clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How ‘Frasier’ Found a Second Life on Streaming

Much like its “Must See TV” siblings, the ’90s sitcom has experienced a Netflix renaissance—but ‘Frasier’ is a distinctly weirder cultural artifact than its peers

NBC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The weekend after Thanksgiving is a time for eating leftovers and bingeing television. In the spirit of Too Much TV, The Ringer has decided to explore a ’90s sitcom that holds a particular fascination in the streaming era. We now present: Frasier Day.

Radio doctors have a pretty pathetic history. In the early days of talk radio, John R. Brinkley attracted fans by hyping a miracle treatment in which he surgically inserted goat testes inside human scrotums. In the late 1980s and ’90s, Laura Schlessinger used her Ph.D. in physiology to contort herself into “Dr. Laura,” a quack advice-giver who called homosexuality a “biological error” and implored distraught callers to simply get over their trauma.

When television audiences first met Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) on Cheers in 1984, he was a pretentious psychiatrist with degrees from Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, and Oxford University. With an ego even more grandiose than his scholarly pedigree, Crane would’ve rather died than debase himself by slumming it as a vaguely medical shock jock. But after Cheers, Frasier’s career and personal life cratered, as his wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) cheated on him, and his practice had grown “stagnant,” according to the opening monologue in his spinoff, Frasier. The show had a gloomy launch point: After a public suicide threat and a painful divorce from Lilith, Frasier had abandoned his Boston life to slink back to his hometown of Seattle.

It’s a premise so weighted in failure, it almost sounds like a modern sitcom—not a show that premiered on NBC in 1993. Even more remarkable, in retrospect: Frasier Crane does not have a particularly uplifting character arc on Frasier. He stays emotionally and professionally stagnant, with a glimmer of hope for actual lasting love in the finale, when he moves to pursue a girlfriend. Frasier is older than a traditional single sitcom lead, and yet he hardly seems to mature. He’s balding, a little paunchy, more than a little melancholy—and unnecessarily snooty toward his father, who is recuperating from a serious hip injury. Frasier starts the series as a well-meaning, flailing snob who barely sees his son and he ends the series a well-meaning, flailing snob who barely sees his (now Goth) son. Rewatching Frasier now, it seems like a little miracle that this wry, circuitous show was a blockbuster in its time, winning 37 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run.

The show has been available on Netflix for years, and recently it has achieved a second life as one of the streaming service’s most soothing offerings. The stakes are low, Kelsey Grammer’s voice sounds like a reassuring pat on the head, and it somehow makes grungy ’90s Seattle look like a sophisticate’s wonderland. Not only does it feel like an artifact from another time, it feels completely out of time, a loopy farce with a melancholy undercurrent beamed onto our screens from a parallel dimension. Frasier is neither aspirational nor relevant, but rather pleasantly restorative—the modern binge-viewing equivalent of a much-needed bath.

Frasier debuted on NBC in 1993, a year before Friends, and the shows resemble each other. The city-dwelling characters relax for leisurely afternoons in coffee shops. They’re blindingly white. (At one point, Frasier’s sister-in-law Maris—who is never seen throughout the 11 seasons—is described as “very, very Caucasian.”) But despite similar trappings, the shows have very different formats, pacing, and goals. Friends shared Cheers’ widely appealing hangout-show formula, which has been replicated frequently, from How I Met Your Mother to Big Bang Theory to New Girl. Meanwhile, Cheers’ actual spinoff took a stranger angle, as a character study about a broken-down man relying on the people around him to pull himself up. It’s not primarily a workplace sitcom, although coworker Roz (Peri Gilpin) doubles as Frasier’s best non-family friend, and plenty of the episodes center on radio station intrigue. It’s not a hangout show, mostly because apart from Roz, Frasier’s only friend is his brother Niles (the perfect David Hyde Pierce), but also because Frasier and his cohort are usually too preoccupied with the “situation” aspect of the sitcom to sit around for very long. What’s more, the brothers Crane did not resemble television’s leading men of the era at all; they were proudly mannered and pretentious, metrosexual before the word had even entered the lexicon. And while Niles and Daphne (Jane Leeves) take up the obligatory sitcom will-they-won’t-they role, their romance is relegated to B-plots until the later seasons, while the series protagonist has one tepid affair after another as he creates or endures consequence-free but deflating misadventures. Frasier and Niles open a French restaurant and it goes disastrously; they get into the black-market caviar business and it goes disastrously; even when they try to sell a precious family heirloom, it goes disastrously—but few of these failures have repercussions beyond the ending of an episode.

Yet Frasier’s wheel-spinning is one of Frasier’s soothing pleasures. He doesn’t make much progress as a human, but almost all of his foibles—from accidentally helping destroy his father’s favorite bar to sleeping with his friend’s fiancée—are resolved within a 22-minute episode. And even Frasier’s lows remain conspicuously comfortable. Yes, he lives with his father, but they dwell in a luxury high-rise overlooking the Space Needle, with a bar always generously stocked with expensive sherry, and a grand piano set in front of a wide balcony. He doesn’t necessarily have the professional respect he craves, but Frasier enjoys a modest celebrity which helps him woo a stream of improbably beautiful women, and to secure seats at the finest operas. Through physical therapist Daphne and retired cop Marty, the show pokes fun at Frasier and Niles’s classist ways, but it never places them in anything remotely resembling actual financial peril, instead allowing their affluence to serve as a protective bubble.

The way Frasier sounds encapsulates its appeal. Many episodes open with Frasier offering mediocre advice on his radio show, and the opening and closing songs match, which creates an especially repetitive sensation if you binge it on Netflix. In an essay called “Why Frasier Is the Best Show to Sleep To,” writer Lili Loofbourow lists Frasier’s soporific attributes. “The opening and closing credits are perfect: jazzy, soothing, and they already operate in a kind of dream logic (‘tossed salads and scrambled eggs’),” Loofbourow writes, pointing out that Niles and Frasier’s banter has a musicality to it, as well. That verbal musicality is not limited to Niles and Frasier’s banter, although Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce do possess two of television’s most calming voices. All of the series regulars have great voices, including Peri Gilpin’s jovial rasp and Jane Leeves’s Mancunian lilt. A typical exchange, from a Season 2 episode:

“You won’t even buy a chair unless some fey French aristocrat has sat his satin fanny in it,” Roz tells Niles.

“Louis the 14th was not fey! Everyone wore garters in the 18th century!” Niles retorts.

This type of verbose, assonant, aggressively quaint sparring is typical of the show’s verbal rhythms, which are snappy but never harsh. When the characters quibble, it’s not shrill like the disagreements on shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Seinfeld. Instead, the pettifoggery is almost comically mellifluous. And the characters aren’t always at odds; often, Frasier and Niles are—true to their psychiatrist selves—openly attempting to work through emotional problems by talking about them. The show sounds like therapy because its main characters frequently give each other therapy. It’s like a free meditation app that comes with streaming subscriptions. The show’s sets, with Frasier’s apartment outfitted in tasteful beige everything, and his radio studio a sedate blur of brown equipment, add a visual complement to its pacifying sounds.

On the 10th anniversary of Frasier’s series finale, television critic Daniel D’Addario noted that the long-running series had not received the nostalgic attention paid to Friends. “Frasier was so generally competent that its best moments blur together, while its worst were mildly annoying or boring. One remembers particular story lines or jokes from Friends; one remembers a general Frasier mien of highbrow humor and frustrated aristocrats without any specifics,” D’Addario wrote for Salon. But while it is true that Frasier has not enjoyed the cultural revival that Friends has experienced, it has developed its own quieter second wind on Netflix, precisely because of its relaxing effect. It’s the subject of a surprising number of podcasts, including one cohosted by director Kevin Smith called Talk Salad and Scrambled Eggs. (“If you don’t fuckin’ like Frasier, fuck the fuck off,” Smith says in the introductory episode.) New Yorker writer Jiayang Fan recently recommended the show on the magazine’s website, explaining that she found it comforting while visiting a family member in the hospital. Streaming services have given plenty of other older shows new, devoted audiences, including The X-Files and The Golden Girls—but Frasier’s renaissance seems especially connected to its ability to calm as much as entertain.

Frasier wasn’t a particularly good radio doctor, and his experience as a psychiatrist didn’t seem to help him much when it came to evolving as a human. But that made him all the more affecting to viewers. There’s no need to feel nostalgic for a strange show that provides comfort; solace always feels fresh.