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December 14, 2006

Frasier

For some time, I have been meaning to get back to movie reviews, and perhaps branch out a bit into television (for instance, I just watched a stunning performance of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) on Discovery HD). At the top of my list is to write reviews of several series. I had a short list together: The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Southpark and, to break this chain of alliteration, Frasier.

Frasier is perhaps my favorite sitcom of all time. It delivered a wittiness, elegance and sophistication virtually unmatched elsewhere on the sitcom landscape. To see why it is such an important show, watch one of the poorer episodes of Frasier and then one of the best of Everybody Loves Raymond or Will and Grace. Even Friends, enormously popular and, I have to admit, on occasion funny, seemed hollow and trite against Frasier's wit, energy and really engaging core characters.

Well, though I was going to review Frasier, it would seem that a review I found the other day pretty much captures most of my thinking anyway:

Living with Frasier
5.17.2004Tim Grierson

(available at http://www.knotmag.com/?article=1309)

Saying goodbye to a favorite TV show usually means dealing with a painful separation from beloved characters who have become family. And while that cliché holds true for Frasier, in my case that separation runs even deeper. I'm going to miss its sophisticated, melancholy view of the world. I'm going to mourn the absence of intelligence and clever humor. But, most specifically, I'm gonna miss that apartment.

While I know nothing of interior design, I consider the abode of Frasier Crane and his father to be just about perfect, a soothing mixture of class and refined hipness. And yet for all its modernist taste, well-placed art, and spaciousness, there was a sadness forever present in those rooms.

The apartment encapsulated all that was great about Frasier. Smart, cultured, and yet touched by an inevitable loneliness and melancholy that one cannot avoid in the modern world, the show's 11-year run elegantly walked the line between laughter and more somber sentiments. That it sometimes floundered when attempting that balance warrants a sad nod of the head and nothing more. Lapses and all, Frasier effectively pillared the joy of civilized living while devilishly mocking and lamenting its considerable pitfalls.

In other publications, you can read all about the delightful mismatch of gruff, masculine father and fey, neurotic, intelligent sons. But while Martin's loving, sometimes contentious relationship with Frasier and Niles formed the foundation of the show's humor, what really gave the sitcom energy was how the three men represented variations of well-meaning adulthood. Excluding when their writers occasionally failed them, forcing them to dip into stupidity to get a yuck, the three spoke smartly, experienced complicated emotions, and dealt with a nagging sense of emptiness.

For Martin, the most levelheaded of the Cranes, a deceased wife and a bum hip (from a gunshot wound in his days on the force) sent him to a diminished life of television, a cute dog, and a live-in nanny. For Niles, at least before the show listed toward disaster and paired him with Daphne, a loveless marriage inspires a hopeless, poignant crush on his dad's caregiver. Meanwhile, Frasier, returning to his hometown after a divorce and a loss of purpose, adores culture, art, philosophy, and whatever other elitist interests that will separate him from the riff-raff around him.

All three Cranes, more often than not, were single, clinging to his own hobbies as distractions from loneliness. Because Frasier eschewed the typical family-comedy trappings -- Mom, Dad, kids in school, wacky neighbor -- its grownup appeal was obvious. The sitcom's upscale bachelorhood hinted at a more suave version of your own life where people deliver erudite putdowns and dine at the best restaurants. But because Frasier's characters didn't conform to societal norms, they struggled with the difficulties of the road less traveled. Much like its terrific predecessor, Cheers, Frasier by and large featured unsatisfied, unmarried adults. (The folks who married were even worse off.) And not counting the risqué HBO comedies, television didn't sympathize with this untraditional mainstream world better than on Frasier.

Free of adolescent life lessons and marital discourse, the sitcom emulated Niles and Frasier's impeccable, worldly haughtiness -- chapter titles between scenes, high-minded slapstick, literary references, a love of British-style hijinks. By its very design, Frasier offered an intellectual oasis for its viewers, which was similar to the one the Crane boys wanted for themselves from the outside world. And while most observers have noted that the show flattered its viewers by assuming they were thoughtful adults, what has been lost in the eulogies is that Frasier actually served as a cautionary tale for the cut-off, intellectual life. Here was a sitcom that catered to a more affluent, urbane crowd and then reminded its audience again and again not to be too proud of itself.

This comeuppance for pretentiousness most often occurred whenever Frasier or Niles felt too confident in their smarts or breeding, only to be felled by bad timing, hubris, or their own painful insecurities. Until the show started running on fumes, Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce's perfect renditions of brotherly condescension embodied the snooty, distinguished life we all secretly envy. Which of us doesn't want to seem cultured and brilliant but, at the same time, doesn't fear the ribbing that would occur from our jejune peers? Frasier expertly sucked us in by appealing to that wish fulfillment of being the brightest bulb while never missing a chance to knock the Cranes off their pedestal. But by surrounding Frasier with so many low-watt fools -- one of the show's consistent disappointments was its inability to expand the characters' universe in interesting ways after the first few seasons -- we couldn't help but turn our allegiance to these adorably unmanly brothers. Plus, there was always John Mahoney's Martin, a bewildered man's man who nonetheless loved his sons despite his inability to quite fathom them.

In truth, Frasier consistently swung our sympathies back and forth between Martin and his sons. While their dad was an unassuming, simplistic older man, Frasier and Niles sought out the big questions of life and wanted to live as richly and deeply as possible. But while they were judgmental and arrogant and petty, their father was thoroughly decent, kind, unselfish, and immersed in common sense, something his egghead boys would never possess. This shifting audience loyalty made the whole family understandable and intriguing; all three men held the keys to a happy life but only if they were together. On Cheers, Frasier was the easy comic foil, the stuffed shirt, once Shelley Long's Diane left the picture. But on his own show, we really looked at the world of all those assumed stuffed shirt's out there: rich, droll, exciting, isolated. Creators Peter Casey, David Lee, and the late David Angell sought to humanize that world and make it universal, but they never forgot that it wasn't necessarily better than anyone else's.

The show's teeter-totter of pathos and comedy worked best in its funniest episodes when a suddenly serious, heartfelt moment would flow organically from the laughs. As the show ran down, Frasier struggled to be whimsical and dramatic, disturbing the show's delicate equilibrium. But when it really hummed, the show (like Frasier's apartment) delivered a stylish, inviting, cordial environment for us to unwind, a haven from an insensitive, base society we must endure. I won't embarrass myself by divulging just how much I wished I lived in that apartment, in that world of Frasier. But I am grateful that the show never stopped reminding me that it was far greater that I live in the messy, awful real world I know too well.

Posted by dag at December 14, 2006 9:10 AM

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