Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our coverage on the best of Frasier (1994-2004, NBC), a Peacock Network staple during their ’90s Renaissance and one of my favorite multi-cam classics! The entire series is available on DVD and streaming services.
Psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane lives with his father, an injured retired cop, while dispensing mental health advice on a Seattle radio show. Frasier stars KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane, DAVID HYDE PIERCE as Dr. Niles Crane, JOHN MAHONEY as Martin Crane, JANE LEEVES as Daphne Moon, and PERI GILPIN as Roz Doyle.
There are certain shows covered here that I consider seminal in both my love and study of the situation comedy. Frasier is one of them. It’s a mile marker on our Sitcom Tuesday journey — a series to which this blog has always been building. With its smart, character-based, laugh-filled storytelling, Frasier is among my favorites — a sterling representation of the genre and one of its era’s top-drawer gems. I’m excited to be featuring it here because the series is more connected to my blog’s thesis than most. That is, many of the comedies we’ve highlighted have been most appealing because I could break them down season-by-season with commentary… But Frasier, like so many long-ago classics before it, speaks for itself — and what I’m most enthused about in advance of these next 11 weeks is getting to highlight some of the funniest 22-minute samples of what the situation comedy can do when its operating at the peak of its powers… However, because the series ran for 11 full years, the same duration as the titan from which it sprung (Cheers, which regular readers know to be another entry on my short list of favorites — I love its character-driven writing, its theatrical design, and its relative consistency over such a long period), it’s unavoidable that not every season of Frasier is as strong as both the show’s reputation, and its roster of Emmys, would otherwise indicate; we’ll be taking note of this trajectory — highlighting the series’ highest days, and its lowest… And yet, my goal with these posts, as a whole, is to be more celebratory than usual, for despite upcoming failures to meet standards previously established by Frasier itself — during the period when it had likely been the strongest U.S. sitcom then on television — I think it almost always (or to be fair: more often than not) reinforces many of the major metrics we use when discussing quality writing, primarily that it uses its characters to both motivate story and secure large, consistent laughs.
We’ve been talking around the series a lot over the past few years (ever since coverage of Cheers) — and especially in the last few months when discussing Wings, a series that supplied Frasier with a few of its key scribes and also came from David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee (of Grub Street Productions)… Several months ago, while hoping to make clear my sentiments regarding Wings, I couldn’t help but offer a little premature commentary on Frasier, specifically with regard to why I think this series was the ‘90s’ aesthetic torchbearer for the MTM legacy of well-written character-led comedy — a mantle it inherited from the classic off of which it spun, Cheers, which I commonly cite as the great MTM sitcom of the ‘80s (even though, like Frasier, and Taxi way before it, they weren’t technically stamped with the MTM imprimatur). Ever resourceful, I’m reprinting that earlier, succinct, summation of Frasier’s earned claim to this brand of comedic superiority — and, it should go without saying at this point, but I believe all sitcoms best function when they can derive laugh-out-loud comedy from a utilization of established characters within well-motivated narratives… “[Frasier] went back to basics and was defined by the voice of its protagonist and the timbre of his relationships, like in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show – not by its setting or any premise-based narrative constructs…” To expand, what makes Frasier such a brilliant show, and one firmly within the MTM tradition, is that it used its characters, particularly Frasier Crane himself, to not only propel the stories, but also to establish its comedic rhythms (like Moore’s and Newhart’s shows did with their stars’ individual personas). Frasier is often called a smart show, but its smarts are, more impressively, motivated… by Frasier himself. And as we’ll see, all the modes of comedy in which the series engages — like farce — are able to exist because they’re extensions of Frasier.
Additionally, while Taxi and Cheers, both helmed by descendants of the great MTM comedies of the ‘70s, found their tones within the choice of setting — a garage and a bar, respectively — simple and theatrical places where characters could thrive (which is why Cheers, in particular, was so brilliantly character-centric), Frasier returned to the brand’s initial design, in which a single figure, who sets the show’s internal compass, motivates the action by going between his personal life and his work life — anchoring and connecting those worlds. So, Frasier is a pure example of the MTM sitcom… And I think that’s precisely why I love it. However, success wasn’t a given. I mean, taking a nine-year-old regular from a beloved long-running comedy (whose reliability when delivering character-driven comedy could have earned it a spot in the sitcom hall of fame) and surrounding him with new players within scripts written by different voices, was a terrific gamble. The audience’s regard for Frasier Crane, always brilliantly played by Kelsey Grammer, could have proved a double-edged sword, for any stench of failure would then have felt like a betrayal to the viewers. And yet, Angell-Casey-Lee took great care when establishing their show — they built it to last… After being talked into the spin-off idea by the network (which didn’t want Grammer playing a new role), the trio rightly decided to move the character as far away from Cheers as possible. (We’ve seen before how spin-offs that are different from their hit forebears, but aren’t different enough, often struggle — like The Golden Palace, which ran the season prior.) Also, after latching on to the radio station idea, à la MTM’s WKRP In Cincinnati, the trio decided that forming another workplace sitcom wouldn’t be enough of a change. Instead, they took the surprising, but necessary turn: they made Frasier a domestic comedy…
This is important; although Frasier, like Mary and Bob, would go between his work and his home, Frasier gave obvious precedence to the latter — both in a bid to differentiate the new series from Cheers, and also in recognition of the fact that the emotional weight was simply stronger within his family, which could provide more stories, conflict… and laughs. You see, Frasier knew the father-son dynamic would be a powerful one, and even though it flies in the face of the backstory given on Cheers, we sustaining viewers take the leap because the landing seems so worthwhile. (Just watch an episode and you’ll see why…) But that’s not all this domestic design does, for even though the debut and many of the first season’s episodes treat Frasier’s relationship with Martin as the show’s meatiest and most important construct, it quickly becomes clear that there’s an even stronger bond — between Frasier and his brother Niles, portrayed (seemingly) effortlessly by the very funny David Hyde Pierce, whom you may remember on this blog from the fascinating two-season NBC flop The Powers That Be. Because, to put it simply: Niles is the reason Frasier was able to anchor his own show… After all, Frasier Crane, as he existed at Cheers’ end, would have made a difficult nucleus, for like his barfly cohorts, his characterization had grown more extreme as the run progressed. (It was part of the common broadening that happens to most long-running shows when they need harder laughs and crazier stories.) Naturally though, changing a character’s circumstances (his location, his cohorts, his marital status) — just as in life — is going to have an effect on the way he behaves. (And to those who make a lot of the difference between Frasier’s depiction on the two shows: I think we have several good reasons, like the above humanity-rooted truism, to be forgiving.)
However, to be a likable protagonist, Frasier needed to pivot, slightly, into more of an everyman. He could maintain all those characteristics (and we’d have cried foul if he didn’t), but now, they couldn’t exist solely for the purpose of a great plot or a grand joke; there had to be a deeper emotionality. That’s where the family came in handy… Additionally, in order to make the titular protagonist the narrative fulcrum — not only anchoring stories, but responding to the ones around him — he also needed extremes (relatively speaking — still steeped in MTM’s relatable realism, of course) off of which he could react. That’s how the ensemble was born: cranky Martin, the father from whom Frasier was estranged; kooky Daphne, the housekeeper with a different and daffy perspective; and straight-shootin’ Roz, the colleague who could bust Frasier’s balls at the station. (We’ll talk more about the cast next week, when we have more space…) Yet the key to letting Frasier maintain his definition while settling into a more likable, depth-having, story-centering lead was Niles, an extreme version of Frasier (or more, aptly, an extreme version of Frasier before his stint with the blue-collar losers of Cheers), who was allegedly added to the pilot simply because of Pierce’s physical resemblance to Grammer… Whatever the motivation, Niles is vital — for several reasons. One, he allows the show to reduce Frasier’s eccentricities by juxtaposing them against Niles’ larger ones. This makes Frasier more relatable. Two, Niles provides continuity by subtly reinforcing the lingering impact of Cheers on Frasier’s personality; that is, Frasier might be Niles if not for his years in Boston. This connects the two shows’ portrayals of Frasier. And three, Niles doubles the gravitas of Frasier’s relationship with Martin when the two brothers are teamed against their father. This lets Frasier keep its original dramatic intention while actually focusing on the cultivated utilization of what’s discovered to be the most nuanced and comedic relationship: the brothers’ (who, contrary to the oppositional structure under which most sitcoms operate, come in conflict because they’re so alike).
Nevertheless, while Frasier (following Seinfeld in the first official year of NBC’s Must See TV Thursday) is strong from the start, there’s a learning curve that it, like every sitcom, must endure. As you’ll soon see, I consider the sophomore collection of episodes Frasier’s finest, meaning there’s some room in Season One for improvement. Nothing’s too rough or weak here, but there are moments, as the show begins to click, that we can recognize the series becoming stronger. One such click occurs around the year’s mid-point, when the storytelling begins to make even better use of its ensemble. The second occurs before the year’s last four episodes, which collectively constitute its best, for the characterizations lock into strong comedic definitions, setting the stage for even more improvement ahead. (But the show was already a critical darling — in addition to Emmys won for writing, direction and Grammer’s performance, this debut season earned the series its first of five consecutive Outstanding Comedy wins…) Now, before we get to this week’s list, it’s become routine to highlight the seasonal writing staff. Frasier’s first year, aside from its trio of creators, was led by Christopher Lloyd (The Golden Girls, Wings, Modern Family), who’d essentially run the writers’ room for the first seven seasons, with help this time from one-year-wonders Sy Dukane & Denise Moss (The Wonder Years, Roseanne, Murphy Brown), Anne Flett-Giordano & Chuck Ranberg (Kate & Allie, Encore! Encore!, Hot In Cleveland), and for the last six episodes, Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo (Welcome Back Kotter, Alice, Doogie Howser). Contributors this season included creative consultants David Lloyd (father of Christopher, and an MTM legend), Ken Levine & David Isaacs (MASH, Cheers, Wings), and Lloyd Garver (The Bob Newhart Show, Maude, Family Ties), along with a handful of other esteemed folks. So, there was no shortage of talent, which you’ll find evidenced below… Heck, this is one of the best written sitcoms ever produced, and I’m glad it’s finally here — this is why I write my blog. Ready?… I have selected ten installments that I think exemplify the season’s finest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “The Good Son” (Aired: 09/16/93)
Frasier reluctantly takes in his injured father, a dog, and a physical therapist.
Written by David Angell & Peter Casey & David Lee | Directed by James Burrows
As the series’ premiere, this episode has the toughest job of the entire 11-year run — more difficult than the overhyped, overinflated finale — for it has to persuade an audience that it’s going to be worthwhile to follow the beloved Frasier Crane character from Cheers to a show that is so obviously NOT Cheers. Unlike most openers, the entry (the only script by all three of the show’s creators) doesn’t have to worry about securing emotional investment on behalf of the protagonist; instead, its main concern is selling the audience on this new environment and these new ensemble players. This episode succeeds in doing so, particularly via the dramatically rich father-son relationship between Frasier and Martin, which looks to be the series’ core, and the burgeoning and already comedic bond between Frasier and his brother Niles. Burrows and Angell-Casey-Lee won Emmys for their directing and writing, respectively. (Also, of a trivial interest: Lisa Kudrow was cast as Roz before Gilpin replaced her during the week.)
02) Episode 3: “Dinner At Eight” (Aired: 09/30/93)
The Crane brothers attempt to bond with their father over dinner.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by James Burrows
For Season One, the dynamic duo of Ranberg & Flett-Giordano (she was just “Flett” at the time of this early excursion) is credited with many of the most comedically poised outings. This installment, whose narrative and subsequent laugh-deriving strength is predicated on the growing relationships shared among the trio of Crane men (whom we already know to be the show’s dramatic heart and comedic soul), is the funniest episode from the first two months — yes, even better than the opener. The fact that it secures its merit through the defined, but still gestating, characterizations, and the appropriately solid cultivation of their individual relationships, makes it all the more valuable — and the big laughs even bigger. Also, viewers may hold this installment in high esteem for it introduces one of the show’s biggest story developments: Niles’ crush on Daphne, a thread that will later change the course of the series.
03) Episode 9: “Selling Out” (Aired: 11/11/93)
Frasier’s new agent has him doing commercial endorsements.
Written by Lloyd Garver | Directed by Andy Ackerman
It’ll become obvious in subsequent weeks, but I’m a big fan of Harriet Sansom Harris and her work as Frasier’s hilariously funny, but overly theatrical, agent Bebe Glazer. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ll see most of her early appearances (especially those written by Season Two addition Joe Keenan, who really “gets” her character) featured here for being among the series’ best episodes… However, as is usually the case with her installments, this outing operates with a bouncy laugh quotient and an exuberant performance-driven energy — both of which make her seem way too broad for Frasier (especially at this juncture). Also, it’s not as sharp as future Bebe episodes will be, and indeed, it’s not as character-wise as most of those highlighted either above or below. But after weeks of solid-but-not-spectacular character-growing excursions, this laugh-a-minute episode simply leaves more of an impression. Entertaining.
04) Episode 12: “Miracle On Third Or Fourth Street” (Aired: 12/16/93)
A depressed Frasier decides to work on Christmas.
Written by Christopher Lloyd | Directed by James Burrows
In full transparency, I wasn’t sure that I’d be featuring this installment on Season One’s list, for I think the final act — after 15-minutes of eschewing the mawkish nature of most Christmas-themed sitcom episodes — can’t help but give into some forced and unearned sentiment that’s more situationally applied than character-driven. However, this most recent survey of the series crystallized the strength of this outing’s first two-thirds, when the material actually is steeped in character. (But this should come as no surprise — the teleplay is credited to Frasier‘s backbone, the vital Christopher Lloyd.) And because the entry never gives up on its implied comedic directive, even in the anti-climactic diner sequence (which nevertheless features the amusing Christine Estabrook), I’m thus able to enjoy the offering in total. Meanwhile, I’d count this as the moment that the year sees its first of those aforementioned “clicks.” Memorable.
05) Episode 16: “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” (Aired: 02/03/94)
Lilith visits Frasier, thinking that he wants to reconcile.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by James Burrows
A legendary outing and the first credited to Cheers veterans Ken Levine & David Isaacs — who’d spent a short time on Wings and would pop in and out throughout the rest of Frasier‘s run (often to write installments like such) — this is among a handful of episodes that deal directly with Frasier’s former existence in Boston and on a different series… via a special guest appearance. Up first, naturally, would be the always delectable Bebe Neuwirth as our protagonist’s ex-wife, Lilith, who visits with a mind for reconciliation. As we’ll see in upcoming weeks, these Cheers-related outings are difficult; most of them don’t operate as great episodes of Frasier the series, for while they may have varying degrees of relevance for the title character, they don’t make great use of this show’s particulars, feeling out-of-place and from a different era. (Thank goodness the crew was judicious about not letting the network have too many of these gimmicks!) But given the history that Lilith has not just with Frasier, but with his entire family, she’s a more organic fit in this new world. So, this very funny episode — while also being good for his character — successfully transforms her from a former Cheers regular into a recurring Frasier gem, and simultaneously provides additional closure to their time in Boston, validating that this new series, with terrific scripts like this, is ready to have a life all its own.
06) Episode 17: “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” (Aired: 02/10/94)
Daphne agrees to help Niles cook a romantic dinner for Maris.
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano | Directed by David Lee
Although I refuse to be suckered into appreciating an entry simply because it contends with the romance of the drawn-out (and for a while, one-sided) Niles and Daphne relationship, you’ll see that I often find it difficult to exclude these early annual showcases. For while they may not be the absolute funniest installments produced in any given season, they typically offer character-based riches, and sometimes surprisingly so. That is, we’ve seen in weaker series how a ham-fisted romantic motif can be a story-driven concern that robs individual characters of exploration (and hold that thought…), but at this point, Frasier makes the action an extension of the established characterizations and their known situations, so even in the process of some icky and maudlin plot muck, there’s exploration and growth occurring (usually on behalf of Niles; less so with Daphne, who’s not regarded as being as important). This wonderful outing helps establish similar — and even better — Niles/Maris stories and Niles/Daphne moments ahead.
07) Episode 21: “Travels With Martin” (Aired: 04/14/94)
The Crane men and Daphne vacation in a Winnebago.
Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo | Directed by James Burrows
As mentioned above in the seasonal commentary, the last four episodes of the first year collectively represent the season’s strongest, and this outing launches us on that path of excellence (which, believe it or not, will even be improved upon at the start of Season Two). “Travels With Martin” is the first script credited to Linda Morris and Vic Rauseo, who joined the crew for the last quarter of this season and would rise through the staff’s ranks over the next two years. It’s another simply designed outing that affords time for great character moments, especially among the three Crane men. However, the entry also smartly includes Daphne within the action and the narrative utilizes them as a foursome, which is great for the continued expansion and refinement of her usage. Of course, aside from the strong dynamic between these now well-defined characters, there are some big laughs here, too. A favorite.
08) Episode 22: “Author, Author” (Aired: 05/05/94)
The Crane brothers attempt to co-author their own book.
Written by Don Seigel & Jerry Perzigian | Directed by James Burrows
Credited to a pair of freelancing veterans (who’d written for The Jeffersons and The Golden Girls), this very funny outing rides within the aforementioned wave of enhanced comedic and character knowingness that typifies the season’s last few installments. I look to this one as an indication that the series has, by now, recognized that the strongest relationship it has is not the dynamic between Frasier and Martin (which defines a handful of early Honorable Mentions featured below), but the one between Frasier and Niles, which this offering narratively uses to its healthy comedic benefit. Because of its proximity to the show’s start, this episode is able to laud itself for being one of the earliest examples of the ideal Frasier/Niles story, and as this script reveals just how ripe (in both laughs and emotional weight) this construct is with opportunity, it’s a formula that will be replicated — and, again, bested — in the years ahead.
09) Episode 23: “Frasier Crane’s Day Off” (Aired: 05/12/94)
Frasier fears he’ll be replaced when an illness keeps him from his show.
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano | Directed by James Burrows
Yet another comedically uproarious late Season One classic, with huge, boffo laughs, this episode differs from the year’s other gems, which are basically relationship-focused delights; rather, it’s a no-holds-barred laugh-filled showcase for the title character, as Kelsey Grammer gets to tap into the mania that had been on more frequent display in Frasier’s final seasons on the ever-broadening Cheers, but which, following this entry (and the above), is now going to be trotted out every now and again on Frasier (when the character is pushed to his limits) for maximum value. Once again, by now, the season has discovered the series’ strengths, made sure that every regular is pretty well-defined, and grown able to capitalize upon the performers’ talents to craft an entry that narratively bridges Frasier’s personal and professional lives, while earning big laughs in the process. It’s broader than some others here, but it’s so Frasier.
10) Episode 24: “My Coffee With Niles” (Aired: 05/19/94)
Over coffee, Niles asks if Frasier is happy.
Written by David Angell & Peter Casey | Directed by James Burrows
Ah, regular readers of this blog should find it no surprise that I’d pick the year’s real-time episode — and the series’ best contribution to this construct, which it’ll repeat later — as my MVE (the season’s finest). With a unity of time and place that’s built around a single conversation between Niles and Frasier over the simple question of whether or not Frasier is happy (which takes on extra meaning given the great changes his character has undergone as a result of the transition between two series), this episode was considered “artsy fartsy” by some network executives. But you and I know that it’s actually one of the smartest and most effective character pieces of the ENTIRE series — all about who these individuals are and how they interact. This uncomplicated real-time design, which is nevertheless one of the greatest challenges a writer could bestow upon him/herself, is an exhibit for how well the series has come to understand all of its regulars (particularly the Cranes), along with its implicit recognition of how to utilize its best asset — Frasier and Niles’ rapport — going forward. And it does all this while securing terrific, deserved laughs that come only from the players… no gimmicks, guest stars, or story hooks needed. That‘s terrific writing. And this is what the situation comedy looks like at its most self-actualized. It’s not just one of Frasier‘s finest, it’s also one of the situation comedy’s finest. I know they couldn’t do this every week (and if they did, this one wouldn’t be special), but my goodness, this is a height that seems tough to top…
Other episodes that merit mention here — and I’ve pared down all those that could be featured (I won’t be so successful later) — include: “Space Quest,” the low-concept sophomore outing that does a lot for reaffirming the characterizations witnessed in the premiere, “I Hate Frasier Crane,” which ably showcases the title character, and “Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast?,” which is a laugh-driven play towards the original Frasier-Martin premise.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Frasier goes to…..
“My Coffee With Niles”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!