If there’s one thing the medium of television despises, it’s an intellectual. Nothing brings out the yahoo in a TV scriptwriter or producer like a character who is sissy enough to speak proper English and to admit to enjoying a good book now and then. In television, such creations tend to be presented as prissy sticks-in-the-mud. From Wally Cox’s solemn science teacher Mr. Peepers in the ’50s to William Daniels’ meticulous Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere 30 years later, eggheads are fussbudget crackpots, not role models, as far as television is concerned.
All of which made Kelsey Grammer’s Dr. Frasier Crane something of a breakthrough when this character made its first appearance on Cheers in 1984. Grammer’s Frasier was a stiff-backed psychiatrist who spoke in a self- consciously stentorian rumble. At first, he was the usual sort of TV intellectual: a pompous blowhard ridiculed by the Cheers barflies with whom we were supposed to identify. Soon enough, however-partly because of Grammer’s skill as an actor and, I’ll bet, partly because the Cheers writers were bored with their established characters and wanted to try something new — Frasier became sympathetic, well-rounded character, capable of horsing around with Norm and Cliffie while still radiating an intelligent demeanor.
Frasier became one of the funniest, most likable characters on Cheers. But while it was inevitable that NBC would want to spin off someone from the show, I was still a bit surprised to see that the spin-off ended up being Frasier (NBC, Thursdays, 9:30-10 p.m.). (Two years ago, I bet that the first Cheers spin-off would be a wacky-single-mom sitcom called Carla!, and that it would be canceled in four weeks. I always lose bets.) Likable or not, Frasier still derives his comic persona from his cold rationality and imperious sarcasm—not the sort of qualities that wear well in a lead TV character week after week.
But the nervy folks behind Frasier have opted to take their protagonist’s intelligence and run with it. Frasier has relocated to Seattle, where he hosts a radio call-in show; ”This is Dr. Frasier Crane — I’m listening” is his soothing trademark greeting. (In a cutesy cameo in-joke, the voices of Crane’s callers are provided by different famous actors every week). Frasier shares his apartment with his crotchety, ailing dad, Martin (John Mahoney), and Dad’s loopy caregiver, Daphne (Jane Leeves, from Murphy Brown), who manages to be both English and psychic — heaven for sitcom writers.
So far, Martin and Daphne have been good for a few solid laughs per show,but the indispensable costar has proven to be Frasier’s brother, Niles, played by David Hyde Pierce (The Powers That Be). In the only real innovation of the new television season, Niles is also a prim intellectual type. Two opera-loving, egg-head heroes in one show—unprecedented in TV history, I believe. Every scene between Frasier and Niles is just about priceless. These similarly dour, thin-haired brothers, united by blood and their common contempt for the mass culture in which they’re forced to live, are at once the most hilarious and poignant siblings on television. ”Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of music?” Frasier will chide. ”Ah, was I ever that young?” Niles will respond, sighing gravely. Lofty, melancholy, yet funny exchanges like this represent the least typical joke-writing on television right now, as well as the medium’s most interesting family relationship. Frasier doesn’t need my boost, doing as well as it does in the ratings as the companion show to Seinfeld at nine. But consider this a request to keep Frasier and Niles the small, glum center of this show’s universe. B+