The Return of “Frasier”

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A new “Frasier” has débuted nearly two decades after the conclusion of the original series, and it moves Kelsey Grammer’s eponymous psychotherapist back to Boston, the city where he was introduced, in 1984, as a minor character on “Cheers.” By the time that show ended, in 1993, Frasier had become a major character, present in most of its episodes; the “Frasier” spinoff began just four months later, and soon became its own pop-cultural phenomenon. The sophistication exuded by its look, feel, and banter was so unusual for a network sitcom that it was often described as “the smartest show on television.”

“Frasier,” in its initial iteration, took place in Seattle, Washington, whose cachet had skyrocketed in the nineteen-nineties with the rise of Microsoft, Starbucks, Nirvana, and films such as Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” and Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle.” Frasier Crane is a divorced, fortysomething, opera- and wine-loving protagonist who has given up his psychiatric practice to host a therapy-themed radio show, and is intent on building a new life in his home town. His efforts are often frustrated by conflicts with his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), a fellow-psychotherapist who behaves even more pompously and fastidiously than Frasier, or with his father, Martin (John Mahoney), a police officer forced into retirement (and cohabitation with Frasier) by a gunshot wound. Together with Daphne (Jane Leeves), at once Martin’s live-in physical therapist and Frasier’s housekeeper, and Roz (Peri Gilpin), the blunt career-woman producer of Frasier’s radio show, these characters constitute the close-knit ensemble at the core of all eleven seasons.

To some extent, “Frasier” has been overshadowed by “Seinfeld,” which, like “Frasier,” was also a hit for NBC, but whose comedic ambitions transformed the sitcom as a genre. “Frasier” perfects the format in its own way, as the descendant of theatrical farce, in which misunderstandings, miscommunications, deceptions, incidents of mistaken identity, and moments of perfectly bad timing pile upon one another until the unstable narrative edifice comes crashing down into a state of normalcy. These stories might have Frasier pretending to be Jewish on Christmas Eve in front of the mother of a girlfriend-of-the-week, or Martin pretending to be gay to avoid being set up with the mother of a woman who catches Frasier’s eye at the opera, or Niles trying to host a dinner party for the neighbors in his prestigious new apartment building even after a talking bird perches immovably on his head. The show’s dedication to this classic form makes it comparatively timeless—apart from the occasional one-liner about subjects like Prozac, “Got Milk?,” Windows 95, and Dolly the sheep—as does its fixation on the venerable art of social climbing.

Frasier and Niles went to prep school together; from there, the former went on to Harvard and Oxford, and the latter to Yale and Cambridge. Though now lavishly credentialled, the two brothers remain the sons of a Seattle policeman—albeit also those of a culture-vulture psychiatrist mother—and in compensation display an anxious aggression about maintaining their standing with the local élite. (Much like the geographically suspect skyline view from Frasier’s condominium, the show’s East Coast-style blue-blood milieu casts doubt on the creators’ familiarity with its ostensible setting—Seattle aristocracy being something of a contradiction in terms.) If dealing with “what happens when you move social classes,” in the words of the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, is “Frasier” ’s most British quality, its use of psychotherapy is its most American one. I once asked a friend who worked on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which ran from the late nineteen-eighties to the mid-nineties, what ties that show to its era. He replied without hesitation, “I was always against putting a therapist on the ship.” “Frasier” reflects the thorough mainstreaming of therapy in American society, the end stage of the process articulated by the sociologist Philip Rieff in his 1966 book, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud.”

“Religious man was born to be saved,” Rieff writes. “Psychological man is born to be pleased,” and the psychotherapist is “his secular spiritual guide.” In this role, Frasier inspires less than perfect confidence. He seems not a healer so much as a patient, just another “therapeutic,” as Rieff puts it, adrift in America’s “anti-culture” of post-religious affluence. (Therein lies the show’s unsubtle central irony: imagine, if you will, a psychotherapist with problems of his own!) “The cultured of this era strive to relate themselves to art as a way of recapturing the experience of the divine in which otherwise they no longer can believe and participate,” Rieff writes, bringing to mind such interests of Frasier’s as his collection of tribal African sculpture. The “cool democratic family of the emergent culture,” Rieff states, has “the modern option of treating first marriages as trial runs—a sort of growing-up period for grown-ups, with children as evidence of the intimate nature of the learning experience.” Frasier’s evidence is Frederick, his son with his ex-wife Lilith, the severely literal-minded psychiatrist played on “Cheers” and “Frasier” (both the original series and its continuation) by Bebe Neuwirth. Left behind in Boston by the divorce that motivates Frasier’s move to Seattle, the young Frederick makes only a smattering of guest appearances throughout the show’s run.

“The growing incidence of divorce, together with the ever-present possibility that any given marriage will end in collapse,” constitutes but one of the destabilizing conditions of late-twentieth-century American society woefully diagnosed by the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch. “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious,” he writes in his 1979 book, “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.” As he saw it, even then, “People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” Anxious, depressed, or at least persistently discontented, the twentieth-century “psychological man,” Lasch adds, enlists therapists as “his principal allies in the struggle for composure; he turns to them in the hope of achieving the modern equivalent of salvation, ‘mental health’ ”—the very thing that Frasier wishes his audience at the end of his radio broadcasts, just before returning to his perpetually disordered private life.

Though Frasier most frequently displays such traits of the Laschian narcissist—not least “the inclination, in our therapeutic age, to dress up moralistic platitudes in psychiatric garb”—they also manifest in the show’s other characters. This is in keeping with Lasch’s perception of a society whose former communitarian rigors have been made obsolete by increasingly complex technological comforts and systems of social control, in which “narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone.” By the nineties, those social conditions and the personalities they produced had led to the materially comfortable, but socially and psychologically unmoored, end-of-history existence—and the uneasy pleasure-seeking of its inhabitants—comedically interpreted not just by “Frasier” but also, each at its own level, by “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

All three of those sitcoms take place in ersatz urban environments, but only “Frasier” makes a running joke of urbanity. The show’s favorite objects of ridicule are its central characters, Frasier and Niles, whose oft-thwarted pursuits of their desiderata—women, prominence in their wine club, membership at an exclusive spa, evidence of their descent from the House of Romanov, a non-disastrous dinner party—underscore that their refinement, taste, erudition, and tailoring count, ultimately, for nothing. This holds true even in the domain of repartee, where, backed by professional television writers, Frasier’s curmudgeonly father, brassy radio producer, and dotty housekeeper (who enters into a kind of upstairs-downstairs romance with Niles after an astonishing seven seasons of buildup) become his equals, and often his betters, fulfilling an abiding Anglo-American instinct turned duty by deflating what they see as the Crane brothers’ pretensions. The harder that Frasier and Niles try to attain social rank, the more “Frasier,” a product of the (perhaps wishfully) egalitarian Zeitgeist of the nineteen-nineties, implicitly insists that no such thing really exists—and, even if it did, only cartoonish, out-of-touch snobs would care about it.

There are viewers today who will applaud the humiliations of the financially comfortable Cranes as comedic “punching up.” They may also enjoy the undercurrent of philistinism in this onetime “smartest show on TV,” heard in the hollowness of its frequent cultural references. “Frasier” ’s jokes about Rachmaninoff, “Mourning Becomes Electra,” or the Guggenheim Bilbao demand no more than brand-name familiarity with their referents. Frasier’s having graduated from Harvard and Niles from Yale isn’t an illustration of the difference between the Harvard man and the Yale man but just another aspect of the brothers’ programmatic mirror-image rivalry; so is Frasier’s being a Freudian and Niles a Jungian, which I suspect has less to do with those specific psychoanalytic philosophies than with the fact that Freud and Jung are the two psychoanalysts of whom everyone has heard.

That rivalry is absent from the new “Frasier,” with David Hyde Pierce having elected not to return as Niles. The death of John Mahoney, in 2018, robbed the revival of another beloved character, the Crane brothers’ proudly proletarian father; an audience surrogate, Martin regarded his sons with supercilious incomprehension from his lumpy recliner, beer in hand. Niles’s function has been partly assumed by his equally fastidious, ineffectual, and un-self-aware teen-age son, David, and Martin’s has been taken over by Frederick Crane, now grown into a thirtysomething Boston firefighter with a taste for air hockey and off-brand whiskey. (Suitably enough, the role has gone to Jack Cutmore-Scott, who, like Mahoney, is an Englishman playing American with near-parodic forcefulness.) This restores the blue-collar-versus-white-collar dynamic, just one of the elements of the old series carried straight over into the new one.

Though the “Frasier” of the nineties tastefully subverted or entirely dispensed with such sitcom conventions as the theme song and the topical “very special episode,” it did retain a laugh track. So does the “Frasier” of 2023, and that laugh track still kicks in whenever Frasier speaks a language other than English. This aesthetic continuity, right down to the arch white-on-black intertitles, does invest the show with a now retro appeal: a potentially dangerous strategy for a project like this, as evidenced by the wan, knowing made-for-streaming revivals of other sitcoms such as “Full House,” “Will & Grace,” and “Sex and the City.” All of these shows deploy sheer familiarity to please the existing fan base, which in “Frasier” ’s case seems to demand little more than comfort viewing. “Who else sets the sleep timer on the bedroom TV, and falls asleep to episodes [of] ‘Frasier’?” a popular post on the subreddit dedicated to the show asks.

Still, the rebooted “Frasier” isn’t without ambitions of its own, hinted at in its early episodes. They reveal that Frasier has spent the intervening years hosting a television show in the manner of Dr. Phil, and his subsequent fame-driven recruitment by Harvard’s psychology department sets the stage for a potentially Laschian indictment of higher education’s debasement into a consumer product. And though Frasier’s dress sense has apparently been in free fall (fans have voiced dismay at his new penchant for jeans and Silicon Valley sneakers), Grammer’s ability to play him is startlingly undiminished. This will please viewers to whom Frasier has become a friend, bombastic and wayward but ultimately well intentioned, over these past four therapeutically inflected decades. He maintained his savoir-faire, to say nothing of his amour propre, through the prosperous frivolity of the nineties, and if he can manage to do the same amid the stern but brittle seriousness of the twenty-twenties—and on a university campus, no less—his place in the pantheon of sitcom heroes will be assured. ♦


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