw this episode before, you doubtless remember how it ends; I did, 20 years later, a rare achievement for me. This may be the ultimate test of a comedy — is it still a hoot even though the outcome is known? The answer here is an emphatic yes.
Season 4, Episode 13, “Four for the Seesaw”
Megan Mullally guest-stars as a kitchen designer who along with her girlfriend (Lisa Darr) have eyes for Frasier and Niles. The final scene in a cabin in the woods plays out with sublime pitch and timing.
Speaking of Megan Mullally, I was sampling the in-flight entertainment on American Airlines recently, and it didn’t take me five minutes to figure out why the Will & Grace revival was screening on American Airlines flights. It’s terrible.
Season 4, Episode 14, “To Kill a Talking Bird”
Every talking-bird joke you’ve ever seen is hilariously recycled here when Niles improbably brings home a cockatoo.
By now you may have noticed it’s more convenient for you to just watch Season 4 on autoplay, since I’ve recommended six episodes in a row. Normally I object to the mind-dulling practice of letting the streamer serve up show after show, but really, you could keep the Frasiers coming right up through...
Season 4, Episode 18, “Ham Radio”
One of the show’s secret weapons — its supporting cast — shines in this episode where Frasier stages an old radio drama for KACL’s anniversary and enlists everyone in sight for what is obviously a fine idea about to go horribly awry.
KACL’s restaurant critic, Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert) — whose name is one of countless literary references the show’s writers loved to drop in — is fabulous as he grapples with Frasier over a single line in the script.
The station’s sports loudmouth, “Bulldog” Briscoe (Dan Butler), also makes an appearance. In later seasons Bulldog was made a regular; you see him now on Frasier cast pictures. But there are only five humans on the Season 4 DVD box cover, plus a dog, and it’s not Bulldog. In my opinion, a little Bulldog goes a long way.
So there you have it, 12 reasons why the Frasier revival is almost certainly going to fall short of expectations. Or will it? Very few people are going to do what you and I have done, binge-watching these classic shows. Unlike Friends, which Netflix recently paid top dollar to keep as a streaming exclusive, Frasier reruns are available pretty much everywhere, a sign of how little demand there is for them.
I’m sure Kelsey Grammer and CBS (which owns Paramount and thus Frasier) will find test audiences in Las Vegas who will love the idea of him and the other surviving cast members getting back together. People also love an indie film when it debuts at Sundance. And then what?
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.