TOAlready at the top of the little spin-off line shows that, at least equal to the longevity and legend of the father, Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004) – born to Cheers (NBC, 1982-93) – will look for a place in an even emptier Zócalo: classic series successfully revived after a long time.
Arrested Development in the US and Birds of a Feather and Open All Hours in the UK have made such a comeback, but those shows didn’t have Frasier status. Dusting off the meticulous Seattle-based radio psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammer implies something like the degree of risk of returning to Fawlty Towers, something that its creator, John Cleese, has perhaps always wisely refused to do.
As is often the case with artistic successes, Frasier was not the result of planning, but of happy accidents. Cheers, set among the regulars of a Boston bar, didn’t introduce the character of Dr. Frasier Crane, an arrogant psychiatrist, until the third season; even then it was written for only a few episodes, as the moderator of the faltering marriage of two of the permanent cast. After John Lithgow turned down the role, the producers cast Grammer, at the time a 29-year-old with an emerging reputation in American theater, especially in the work of English playwrights: William Shakespeare, David Hare, and Simon Gray. (There are a number of warm references to the actor in Gray’s volumes of theatrical memoirs that are otherwise often scathing.)
Such was the response from the show’s writers (and later viewers) to Grammer as Frasier, who for the past eight seasons remained a great thinker among heavy drinkers. But surprisingly in terms of what happened next, he remained a relatively minor character.
By the time Cheers ended, it had become common for networks to seek financial compensation for themselves and emotional comfort for audiences by trying products derived from the best shows. The record was mixed. The Korean War medical drama M * A * S * H generated a small hit and two flops; Happy Days had seven children, of which two prospered: Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley.
Even while the Boston bar show was still running, he had tried to grow another golden apple from the tree, but The Tortellis (1987) was canceled after one season. Perhaps that is why Cheers creators James Burrows and Glen and Les Charles were initially wary of a direct narrative continuation after Cheers ended in 1993.
Seeing something special in Grammer, members of the writing team constructed him a role as a paralyzed billionaire who nervously depended on caregivers, but the network turned him down. Going back to the idea of extending Grammer’s previous character, Frasier creators David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee possibly learned from Mork & Mindy, effectively a sci-fi show derived from a nostalgic comedy, which is more likely a second success. with a significant distance from the first. Nervous that if the new show failed, NBC would ask for cameos from Cheers regulars, effectively reconstituting the old show, they put Frasier on the other side of America. That’s how Frasier moved to Seattle, the character’s hometown, where he fled after a divorce and took a job as a radio advice host.
Some narrative sleight of hand was required, since, in the Cheers universe, Frasier had been an orphan only child; but the spinoff gave him a dyspeptic competitive psychiatrist brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), and a sick father, Martin (John Mahoney), who, in the pilot episode, acquired a caregiver, Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves). As Daphne, strangely, hails from North West England, Frasier is striking among the great American sitcoms in her preparatory lines that are delivered with a Mancunian cod accent.
Whereas British sitcoms are often built around catchphrases (“I didn’t get to where I am today,” “Lovely jubbly!”, Etc.), American comedy relies more on catching traits: the haughtiness of Frasier, Niles’s sharpness, Daphne’s (previewed on his behalf) daffiness. These arise not through repetitions of the same phrase, but from new verbal expressions of the central feature. In his second life, Frasier easily adapted to the culture of clips and memes, with multiple compilations of Frasier’s best offensive expressions, Niles’ vicious put-downs, Daphne’s flamboyant Brits, etc.
As Frasier is politically a liberal, this has inevitably caused some amusement, as Grammer’s own loyalty is staunchly Republican and right-wing; has made pro-Trump, pro-Brexit and pro-Putin comments.
But those who find it surprising, or even hypocritical, that actors can play characters outside of their own worldview may be losing the sense of a profession rooted in simulation and psychological exploration. If you dine with Sir Anthony Hopkins, it is unlikely that he will eat his liver and lima beans; still brilliantly portrayed, as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, someone who would.
And regardless of acting ability, the writers, whether deliberately drawing on the gap between Grammer and Frasier, gave the character deep contradictions: a liberal who is a snob about culture and decor, an expert on relationships. who fights with family and lovers. Much of the best comedy involves people who don’t adapt to what they do: Captain Mainwaring is unofficial class, Basil Fawlty lacks manners for hospitality, David Brent can’t handle his own career. In Cheers and Frasier, the character of Grammer is a fish that feels both inside and outside the waters in which it is found. Most actors would say that a Republican playing a Democrat might find that a help rather than a hindrance.
The new Frasier will air on Paramount Plus, a streaming service. This is another example of how the fragmentation of broadcasting through digital expansion, by changing the economy of television, has democratized programming. An old show with a significant fan base may not fit the demographic or ratings base of your original network, but it could make a decent deal for a niche medium. BBC One had doubts about the revival of All Creatures Great and Little, but it fits perfectly into the smaller Channel 5. Even if just out of curiosity or nostalgia, Paramount Plus should have a ready market for at least the first new Frasiers.
Some show runners are hampered by having killed their characters in the finale, forcing them into a prequel or medical or theological convolutions to bring them back. Frasier, however, left tantalizing loose ends 16 years ago. Viewers were wrong to think that a plane carrying the protagonist was going to land in San Francisco (where there was the promise of a new job), but the runway turned out to be in Chicago, where the lure of a lost love was.
One plot complication will be that Mahoney, who played Martin, died in 2018, and rephrasing that part would raise story and taste issues. (Dad would now be at least 90 years old).
So the writers room will probably start by asking questions like: where is Frasier, in his 70s, in 2021 and with whom? Are Niles and Daphne still married? Her son, David, now in his teens, offers another potential new trend. Frasier was (in line with its time) a very white show, so diversity will have to be introduced somehow.
And, since Frasier last appeared on screen, the real America has had eight years of Obama and four of Trump as president. What has their character done? That could really give Kelsey Grammer something to act with.