Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Goodnight Seattle, We Used to Love You!

A lot of TV critics will be writing articles that go something like this: Friends went off the air last week with massive hype from the network; Frasier is going off the air this week with relatively little hype from the network; Frasier was a better show than Friends; darn that ungrateful NBC. But say what you want about Friends -- and it's never been a favourite show of mine, so you really can say what you want -- it got that kind of hype because it remained massively popular right up until the last second. Frasier, by contrast, tends to be seen as a show that's years past its prime, kept alive mainly by decent (not great) ratings and Kelsey Grammer's determination to last as long as Cheers did. The show improved somewhat this year with the return of Chris Lloyd and Joe Keenan as showrunners, but it still has that tired feeling, with a lot of lame wordplay, standardized staging (the actors carry themselves stiffly and rarely seem to interact with each other as naturally as they did when, say, James Burrows was directing) and creaky setup/punchline routines.

The thing about Frasier is that it started out as the future of sitcoms and soon became an anachronism. When Frasier started, it felt very fresh because of the unusual approach it took to its material: instead of the fast-moving, easygoing style of Cheers, it was a little slower, quite a bit broader, and a lot more "theatrical" in its approach. Frasier episodes tended to be structured like little stageplays, with long scenes (one episode, "My Coffee With Niles," was just Frasier and Niles sitting at a table talking for 22 minutes), elaborate running gags, and moral or philosophical themes that would be set up early and examined as the episode went on. The show's writers often had a somewhat literary background; the best writers, Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano, were hired on the basis of a play they wrote, and farce specialist Joe Keenan was brought to Hollywood on the basis of several neo-Wodehousean novels. Frasier was, in a way, a combination of the sophisticated ensemble-show style of Taxi or Cheers with the stagey style of Norman Lear shows (two of the creators, Peter Casey and David Lee, started on The Jeffersons). That style, combined with the self-conscious use of highbrow references and themes, made the show feel like a new kind of sitcom.

Six years and too many Emmys later, though, Frasier started to feel kind of irrelevant. Partly because nearly all subsequent sitcoms went in the other direction, the Seinfeld and Friends direction, of a faster pace, lots of sets, lots of very short scenes -- making the live-audience sitcom more like a movie, whereas Frasier made it more like a play. There weren't many Frasier imitators -- I think Just Shoot Me, created by ex-Frasier-ite Steven Levitan, was the closest, with its somewhat similar theme of a central character reconnecting with an estranged father. Also, Frasier eventually got too dependent on farce, which provoked accusations that it had become nothing more than a throwback to Three's Company. Worse, Frasier was actually one of the few shows that got less broad as it went along: the actors began to underplay everything, studio audience applause was edited out, and everything played like the show had fallen for all the hype about its own sophistication -- at the very time when the writing had gotten so formulaic (Niles and Frasier compete for some petty honor -- again!) that only a decidedly unsophisticated dose of old-fashioned theatrical raucousness could have saved it. Three's Company never had great scripts, but, as befits a show produced by Norman Lear acolytes, it was staged and acted like a good theatrical farce, where pacing and timing can compensate for mediocre lines. By the time the writing declined on Frasier, sometime around Joe Keenan's fifteenth interchangeable farce episode, it was the worst of both worlds: written like a bad play, staged like a bad sitcom.

I've gotten more negative here than I meant to be; Frasier was a great show for its first four seasons, a pretty good one for two or three more after that. If you want me to name a true jump-the-shark moment, I'd pick the moment the writers started taking seriously the idea that Niles and Daphne could ever be a couple. The idea originally appeared to be that Niles was attracted to Daphne but loved his invisible wife Maris in his own way (he went to pieces when he thought Maris might be having an affair). This came off as a nice idea, an antidote to all those tiresome "will-they-or-won't-they" storylines: an attraction that was completely one-sided and didn't have any apparent chance of leading to an actual romance. It's always a bad sign for a show when a will-they-or-won't-they couple actually gets together; it's even worse when they were never supposed to be that kind of couple in the first place. Even Mary Richards and Lou Grant had more of a WTOWT vibe than Niles and Daphne did in the early years of Frasier.

And yet I'll be watching the series finale tomorrow night, though I probably won't be writing about it (it's a bit too early to completely violate my mission statement).

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