Brow Beat

Frasier Is So Much More Than a Show About Hoity-Toity Psychiatrists

In a scene from Frasier, Frasier, wearing headphones, reads from a piece of paper on his radio show.
NBC

I’d never watched so much as a scene of Cheers when I started watching Frasier. It was years after both shows had ended, when I was in high school, that my parents invited me along on their nostalgic visits to the household of effete psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer). They’d immigrated to the U.S. in 1995 when the show was first on the air, and they experienced it in real time as an exhibit of hoity-toity American high society, taking joy in the witty repartee and exquisitely disastrous social situations. I was soon hooked myself, and I kept watching and rewatching the show through college and beyond. What I found so wonderful about Frasier, in addition to its ace comedic timing and cozy settings, was something intensely relatable: the story of a capricious man struggling to keep up with the changing world around him. Dr. Frasier Crane, though an advice-giving, well-educated, worldly man of means, was often equally bumbling, in search of answers himself, and very, very human.

Succeeding where the first Cheers spinoff, The Tortellis, failed, Frasier plucked just one of the show’s many beloved characters and plopped him on the other side of the country from his ex-wife and Sam Malone’s bar for a new start in Seattle. There, Frasier hosts a radio show, dispensing little bits of wisdom—and considerable snark—to the weary people who call in for help, many of whom were voiced by celebrities like Carrie Fisher and Art Garfunkel. At home in his swanky apartment with a view, he lives and tangles with his ex-cop father, Martin (John Mahoney); Martin’s caretaker, Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves); and their dog, Eddie (a Jack Russell Terrier named Moose). Frasier’s brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), a private psychiatrist married to a woman no one ever seems to see, lives in town and often drops in to visit.

The brothers Crane are shown as rich buffoons who clash regularly with the working-class folks of their everyday lives and whose insular lifestyles often leave them unprepared for situations beyond their purview. (That Kelsey Grammer could play such a convincing caricature two decades straight might be in part because he was—and still is—a hardcore conservative, portraying that most despised enemy of his, the limousine liberal.) But at the same time, they’re not bad guys: They care, even if they’re sometimes careless.

As a show that pokes fun at the lives of wealthy urban sophisticates, explores midlife crises, and references the Finer Things like opera and fancy foods, Frasier’s appeal in 2019 might seem less obvious than that of Friends or some of the other top-streamed shows on Netflix. And yet it has an audience among modern-day viewers, consisting of both those who fondly remember catching it on NBC and younger generations experiencing it for the first time. Perhaps you’ve encountered a Frasier meme or reference in the wild: someone lowering their voice to the apt pitch and muttering, with the perfect amount of breathiness, “I’m listening,” or singing a confounding ditty about tossed salads and scrambled eggs.

To understand the appeal, I highly recommend Season 2, Episode 6, “The Botched Language of Cranes.” This episode features a classic Frasier setup: While giving advice to a caller, Frasier makes a gentle jab about the city of Seattle that infuriates much of his audience. In attempting over and over again to walk it back and make public amends, he only makes it worse for himself. Along the way, his family and colleagues try to help him out of the muck while not-so-secretly getting a sense of schadenfreude from Frasier’s struggles to preserve his reputation and career. Without giving too much away, this episode has it all: the oddball family dynamics, the inner workings of Frasier’s radio station, and even a (non)appearance from Niles’ ever-off-screen wife while Niles hints at his affection for Daphne. “The Botched Language of Cranes” will give you a wide sense of Frasier’s Seattle. The only element missing is the coffee shop where Frasier and Niles regularly meet up and give their overprecise orders.

The best part of the episode is the climax, wherein Frasier is forced into giving a speech that, as you may have guessed by now, goes horribly, horribly wrong. The audience of Frasier’s speech, as well as the audience watching at home, knows that Frasier is walking into a catastrophe not even of his making, and they are as powerless as we are to stop him from digging his own grave. It’s the classic Frasier mold: The guy sometimes just can’t get a break, and you simultaneously hate and love to see it.

The show rarely strays from this sort of format, but it manages to use plots like this to thoughtfully explore class divides, love, elitism, masculinity, age, social mores, existential anxiety, and the nature of (local) celebrity over the course of its 11 seasons. If you’re charmed by “The Botched Language of Cranes,” you’ll probably want more Frasier. Fortunately, the pacing and setting are adaptable to modern methods of viewing: You can either sip it steadily, like one of Frasier’s fine wines, or chug the whole bottle.