Friday nights are worth staying at home for once again; or at least they are in Britain. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), the no-hope, psycho radio psychiatrist, has returned to his usual 10pm spot on Channel 4 and all is well with the world once more. Or is it?
Frasier‘s eighth season has all the ingredients for continued success. It builds on the previous season’s cliffhanger ending, which left viewers with the following: one ex-wife named Mel (Jane Adams) and one jilted groom, Donny (Sam Rubinek), abandoned, respectively, by the starry-eyed and completely unstable lovers, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves); Frasier himself, a pedantic, opinionated, and compulsively interfering psychiatrist, and his crotchety father, Martin (John Mahoney); two comparatively sane foils in Eddie the dog (Moose) and Roz (Peri Gilpin); and a Winnebago that is now the temporary home of a drunken lout. With all these ingredients, you’d expect the mix to rise to the perfection of previous seasons. However, based on the evidence of the one-hour premiere episode, it is plain to see that the fruits in this cake are not evenly distributed.
Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney, Peri Gilpin, Jane Leeves, Moose, Saul Rubinek, Jane Adams, Anthony LaPaglia
Regular airtime: Fridays, 10pm (Channel 4, UK); Tuesdays, 9pm (NBC, USA)
This is not to say that the new season is going to be bad or even that the opener is bad compared to many sitcoms. It is just not up to the standard that devotees have come to expect from the slick Seattle-based sitcom. Whilst the comic potential of the aforementioned acts of desertion is immense, several factors combine to offset their impact. There is no way that Niles and Daphne can be allowed to create a lasting and meaningful relationship. The romance happened too quickly and, within the comic conventions the show has set up over seven seasons, Niles doesn’t deserve Daphne. She is more suited to a Tom Cruise than a Mr. Lose.
Niles has long been playing the part that Frasier held down in Cheers: Frasier did not get Diane (Shelley Long), so Niles cannot get Daphne. Marriage to an attractive woman will destroy the anarchic fulcrum around which the idiosyncratic Frasier and Niles gyrate in ever- increasing self-destructive circles. Rather, they are destined to marry and divorce a Maris (Niles’ invisible, but omnipotent ex-wife) or a Lillith (Bebe Neuwirth, of Cheers and several guest appearances on Frasier). Both women dominate their respective ex-husbands: Lillith controls Frasier intellectually, physically, and emotionally; Maris humiliates Niles through a tactical deployment of her own apparent weakness, reinforced by shrewd use of social and financial status. She uses her real or psychosomatic illnesses to manipulate Niles, and his almost paranoiac desire to be amongst Seattle’s elite puts him at her mercy, as she is far better connected than he.
However, there is little doubt that long-haul fans of the show, of which I am one, want to see Niles and Daphne together. We all know that Niles has been carrying a massive torch for Daphne for seven seasons, and that sort of devotion deserves a reward. Yet, it is unlikely that Niles’ constancy has moved beyond frustrated physical desire. His own common-sense suggestion that they forego a physical relationship until they are certain of each other’s feelings, meets with Daphne’s approval, but his reaction to her agreement tells the audience that sexual yearning is driving him. His gestures have the stock mimetic bawdiness of a commedia dell’arte character, invested in physical conquest. He loses his air of intellectual superiority in this response, becoming humanised and providing viewers with a mirror on their own weaknesses. Yet, what the audience wants would not serve the series.
The producers have already realised that the other potential romantic pairing amongst the regular cast is not a runner. There is no way that Frasier could be paired off with Roz, despite her obvious desirability. She may be serially promiscuous and apparently available for any man, but she chooses her partners. Frasier is not one of the chosen. Equally, Frasier balks at anything other than a professional relationship with Roz (she produces his radio show). The writers of Frasier have made sure the audience is aware that Roz and Frasier are not physically compatible, but also that they feel friendship and respect amidst their mutual physical rejection.
It is unfortunate that the writers have not followed this very good practise with Niles and Daphne. Given the mistake of starting Daphne and Niles down the marital path, it seems obvious that the series needs to back-peddle to save them as comic characters. Difficulties are already being put in the way of the romance. Mel has agreed to give Niles a divorce, but only on the condition that he helps her save face with a gradual withdrawal from the marriage. Niles has had to agree, therefore, to maintain the facade of his marriage to Mel until a suitable period has passed to allow her to find an excuse for dumping him. Still, within the twisted universe of the series, Mel is a much more suitable wife for Niles. Perhaps her only fault as a Maris or Lillith substitute is that she is not severe enough in her appearance. However, her manipulations are superb, barbed and full of vitriol. There is hope that the series will sort itself out without Niles and Daphne’s marriage, as this could ultimately destroy it.
In my view, the series has slipped into a gentle but perceptible decline. Already, the characters spend much less time at the radio station. This means that wonderfully comic personalities such as Bob “Bulldog” Brisco (Dan Butler), Bebe Glaser (Harriet Sansom Harris), and Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert) are no longer seen as often as they were and should be. Woeful characters like Simon Moon (Anthony LaPaglia), Daphne’s rampantly sexist brother, have taken their place. He comes all the way from Manchester—complete with a “London” accent—for the wedding. He takes over the Winnebago, steals wedding presents that should be returned, and drinks to excess; in a word, he does nothing positive for the show.
Sadly, the much-lauded invention of the writing team has flagged. It is a stretch to ask regular viewers to believe that Daphne is virginal one minute and pregnant the next. And then we have to suspend disbelief to accept that Daphne is not pregnant at all—even though actress Jane Leeves was pregnant during much of the filming and recently gave birth to her first daughter. Perhaps we’re meant to believe that Daphne has just put on some extra pounds and camera angles and clothing are just being carefully manipulated to minimise the effect!
Even if Frasier does continue to fade, many viewers will maintain their emotional and intellectual investment in the show, motivated by nostalgia rather than the hallmarks of the first seven seasons—originality, wit, and superb ensemble work. Hopefully, when the finale comes, it will leave us with the same bittersweet taste as the last episode of Cheers—Sam’s (Ted Danson) turning out the lights allowed Kelsey Grammer to move on and front a vehicle that equaled, if not surpassed, its predecessor. When Frasier has finally “left the building,” I will feel both regret and relief. To paraphrase Ruskin, “Every living thing is either growing or contracting.” Frasier has now reached the full extent of its comic growth.