Frasier is my gold standard sitcom. I admit, it’s an easy show to take for granted; it will always be remembered, first and foremost, as a Cheers spin-off. One of the most successful spin-offs of all time, certainly, but a spin-off nonetheless. It wasn’t really a landmark show in the cultural consciousness. No barriers were broken, no new representations explored. Nope, the Cranes were just there, quietly winning Emmy after Emmy until they collected a record 37 statues (a height only recently beaten by Game of Thrones). But kick the tires, even just a little bit, and all of a sudden – genius. I’m somewhere around my fourth full rewatch of the show (yes, all eleven seasons, thanks Netflix!) and I am here to tell you that the cast and crew of Frasier took home all those Emmys for a reason.
I’m a tough sell for sitcoms as a whole. Give me a drama or genre show, and more often than not I’m there from the start, but it takes a lot for perfectly respectable half-hour situation comedies to worm their way into my heart. Frasier, though, has kept its place as my ultimate sitcom of choice for years, never getting old or feeling tired and outdated. It’s a feat for any program to last eleven seasons, much less for those eleven seasons to maintain stand-out character development, great storytelling, and most importantly, to keep landing the punchlines. How? How do they do it?
With a structural secret weapon! Frasier is a sitcom. No one would argue that. But it’s also a workplace comedy. A classic farce. A romantic comedy. A show about a multi-generational family, mourning their matriarch and learning to coexist. A show about clinical psychiatry and academia. And, yes, a show with a franchise legacy, one that’s cheerfully (sorry not sorry) embraced and never, ever forgotten. Frasier, quite literally, has it all.
So if you’ve caught an episode recently, or if you haven’t thought about the Crane family in years, consider this your re-introduction to Frasier and its many genres.
“It’s times like this that most families pull together and draw strength from each other. What shall we do?”
Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning, and start with the pitch. After leaving Boston and his neighborhood bar behind, Frasier Crane rejoins his father and brother in their hometown of Seattle. He quickly ends up taking in his father Martin, a retired cop who suffered a gunshot wound to the hip in the line of duty. Right out of the gate, the premise is pointing us towards blood relatives and a show about family. It’s an inter-generational version of the Odd Couple; Martin is the blue collar, sports watching, Ballantines drinking elder, while Niles and Frasier squabble about their favorite operas and keep an endless supply of sherry on hand at all times. But they all love each other, function as a family and generally get along. Right?
Kind of, kind of not. Especially in the first several seasons, the Crane family is flat-out dysfunctional. We learn in season three’s “You Can Go Home Again” that, while he used to make the trip twice a year, Frasier stopped visiting Seattle almost entirely after his mother Hester (Rita Wilson, with one of my FAVORITE returning cameos), died of cancer. Hester was the connecting force between the three Crane men; she too was a psychiatrist, and met and fell in love with Martin during a crime scene investigation. Frasier and Niles carry on their mother’s legacy while ignoring their father’s influence almost entirely. Without her to bring everyone together, the chasm between father and sons grows and grows – even the brothers barely speak when Frasier first moves home. But Frasier is desperate to connect. After all, he’s just left his son Frederick and ex-wife Lilith on the other side of the country, all on the hope that he can re-integrate himself with his family in Seattle and start over. They get there in the end, but the trip isn’t easy. Especially not with Martin. Just look at this exchange from the pilot episode:
Frasier: I’m just trying to do the right thing, here. I’m trying to be the good son.
Martin: Oh, don’t worry, son. After I’m gone you can live guilt-free, knowing you’ve done right by your pop.
Frasier: You think that’s what this is about, guilt?
Martin: Isn’t it?
Frasier: Of course it is! But the point is, I did it! I took you in! And I’ve got news for you – I wanted to do it! Because you’re my father. And how do you repay me? Ever since you’ve moved in here it’s been a snide comment about this or a smart little put-down about that. Well, I’ve done my best to make a home here for you, and once, just once, would it have killed you to say “thank you?” One lousy “thank you?”
Martin: Come on, Eddie, it’s past your dinner time.
In time, the walls come down. Niles starts letting Frasier join him for coffee, and sheer proximity and determination wears down Martin. A huge turning point for them comes in “Beloved Infidel,” when Frasier and Niles uncover evidence of an affair between their parents thirty some odd years previously. Martin takes the blame, but Frasier finds out that it was actually Hester who strayed. It’s the first real thing Martin and Frasier have in common; back in Boston, Lilith had also had an affair. The very best of Martin’s character is on display here: “Don’t hate your mother for this,” he insists. Despite the barriers he keeps up at every opportunity, despite the fact that Martin never said “I love you” out loud to his sons until they hit adulthood (check out “Breaking the Ice” if you want a good laugh-cry on that one), his priority is ALWAYS his family and the memory of his wife.
Slowly but surely, Martin, Frasier and Niles build a life together as the loving and supportive family unit you might remember. There are still growing pains throughout the series – in “Chess Pains,” for instance, Frasier can’t stand the idea that Martin keeps beating him in chess, refusing to acknowledge that, as a detective, Martin is smart as hell – just in a different way than his sons. But maybe the best example of the Crane men’s family dynamic comes in season five’s “The Gift Horse.” Martin is celebrating his 65th birthday, and in a standard display of sibling rivalry, Frasier and Niles keep trying to one-up the other to get their father the best possible gift. The whole thing is a delight and they’re both at the top of their game. Frasier is even driven to purchasing a ridiculously huge big-screen TV, but still comes up short when Niles tracks down Martin’s old mounted patrol companion:
Niles: He certainly did love that horse.
Frasier: You can only live in denial for so long before you…
Frasier: You didn’t?!
Niles: Didn’t what? Buy the horse? Sorry, did!
The set up is perfection, especially because, amongst all the killer jokes, everything points back to fundamental insecurities within all three of the Crane men. Frasier and Niles are desperate for their father’s approval and love, projecting it all onto the perfect gift because “somehow, finding the right present will magically change everything.” Frasier is even willing to sacrifice his beloved interior design for the cause, once again proving that he’ll upend his own life to make his father more comfortable. Niles, ever the younger brother, can’t bear to let Frasier win. Meanwhile Martin, finally reunited with his old horse Agides, is struck by how much his companion has aged and gets knocked out by his own mortality. Finally, they all come to a head in Agides’ stable, while Frasier and Niles eavesdrop on Martin:
Martin: We were something, weren’t we Agides, huh? Riding crowd control. People’d just step aside to let us pass. Now, they’re putting you out to pasture and I’m riding the buses. It’s fun getting old, isn’t it? Hey, this is a nice place here, you know. I bet you’re really going to like it here. And you know, if you don’t like it here, then we’ll do what we said we would. We’ll just go to Montana, start a ranch. You know, we still got all that money we took from those drug dealers buried in the old box canyon!
Martin goes on to tell his sons that all he really wants from them is to listen – not to offer advice or push their opinions or education upon him, but to hear him out when he’s feeling scared. But he’s quick to assure Niles, who’s worried that his perfect gift backfired, that he’s never been given a greater gift. And what else is Niles to do?
Because here’s the thing. The Crane boys get their profession, their tastes, their outward natures from their mother. They even get a large part of their tendency towards emotional distance from her, frequently referencing Hester’s motto, “a handshake is as good as a hug.” But Frasier and Niles, under their lovably pretentious surfaces, are honorable men with strong moral compasses. They take their practices seriously, and find real purpose in their work. After all, their professional mission is to help people through their most difficult moments, to be supportive, thoughtful, and dependable confidants for callers and patients alike. Frasier and Niles have integrity, and that, they get from Martin.
Tasting Menu: “The Good Son,” “Beloved Infidel,” “Dukes, We Hardly Knew Ye,” “Breaking the Ice,” “Chess Pains,” “You Can Go Home Again,” “Our Father Whose Art Ain’t Heaven”, “The Gift Horse,” “RDWRER”
“With a grateful shudder, I swore I would never again return to… the NIGHTMARE INN.”
And now, I am pleased to present one of the greatest displays of farcical comedy in sitcom history:
While we’re on the subject, may I state for the record, for the first time and certainly not the last that David Hyde Pierce EARNED his 11 straight Emmy nominations. (Yep, you read that right. He got a nomination for EVERY SINGLE SEASON of Frasier and he deserved all of them.) This is gold and he is perfection. And in the comedic duo of DHP and Kelsey Grammer, Frasier had two of the most talented farcical actors of their generation, ready and waiting to dive into anything the writers could imagine. They took full advantage, and the result is one of the best uses of the genre to originate from this side of the pond.
So what are the greatest farce hits on Frasier? They basically add up to a list of the show’s most beloved episodes. Take, for example, “The Ski Lodge.” This episode is held up as one of the high water marks for the show’s 11 year history, and the whole thing runs like a master class. Roz wins a free weekend at a fancy ski resort but she can’t make the trip, so the whole crew – Frasier, Niles, Martin and Daphne – crashes in her stead. Daphne brings a model friend, the resort provides a hot ski instructor, and Martin’s ears are clogged, leading him to pass along a whole lot of wrong information about who’s into who. Chaos ensues.
These episodes knock it out of the park not just because their scripts are so meticulously crafted, or because the cast is so well suited towards them (though both things could not be more true). They’re classics because the all-important tipping points plug right into their main characters’ well-established and often endearingly obnoxious neuroses. David Hyde Pierce can pull off farce in his sleep, but something about Niles – fussy, skittish, OCD Niles – makes him lighting a couch on fire because he passed out at the sight of blood next-level hilarious. The same can be said for Kelsey Grammer – Frasier’s painfully sensitive ego around romantic entanglements gives him the PERFECT closing punch line for “The Ski Lodge.”
Personally though, my favorites come in at a three-way tie: “Ham Radio,” “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Mozkowitz” and “The Seal Who Came to Dinner.” If I’ve had a terrible day and need some cheering up, those are my three go-to’s. Looking for Frasier at his most pompous and controlling, Niles at his most defensive and snarky, and radio prop work at its finest? Check into the Nightmare Inn:
How about a classic holiday episode, a blind date gone right, and a nativity gone amuck?
And really, what can I say about “The Seal Who Came to Dinner” except that it culminates in this sentence seeming like a totally logical chain of events:
The dialogue, the slapstick, the ridiculous build to a moment you KNOW is unavoidable but still somehow don’t see coming? Nobody does it better.
Tasting Menu: “The Innkeepers”, “To Kill a Talking Bird,” “Ham Radio,” “Voyage of the Damned,” “The Ski Lodge,” “The Seal Who Came to Dinner,” “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Mozkowitz,” “Decoys,” “Bla-z-Boy,” “Tales from the Crypt”
“At work today, I found an injurious graffito about me scrawled on the men’s room wall.”
A truly remarkable amount of sitcom legwork is done over at KACL 780 Talk Radio; so much so that the AM radio station (remember AM radio, everyone?) really could have been home to a show unto itself. It provides Frasier with a limitless cast of characters from other KACL programs – Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe and the Gonzo Sports Show, Gil Chesterton’s Restaurant Beat, Chopper Dave’s Eye in the Sky traffic report, Father Mike’s Religion on the Line, The Morning Zoo with Carlos and the Chicken – and a constantly rotating door of station managers, owners, interns, and agents, plus the annual SeaBee awards for excellence in Seattle Broadcasting.
We have The Doctor Frasier Crane Show to thank for all those celebrity voice over cameos; David Duchovny calling in with relationship problems, a 13-year old Elijah Wood having issues with other kids at school, Carrie Fisher looking to treat insomnia, Gillian Anderson practicing her southern accent – I could go on. (Pro tip: always check the season finale credits for a rundown of that year’s callers. I guarantee there will be someone in there that surprises you.) And none of this even touches Roz, who’s so vital to the show’s makeup that she makes an appearance no matter the set location, and ultimately rises above KACL entirely.
The best radio personalities are big personalities, so of course Frasier constantly finds himself at odds with his KACL colleagues. After all, the possibilities for radio focused storylines with such a ridiculous cast of characters are endless. Take “Frasier Crane’s Day Off” – in the first season, Frasier gets the flu but doesn’t want to call out for fear that Gil Chesterton will make a play for his time slot. Niles fills in, Frasier’s big brother competitive streak takes over, and several ill-advised pharmaceutical decisions later, Frasier storms the booth stoned out of his mind until Niles and Roz join forces to kick him out:
Niles: Hello! This is Dr. Niles Crane again and no, we haven’t taken leave of our senses. That bit of inspired lunacy you heard just before the commercial was just a little docudrama Frasier and I put together on the dangers of over-medication. Bravo, Frasier, for so brilliantly demonstrating why they call it “dope!”
(Really, check out that episode, the whole thing is a masterpiece.)
It’s season three that delivers the show’s most comprehensive workplace storyline in the form of Kate Costas, one of KACL’s station managers (and unquestionably the best, most professional one they had – sorry Kenny Daly, but you’re a loveable pushover). She’s every bit Frasier’s match; a little ruthless, clever as hell, and just damn good at running things. Kate Costas is a perfect example of Frasier at its most subtly excellent. She’s a woman who has fought to get to the top of her profession, dealing with all the bullshit that female bosses have hoisted upon them and winning piles of broadcasting accolades along the way. (Frasier: “My god, you’ve won SIX Golden Mike awards?” Kate: “Aren’t you sweet to notice.”) Plenty of men throw jabs her way, but the jokes always ultimately land on them for being idiots – never on Kate.
Kate Costas IS ruthless. She fires Father Mike on her first day, and when Frasier won’t give in to her (very reasonable) suggestion of adding in some well-focused theme shows, she relegates his show to the graveyard shift until he breaks:
Kate: Enjoying your new time slot?
Frasier: As a matter of fact, I found it invigorating! Didn’t you, Roz? Remember that woman who called in, uh, you know, with the delusions of grandeur? Couldn’t understand why nobody liked her.
Kate: Well, I hope you explained to her that it’s not important that people like her, as long as they respect her.
Frasier: Oh yes, respect is important. So is self-respect.
Kate: Oh, yes, yes, but some people — and this is so unfortunate — can’t tell the difference between self-respect and pig-headedness.
Frasier: Yes, but those people are usually rigid little demagogues who don’t know the difference between the kind of respect that is earned and the kind of respect that is irrespective …of what others expect.
Kate: Isn’t it sad when bad things happen to good sentences?
A few episodes after her introduction, in “Sleeping with the Enemy,” Kate decides to freeze pay raises for the support staff, claiming that the on-air talent has sucked up the entire budget for the year. The ensuing episode is, at its core, an exploration of class politics in the office environment. Frasier rallies the on-air talent (after Martin brings their elitism down a notch) and organizes a strike for the entire staff unless Kate reconsiders her decision. The negotiation gets heated and lands Kate and Frasier in an office romance, but, that’s a story for another day.
So clearly, KACL provides Frasier with a vast network of supporting characters and a structural home base in the form of the all-important call-in show. Those two things alone are more than enough to justify its existence within the universe. But KACL is also doing something delicately vital for Frasier’s professional work: it allows him to practice clinical psychology without placing the burden of consistent mental health work too firmly on the show itself. KACL gives him the opportunity to treat patients, but it also gives him an easy out for the caller to “seek professional help” if things are a bit too complex to solve in a few short minutes. This is not to say that Frasier doesn’t do any heavy emotional lifting; it very much does. But The Doctor Frasier Crane Show gives the character the flexibility of an entertainer while maintaining the authority of a psychiatrist, which makes the KACL workplace pivotal to both Frasier Crane and Frasier.
Tasting Menu: “Frasier Crane’s Day Off,” “She’s the Boss,” “Leapin’ Lizards,” “Sleeping with the Enemy,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Radio Wars,” “Love Stinks,” “Juvenilia”
“Perhaps we should start with the premise set forth in the definitive study done by Harlan and Watkins.”
As has been stated in countless articles and think pieces across this great internet, we are living in the Golden Age of television. Dramas are comedies, comedies are dramas, and shows of all kinds are regularly taking substantive risks. But let’s take things back to the Spring of 1994. It’s the first season finale of Frasier. The show is on solid ratings ground and has been critically well-received. How to close out the year?
By re-imagining a landmark, extremely well-regarded experimental film from 1981, holding to one conversation for an entire episode, and digging into the psyches of their main characters with the most complicated, yet most straightforward question of all: “Are you happy?”
“My Coffee with Niles” is one of my all-time favorite episodes of Frasier, and I could spend ages extolling its virtues. The season one finale does a huge amount of character work. It’s the first time Niles admits he might be in love with Daphne and it allows Frasier the opportunity to decide that his big move to Seattle has been a success. But in this context, I will just say: that episode is cerebral as hell.
It’s pretty common knowledge that the writers wove actual clinical psychology into the DNA of the show. Niles Crane was pitched to David Hyde Pierce with little more character development than the fact that he was the Jungian to Frasier’s Freudian. Nights out are regularly spent at the opera or at wine club. Ridiculously specific intellectual in-jokes are often baked into episode titles. (Niles and Daphne have to re-stage their wedding? “The Ring Cycle.” Niles’ parrot causes trouble at a dinner party? “To Kill a Talking Bird.”) The greatest thing about those little asides are that, as with all truly high quality easter eggs, they treat those who don’t notice the joke just as well as those who do. Frasier is not out to make anyone feel dumb for not liking art; it’s also not out to make fun of those who love it. If you’re enough of a classical music fan to giggle at “The Ring Cycle,” that’s great! If you’re not, it doesn’t take a single thing away from your viewing experience. And that line is a damn impressive one to walk.
Frasier’s scholarly leanings are at their most effective when they match the mission of clinical psychology itself – to dive into the psyche, take a look around, and help guide an individual through a crisis. Take “Don Juan in Hell Part 2,” wherein Frasier, desperate to understand why all of his relationships keep failing, imagines a debate between all the most important women in his life. Diane Chambers, Lilith Sternin, even his first wife Nannette and his mother Hester all join in the thought experiment:
Hester: You’ve spent your whole life trying to replace me, but it’s completely understandable. I was your first love.
Lilith: Ladies, meet the competition. This is the woman against whom we have all been measured.
Frasier: Lilith, will you please be quiet! Mother is speaking!
Hester: So, a lifetime of collecting women and this is the cream of the crop: the slacker, the barmaid, and the icicle. I was so relieved when they left you.
Diane: You left him too!
Hester: Oh, I had no choice. Perhaps you heard? I died. Now, let’s get down to work, shall we?
Lilith: We were doing perfectly well before you got here.
Hester: Well, if your bargain-basement psychiatry was so effective, why did he have to call in the big guns? Now, let’s explore the inner recesses of your psyche like we did when you were a boy.
Frasier: I don’t want to!
This is heavy emotional and psychological lifting, even amongst all the jokes and jabs. The same can be found in “Good Grief,” which takes place right after KACL’s talk radio staff is unilaterally fired. Frasier literally moves through the five stages of grief over the loss of his job, with Niles counseling him every step of the way. Or “Frasier’s Edge,” in which the SeaBees bestow Frasier with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s initially thrilled, but when he receives a note from his mentor, William Tewksbury, recognizing the accomplishment with “Congratulations. You must be very proud,” Frasier spirals out and drops by to speak with him before the awards ceremony. What follows is a full scale psychological breakdown between mentor and mentee:
For me, that’s one of the most impactful scenes in all of Frasier, and it’s because the therapy is treated with such precision and care. There is real psychoanalytic work being done here. The writers don’t shy away from the opportunity to treat their characters (or viewers, for that matter) with the same intelligence and focus with which they would treat their patients. And as a direct result of all that academia, the characters and audiences alike receive a uniquely emotionally comprehensive journey.
Tasting Menu: “Author, Author,” “My Coffee with Niles,” “Shrink Rap,” “A Crane’s Critique,” “Death and the Dog,” “Good Grief,” “IQ,” “Momma Mia,” “A Tsar is Born,” “The Apparent Trap,” “Frasier’s Edge,” “Don Juan in Hell Part 2”
“It’s all about romance with you Cranes, isn’t it?”
In the early days of the first season, it’s established that all of our main characters are single, divorced, widowed or unhappily married. It takes years for any of them to enter into emotionally satisfying, long term romantic relationships, and for our titular character, that particular form of partnership never really comes to pass. Frasier, who left Boston in huge part because of his divorce from Lilith, spends an inordinate amount of time dating his way around Seattle. Most of his romantic life comes in fits and starts, and more often than not, the man just gets in his own way. Take “Adventures in Paradise Parts 1 and 2,” in which Frasier meets a woman from Seattle Magazine’s “up and comers” list. He and Madeline connect immediately, and before long they’re totally enamored with each other:
Frasier: It’s just that I haven’t felt this way since, since my divorce. Everything seems so right.You know, I haven’t said this out loud, but here goes: it’s possible that she could be the woman I spend the rest of my life with.
Roz: Go. Go do that. Get married, have a couple of kids, move out to the country, buy a puppy, live happily ever after! Just don’t tell me about it, I need a boyfriend!
In no time at all, Frasier and Madeline take off for a romantic trip to Bora Bora – staying in the exact resort where Frasier took Lilith five years ago. So of COURSE she’s staying in the room next door, on a romantic getaway of her own with her new partner, Brian. What follows is a complete and total downward spiral; Frasier absolutely cannot handle having Lilith around (*cough cough* because he’s always been in love with her *cough cough*) and drives Madeline away with his obsessive attempts to one-up Lilith and Brian. So many of Frasier’s relationships end like this: with him standing directly in his own way, obsessed with his own neuroses and incapable of making a real, romantic connection.
Meanwhile, there’s a really interesting counterbalance to be found in the show’s leading women. Roz dates constantly, and gives precisely zero fucks when her coworkers suggest she sleeps around too much. Roz REFUSES to settle, and refuses to let anyone make her feel bad about it; at the same time, she won’t let her life be put on hold while she looks for the right guy.
Frasier: Who knows, Roz? Maybe the time has come. You might be willing to start looking for a…
Roz: What? A husband?
Frasier: No, I wasn’t going to say that.
Roz: Just because I’m gonna miss certain things about Bulldog doesn’t mean I need to rush out and get married. Look at this week I’ve had. Three guys interested in me and not to mention Bulldog. I’m liking this! Single life is pretty good.
When a pregnancy comes before a partner, Roz decides to become a single mother and start a family, while maintaining a healthy dating life. Daphne dates from time to time, but doesn’t have many steady relationships. Before falling in love with Niles (and also kind of WHILE falling in love with Niles, but that’s a story for another day), her romantic life nearly culminates in an engagement to Donny Douglas, Niles’ divorce lawyer. Donny and Daphne have a really beautiful courtship, and their romance is pretty traditional – until Daphne pulls a Diane Chambers and leaves him at the altar. For Niles, of course, it was love at first sight, though the road to his and Daphne’s marriage is long, convoluted and spans two divorces. That particular romantic plotline is one of Frasier’s most memorable legacies, and for the most part it holds up – but right now, I want to talk about Martin. (Never fear, kind reader. I will be spending a huge amount of time talking about Niles and Daphne in an upcoming post. But, y’know, spoilers.)
Martin Crane is in his 60s during the first season, and at the time, he had been living as a widower for two years. Martin was doing just fine physically until the whole bullet to the hip thing, but his life before moving in with Frasier seemed pretty solitary. Once the walls begin to come down between him and his sons, Martin starts to open up to more genuine relationships outside of his family, too. It’s a subtle transition, but the two are undeniably connected, and Martin, ever so slowly, begins to open his heart up to partnership again. Over the course of the show he has several relationships, all of which play an important role in his emotional growth. While I am firmly in support of Martin ending up with Ronee (a genuinely delightful lounge singer played by Wendie Malick), it’s his relationship with Sherry Dempsey, a bartender at McGinty’s, that really allows Martin to work through his grief.
Sherry is everything Frasier and Niles hate: loud, brash, wonderfully tacky, and a huge amount of fun. Martin and Sherry hit it off right away, and the boys initially try to feign their support. That reaches a breaking point fast, and when Frasier finally admits that he and Niles don’t like to spend time with Sherry, all three of them are faced with the way they’ve treated the spouses in the family:
Martin: I guess it’s too much to expect my own family to make a person I care about feel welcome!
Frasier: WAIT A MINUTE! When did you ever make any of the women we were involved with feel welcome?
Niles: Ooh Frasier, you’re right! He almost got away with that!
Frasier: When did Lilith ever set foot in your house that you didn’t make her feel as wanted as a fungus?
Niles: Yes, not to mention my Maris!
Martin: You’re comparing a warm lady like Sherry to Frosty the Snow-Wife?
Frasier: There! That is exactly what I’m talking about. Oh, why don’t we just face facts? I mean, since when has any of us ever – from Sherry to Lilith to Maris to Diane – has ever been able to pick one woman that the other two could stand the sight of?
Martin: I picked your mother!
Frasier: I’m sorry, Niles. I’ve been hogging the floor.
Martin: Ah, forget it. You’re right. Why should I expect you to make the effort when I’m no better? Hell, you probably got it from me. You sure didn’t get it from your mother ‘cos she was great that way. Anytime she ever met anybody she could always find something to like about them. One of the things I loved her for. It’s one of the things I love Sherry for. She’s a lot like your mother that way. She’ll always find something — even with you two.
The memory of Hester looms large for all of the Cranes, but Martin doesn’t bring her up all that often – and when he does, it’s a moment like that one, which stops each of the characters in their tracks and forces them to reevaluate their points of view. It’s SO rare for a show to spend time on the romantic life of retirees, and especially rare for those plotlines to thoughtfully navigate the emotional journey towards remarrying after a loss – but Frasier pulls it off. Two of Martin and Sherry’s major episodes do substantial work on that front; in “Three Dates and a Breakup,” Sherry tells Martin she loves him and he initially reciprocates, only to break up with her almost immediately after. By now, we know that Martin has had trouble saying “I love you” even to his sons, and Niles and Frasier immediately share a glance when Sherry tells them what transpired. They’re shocked that their father was able to express himself in that way, and Frasier is immediately concerned that Martin is running away from an emotional connection:
Frasier: I believe that the feelings that you’re going through here are feelings of guilt. It’s probably natural to feel that way – my God, I understand exactly what you’re going through.
Martin: No, you don’t, no you don’t. You don’t understand at all: when you’ve been married for thirty-five years, you never thought there could be someone else, and one day you hear yourself say, “I love you” to another woman, maybe then you’ll understand what I’m going through.
Sherry and Martin reconcile at that point, but ultimately it doesn’t work out – and the REASON for that breakup is one of the clearest points of character development in the show. After years of keeping his family and loved ones at a distance, Martin decides he wants to remarry. And he knows that Sherry, having been married several times in the past, doesn’t. So the two go their separate ways. But without the work that Martin had done in the years leading up to that point, he never would have been able to come to terms with what he truly wanted out of a romantic relationship – and he would never have landed here.
Tasting Menu: “Adventures in Paradise Parts 1 and 2,” “Police Story,” “Dad Loves Sherry, the Boys Just Whine,” “Three Dates and a Breakup Parts 1 and 2,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” “The Love You Fake,” “I’m Listening,” “Boo”
“Oh, I love returning to Boston. There’s just something in the air.”
Spin-offs are, by their very nature, strange beasts. For a show to get a spin-off at all, it needs to be a huge success. That original success then acts as both a blessing and a curse to the new entry in the TV franchise. If a spin-off is good, it’s never as good as the original. If it’s bad, it’s devastating to the fans, who wanted to see a new part of their favorite show’s universe explored. But for me, it’s the other way around. As has now been very well-established, I adore Frasier, but while I have fond and fuzzy memories of Cheers, I never really plugged into it. So naturally, when I started this whole venture, I went directly to Head Over Feels’ brilliant Cheers expert and sitcom historian Sarah for some guidance. How should I begin to examine a beloved 11-season sitcom so similar and yet so different from “my” beloved 11-season sitcom?
Armed with new clarity on the whole Frasier – Diane – Lilith timeline and a comprehensive episode guide (which is mostly replicated in the Beer List, with thanks again to Sarah because I can’t say it enough), I got to work. And what I found in Boston was a Frasier Crane who looked FRIGHTENINGLY identical to his brother, one who was making the same mistakes in his love life as he did in Seattle and who was the same delicate balance of pompous and unexpectedly friendly – which, he’d need to be to land him in a bar every night or a coffee shop every day.
When it comes to Frasier referencing back to Cheers, the writers had their work cut out for them. Of course this was ages before DVR’s and continuity wasn’t as much of a concern, but there was still the fact that the Frasier Crane in Boston never spoke of a brother and had, in fact, announced to the whole bar that his father was a deceased research scientist, not a retired cop who was very much alive. That little problem isn’t even touched until the second season, in “The Show Where Sam Shows Up,” but when they do go there, it’s handled with a refreshing lack of give-a-shit:
Martin: Hey, what did he tell you about me, Sam? His father, the old cop?
Sam: Oh, yeah, you I remember. Um, he told me you were dead.
Frasier: Well, we had had an argument. You called me a stuffed shirt and hung up on me. I was mad.
Sam: You’re a cop? You told me he was a research scientist.
Frasier: You were dead, what did it matter?
To be fair, it DOES seem very Frasier. But before the show trots out Sam Malone, they give us Lilith.
Lilith Sternin is a wonder and a joy and I LOVE her. In her first appearance in Seattle, about half way through the first season, she gives the show several gifts. (Besides gracing them with her presence, which frankly is always a gift in and of itself.) First, she offers a subtle connection back to Boston that both references and honors Cheers but doesn’t rely on it. She also gives Frasier a way to discuss their marriage, which had been seen in Cheers as ending in cautious reconciliation. In “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back,” we learn that before moving to Seattle, Frasier had left a letter for Lilith asking for one last attempt at their relationship – but the letter fell behind a dresser, and Lilith only found it after he moved. She flies to Seattle thinking he left the letter not the year previously but the month previously, during his last visit with Frederick – only to find that he had finally given up hope, and that too much had been done in the year past for him to consider another reconciliation.
Lilith shows up once or twice a season, and the show is only better for it – but once every few years, another member of the Cheers family shows up. I’m especially fond of “The Show Where Diane Comes Back,” in which Diane Chambers, having written a play in an attempt to grapple with her life back in Boston, flies to Seattle and asks Frasier to help her stage the production. The result is Frasier and Diane, finally – behind the guise of the characters in her play, of course – giving each other a fond, kind-hearted farewell. It’s one they both deserve, and I am so glad they get to have it.
My favorite thing about how Frasier handles its legacy is that it honors Cheers, but never depends on it. There aren’t any major plotlines in Frasier that rely on Cheers, but at the same time, the show never forgets its origins. So of course, in its second to last season, they take a beat to bid a final farewell to Boston. Frasier, Niles, Daphne and Martin all trek across the country and find themselves at Cliff Clavin’s retirement party. The Cheers crew gets one final toast, and Frasier’s family sees what his life was like years before they grew so close. It’s the best possible way to honor both shows and their legacies. And it just makes me love them all even more.
Frasier: It was about ten years ago when I too left Boston. But the kind wishes and outpouring of emotions from my friends remain fresh in my mind. I still remember Sam throwing me a lavish party and dubbing me the “Einstein of Cheers” against my modest protests that I was merely the Neils Bohr.
Carla: You still are!
Frasier: Carla, thank you. And then of course, Norm begging me to stay and that comical moment when Woody threw his arms around my leg and began to cry. Now another one of us is leaving this wonderful town. Good luck, Cliff.
Everyone: Hear, hear.
Beer List: “Diane Meets Mom,” “Rescue Me,” “Birth, Death, Love and Rice,” “Abnormal Psychology,” “Teaching with the Enemy,” “The Girl in the Plastic Bubble,” “The Bar Manager, The Shrink, His Wife and Her Lover”
Tasting Menu: “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back,” “The Show Where Sam Shows Up,” “The Show Where Diane Comes Back,” “A Lilith Thanksgiving,” “Room Service,” “The Show Where Woody Shows Up,” “Cheerful Goodbyes,” “Guns N’ Neuroses”
A loving shout-out to the fantastic Frasier blog sternincrane for all the amazing gifs and screencaps!
What’s on your own curated Frasier tasting menu? Which of the show’s many genres is your favorite? The lines are open. (That means leave us a comment below.)
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