Thursday, October 19, 2023

Frasier Crane

My mother was a big, big fan of Frasier Crane, not so much Frasier Crane on "Cheers" (or "Cheers", for that matter), but of Frasier Crane on "Frasier", the spin-off that debuted in 1993 and ran for eleven seasons, and nobody in our family thought it strange, because we all agreed "Frasier" was a fantastic show. Even in its final years, even after having jumped the shark like all television shows do eventually (especially if they last [linger] past the seventh season), "Frasier" stayed the course of smart and funny, drawing energy from the fact that by the end of its run, it was already kind of iconic, destined for the pantheon of classic 90s TV. 

My mom was a huge fan though, as close to a superfan as she was capable of becoming about anything. She bought all the companion books that were released about the show, all the "official" full color "Frasier File" coffee table-style books she could find at the B. Barnes and Noble Dalton at the mall an hour and a half drive from where we lived. She took to recording new episodes on NBC almost immediately, and when the show started its syndication run, she began a vigilant, decades-long run recording them each night at 5 p.m. She programmed the VCR to catch the last five minutes of Jeopardy! and the first five minutes of the national news at 5:30. Before the release of any seasons on DVD, with their bonus features, deleted scenes, bloopers and creator commentary, long before the show had even jumped the shark as I remember, when "Frasier" was still a fresh and favored denizen of NBC's "Must See TV" lineup along with "Friends", "Caroline in the City" and "Mad About You" , my mom already had her own complete library of past seasons recorded on a series of alphabetically categorized VHS tapes. And oh yes, she was a binge-watcher, some 20 years before anyone ever thought to take the miracle of streaming for granted.  

I do think she got the larger joke about the show, understood that Frasier's character was meant to be eyeroll-worthy, sometimes cringe-inducing, for the highbrow bubble he existed in, surrounded by Italian suits, French cuisine and German opera (read: all things "continental"). She understood the folly of his masking his vulnerabilities by shoehorning foreign language or obscure literary references into ordinary conversation, not just because he could, because he was educated, and knew things, but as a defense mechanism. 

But I also think she was charmed by the thought of that world. She once explained that she loved the show so much because it was "adult", and I think Frasier's hilarious hoity-toity is what she was referring to. She watched and laughed, but also watched and emulated, wanted to be a part of it, feel a part of it. She knew Frasier was a joke, but also went out of her way to get the jokes he told that made him one. (To that end, the show writers were kind of brilliant at making Frasier as appealing as he was ridiculous.)

I myself bought into that emulation. I remember watching "Frasier" back in the day, in my twenties then, and feeling I could identify with the titular character, with the concept of knowing things, of taking an intellectual approach to life, determinedly lugging highbrow(ish) sensibilities through a plebeian world. It was a reliable way of turning awkwardness into egotism, helped me identify as a lone ranger riding through the modern American wastelands, keeping "art" (whatever I conceived that to be) alive. 

To be clear, it was 99 percent a total pose. I was never actually like Frasier to any appreciable degree. I never went to college (and based on my academic performance in high school, had no clear path to even the lowest grade community tech school, much less the likes of Harvard). I was never an upwardly stylish dresser (or gave much thought to it). I was never particularly drawn to "continental" anything (beyond what was reasonable curiosity). I could never sit through an opera (just no ... sorry), and I've never let myself become too alienated (or at all, really) from the "ordinary" things Frasier so hilariously disdained. I shop at Wal-Mart. I go to malls. I like good BBQ. Fast food. I follow sports, listen to country music, and in fact have a particular affinity for chrome on things, especially trucks ... and oh yeah, mud pies. I always want to hear they're coming. ;-)

But I also read a lot, write a lot, use 50-cent words sometimes (maybe too often). I'm pretty good at turning a colorful phrase to describe mundane things or situations, and usually spend a certain amount of time each day living in my head. I never cared for opera, but enjoy classical music, have been a fan of Chopin since childhood, and at some point, even discovered wine, realized I do authentically enjoy it (though not sherry).  And while never have I ever felt I'd enjoy sitting and having a drink with the likes of Frasier Crane, I still always felt I could relate to him, or wanted to. For my mom it was the notion of a better quality of life. For me, it was a little bit how I saw the life before me playing out, or how I wanted it to ... hoped it would.  

"Frasier" was special that way, different from other television shows, setting the bar a little higher. You had to pay attention to get the full effect of the humor of the situation in this situation comedy. This is perhaps no more aptly evidenced than in the last scene from the 2004 series finale, where Frasier recites an excerpt from a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson, a moving au revoir that served as a fitting send-off for both the character of Frasier, and the show itself. (Testament also, it should be noted, to Kelsey Grammer's talent. If you're a show runner, or TV writer, you'd be wise not to get too sassy trying to place a passage from an obscure 19th century poem into the mouth of your 21st century sitcom star, if it's not Grammer, or someone of equally strong stage presence.)

Talk of a reboot has been going on for a few years, and always made me bristle. Generally, I'm not down with reboots. Spin-offs are one thing, but I've just never been convinced that exhuming a TV or movie franchise merely for nostalgic purposes, or to give actors something to do, or introduce it all to a new generation, leads anywhere satisfying. In recent years, they've done it with Jean Luc Picard, JR Ewing, Roseanne Connor, Daniel LaRusso, the gang from "Full House", among others, and don't get me wrong, those were perfectly fine as far as it goes. But at the end of the day, show me something that's been updated , I'll show you something that can't possibly measure up to the original, no matter how good or bad the original might have been. It's like last night's leftovers finding their way onto your lunch plate today.  It will fill you up and still taste fine ... and no sense wasting it, right? ... but naw, are leftovers ever as good as they were the night before? I believe "art" has its unique time and place in the unfolding of the universe. In whatever form it takes, whatever message it hopes to get across, it has one moment in the sun, one chance to get it right, and as sitcoms go, "Frasier" got it very right. The original was a nice blend of high and low comedy, interspersed with suitably touching moments between its characters, which carried my mom, me and countless others right through the 1990s. Although it won plenty of Emmys, it never received quite the same Zeitgeist-level chatter as, say, "Seinfeld" or "Friends", but it didn't need to. "Frasier" was its own thing, everyone knew someone who regularly watched it, and these days, it's on the list of shows people stream continuously, binge-watch the stuffing out of, even enjoy falling asleep to. They just let it run until "Are you still watching?" pops up on the screen.  I can't say I've never done that myself. 

So what needs to be revisited, really?

The series reboot premiered on October 12 on Paramount+, and the reviews have not been great. Nobody seems to have anything good to say about this new chapter in Frasier's life, this "third act", and more than a few have echoed my private thoughts, primarily that it's simply not 1998 anymore. The Zeitgeist is not the same, the "times" are unavoidably and irreparably different. Can Frasier's hoity-hoity hilarity fly in this over-exposed, agitated, unsubtle and completely uncertain era? Can his Ivy League/ivory tower elitism still hope to be thought of as "lovably pompous" in this strongly populist age? I imagine the old show must - in many ways - read as a body of foreign matter to Gen Z'ers and Millennials, and they are definitely not the target audience for a reboot ... but do any of us really have time for that again? 

What's more, Frasier's back, but without any of the previous cast, notably David Hyde Pierce as brother Niles Crane. Everyone involved in the original series contributed to its greatness in some measure, but it was Grammer and Hyde Pierce together that formed the comic dynamic around which nearly all of the show's uniquely "smart" humor revolved. 

And back to the times being different, Frasier was in the prime of his life then, ever in search of salvation in the form of finding the right woman and having more children, while Niles spent a large portion of the show's run clawing his way out from under an hilariously terrible marriage to a thankfully unseen woman named Maris to eventually attain what started out as an unattainable goal: capturing the heart and hand of Daphne Moon, father Martin Crane's physical therapist. 

Twenty years later, without Niles, what does a still-single Frasier have, really? He can't be sixty-something and still hilariously horny and hard up for a date, can he? Without Niles, and without the wife and more children he so conspicuously sought in the original, clinging to all things continental doesn't seem as charming. In fact, it seems ... I don't know, kind of sad.

Maybe "sad" isn't the right word, though. 

The focal point of this reboot is Frasier's relationship with the child he has, son Frederick, who was a recurring character on the original series, played pretty well (I always thought) by Trevor Einhorn, and now by Jack Cutmore-Scott. The first episode finds Frasier passing through Boston on his way to France, looking to reconcile with Freddy, now in his thirties. Freddy dropped out of Harvard to become a firefighter, and the tables have been symmetrically flipped: thirty years ago (!!), the setup pitted hoity-toity Frasier against his hoi polloi father, Martin (John Mahoney). Now, it's hoity toity Frasier versus his hoi polloi son. 

Watching the first two episodes, I started considering an alternate plot, wondering if it might have been better to present Frasier as having mellowed over the years, become more down-to-Earth. Not to the point that he's a complete everyman, that would not be realistic, but just to where he identifies more with Martin than he ever used to, or ever thought he would. In the pilot, Martin has recently passed away, and missing him terribly, it might have made sense for Frasier to finally get it, you know? Maybe Frasier should be in Boston looking to help a hoity-toity, Frasier/Lilith-raised Freddy navigate the rough waters of self-imposed ivory tower exile by trying to keep him grounded, learn from their mistakes.  Just a thought. It could have been done, I think, in a funny and touching, and surely more interesting, way.  

But no, in the show, Freddy is like Martin, wants to be a regular guy. He drinks regular beer at a firefighters' bar that looks a lot like Martin's old Seattle hangout McGinty's. He collects ceremonial soil from Fenway Park, wears jeans, wants to use an air hockey table as a dining room table and stores any old hootch-caliber Scotch in any old bottle. Essentially, he's a dude, which leaves Frasier stuck being the same old fussbudget he always was, which at almost 70, past his prime and seemingly adrift, feels more like a job now, rather than an identity. The time has run out on having children, or should have, and while it's plausible that he might still be dating at that age, the fact that he is, that he never married, never had more children, somehow makes all the same old designer name drops, the artsy-fartsy throw pillows he decorates his new apartment with but doesn't want anyone sitting on, not only sad, but a little annoying. Yes, maybe "annoying" is the right word: in the original series, Frasier was cringe-worthy, but never annoying. I emulated him, at least a little. Now, not so much. Now, and I'm not sure why, he kind of irks me.

Maybe I wish Frasier reflected more how I've changed over the years. 

A "Niles"-type presence is contributed by Niles and Daphne's son David (Anders Keith), who is born in the final episode of the original series, and is now a freshman at Harvard, which itself seems kind of unrealistic, in that Niles Crane attended Yale. Granted, I'm not really up on Ivy League legacy-type behavior, but would a Yale man ever be okay sending his son to Harvard?

That aside, I don't hate the character of David, he's just got some growing to do, or maybe the writers do. So far, they haven't done the character much justice. He kind of ambles peripherally, yet conspicuously, through each scene, providing half-baked comic relief by being unbelievably (as in unrealistically) nerdy, and more clueless than his father ever was, even at his hoitiest and toitiest.

The cast is rounded out by an old college chum of Frasier's, Alan Cornwall (Nicholas Lyndhurst), a tenured professor at Harvard, and an ambitious administrator, Olivia (Toks Olagundoye), who desperately wants Frasier to come and teach, hoping to capitalize on Frasier's most recent celebrity as a television shrink (think: Dr. Phil), which she believes will give the Psyche department a boost. But not enough is made of Frasier's Chicago-market celebrity (essentially what he's been doing the last 20 years) to adequately explain why she's SO hellbent to make this happen. When we last left Frasier in '04, his radio career had peaked and was on a downward slide, one of the reasons (along with love) that he left Seattle for Chicago. 

This detail is relatively minor, but related to the larger problem the writers seem to be having getting the set-up story for this reboot to take root. They try to cram a lot of plot points into a small 20-minute window, with hurriedly cheesy results. We're supposed to believe that in a very short period of time, like a day or two, Frasier goes from steadfastly refusing to stick around Boston, to buying the building where Freddy lives, moving in, and asking Freddy to live with him so they can reconnect.

It's all just a little bit sudden, implausibly so in my opinion, even for a sitcom, and surely would have been better served by being fleshed out over a few episodes, allowing them time to reveal a little of his Chicago days for context. 

Frasier allows Freddy's single mom friend Eve (Jess Salgueiro) to live rent free in the building if Freddy agrees to move in with him. That Frasier has all this money to throw around is something I've never really questioned (others have), but suddenly he wants to be a landlord? That is, wants to engage the utter stress and hassle of being one? Moreover, I question what seems an unusually down-to-Earth gesture for the likes of Frasier. Yes, he's always tried to do the right, honorable and generous thing, but he doesn't know Eve at all (indeed, doesn't know Eve from Adam!), and her child is not Freddy's, so there is no familial responsibility ...  it just seems a bit of a walk that he would go out of his way like that for someone he's just met.

On the other hand, maybe it means he HAS mellowed with time.

Ultimately, I think the "Frasier" reboot is decent, suitably watchable. I think my dear mother would have enjoyed it, even though it's already got some growing pains to work through. It's not as funny or clever as the original, doesn't make quite the impact that the pilot episode of that series made thirty years ago, but it does have its moments, moments designed to make me realize I've missed Frasier Crane, and at the end of the day, I'm happy he's back in my life. 

But also happy to say that I don't want to be like him anymore.