Originally I had planned on exploring stories from different mediums from week to week rather than discussing TV shows two entries in a row, but since John Mahoney just passed away, it’s a good reason to write about the show that made up so much of his career.
Now, in my last post I praised The Good Place for taking serialized television to new, exciting extremes. Frasier, in contrast, is largely episodic, and it contains many other features of traditional sitcoms — a studio audience, generally predictable plot structures, and characters and situations that remain mostly static from one episode to the next (though there was naturally some change and development over the course of eleven seasons). Having said all that, the show manages to provide plenty of excellent and entertaining television within those confines. There’s nothing inherently inferior about episodic TV; it’s just a different kind of storytelling.
Let’s look at what makes the show stand out from the average sitcom of its era. There are a few subtle ways the showrunners tweaked the conventions. For example, they replaced the usual “song with opening credits” with a brief instrumental title sequence — common nowadays, but very rare in 90s TV. Instead, the theme song “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs” plays over the closing credits along with a wordless final scene, usually the visual punchline of something established earlier. And rather than establishing shots, each scene begins with a title card of a cryptic word or phrase that makes sense once you’ve watched the subsequent scene. It rewards the viewers for paying attention, which is always a nice feeling as an audience member.
Going beyond the more superficial innovations, Frasier is noteworthy primarily for its memorable characters and their dynamic interplay. It’s easy to forget that it began as a spin-off of Cheers, the 80s sitcom set in a bar in Boston — a well-made show in its own right (which coincidentally launched the career of Ted Danson, who happens to play Michael on The Good Place), but with a very different set of characters and situations. They took Frasier Crane, Kelsey Grammer’s snooty psychiatrist who was the oddball among the blue-collar type figures population the bar in Cheers, and re-centered him as the main character of his own show. Then they created a brother for him, Niles, who was somehow even more Frasier-ish than Frasier himself. A show with two elitist snobs as the main characters? Would that even be watchable?
But it works, and here’s why. First off, the show pokes gentle fun at the Crane boys’ snobbery, portraying them as humorously flawed but still sympathetic. There is also a delightful exploration of their endless sibling rivalry (highlights include the episodes “Author, Author” and “IQ”). Secondly, the rest of the main characters provide a counterpoint to the elitist side of things. Their father, Martin, is a former policeman, forced to retire after being injured while stopping a robbery. His live-in physical therapist, Daphne Moon, is a sweet but spacey working-class girl from England, and Frasier’s radio show is produced by Roz Doyle, a no-nonsense type who’s always ready to respond to Frasier’s pomposity with an eye-roll and a sarcastic quip.
There are TV shows that explore the dynamics of class and wealth, but few of them explore it within the same family. The ongoing clash between Martin and his sons is a fascinating dynamic. He married a psychiatrist, and both his sons followed in her footsteps, with little understanding or patience for the background and culture Martin has come from. There is both humor and pathos in their struggles to get along with one another. One of the changes that does take place over the course of the show is a gentle softening of the tension in their relationships. In first season, they’re barely speaking to each other. Frasier reluctantly asks his father to move in with him because Martin’s injury has made it unsafe for him to live alone, but he’s deeply resentful of the intrusion on his space, perfectly symbolized by Martin’s ratty old chair sitting amid Frasier’s fancy furniture. But by the end of the show, when Martin is moving on to his own place, Frasier finds that his home feels all too empty.
The other noteworthy arc that spans multiple seasons is the story of Niles’s infatuation with Daphne. There was no long-term plan for this from the beginning; it was simply a gag that Niles (played to perfection by David Hyde Pierce) develops an instantaneous crush on his father’s physical therapist while she remains blissfully unaware of it. But as the show goes on, and Niles finally gets out of a miserable marriage with the controlling, eccentric (and never seen on-screen) Maris, the story unfolds in such a way that it’s quite believable for Niles and Daphne to become a happy couple. What I appreciate most about their romance is how the writers explore the aftermath realistically. It’s not all smooth sailing just because they’ve gotten together. One of my favorite episodes is “Daphne Returns,” which cleverly inserts present-day Frasier and Niles into scenes from old episodes as Frasier tries to show his brother how his unrealistic idealization of Daphne has made her skittish about whether she can ever measure up to his fantasies. With one line he sums it up so well: “You were never in love with her; you were in love at her.” That’s good writing.
It’s not a perfect show, of course. There are far too many fat jokes, particularly when Daphne gains a tremendous amount of weight in a plot-line created to cover up the actress’s pregnancy. The gay-themed gags sometimes come across as rather tasteless, all the more if you know that there were two closeted gay men among the cast. There is also an irritating double standard wherein the men, especially Niles, tease Roz for being promiscuous when they’re hardly the sort to turn down any interested woman themselves.
But all of these are common features of TV from that era, for better or worse. What most TV didn’t have was frequent references to obscure classical music and literature, loads of psychiatry-based puns, and brilliant scenes like this, or this or this. And the perfect catchphrase for being offended, uttered with Kelsey Grammer’s inimitable pomposity: “I am WOUNDED.” It’s funny; it’s wry and intelligent; it’s heart-warming without being treacly, and it’s eleven seasons worth of great stories.