The Classic ’90s Sitcom That’s Actually Worth Rewatching

Posted by on January 21, 2022 1:00 pm
Categories: Everything Else

Over the past two years of the pandemic, old, reliable shows with new lives on streaming platforms have been a mainstay for audiences. (Who wants new plotlines when headlines about COVID-19 variants offer enough of that already?) And the deepest well for comfort watches may be the ’90s sitcom. Friends, Seinfeld, and the rest of “Must See TV” add up to hundreds of hours of cheery sets filled with familiar faces.

Of these shows, Frasier may be the strangest—as well as the most rewatchable. The sitcom topped ratings charts and won 37 Emmys in its 11-year run, but the fact that, over the course of a decade, one of the most popular shows in America followed two opera-loving snobs playfully sniping at each other still seems like something of a marvel.

What made Frasier unusual for its time also gives it its enduring appeal. Most sitcoms of the era followed charming lead actors wisecracking about love interests, annoying neighbors, and other caricatured minor characters. On Frasier, the lead actors were the caricatures. The show punched up at itself, resulting in episodes that are far less cringe-inducing than those of its contemporaries.

The series also made the important choice to balance snooty Frasier and Niles Crane (played by Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, respectively) with their beer-drinking, retired-cop dad, Martin (John Mahoney). For a viewer in 2022, that class tension offers an alluring bit of post-partisan fantasy. As unlike one another as the three Cranes are, though, the sitcom doesn’t cast their disparities as political. The gap between them can be bridged. In a show as much about taste as any ever made, Frasier offers modern audiences the comforting notion that people with different tastes don’t live in different worlds.

Megan Garber, Sophie Gilbert, and Spencer Kornhaber revisited Frasier for an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review. Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Megan Garber: I’m so excited to hear both of your thoughts on this show. Frasier is a spin-off. It’s a farce. It’s a stage play set to television. It is very much a product of its time, but I would also say: remarkably rewatchable. So what kind of legacy has Frasier left to the era of prestige TV? Are you two fans? What’s your relationship with the show?

Sophie Gilbert: I am a Frasier obsessive. I think it’s kind of the perfect sitcom and eminently rewatchable. I think it’s aged really well. There’s nothing I watch and cringe at, nothing awkwardly of its time. I’m curious what you make about the ways it’s held up.

Spencer Kornhaber: I haven’t gone back to Frasier much in adulthood, but this show is baked very deeply in my soul from growing up. Like a lot of Millennial kids, I feel like my introduction to the world outside the home came through NBC sitcoms: Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, Just Shoot Me … I watched all of these as young as 7 or so, and I don’t think back on them very often, except when I’m reminded of how much they probably made me the little wannabe-cosmopolitan smartass that I can sometimes be. And in the pantheon of those sitcoms, Frasier was absolutely the highest.

So when the idea for us to talk about Frasier came up, I went back and started rewatching and I really didn’t know what to expect. I feel more mixed about how it’s held up. I think I would be lying if I said it’s not still pretty hilarious to me. I absolutely enjoy it and can binge it compulsively. This is a time when a lot of people are going back to old sitcoms, because we’ve been locked in our houses for so long. This is a time for comfort TV. You both have written about this. And you’re right; this is a really watchable show. I don’t fully agree that there’s nothing to cringe at, but we can get into that.

Garber: Yeah, let’s definitely get into that. But let’s start with what makes it work. What do you think is the appeal of the show? Why does it—to the extent that it does—hold up?

Gilbert: It’s the classic sitcom model where nothing really changes. You have 22 minutes. It’s very tightly structured. At some point, Frasier’s or Niles’s snobbery is going to cause some kind of complication. There’s going to be a lot of drama, some door slamming, and then everything will eventually get resolved. Frasier will perhaps be taken down a peg until the next episode when his ego strikes again. I love the reliability of the format. It’s very safe. It’s very predictable. It’s very reassuring.

Garber: It almost feels like a chessboard to me. You have a limited amount of pieces and this limited space they can exist in. They just move around slightly differently each episode.

Kornhaber: Right, it is a classic sitcom in that way, but it feels really improbable that this sitcom would get this big and remain this enduring. It’s a show about two total snobs obsessed with the opera, yet it was one of the gangbusters sitcoms of the ’90s.

[Read: Why you can’t stop streaming Seinfeld. Or Frasier. Or Bones.]

Gilbert: It’s a show about snobby elites, but at the same time, it’s not a show that celebrates snobby elitism. And I think that’s why it’s so accessible, because the characters exercising their elite West Coast credentials get absolutely ripped to shreds for their absurdity.

Kornhaber: It lets them use really formulaic joke setups and sitcom tropes, but with a little spice by name-dropping Puccini and whatnot. It just makes the jokes unique to the show.

Garber: I also think it’s powerful that the butt of the jokes are the protagonists. Rewatching Seinfeld or Friends, those shows also have their own constrained universes, but I don’t love that they tend to make the people outside the universe the butt of the jokes. You’ve got the core people. And then you have the side characters and dating interests who cycle through their lives. And typically, it’s those outsiders who get the brunt of the jokes. They’re expendable and therefore the most mockable, which is not a great dynamic.

[Read: How Gunther broke the fourth wall]

But on Frasier, the butt of the jokes is almost always Frasier or Niles themselves. It’s making fun of the protagonist, and there’s something kind of lovely about that in its way. The show is always punching up, you know, and so it doesn’t have a lot of the uncomfortable dynamics of insiders and outsiders and making the fundamental assumption that some sitcoms do, which is that the outsiders are always the ones who should be mocked.

Kornhaber: You don’t think Seinfeld was making fun of George or Friends was mocking Joey all the time?

Garber: I do, but it reserved the brunt of its humor for the people outside. It’s treating those people as inconsequential, you know? Someone like Man Hands on Seinfeld, for example, is this woman completely defined by one physical feature. So, you’re right, the main cast gets made fun of, but those shows aim their vitriol at the people outside of that core.

Gilbert: As to them being expendable, remember that George’s fiancée’s death is treated as a punch line.

Garber: And it was a joke, yeah.

Kornhaber: But, Megan, you wrote about how Frasier had the ultimate version of the inconsequential character as punching bag in Maris.

Garber: Yes, I totally did. And I think that’s right. Every sitcom is going to have to decide the terms of its own universe, and I think Frasier did try to have it both ways by Maris as this unseen character like Vera on Cheers. They were able to displace a lot of their mockery onto this character, who was part of the world but also not part of it. To me, Maris’s character shows that, within the Crane family, the humor is going to just tease these characters that are fundamentally still loved by the show.

[Read: Frasier has always had a Maris problem]

Gilbert: I think you’re right about it being punching up, Megan, because if there’s a hierarchy of elite privilege, Maris is probably at the top with her—I forget, isn’t she the heir to a urinal-cake fortune?

Garber: (Laughs.) It’s initially lumber, and then they find out it’s urinal cakes.

Gilbert: She’s definitely at the top, and she is also the figure of the most fun.

Kornhaber: The show is definitely a satire of rich people.

Gilbert: Right, and the tension in the family is around education. You have these two brothers. Frasier went to Harvard and Oxford. Niles went to Yale and Cambridge. And from their childhood, they seem to have been alien to their blue-collar father, Martin Crane. And that’s both a point of comedy in the show but also a point of deep sadness.

Garber: Right, the tensions are always there, but the vitriol the show began with faded quickly. Fundamentally, there is a togetherness. And if you think about the context, this was also the time of the culture wars. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. Lifestyle itself became politically fraught. And I think part of the loveliness of Frasier—and perhaps part of the fantasy it’s selling—is that it exists in this kind of post-partisan world where political differences don’t matter. And to watch it now when there’s so much political acrimony, it feels even more like a fantasy.

Gilbert: I want to talk about Frasier the character because I sense that may be why you think it hasn’t aged as well as it could have, Spencer. Do we love him? Do we hate him? Do we sometimes get troubled by his abiding sleaziness?

Kornhaber: He’s definitely No. 5 on my ranking of the five main characters on the show. For me, it’s Niles, Daphne, Martin, Roz, and then Frasier. He is the least likable person, but that is to your earlier point, Megan. The joke is always on him.

Gilbert: I just love to watch him. He’s definitely not my No. 5. I love Kelsey Grammer as a performer. I love his theatricality, his very extra performance, and his mannered voice.

Garber: I hadn’t actually thought about it in terms of rankings, but I definitely would put Niles over Frasier.

Kornhaber: So funny.

Gilbert: Yeah, except his lapel game is just criminal. (Laughs.) I mean, his lapels are, like, five inches wide. Every time I watch Frasier now, I love the show, but I’m just tortured by Niles’s lapels.

Kornhaber: He could jump off the Space Needle and glide with those.

Gilbert: (Laughs.)

Garber: Should we talk about the women for a minute? Because this show needs both Daphne and Roz to work.

Kornhaber: The way they treat Roz is the one thing that makes me cringe. It’s just a giant slut-shaming joke all the time. And she pushes back, but the way they treat this character absolutely would not fly today. I love her though. She’s so confident and down-to-earth. She cuts through Frasier’s bullshit so ably that he often just storms out of the room. I absolutely stan Roz, but I think they needed to treat her better.

Gilbert: That’s so interesting. It doesn’t bother me, but maybe I’m being inherently problematic by not being bothered by it. I think it’s because Roz is so forcefully who she is, and so unashamed of it. If she responded with a shamed reaction, that would be one thing. But I think she’s kind of your pre–Sex and the City Samantha. She loves sex. She loves dating. She loves men. She’s not upset about any of that. And why should she be? The show does have kind of a shaming tone with her, but I love her so much as a character that it doesn’t bother me.

Garber: I’d agree. The butt of the joke when it comes to the Frasier-Roz dynamic is Frasier more than Roz. I think the show is mocking his narrow-mindedness and sort of celebrating Roz. Spencer, do you want to talk about “The Matchmaker”?

Kornhaber: Yeah. When I started rewatching, I wondered: Did I like this show because this is clearly about two guys that are at least coded to the world around them as gay? And then, rewatching, I wondered if the show would acknowledge this. And it very quickly does. There are a number of episodes where they’re mistaken by people around them for being gay, which gets to my confusion about what exact social category is being examined by the show. These two brothers joyfully fulfill so many stereotypes of the cosmopolitan queer man, but they are strenuously straight. In fact, they’re largely defined by the kind of lust they have for women around them, and their relationships with their wives and ex-wives.

It’s a funny tension; I’ve always wondered if it was intentional, and whether some of the freshness of the show is that these guys are kind of unplaceable. And I don’t think the show is very often homophobic. It’s just playing around with a world where, for example, in “The Matchmaker,” if Frasier strikes up a conversation about men’s fashion and the theater with a new guy at the radio station, that guy is going to make a certain assumption and it’s on Frasier to realize that that assumption was made.

Gilbert: One of the creators of Frasier, David Lee, was gay, and the show was originally supposed to be set in Colorado, but they changed it to Seattle after Colorado enacted legislation that basically made it easier to discriminate against people who were gay. So Frasier’s origins at least are rooted in favoring equality.

Kornhaber: And David Lee has said that my reaction was the one many gay viewers had of the show: “Come on, aren’t these guys gay? They hate their wives. They talk about theater all the time.” And David Lee’s reaction was, “Gosh, you guys are stereotyping yourselves by expecting that.” Which is true, but I think that there is a way in which the show is having its cake and eating it too, by portraying the stereotype of a certain kind of person and then having that person not actually conform to the identity that stereotype is associated with.

And it makes for great fun, so I’m not mad about it, but it makes me wonder: As a kid, what was I picking up here? What was actually interesting about it to me? I’m not sure.

Gilbert: Well, David Hyde Pierce didn’t publicly come out as gay until 2007, years after Frasier had ended.

Kornhaber: Yeah, and it was shining through in his character, for sure. Absolute queer icon.

Garber: He is amazing. The acting on this show is so exceptional. David Hyde Pierce is such a talent. Kelsey Grammer. John Mahoney. Everyone on this show is so, so good in a way that I think is a little rare on sitcoms. They’re not typically known for the immense quality of the acting. And yet in this show, there’s so much specificity in the characters. There’s such an ability to do farce and drama at the same time. And I think that’s part of why the show is able to endure and still feel relevant today.

Kornhaber: Right. They’re not just, like, delivering punch lines to each other. They’ll put out a joke and take a beat that’s all about the facial expressions, and these actors are so good the expressions themselves become another level of the joke.

Gilbert: And they were classically trained actors. Kelsey Grammer went to Juilliard. David Hyde Pierce went to Yale and played Laertes in Hamlet. John Mahoney was a longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member. Bebe Neuwirth [who played Lilith, Frasier’s ex-wife] is obviously a theater star. And I think part of their dynamic comes from the fact that they were all really skilled, right? It’s not just a bunch of stand-up comedians and their friends waiting for a laugh track. They know how to play off of each other. The show always has that energy of committing to the absurdity of the scene.

Garber: Definitely. And the physical comedy is so good. It really does feel like you’re watching theater. And you don’t normally get that in sitcoms, so to see it on-screen feels kind of revelatory.

Kornhaber: Before rewatching, I’d forgotten how much physical comedy is in Frasier. You have episodes like “The Innkeepers,” where they buy a fancy restaurant and get into an I Love Lucy–style madcap scenario where the brothers have to take over the kitchen. By the end, they’re smashing live eels against tables and the cherries soaked in brandy explode. It’s a mess. And it’s that very classic Buster Keaton kind of comedy that I remember was more fundamental to the show than even perhaps the snooty, high-concept jokes.

Garber: One of the ways Frasier doesn’t hold up for me in my rewatch is that it’s just such a white show. I mean, egregiously, almost aggressively white. And I wonder: Is the show just ignoring race? Is it sort of trying to interrogate whiteness in a way?

Gilbert: I don’t think it’s trying to interrogate whiteness, and I can’t defend it. I think it’s just that really lamentable thing. And Friends also was guilty of the same crime until they awkwardly inserted Charlie as a character in Season 9. I think it’s just a show that only had white characters and didn’t think there was anything weird about that at the time.

Kornhaber: It absolutely was not setting out to interrogate whiteness. But in thinking about it, we could certainly make the case that—whatever its interests in class and culture and identity—it ends up kind of being about whiteness. You have various strata of white identity with the working-class, Republican, beer-swilling dad. You have the effete, liberal, urban brothers. And you even have a representative from the Motherland in Daphne Moon.

Gilbert: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: It doesn’t excuse it at all. I don’t think it’s really commenting on it all that much. But it’s a bit of a show about privilege and obliviousness. It’s doing that 1990s-sitcom thing of being a totally insular fantasy and escape for certain viewers who could watch it and feel no twinges about how the world actually is. And I’m sure that many other viewers tried to watch it and responded with, This show has nothing to do with reality and is irritating the hell out of me because of its blindness on things like race.

Garber: Are there shows that are heirs to Frasier in some way that are more expansive? That are doing what Frasier did but in a more sort of contemporary way?

Gilbert: The two that come to mind are The Good Place and Parks and Recreation. They’re kind of workplace comedies. There’s a lot of odd coupling and miscommunication. They’re sweet at their core but also willing to make brutal fun of people. And they both featured a diverse cast and were better for it. I’ll say: I sort of shudder at the idea of a Frasier that does try to interrogate whiteness from a modern perspective. And I guess these will be questions that the potential reboot can answer for us. Maybe we should all be terrorized at the thought.

Kornhaber: Was Frasier influential? Is there a Frasier today?

Garber: Well, Frasier was 50 percent workplace comedy and 50 percent family comedy, and that fusion was pretty new and unique at the time. Most sitcoms were more one or the other, but it’s replicated all the time in sitcoms now. It’s more reflective of how people live their lives now. Life, for a lot of us, is the workplace and family. And Frasier felt true to that.

Gilbert: Yeah. It was originally supposed to be a workplace sitcom, but there was already a sitcom on the air about a radio station, so they introduced the family backstory to flesh out the show a bit more and differentiate it. And it’s astonishing to think of. I cannot imagine Frasier without Niles and Martin and Daphne.

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