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‘Frasier’ 10 Years Later: The Slow Death of a Canonical Sitcom

Ten years ago this week, Frasier aired its final episode, “Goodnight Seattle, Part 2.” Spoiler alert, in case an extra decade isn’t long enough for you to get through Frasier: he trades Seattle for the promise of love. The two-part finale shows Frasier Crane on a plane, flashing back to the dramatic familial events of the preceding episodes. We’re led to believe that he’s flying to San Francisco to start a new life after making the abrupt decision to move south for an upgrade on the broadcast-shrink circuit, but in the show’s final moment, viewers discover that he has instead flown to Chicago, ostensibly to give it a shot with new love interest Charlotte (played by Laura Linney).

For those who stuck with Frasier through its 11-season run, the finale’s last scene was a sliver of change amidst a sea of sameness. A man who makes his living advising others on achieving happiness finally goes after his own. At this point, Frasier had been divorced from his ex-wife Lilith for more than a decade; if I had to guess, Kelsey Grammer’s character probably slept with as many women as Jerry Seinfeld did in his own TV bachelorhood. It’s not that Frasier was a commitment-phobe — he was overly discerning about his women, as he was in all other aspects of life. But perhaps seeing his loved ones no longer in need of guidance was the push he needed to give himself some.

My goal here is not to analyze the analyst — to pull a Dr. Frasier Crane on Dr. Frasier Crane — but rather, to reflect on a series ending that was among the better ones I’ve seen. The longer a show goes on, the more daunting the task of ending it becomes. Frasier went on at least three seasons too long, but they ended it perfectly, with a flurry of life changes for the supporting cast and a big show of personal growth for the lead. It was the opposite of what Seinfeld did — a finale with no heart, no growth. I just wish Frasier‘s ending had come sooner, before the murder plot involving Niles’ ex-wife, Maris, and the forced will-they-or-won’t-they fling between Frasier and his BFF/radio show producer Roz.

With regards to the latter, a series only gets one main couple to ‘ship.’ With Frasier’s brother Niles and the family’s housekeeper Daphne, Frasier managed to have a will-they-or-won’t-they rivaling that of Sam and Diane on Cheers, or Jim and Pam on The Office. It took seven seasons for Niles and Daphne to get together, one more after that for them to consummate the relationship, and still, Frasier squeezed in three more seasons of milking it without the romantic tension. It’s a big part of why Frasier lost momentum, which is not to say there aren’t bigger issues here too.

I recently re-watched a Season 10 episode, “The Devil and Dr. Phil,” in which Dr. Phil guest-stars as part of an elaborate scheme for Bebe to win back Frasier as a client. I found myself thinking that Frasier and Dr. Phil (as a TV star) exist in fundamentally different TV eras. Phil is an early-2000s entity, while Frasier represents the mid-1990s, a time when being off was socially acceptable in the mainstream.

The entire premise of the show was surprisingly off for network TV: two ballet-attending, Italian loafer-wearing, espresso-sipping psychiatrist brothers, the Cranes, get into trouble in and out of their own bubble of elitism from time to time. And they’re straight! When Frasier premiered on NBC in 1993 as a Cheers spin-off, the term “metrosexual” was still a year away from being coined, and it would be nearly a decade until its use would become ubiquitous among suburbanites. With Frasier, the mainstream was OK with Puccini references and caviar puns that went over their heads at times because the farce was funny enough. In this sense, I’ve always thought of Frasier as the Steely Dan of network sitcoms.

Without the Cheers tie-in, Frasier may not have failed immediately — but it wouldn’t have lasted as many seasons as its origin show and been more esoteric. Ultimately, Frasier transcended sitcom status: the show served as a highbrow cultural surrogate for those who had no intention of going to the opera anytime soon. A smart show for people who think they’re smarter than they actually are.

“Snob” is a timeless qualifier, but keep in mind that we first met Frasier Crane in 1984 as a love interest for Diane on Cheers. Twenty years of a network sitcom character is unparalleled, but even with the radical changes made when Crane moved to Seattle for the spin-off, his schtick was getting old. By Seasons 10 and 11, it started to feel like the writers were fresh out of comedies of errors for the Cranes. How many times can Frasier have a new girlfriend, get excited, and chat about it over lattes, only to have witty confusion ensue?

Moreover, the show’s worldview started to feel out of place in an increasingly digital, culturally segmented world. Becoming out of touch is a risk a series runs after more than five seasons or so, but after crossing that threshold, the show is likely a hit the network would prefer to keep airing. Frasier is not rare in this sense — from The Office to Roseanne, many truly great sitcoms suffer through their declines. Despite final seasons that felt forced, Frasier remains in the sitcom canon, enduring now among a new generation on Netflix and syndication. If they make it through all 11 seasons of tossed salad and scrambled eggs, at least they’ll be rewarded with a touching ending.

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