Culture Trips

Frasier returns: Kelsey Grammer’s comeback is loaded with risk | Frasier

Already standing high in the tiny line of spinoff shows that at least equal the longevity and legend of the parent, Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004) – born out of Cheers (NBC, 1982-93) – will aim for a place on an even emptier plinth: classic series successfully revived after a long gap.

Arrested Development in the US, and Birds of a Feather and Open All Hours in the UK, have managed such a comeback, but those shows did not have the status of Frasier. To dust off the fastidious Seattle-based radio psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammer entails something like the degree of risk in going back to Fawlty Towers, which its creator, John Cleese, has perhaps wisely always refused to do.

As is often the case with artistic successes, Frasier resulted not from planning but happy accidents. Cheers, set among the regulars of a Boston bar, did not introduce the character of Dr Frasier Crane, a supercilious psychiatrist, until the third series; even then he was written in only for 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 theatre, especially in the work of English dramatists: William Shakespeare, David Hare and Simon Gray. (There are a number of warm references to the actor in Gray’s volumes of otherwise frequently acerbic theatrical memoirs.)

Such was the response of the show’s writers (and then viewers) to Grammer as Frasier, that he remained for the final eight seasons as a heavy thinker among the heavy drinkers. But, remarkably in terms of what happened next, he remained a relatively minor character.

Heavy thinker … Grammer as Frazier and Ted Danson as Sam Malone in Cheers.
Heavy thinker … Grammer as Frazier and Ted Danson as Sam Malone in Cheers. Photograph: NBCUniversal via Getty Images

By the time Cheers ended, it had already become common for networks to seek financial compensation for themselves and emotional consolation for audiences by attempting spinoffs from top shows. The record was mixed. The Korean war medical drama, M*A*S*H spawned a minor hit and two flops; Happy Days had seven offspring, of which two prospered: Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley.

Even while the Boston bar show was still running, it had tried to grow another golden apple from the tree, but The Tortellis (1987) was cancelled after one season. Perhaps because of that, the creators of Cheers – James Burrows, and Glen and Les Charles – were at first chary of a direct narrative continuation after Cheers ended in 1993.

Seeing something special in Grammer, members of the writers team built a role for him as a paralysed billionaire tetchily dependent on carers, but the network rejected it. Turning to the idea of extending Grammer’s earlier character, the creators of Frasier – David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee – possibly learned from Mork & Mindy, effectively a sci-fi show spun from a nostalgic comedy, that a second hit is more likely with significant distance from the first. Nervous that if the new show faltered NBC would call for cameos from Cheers regulars, effectively reconstituting the old show, they set Frasier on the other side of America. So it was that Frasier moved to Seattle, the character’s home town, where he fled after a divorce, and took a job as a radio advice host.

Some narrative sleight of hand was required, as, in the universe of Cheers, Frasier had been an orphaned only child; but the spinoff gave him a competitively dyspeptic shrink brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), and an ailing father, Martin (John Mahoney), who, in the pilot episode, acquired a carer, Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves). As Daphne, weirdly, hails from north-west England, Frasier is striking among great American sitcoms in its setup lines being spoken in a cod Mancunian accent.

Spun off in Seattle … Grammer with Jane Leeves as Daphne, John Mahoney as Martin and David Hyde Pierce as Niles.
Spun off in Seattle … Grammer with Jane Leeves as Daphne, John Mahoney as Martin and David Hyde Pierce as Niles. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Whereas British sitcoms are often built around catchphrases (“I didn’t get where I am today by”, “Lovely jubbly!”, and so on), American comedy more depends on catch-characteristics – Frasier’s haughtiness, Niles’s waspishness, the (previewed in her name) daffiness of Daphne. These emerge not through repetitions of the same phrase, but fresh verbal expressions of the core trait. In its rerun afterlife, Frasier adapted easily to clip and meme culture, with multiple compilations of Frasier’s best expressions of offence, Niles’s vicious put-downs, Daphne’s wacky Britishisms etc.

As Frasier is politically a liberal, this has inevitably caused some amusement as Grammer’s own allegiance is firmly Republican, and on the right wing; he 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 their own worldview may be missing the point of a profession rooted in pretence and psychological exploration. If you dine with Sir Anthony Hopkins, he is unlikely to eat your liver with fava beans; yet brilliantly portrayed, as Dr Hannibal Lecter, someone who would.

And, regardless of acting skill, the writers, whether or not deliberately drawing on the gap between Grammer and Frasier, gave the character deep contradictions – a liberal who is a snob about culture and decor, a relationship expert who struggles with family and lovers. Much of the best comedy involves people ill-suited to what they do – Captain Mainwaring is not officer class, Basil Fawlty lacks the manners for hospitality, David Brent can’t manage his own career. In Cheers and Frasier, Grammer’s character is a fish who feels both in and out of the waters he is in. Most actors would tell you that a Republican playing a Democrat might find that a help rather than a hindrance.

A Republican playing a Democrat … Grammer and his wife Kayte Walsh at Kensington Palace in 2019.
A Republican playing a Democrat … Grammer and his wife Kayte Walsh at Kensington Palace in 2019. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images for ATG

The new Frasier will air on Paramount Plus, a streaming service. This is another example of how the fragmentation of broadcasting through digital expansion has, through changing the economics of television, democratised scheduling. An old show with a significant fanbase may not fit the demographic or ratings base of its original network, but could do decent business for a niche outlet. BBC One had doubts about reviving All Creatures Great and Small, but it snugly fits the smaller Channel 5. Even if from curiosity or nostalgia alone, Paramount Plus should have a ready market for at least the first few new Frasiers.

Some show-runners are stymied by having killed off their characters in the finale, forcing them towards either a prequel or medical or theological convolutions in order to bring them back. Frasier, though, trailed tantalising loose ends 16 years ago. Viewers were misdirected into thinking 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 proved to be in Chicago, where there was the lure of a lost love.

A complication of the plotting will be that Mahoney, who played Martin, died in 2018, and recasting that part would raise issues of taste and storyline. (Dad would by now be at least 90.)

So the writers’ room will presumably start by asking such questions as: where is Frasier, aged around 70, in 2021, and with whom? Are Niles and Daphne still married? Their son, David, now late teens, offers another potential new strand. Frasier was (in line with its times) a very white show, so diversity will have to be introduced somehow.

And, since Frasier was last on screen, the real America has had eight years of Obama and four of Trump as president. What has the character made of those? That might really give Kelsey Grammer something to act with.

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