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In the End, Frasier Was Funnier Than ‘Frasier’

Kelsey Grammer’s iconic sitcom character remains undimmed by the decades, but the ‘Frasier’ reboot on Paramount+ hasn’t surrounded Dr. Crane with a core cast or writing that can rival the original’s

Paramount+/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a scene in the original Frasier finale that foreshadowed Frasier Crane’s future. After a heartfelt but farcical sequence in which Frasier’s father, Martin, gets married at the same veterinarian’s office (yes) where Frasier’s brother, Niles, and sister-in-law Daphne just had a baby boy, Frasier finally has his apartment to himself. On a rainy night in Seattle, he relaxes on his comfortable couch in front of the fireplace, reading a book and drinking sherry. By all appearances, he’s in his element. But before long, Frasier finds this long-desired, newly secured quiet disquieting.

Desperate for companionship, he calls his ex-wife Lilith back in Boston to ask after their son, Freddy. “I’m spending a lot of time alone lately,” Frasier confesses, noting that he hasn’t seen much of Martin or Niles. But Freddy can’t come to the phone, and Lilith doesn’t have time to talk to Frasier either. Soon, Frasier’s solitude is disturbed by a welcome guest: a mover who comes to take Martin’s armchair, which has been blighting Frasier’s living room since the start of the series. Delighted to be free of the offending furniture, Frasier replaces the old eyesore with a more elegant Eames chair and makes a photo frame with his hands, through which he admires the picture-perfect décor. Yet without the puke-yellow armchair, a symbol of the series’ softer side, the picture is missing something essential: any evidence of family or friends. Frasier is now an empty nester, so he decides to fly the nest, accepting a job and a new beginning in San Francisco (only to leave for Chicago instead in pursuit of his latest flame, Charlotte).

Even after 11 seasons, the classic sitcom’s titular character, played by Kelsey Grammer, was still searching for fulfillment. Grammer was willing to sign up for Season 12 before NBC canceled the series (reportedly because of the cast’s increasing salaries), and even before the finale aired in May 2004, talks started about continuing the psychiatrist’s story in a new city with a new cast, just as Grammer had when Frasier spun off from Cheers. Although those conversations stalled, the perception of unfinished Frasier business lingered, and affection for the show persisted via streaming. The idea of bringing back the character cleared Hollywood’s low reboot bar, and in 2018, mere months after The Ringer celebratedFrasier Day,” Grammer started entertaining pitches—inspired, he’s said, by the continued TV viability of fellow then-60-something ’90s sitcom stars (and vocal right-wingers) Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr. (Barr’s viability didn’t last long.)

The fruits of those discussions ripened this past October, when the new, old Frasier returned to TV on Paramount+. By the time the Frasier reboot/sequel/spinoff debuted, Grammer had gone almost as long without appearing on-screen as Frasier (7,091 days) as he did playing him during his technically record-tying 20-year, multi-series original run (7,168 days). In one respect, time hasn’t hurt the Frasier formula. “Still got it,” Frasier declares in one new episode, and he does: From the moment the curtain rises through Thursday’s finale, Grammer’s comedic timing and mannerisms remain as intact as his Trump support. The show around him, however, doesn’t rival the original. Frasier is still funny. Frasier is … fine.

Like the first Frasier, the reboot finds its eponymous protagonist at a moment of transition, as he crosses the country to move on from a breakup. (Frasier and Charlotte did get together, but she eventually left him without ever becoming a Crane wife.) In some respects, the setup for the series inverts the original’s, as evidenced by the titles of their respective premieres, “The Good Son” and “The Good Father.” Instead of a fresh start beyond Boston, it’s a homecoming, as Frasier moves back to Beantown and starts lecturing at Harvard, his old haunt. And instead of reluctantly letting his father move in with him, he all but forces Freddy to do so, as Frasier—flush from his years on a lucrative but creatively bankrupt daytime TV talk show—buys a building to be closer to his estranged son. Frasier is still a father-son story, but this time Frasier is the well-meaning but annoying dad who has little in common with his progeny and roommate.

Frasier is determined to change that, prompted in part by the recent passing of Martin (which mirrors the 2018 death of John Mahoney, who played the Crane patriarch). Freddy, last seen going through a Goth phase in original-flavor Frasier’s final season, is the only series regular who made multiple appearances on the old show(s), though the part has been recast (again). Now played by Jack Cutmore-Scott, best known for roles in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Christopher Nolan’s three latest films, Freddy is a nondescriptly handsome, single firefighter who dropped out of Harvard (Cutmore-Scott’s real-life alma mater), much to Frasier’s dismay. Frasier’s disappointment in his son’s blue-collar career, coupled with his physical distance from his son for much of Freddy’s life, erect two impediments to the closeness the elder Crane craves—partly for Freddy’s sake, but also to assuage his own isolation and bolster his still titanic ego.

The surviving principals of Frasier’s first run declined to join the reboot on a regular basis, which led to the creation of an all-new supporting cast. There’s Alan Cornwall (Nicholas Lyndhurst), Frasier’s heretofore-unmentioned friend, former schoolmate, and fellow psychology teacher; Olivia (Toks Olagundoye), the ambitious, workaholic head of the psych department; Eve (Jess Salgueiro), who lives across the hall from Freddy and Frasier and who’s raising the son she had with a firefighter who had also been Freddy’s best friend before he was killed; and David (Anders Keith), Niles and Daphne’s son, who’s a Harvard freshman. In traditional Frasier fashion, it’s a compact core group supplemented by a smattering of supporting workplace proximity associates.

Although Grammer (who’s also back on the big screen as Beast) was clearly the key to getting a green light, new leadership shepherds the show: The series was developed by Chris Harris, a How I Met Your Mother writer and supervising producer, and Joe Cristalli, a Life in Pieces writer and Frasier fanatic who had operated a “Modern Seinfeld”–esque Twitter account devoted to “dialogue snippets of what would be on the show now.” However, there’s still some creative continuity: Cheers cocreator and Cheers and Frasier director James Burrows was behind the camera for the first two episodes; Frasier casting director Jeff Greenberg reprised his role for Frasier, Part Deux; and Frasier writers and producers Jay Kogen, Christopher Lloyd, and Bob Daily were back on board as consulting producers. This is still a multi-camera sitcom—a rarity today—whose episodes typically run only a few minutes longer than they did on NBC, and the title art and Grammer-crooned outro theme are variations on their decades-old precursors. Aesthetically and tonally, Frasier remains an old-school slice of sitcom comfort food designed to distract viewers from their troubles—or, perhaps, serve as a sleep aid.

It may, in fact, be an even better lullaby than the old Frasier, in that it’s less likely to interrupt your alpha waves with frequent, laugh-out-loud punchlines. Again, that’s not Frasier’s fault. Grammer’s still got it: His stricken, conniving, or wounded expressions are still captivating, and his voice, as ever, is a precise instrument of many intonations—or with wide tessitura, as Frasier (or Sideshow Bob) might say. Frasier is older but only somewhat wiser; he’s still alternately brilliant and bumbling, sympathetic and pompous. He’s far more famous and wealthy than he was in Seattle, but he’s hardly more self-assured or immune to overreaching in his quest for cachet. And although he’s an eccentric composed of exaggerated traits, his human side makes him surprisingly relatable.

To its credit, the reboot tries to establish its own rhythms without drawing too deeply on Frasier lore. Cheers (the bar) is alluded to, but never named; the relatively dressed-down doctor’s new watering hole is “Mahoney’s,” a touching tribute. Frasier’s trademark exclamations of “Dear God!” are kept to a minimum, and references to old episodes sprinkle the scripts sparingly. Only two legacy characters cross over in Season 1: Lilith (who was also the first guest star to cross over from Cheers to Frasier) in a substantial turn in Episode 7, and Roz (Peri Gilpin) in a short but sweet cameo at the end of the finale. David’s presence makes it simple to justify a Niles or Daphne drop-in if David Hyde Pierce or Jane Leeves would be willing—Hyde Pierce has described himself as “interested” in the reboot, and Leeves lost a long-running gig when The Resident ended this spring—and the reboot’s Boston setting might permit tantalizing tie-ins to Cheers. But watching out for old non-Frasier faces isn’t supposed to be the main reason to tune in.

In practice, it’s a pretty important one, because only a few of the new additions stand out. Alan is a worthy sidekick for Frasier’s high jinks and—in the absence of Martin and Niles—the lone fixture on the roster who knew Frasier before his sense of self-importance was fully formed. Although the jokes at Alan’s expense (some of them self-inflicted) are repetitive—abetted by tenure, he works lightly and drinks heavily—Lyndhurst’s droll delivery, honed on U.K. sitcoms such as Only Fools and Horses, feels Frasier-ian and complements Grammer’s more theatrical mien. Olagundoye also excels as Olivia, which makes the humor land more reliably in Frasier’s professional surroundings than in his home life.

That’s a problem, because as in the first Frasier, his home life is most of the show. Eve is a pleasant, inoffensive foil for Freddy, though the two don’t have much chemistry. (Thus far, Frasier hasn’t forced it.) The younger Cranes are the bigger stumbling blocks. David, who’s kind of a cross between Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Jacob from Abbott Elementary, is a convincingly nerdy, neurotic, and empathetic blend of his off-screen parents, but he feels like a transplant from some other series (How I Met Your Mother, maybe!) and rarely jells well with the Frasier-Freddy dynamic.

My personal sticking point is Cutmore-Scott’s portrayal of Freddy, which seems a bit confused. Frankly, Freddy never makes me laugh, no matter how hard the overenthusiastic studio audience does. Cutmore-Scott—who, like Mahoney, is a Brit playing a Yank—ably handles the show’s more dramatic, emotional moments. Unfortunately, Frasier is a comedy. Cutmore-Scott has a hammy way of sardonically overselling every punchline, playing to the studio audience rather than his scene partners. For me, at least—and, let’s face it, for many other viewers—his delivery saps the funny from every exchange. (Not that the writing for Freddy is especially strong.) Perhaps this is fixable, if Frasier gets a chance to course-correct, but it’s one of the weak points that sabotages a lackluster, albeit non-disastrous, Season 1.

Frasier premiered hard on the heels of Night Court, another NBC revival of a late, great sitcom with one Emmy-laden holdover from the original cast (John Larroquette, who plays Dan Fielding). The new Night Court was an instant success, debuting to bonkers ratings (which waned as the season continued) and earning a rapid renewal. By comparison, Frasier hasn’t built much buzz: Dr. Crane may be listening, but it’s not clear how many millions are listening to him.

According to The Entertainment Strategy Guy, a former network executive who writes about ratings on Substack, Frasier hasn’t cracked any prominent TV viewership or interest charts. Those no-shows, in tandem with the series’ low number of IMDb user reviews, lead TESG to conclude, “Most of the data is aligned that Frasier isn’t very popular so far.” Traditional sitcoms are underrepresented—and sometimes a tough sell—on streaming, and Frasier did draw millions more in a special CBS airing of the two-part premiere. With a series such as Frasier, TESG says via email, “‘dual-release’ strategies (both broadcast/cable and streaming) probably make more financial sense than straight-to-streaming only,” but “for a variety of reasons—both internal politics and talent contracts—changing distribution formats isn’t that easy once you’ve decided on a ‘streaming-first’ release style.”

I can’t quite bring myself to say that it would be a shame if Frasier re-exits the building with scrambled eggs all over his face long before Grammer gets to his goal of “another 100 episodes at least” (which would take 10 years on Paramount+). On occasion, the series approximates vintage Frasier, most notably in the madcap, comedy-of-errors sixth episode, in which Frasier and Freddy vie for the favor of a blind date who may be intended for either one of them. But I’m not sure the seeds of sitcom greatness are here, even allowing for first-season growing pains: Only two of the new Frasier’s first nine installments have a higher IMDb user rating than the lowest-rated of old Frasier’s 24 first-season episodes. By the end of “Reindeer Games,” the 10th and final Season 1 episode of Frasier’s third act, Frasier and Freddy have reconciled, and Freddy concedes that he’s happy to have his dad in his life (and, presumably, his apartment). If this series runs for 10 fewer seasons than either of its predecessors, that wouldn’t be the worst way to end.

In the finale’s last scene, Freddy’s dad apologizes “for Frasiering all over everything.” That’s the last thing this Frasier needs to say sorry for: Unlike the original and its deep bench of Bebes and Bulldogs, the reboot is better when its beloved lead is putting up points, even if he has to play hero ball. If this is the end for Frasier (and Frasier), then the last line Grammer speaks as the iconic character won’t be “Wish me luck,” his farewell from 2004, but, “Now, how do you feel about killing a goose?” It’s not quite as dignified as “Good night, Seattle,” but at least it sounds like something the off-air Frasier would say.