One of the first episodes of the new, 11th season of Frasier was titled ”The Doctor Is Out,” and that pretty much sums up its pop-culture position right now. It’s not an ”in” show anymore; it’s lost its buzz. Smothered in Emmy Awards, including a record-setting five consecutive wins for best comedy, ”Frasier” is easy to dismiss as complacent or over-the-hill. This may be unfair, but television viewers and critics are remorseless brutes – and in recent times, the show has done itself no favors by doing things like testing the romantic chemistry between Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane and Peri Gilpin’s Roz (results of that experiment: fizzle, silence). And squandering what seemed like the past three seasons to set up the utterly preposterous marriage between David Hyde Pierce’s Niles and Jane Leeves’ Daphne only made ”Frasier” look more and more desperate.
As a tacit acknowledgment of the creative slide, ”Frasier” veterans Joe Keenan and Chris Lloyd are back as show runners this season. The result has been immediate improvement: Editions like the punny ”Doctor Is Out” have proven that there’s a fresh lift in Frasier’s loafers. Indeed, in outing what’s always been the series’ encoded implication – that the straight brothers Crane behave like a comfy, committed homosexual couple – this sitcom is now nearly as gay (happier and homosexier) as ”Will & Grace,” and certainly more humorous. ”It’s funny because it’s bitchy!” yelped Niles in ”The Doctor Is Out,” giggling at a bawdy joke uttered by Patrick Stewart, guest-starring as a flamboyant opera director who assumes the starstruck Frasier is coming on to him. The episode toyed beautifully with the confusion of admiration and attraction. (”Damn my fatal allure!” growled the flustered but flattered Frasier just before he and Stewart danced fluidly at a party.)
”Frasier”’s best, unifying joke has always transcended gender: It’s the idea that any American male who enjoys high culture and speaks in complete, grammatical sentences must be (pretty soon I’m going to have to call David Sedaris for more euphemisms) a nancy boy. This theme rarely surfaced when Dr. Crane first appeared on ”Cheers.” There, his character was conceived as a pompous but charming contrast to Ted Danson’s stud barkeep, Sam Malone – and as a rival for the attentions of Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers. When the psychiatrist was spun off from Boston to Seattle, ”Frasier” creators David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee gave their man an even more fey little brother as well as a crusty dad (John Mahoney’s Martin) who was straight America’s surrogate booboisie, scornful of the Crane boys’ interest in fine wines and the symphony. Early ”Frasier” writers like Keenan, author of a couple of fine comedy-of-gay-manners novels, did a wonderful job of making the show more than a sitcom – it was, at its best, classic slamming-door farce. And Grammer drew upon the meticulous timing and deadpan double takes of Bob Hope and Jack Benny to refine an already marvelous comic persona.
But women, with the exception of Bebe Neuwirth’s brilliantly brittle ex-wife, Lilith, were always ”Frasier”’s weak spot. Niles’ never-seen first wife, Maris, became a tired joke that only spurred on the bad decision to link him to Daphne, who, as Martin’s acerbic physical therapist, started out as a smart variation on a no-nonsense British charwoman and has ended up an all-nonsense harridan. Gilpin’s single-gal harpy, Roz, was never much fun either, and recent female guest stars, like the terrific Felicity Huffman as a Frasier date and Wendie Malick as an unlikely love interest for Martin, have been wasted.
Whenever it sticks closely with the Crane brothers, however, this likely final season of ”Frasier” often ranks with some of the series’ best work. Take the Oct. 14 show, in which Frasier, in a restaurant, tries to dump a schlumpy blind date (Julia Sweeney, being fearlessly frumpy) for a more comely prospect. The half hour peaked with some artful slapstick humor, as Frasier stuffed ravioli into his face to speed the meal along. (Usually it’s the multi-gifted Pierce who handles the bumbling on this show.) And Grammer himself has been directing funny episodes, such as one entry that found Niles analyzing his brother’s ceaseless run of doomed relationships. Frasier, admitting the accuracy of Niles’ assessment but annoyed at having to do so, drew himself up with high hauteur and said with bitter, staccato precision, ”I’d like to strike you, of course, but you speak the truth.” Everything gelled at that moment – Grammer’s delivery, the rhythm of the sentence, Pierce’s subtle, pleased-but-fearful reaction – and for a few seconds, ”Frasier” was great again.