Monday, September 16, 2013

A New Beginning for Frasier

Frasier: Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating. On top of that, my practice had grown stagnant, and my social life consisted of hanging around a bar night after night. You see, I was clinging to a life that wasn't working, and I knew I had to do something, anything. So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things and moved back here to my hometown of Seattle. Go Seahawks!

I suppose it was inevitable, when Cheers! took its bow in the spring of 1993, that there would be at least one spinoff the following fall.

And there was — Frasier, which premiered 20 years ago tonight. That was fine with me. I always thought Frasier was the most amusing character on Cheers!, and I thought the spinoff would give us some more time to explore his personality.

It did.

In my book, it is the best TV comedy of the last two decades. And it set the bar quite high for itself in the pilot episode.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had relocated from Boston (the site of Cheers!) to his hometown of Seattle all the way across the country after splitting up with Lilith. He had given up private psychiatric practice to be a radio psychiatrist for a steady stream of anonymous callers (usually played by unseen celebrities — the callers in that first episode were actress Linda Hamilton and actor–director Griffin Dunne).

On this night 20 years ago, TV viewers were introduced to Frasier's immediate family — his father Martin (John Mahoney), Martin's dog Eddie and Frasier's younger brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) — and someone else who joined the family unit, his father's physical therapist, Daphne (Jane Leeves).

And viewers met Roz (Peri Gilpin), Frasier's somewhat reluctant producer who, as viewers learned in a later episode, was pressed into service when Frasier's initial producer (unseen) bailed on him.

That unseen angle was kind of a signature of the show's creators, David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. Frasier's original producer was a minor, one–time–only character. An ongoing unseen character was Niles' first wife, Maris.

Maris always reminded me of Norm's wife on Cheers! — never seen but so familiar to viewers that they could easily describe her from what they had been told.

Maris wasn't mentioned much in the first episode, but viewers were introduced to her, anyway.
Niles: I thought you liked my Maris.

Frasier: I do. I like her from a distance. You know, the way you like the sun. Maris is like the sun. Except without the warmth.

Most of the story lines that would serve as the foundation for the series' 11–year run were clearly established in that first episode — except for Niles' infatuation with Daphne. That story line was born in the coming weeks.

All the other recurring themes were there. Frasier's father moved in with him, bringing his dog, and the clash of the generations was established. So was Frasier's ongoing feud with Eddie — whose desire to engage Frasier in staring matches was an early and ongoing source of material.

Frasier: No, not Eddie!

Martin: But he's my best friend.

Frasier: But he's weird. He gives me the creeps. All he does is stare at me.

When Daphne came in for her job interview, her psychic abilities were revealed.

In her first psychic moment with the Cranes, she correctly pegged Martin as a former police officer.

But she missed the mark on Frasier. She thought he was a florist.

"Well, it comes and goes," Daphne observed. She then confided that her psychic tendencies were strongest "during my time of the month."

Then she said sheepishly, "I guess I let a little secret out there."

"Well, Miss Moon," Frasier said as the interview came to a close, "I think we've learned everything we need to about you — and a dash extra!"

I was thoroughly entertained by the series' pilot 20 years ago tonight, but I don't think I would have predicted that it would last more than a decade.

I guess what really hooked me was the ending. Frasier and his father had been at each other's throats, and Frasier had complained that, in spite of everything he tried to do, his father had never shown any gratitude or appreciation.

Later, when he was telling the tale to Roz, she taught Frasier an important lesson. Roz told him the story of actress Lupe Velez, who committed suicide in 1944.

As I wrote a few years ago, Roz's version of events might not have been exactly what happened, but her point — that even if things don't go as one plans, they can work out, anyway — was well taken.

And, before the final credits rolled, Martin finally did say "Thank you" to Frasier.

It wasn't what Frasier had hoped for, but it was a successful hurdle in the obstacle course of his relationship with his father — and audiences were entertained (and often moved) by the evolution of that relationship in the years ahead.