Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Frasier's Standard

Of all of television's genres, the situation comedy has been a part of television's landscape from the beginning. In fact, many of TV's early programs were adaptations of popular radio programs. Or they were created for established stars.

As television's technology has matured, so has its audience. And modern programming has, at times, struggled to keep up.

The truth is, in the predatory world of ratings–driven entertainment, it is difficult for a new TV show, even one that boasts recognizable stars and established writers, to last a single season, much less be renewed for one year or two or three. If a television show lasts until its seventh season, it is probably a hit. And hits are held to a higher standard. In the case of the hit sitcom, it is expected to be funny in unexpected ways.

That reminds me of something comedian Lewis Black said in a comedy show I saw once. Black chastised his listeners for telling their friends, "You've gotta see this guy! He's really funny!"

Black paused and stared at the audience. Then he growled, "That puts a lot of *** **** pressure on me!"

In my life, there haven't been many TV shows that have lasted seven years. Shows that lasted a decade or longer were even harder to come by.

Such shows that were spinoffs of earlier hits were damn near unheard of.

But one of those shows was Frasier. Ten years ago, Frasier had embarked on its seventh season. And it was funny.

And I'm sure that everyone — the ensemble cast, the brilliant writers — felt pressure to be witty and clever and downright funny every week. Think about the pressure that such people must feel. It's bound to be hard to be fresh and original and just plain funny after approximately 150 episodes.

Well, in my opinion, the seventh season of Frasier delivered. At times, it delivered in ways I couldn't see at the time, but I've come to appreciate since.

Over at, guests can rate individual episodes of TV shows, and the site recalculates overall ratings each day. Apparently, based on the latest data, the site also revises its list of the top episodes in a series every day. For the short–lived series, this probably isn't a tough list to compile. For a series like Frasier, there are a lot of prospects.

When Frasier began its seventh season, it was only slightly past what turned out to be the midway point of its run, but, according to the latest viewer ratings I saw at, more than three–quarters of its best episodes had already aired.

And, in fact, visitors to believe that only one–tenth of the series' best episodes aired in its final four seasons.

But those visitors to apparently believe that Frasier's seventh season was like a last hurrah.

By the seventh season, the audience and the cast and the writers had reached a comfort zone. It would deteriorate in the seasons to come — and I have to admit there were times when there were elements of the storylines that I found hard to accept. It was in the seventh season that Niles and Daphne took their relationship past the point of no return — which seemed to be as improbable a development as when Ricky and Lucy moved to the country or Fonzie jumped the shark.

But mostly, I found the episodes to be creative, deftly exploring well–established character traits with some surprise twists — like the one that aired 10 years ago today.

"Everyone's a Critic" introduced the audience to Poppy Delafield (Katie Finneran), the daughter of the latest station owner. Frasier promised to show her around but got out of it when he discovered how gabby she was. And she managed to pin everyone down at some point.

In Cafe Nervosa, Poppy was talking with several people from the radio station. Frasier observed from a table near the door. Roz came in and remarked, "I see Poppy's having a little party."

Frasier corrected her: "That's not a party. That's a hostage situation!"

A minute or two later, the effeminate Gil managed to free himself from the group and stopped at the door long enough to complain that "I feel like a mongoose at the mercy of a chatty cobra!"

But the pretentious Frasier needed Poppy and her connections to lobby station ownership for his idea for an arts review show. His sibling rivalry with his brother was percolating because Niles got a job as an arts critic for an upper–crust magazine, and Frasier was jealous of the special treatment Niles was getting.

There was also a side element to the story that played well on Martin's relationship with his dog Eddie.

But the unexpected twist was the fact that the talkative Poppy wound up getting the arts show gig Frasier had imagined for himself.

And Frasier's attempt to match his brother's achievement apparently had failed.

Then Frasier learned that Niles had lost his critic's job. And the two came to an agreement that being critics, as much fun as it was for them, was distracting them from their psychiatric work.

A few weeks later, Poppy was at the heart of another sibling rivalry tale in which Frasier and Niles each thought the other was after the affections of his love interest — and Poppy was Niles' love interest. The following week, their snobby ways were on display when they erroneously believed they were descended from Russian royalty. And later in the season, their competitiveness formed the basis of an episode in which they both were candidates for the coveted position of corkmaster at the wine club.

The show that made its debut 10 years ago today wasn't the best episode of the Frasier series. It wasn't even the best show of the seventh season. But it is representative of the show's quality, even after seven years.