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Revisiting the Frasier Pilot: What Stuck and What Got Dropped?

The soon-to-be revived 90s sitcom arrived more fully formed than most.
  • John Mahoney, Jane Leeves, Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce and Peri Gilpin in an early promotional photo for Frasier. (Photo: NBC)
    John Mahoney, Jane Leeves, Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce and Peri Gilpin in an early promotional photo for Frasier. (Photo: NBC)

    Everything good has to start somewhere, and for beloved TV shows, that usually means the pilot episode. Often written and filmed long before the rest of the series, and subject to tinkering by networks and creators before the show can continue, the TV pilot is a fascinating creature.  In this recurring feature at Primetimer, we look back at the first episodes of some of the most culturally sticky TV shows in recent memory and see how their initial offerings hold up.

    Frasier Crane is the longest-running sitcom character in history, having appeared in eight seasons of Cheers and eleven seasons of Frasier, with guest appearances on both Wings and The John Larroquette Show. Earlier this year Paramount+ announced that it’s reviving both the character and the show that carried his name.

    As of this writing, however, only Kelsey Grammer is on board the revival, and it’s hard to imagine Frasier without Niles, Daphne, or Roz — and really difficult to conceive of the show without Martin Crane. (John Mahoney died in 2018.) How exactly Frasier will be cast or reimagined remains to be seen.

    Thankfully, the characters are all together, forever, in eleven seasons on Frasier — and have been that way since the pilot. As far as first episodes of sitcoms go, this one is just about perfect: almost everything that was part of Frasier’s legacy is there from episode one. It’s not the funniest episode of the series, but it has comedic and emotional moments, and does an excellent job of setting up the dynamics that were central to the series' success.

    THE SHOW: Frasier
    THE EPISODE: "The Good Son"
    AIR DATE: Sept. 16, 1993

    The Plot

    “The Good Son” opens with most of the pieces already in place. Frasier didn’t introduce us to Frasier Crane, of course — Cheers did that in season three — but it does need to help us understand what he’s doing now. Six months have passed since Frasier left Boston and Cheers (the bar, and the series) and moved to Seattle. His father and brother both live there, and he now has a new job as a radio host. Still, it's very much a sitcom pilot in that it sets up the situation that will be mined for comedy. Niles briefly suggests to his brother that they find a Shady Pines-like home for their father, who’s suffering from a hip injury as a result of being shot in the line of duty. Instead, Frasier’s father, Martin Crane, and Martin’s home healthcare worker, Daphne Moon, both move into Frasier’s bachelor pad.

    The pilot needs to get Martin and Daphne into Frasier’s luxury apartment, but it doesn’t stop there: that sparks conflict between Frasier and Martin, and introduces the father-son dynamic that will continue to be the center of the entire series. Frasier mined comedy from Marty and Frasier’s strained relationship, and from a father who’s very different from his pompous sons. But it also gave attention to the love they shared, and that’s right there at the end of the pilot, when Marty calls into Frasier’s show. They don’t resolve their differences, but they do resolve to stay connected.

    Show Thesis on Display

    The episode allows Frasier to introduce both the show and its central idea, and uses Frasier’s radio show for both. Frasier first catches the audience up by using his own life as an example for the show’s second caller:

    “Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful; then she came back to me, which was excruciating. On top of that, my practice had grown stagnant, and my social life consisted of hanging around a bar night after night. You see, I was clinging to a life that wasn’t working any more, and I knew that I had to do something — anything. So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my hometown of Seattle — go Seahawks. I took action, Russell, and you can too.”

    And at the end of the episode, after his conversation with Marty, he delivers the real thesis to another caller:

    “You’re mourning the loss of what you thought your life was going to be. Let it go. Things don’t always work out how you plan; that’s not necessarily bad. Things have a way of working out anyway.”

    The audience laughs after he says “that’s not necessarily bad,” and it’s a prescient laugh, as so much of the series will get comedy from Frasier’s expectations blowing up in his face.

    Rough Edges

    Frasier’s pilot is remarkably polished, and there’s very little that’s wonky compared to the rest of the series.

    The title cards that introduce scenes throughout the series are present in the pilot, although here they’re just nouns that introduce characters and components of the series: “The Job,” “The Brother,” “the Father,” “Eddie.” Later, those become puns or references.

    While the geography of sitcom sets can be wonky, Frasier’s apartment makes logical sense, but there is a room change between the pilot and subsequent episodes. Martin Crane moves into the guest room, which is off to our left, and in the pilot, Marty suggests Daphne can move into the room across the hall, which is Frasier’s beloved study. In the rest of the series, however, Daphne’s room is on the opposite side of the apartment, past the piano and kitchen, while Frasier and Marty’s rooms are behind the fireplace. Whether the writers changed their minds or that was a choice made by the characters is not mentioned.

    There From the Jump

    Basically everything. It’s stunning how fully-formed both the show and the characters are. Frasier and Niles’ sniping banter, and their arms-length relationship with their father, feel very lived in. Even the show’s signature elements are present, such as the use of celebrities as callers to Frasier’s radio show. That’s not something that arose with the show’s popularity, but right there in the credits: Linda Hamilton (two years after Terminator 2: Judgment Day) calls in as Claire, who’s crying about a break-up, and Griffin Dunne is Russell from Kirkland, who’s depressed and gets cut off by Frasier, who has to wrap up his show. The celebrity callers are acknowledged in the episode’s credits, and every season finale’s credits includes their names and photos with a “Thanks for calling” title card.

    Dropped Entirely

    Nothing major from the pilot is dropped. Even small, potentially throwaway character quirks or moments, such as Daphne’s psychic abilities and Eddie’s staring, get attention.

    While the core cast is introduced, there are some key supporting characters missing, including sexist talk show host Bulldog (played by Dan Butler) and delightfully shrewd agent Bebe Glazer (played by Harriet Sansom Harris). Behind the scenes, there was a major change: Lisa Kudrow was originally cast as Roz, but it’s Peri Gilpin in the pilot. (Kudrow went on to Friends a year later.)

    There’s also a key part of Niles’ character missing: His lust for Daphne, and his sanctimonious slut-shaming of Roz. Those are missing from the pilot because he doesn’t meet either character. He does, however, talk about Maris, who we don’t see.

    About the only major thing that’s dropped — and this isn’t obvious in the pilot itself — was the writers’ and creators’ intention to have Maris be an actual character. Maris’s character is established when Frasier says, “Maris is like the sun, except without the warmth.” But Maris never appears. Co-creator David Lee told Yahoo TV, “When David [Angell], Peter [Casey], and I were writing the pilot, we thought, ‘Let’s pull a fast one on the audience and make them think that we’re going to do a thing like Norm’s wife, Vera, in Cheers, where he talk about her but you never see her. Let’s do that for a few episodes, and then surprise — we’re actually going to see her, so we weren’t ripping off that Cheers thing after all.’

    The Set(s)

    Besides the radio studio, the primary set is Frasier’s spectacular Seattle apartment, with its impossible view of the Space Needle and skyline, and his designer furniture. Frasier actually gives Martin a verbal tour of the set, saying that “every item here was carefully selected,” such as the Eames lounge chair and the same kind of couch Coco Chanel had in Paris. Martin points out that “nothing matches,” and Frasier insists, “It’s a style of decorating. It’s called eclectic.”

    The only major change that occurs is part of the plot: the addition of Martin Crane’s now-iconic recliner, with vertical stripes through its garish yellow-green fabric, and, of course, its duct tape patches.

    Where to Watch

    All 11 seasons of Frasier are available for streaming on Hulu and Paramount+. Wondering where to start? Let Primetimer's Aaron Barnhart be your guide.

    Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and teacher who reviews and reports about reality TV at reality blurred.

    TOPICS: Frasier, Cheers, David Hyde Pierce, David Lee, Griffin Dunne, Jane Leeves, John Mahoney, Kelsey Grammer, Linda Hamilton, Lisa Kudrow, Peri Gilpin