In the late 2010s in America, a revival or reboot of a 1980s or 1990s sitcom seemingly premiered every week. In times of great stress and chaos, people often turn to nostalgia. We looked to television sitcoms as the world was tipping into disaster through political turmoil. Shows like Full House, Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, Gilmore Girls, Roseanne, Saved by the Bell, Punky Brewster, and Head of the Class saw the return of familiar faces to our screens decades after the shows left the air, finding immortality in syndication. We also saw TV characters so identified by a time long gone, being reanimated in a new world.
We saw our world change through social media, social progress and setbacks, and geopolitics; the television landscape reflected that change. When the traditional, multi-camera network sitcom ruled, cable was an expensive alternative, and no one even thought about streaming. During its height, the sitcom followed a rigorous template: a broad comedic actor would march onto a stage-like set, hit her mark, bark out her line that ends with a punchline, and then wait for the canned laughter to trail off.
Despite sitcom legend James Burrows‘ predictions, the sitcom hasn’t died. It has, however, changed and evolved since the 2000s. Since 2006, no multi-cam sitcom has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, and the last time a multi-cam was nominated was back in 2014 when The Big Bang Theory was nominated for its seventh season.
We have also seen the tone of the sitcom change. He wasn’t exactly wrong when Burrows suggested that sitcoms weren’t funny. Though riotous comedies like Abbott Elementary, Modern Family, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation represented this shift in tone, we have seen in the past few years that the boundary between comedy and other genres such as thriller, mystery, horror, drama, and tragedy has blurred. Shows like The Bear, Orange Is the New Black, Only Murders in the Building, Barry, The Flight Attendant, Russian Doll, Dead to Me, GLOW, Master of None, and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel have changed how comedies operate – audiences are no longer looking to sitcoms for pure escapism but also profound, emotional truths.
Back in the day, if multi-cam sitcoms got serious – and they often did – they would be addressed in Very Special Episodes where the characters would face a topical issue. The show would impart a noble moral and message by the end of the episode. (These more substantive episodes would act as Emmy bait for the writers and actors.)
As we see the reboot trend crest, the latest in the line of revived shows debuted this past week: Frasier. The original run of Frasier – 1993 to 2004 – coincided with the height of Must See TV, a popular sitcom block on NBC that grew in strength in the ’80s and ’90s, thanks to powerhouses like The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace. The shows on Must See TV were similar in that they depicted upwardly mobile, middle-class characters in urban settings. When Friends dominated the television ratings, clones would pop up, hoping to capitalize on the success.
Frasier was a gem, lodged in the top 20 ratings for nine of its eleven seasons. A spin-off of Cheers, David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee’s show moved Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) from Boston to his native Seattle. Instead of hanging out in a bar with his fellow barflies, Frasier became part of a new ensemble: his brother, fellow psychologist Dr. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce); his dad, an injured, retired cop, Martin (John Mahoney); Martin’s live-in physical therapist, Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves); and Frasier’s colleague, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin).
In the original Frasier, Frasier finds celebrity and success as a radio psychologist. Though Fraiser is a spin-off of Cheers, the tone and themes of the show are quite different from its parent show: the most notable thing about Frasier is its sophisticated, urban tone as well as its reliance on farce – the lampooning of the snooty upper-class, mistakes and misunderstandings, and physical humor. The actors were consummate comedians, and though Grammer was undeniably the show’s main draw, Frasier would not work without the peerless support of the cast (as well as an orbiting cast of wonderful recurring characters, including several Cheers alumni).
The original sitcom operated in a hermetically sealed bubble for all 11 seasons. Unlike Murphy Brown or Roseanne, Frasier was content to leave the politics and social issues aside and instead focused on the characters and their absurd interactions with each other. There was an element of the Marx Brothers to the Frasier – except Frasier and Niles were both the Margaret Dumont-like dignified dowager character. The comedy relied on the interaction and tension between Frasier and Niles and their working-class friends. Though Frasier is a sympathetic character, the fun of the show is seeing his pomposity deflated.
In the new reiteration of Frasier, the show has taken on some significant changes. Grammer is the sole performer from the original cast to return. Mahoney passed away in 2018, while the other actors expressed a lack of interest in joining (though Gilpin and Bebe Neuwirth, who played Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith, are due to return as recurring characters). Instead of Seattle, Frasier returns to Boston to start a new job and patch up his relationship with his estranged son Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott, taking over the role from Trevor Einhorn).
Fraiser reunites with an old college pal, Alan Cornwall (British comedian Nicholas Lyndhurst), a psychology professor at Harvard. Joining Frasier is his nephew, David (Anders Keith), son of Niles and Daphne. Rounding out the cast are Jess Salgueiro as Eve, Freddy’s best friend and roommate, and Toks Olagundoye as Olivia, the dean of Harvard’s psychology department, who woos Frasier to accept a teaching post.
In the first few minutes, we get a brief summary of what’s been going on with Frasier in the 20 years since the first show ended. Those who remember (or still watch the original in reruns) will wonder if Frasier is still with the lovely Charlotte (Laura Linney), the professional matchmaker with whom Fraiser fell in love at the end of the 11th season. In the final episode, Frasier was en route to Chicago to be with Charlotte, ending the comedy on a lovely, lilting note.
In the following years, Frasier moved from being a famous radio star to a popular television psychologist, à la Dr Phil (who appeared as an acquaintance in the original show). This career has left the guy obscenely wealthy (as illustrated in a later scene of the first episode). As Frasier returns to Boston, he meets Alan and David at the airport and gives them the elevator pitch of life between Frasier and Frasier 2.0: he got rich and famous, and then Charlotte dumped him. Now, he’s back in Boston. (One wonders if he’ll pop down to that basement bar called Cheers now that he’s back home.)
The first episode of the new Frasier, “The Good Father”, is clearly a reference to the first episode of the original show, “The Good Son”. In the original, Fraiser, returning to Seattle, struggles with supporting his cantankerous father while simultaneously trying to forge his own life after his divorce. In “The Good Father”, Fraiser is trying to mend fences with Freddy, who has kept low contact with his dad after quitting university and becoming a firefighter.
The parallels are clear: Just as Fraiser and Martin fought to see eye-to-eye, Frasier and Freddy are having similar problems. Fraiser is yet again at odds with someone he loves because of perceived class issues. Martin and Freddy are civil servants who perform dangerous jobs – Martin was injured in the line of duty and forced into premature retirement, and Freddy lost a close friend on the job. The script for “The Good Father” – penned by Joe Cristalli and Chris Harris – creates this bond between Freddy and the late Martin, naturally leaving Frasier out. His innate inability to understand these two men establishes the tension that causes years of estrangement. When Frasier pops by Freddy’s home unannounced, the two do not share a warm reunion; instead, it’s clear that the younger Crane is unnerved by his dad’s surprise appearance.
In the first episode, Cristalli and Harris attempt to bring Frasier into the 21st century but still honor the original show. It’s a tricky balancing act that ultimately fails. But there are glimpses of the silly charm of the original show, especially in the way that the script drops somewhat of a bombshell: Freddy and Eve live together with a baby. We’re not given the full explanation of this arrangement immediately, so we’re left assuming that Frasier Crane is a grandfather.
In an echo to the original show, Freddie and David sleuth around the apartment, looking for clues, bringing back The Crane Boys’ Mysteries, only this time David is the other Crane boy. They try to suss out Freddy’s secret and, in classic Frasier fashion, get all of the clues wrong. When the mystery is solved – Eve is the widow of Freddy’s late friend – it’s done through an emotional scene in which Freddy and Frasier have a heart-to-heart in which the two men express their mutual resentments.
The new Frasier feels odd and awkward because the new ensemble looks radically different from the original cast. Though both Freddy and Eve aren’t that much different in age from Daphne when Jane Leeves started the show (in fact, Cutmore-Scott is older now than Leeves was when she began Frasier), the aesthetic of the original Frasier felt older, more mature as it focused on Frasier and Martin. The look and feel of the new Frasier has the vague whiff of a teen sitcom or a Netflix sitcom. The young characters are so strong that the writing often veers toward that direction of humor, and Grammer seems to stand back and wait. (Scenes with Frasier and Alan come closest to capturing the original’s tone.)
When the new Will & Grace, Roseanne, and Murphy Brown sitcoms premiered, they struggled to address topical issues. The old iterations of these shows looked to the headlines and were informed by social and cultural issues. The original Frasier avoided being political, so it doesn’t have that problem. The show is refreshingly free of ham-fisted attempts at keeping up with current trends or topical issues.
And that is what might ensure the new Frasier‘s success. If the show suddenly brought up complex questions of politics, race, sexuality, or identity, it would collapse. Not because those issues aren’t worth exploring with humor – contemporary sitcoms have tackled such topics with aplomb. But Frasier was never about confronting issues. It was comfort television. Smart comfort television, but comfort television, nonetheless.
The original Frasier aired during the Clinton years and the first Bush administration. America was thrown into chaos and collective grief on 9/11 (one of the show’s creators – David Angell, died on 9/11). Fraiser’s world was a utopian fantasy untouched by any of these issues nor the social or political unrest that followed. The Bush years were marked by divisiveness in America, particularly regarding how one defines patriotism, and yet, Frasier never sought to address these questions. The economy was devastated by the terrorist attacks, and yet, the characters on the show rarely addressed money issues.
The current Frasier is airing during an arguably more polarized political and social landscape in America, one that is a direct result of several economic meltdowns, the Trump presidency, the January 6 insurrection, a resurgence of the culture wars, and a cultural reckoning around race, sexuality, class, and gender. The bigger question then is: who is this new Frasier for? What is its purpose? It won’t be a socially conscious comedy like black-ish, nor will it look to the dizzying complexities of sexual and gender identity as does the Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That…
Frasier‘s main appeal will be nostalgia and affection for the title character. Judging from the early episodes, it’s clear the show isn’t nearly as good as the original. The new ensemble cast (save for Lyndhurst) pales compared to the original – it’s not the new actors’ fault because they do their best. Still, the original group is one of television’s most outstanding comic ensembles. So, it’s all up to Grammer’s Frasier. And that is why this reboot is so confounding and challenging. Is a character inherently meant to be escapist fun relevant in a television landscape that largely looks to comedy for social commentary?