Why Is Frasier’s Departure Going Virtually Unnoticed?

Frasier‘s place in television history is unquestionable. But Emmys, Golden Globes, and other awards aren’t really what has assured the series a place among the best comedies.

David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee
13 May 2004 (US)

Next year, one of the best sitcoms in television history will end. As of Fall 2004, NBC will miss the big F. No, not Friends. I mean Frasier, the show that won a record five consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy during its first five seasons. It has received a total of 31 Emmys, an all-time record.

The character Frasier Crane has been on television every year since 1984, first as Diane Chambers’ love interest on Cheers and then in his own spin-off, putting him in the same longevity league as Marshall Dillon of Gunsmoke and Erica Kane of All My Children. Frasier has earned Kelsey Grammer three Emmys and the distinction of being the only person nominated for an Emmy for playing the same character on three separate series (Cheers, Wings, and Frasier). Grammer has also won two Golden Globes and an American Comedy Award, while co-star David Hyde Pierce (Niles Crane) has won three Emmys and John Mahoney (Martin Crane) and Jane Leeves (Daphne Moon Crane) have received nominations. Clearly, the show and cast have earned their place in television history, so why is Frasier’s departure going virtually unnoticed?

The most obvious reason is the media focus on Friends‘ last season. This story has made the cover of Newsweek, and USA Today has been running a weekly feature recalling “favorite” Friends episodes. True, Frasier is no longer the ratings darling that Friends has remained. Also true, this decline reflects a decline in the show’s quality, which has grown increasingly stale over the last four seasons.

Chris Lloyd and Joe Keenan – who wrote some of the best episodes for the first seven years- have returned as executive producers for this last season. This season has developed a romantic triangle involving Frasier, his father, Martin, and Frasier’s former babysitter (Wendy Malick). What makes this storyline different from the many other “Frasier doesn’t get his way” storylines of recent seasons is that Frasier reveals actual maturity. Sure, he still has tantrums, but he also shows a greater capacity to understand someone’s viewpoint other than his own.

It seems right that the series ends on a high note. It has given us classic comedy and enduring, sophisticated characters. Frasier and his brother are effete snobs and proud of it, referring to La Traviata, composer Philip Glass, Anne Hedonia (the original title of Annie Hall, and a play on the psychological condition, anhedonia), fine wines, and cultural differences:

Niles: “What’s the word for ‘lighthearted’ in French?” Frasier: “There isn’t one.”

Consistently intelligent banter requires the viewer to remain alert, as when Frasier introduces Niles as “the eminent psychiatrist”, and Niles corrects him: “My brother is too kind. He was already eminent, while my eminence was merely imminent.” At the same time, the show’s urbanity is not exclusive. We may not appreciate the glory that is a ’66 Château Lafite Rothschild, but we can still laugh at Frasier’s maniacal insistence that nothing else will be suitable for his dinner party. His elitism makes his faux pas humorous and satisfying, the comeuppance of a man who thinks himself superior.

In “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” (aired 17 December 1998), Frasier and his family pretend to be Jewish on Christmas Eve to fool Helen (Carole Shelley), the mother of Frasier’s new girlfriend, Faye (Amy Brenneman). To prepare for the evening’s performance, Niles coaches Martin:

Martin: I don’t know how to be Jewish.
Niles: Well, just answer questions with a question.
Martin: Like what?
Niles: What, I have to explain everything?
Martin: Can’t you give me an example?
Niles: What, I should give you an example?
Martin: Are you going to help me or not?
Niles: You’re saying I’m not being helpful?
Martin: Oh, forget it!

This exchange is representative of Frasier at its best, using clever wordplay to showcase a relationship between characters (in this case, the working man Martin and his intellectual son), not to mention the ways that cultural stereotyping blocks communication between individuals.

Equally excellent is “The Matchmaker” (17 December 1998), an episode honored by GLAAD. Frasier brings home his new boss, Tom (Eric Lutes), as a potential suitor for housekeeper Daphne (“I’m glad you made me put on my lucky bra,” she gushes, “He’s worth every wire digging into my ribcage”). Frasier fails to realize not only that Tom is gay but also that he is the object of Tom’s interest. Once he’s made aware of the truth, Frasier must consider what in his own behavior has led Tom on, leading to his greater understanding of social cues, reading practices, and character.

“The Ski Lodge” (24 February 1998), part screwball comedy and part Marx Brothers, features a group of Frasier’s family and friends on a ski vacation, complete with misunderstandings, miscommunications, and mistaken identities, all leading to odd couplings. Niles wants to hook up with Daphne, who wants to hook up with the ski instructor, who wants to hook up with Frasier, who wants to hook up with Daphne’s friend, who wants to hook up with Niles – all assume the object of their affection returns the feelings. Many shows have eked comedy out of the awkward romantic misunderstanding, but few have created such a long chain of acutely inaccurate assumptions.

Strong as the writing on Frasier has been, the acting is also impressive. The regular cast, from Grammer to Moose (who plays Eddie the dog), have all shined in particular episodes. In “Three Valentines” (11 February 1999), during a five-minute scene without dialogue, Pierce displays brilliant physical comedy as Niles starts a fire while ironing. The skilled regulars are supported by a stellar list of guest stars, not least the many who have played Frasier’s romantic interests: Sela Ward, Felicity Huffman, Jean Smart, Mercedes Ruehl, Virginia Madsen, and, of course, Shelley Long and Bebe Nuewirth. The show has highlighted all sorts of A-listers as “guest callers”, from Halle Berry, Timothy Leary, Steven King, Jodie Foster, and Jane Pauley to John McEnroe, Tommy Hilfiger, Mary Tyler Moore, Wolfgang Puck, Yo-Yo Ma, Ron Howard, and Cyd Charisse.

So, I bid an early farewell to Frasier. For almost 20 years, Frasier Crane has been making us laugh, and he will be missed, along with Niles, Daphne, Martin, Eddie, and Roz, Frasier’s radio producer (the underappreciated Peri Gilpin). The series’ place in television history is unquestionable. But Emmys, Golden Globes, and other awards aren’t really what has assured the series a place. Frasier has earned its loyal fanbase. Tuesday evening television will be less funny and refined without Frasier.