I grew up with a brother, and I have never seen a more genuine, more accurate depiction of the male sibling relationship as the one on Frasier. My brother agrees. Two people who are close share adventures and schemes, to be sure. But they also bicker over minutiae, or bond over trivial points of consensus. This is much of what takes place on Frasier, where an argument over opera or wine can become as much a plot point as a farcical mistaken identity. The snobbery of the brothers Crane turned out to be one of the show’s strengths; with so many of its narratives hinging on battles of wits, there may be no other sitcom that invested so heavily in verbal humor, as well as the physical and situational kinds. Frasier was more an inheritor of the Hollywood romantic comedy of the classic era—the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder—than perhaps the romcom itself has been since the 1980s.
So it should come as good news that, according to a report in Deadline, television’s most eminent radio psychiatrist may be returning to the airwaves. If the project pans out, it will follow in the footsteps of several other ‘90s sitcoms to cash in on the burgeoning millennial nostalgia market, including Murphy Brown, Will and Grace, and, most ominously, Roseanne. But the prospect inspires wariness rather than excitement. This is risky business. Other classic sitcoms of the time, arguably, have not aged well. The gratuitous homophobia on Friends, for example, looks fatally dated to contemporary eyes. The relentless procession of racial stereotypes on Seinfeld can make it hard to watch today. But Frasier avoided these pitfalls better than its contemporaries. Possibly due to the early influence of gay head writer Joe Keenan, or the fact that every male lead except Frasier was played by a gay actor, the show was relatively accepting of its gay characters; Keenan’s episode “The Matchmaker” even won a GLAAD media award. Frasier’s self-conscious cosmopolitanism usually circumvents the use of ethnic conflict as a narrative device, instead manifesting itself in a taste for exotic food and art.
We may remember the culture of the ‘90s as the last gasp for the presumption of neutrality on the part of the straight white male protagonist. It was not uncommon in Seinfeld for a comically awkward situation to be predicated on one of the main characters being inadvertently racist. We were conditioned to accept the strange personalities of our heroes as inherently ordinary. Unlike Larry David when left to his own devices on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jerry Seinfeld downplayed his Jewishness. But Jerry and the gang were surrounded by peripheral characters with vested interests and ulterior motives, many of them the result of cultural or ethnic affiliations. Frasier and Niles are white men too. Yet their cultural lives are pure artifice; the culture clashes they find themselves embroiled in are their own responsibilities.
This drama played out primarily in the Crane family dynamic. Frasier and Niles epitomize the stereotype of the latte-sipping liberal—wealthy psychiatrists who literally seem to spend most of their time sipping lattes. But their father, Martin Crane, is a former cop. “I’m a regular joe and I like my joe regular,” he says in one episode, disgruntled by the highfalutin selection at his sons’ favorite Seattle coffee shop, Café Nervosa. The Crane boys’ cultural lives—the love of wine, opera, African art—are not passed on from the father, but developed like a subculture, through the assemblage of cultural artifacts the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss named bricolage. For my brother and me, second-generation Americans who formed our cultural identities through research rather than inheritance, this is highly relatable, even if he and I obsess over metal rather than opera.
Martin Crane’s perpetual confusion over his pretentious, effeminate sons was funny, but also occasionally moving. In episodes like “Dinner at Eight” or “Room Full of Heroes,” Frasier and Niles’s elitism causes serious offense. Martin sometimes goes to great lengths, as in “Our Father, Whose Art Ain’t Heaven” or “Fathers and Sons,” to relate to his offspring, even attempting a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan song. In “Breaking the Ice,” Frasier and Niles note with anguish that all their lives, their father has been too afflicted by what we might now call “toxic masculinity” to say “I love you” to his sons. They discover, to their surprise, how reluctant they are to say it too. In order to reach the point of narrative resolution a sitcom requires, there has to be a constant effort, on both sides, to compromise. At best, you could see this as an argument for cross-cultural empathy. At worst, you might see it as an allegory for centrist both-sides equivocation.
Roseanne becomes a meaningful point of comparison here, given that Kelsey Grammer shares a dubious distinction with Roseanne Barr: he is one of the entertainment industry’s few prominent conservatives. Not only has Grammer had a longtime habit of threatening to run for office as a Republican, he is on record as having voted for Donald Trump. Controversially, Roseanne’s real-life support for Trump led her character, Roseanne, to also support Trump, a major disappointment for fans who had previously seen Roseanne as a vaguely progressive representation of that highly contested demographic, the “white working class.”
Grammer, however, was merely an actor playing a role, not an auteur who determined the direction of the series. There is also an ideological gap between Grammer and Frasier, unlike the identity between Roseanne and Roseanne. The show explicitly established, in the season two episode “The Candidate,” that Frasier and Niles are liberals. In that episode, they clash with their father over a local election. Père Crane supports a right-wing “law and order” candidate, while the sons are enamored his liberal opponent, who, unfortunately, turns out to be a believer in alien visitation. The episode seems like an uncanny anticipation of left-leaning Democrat Dennis Kucinich, who has long maintained that he once spotted an alien vessel. (“It’s an unidentified flying object—it’s unidentified!” he protested, haplessly, at the 2007 Democratic primary debate.)
Somehow, it was once possible for a primetime TV show to not comment on the Presidential election of 2000, on 9/11, on the invasion of Iraq. Frasier never really engaged in topical humor. But as Roseanne has showed, it is not possible, in 2018, to avoid commenting on Trump. Even a fictional character has to take a side. The producers of a Frasier reboot, then, will have to choose. The Red State-Blue State generational split in the Crane family may have been comedy then, but today, it’s war. After the Tea Party and Pizzagate, an effete liberal like Frasier is not just a figure of fun to a right-wing Republican like Grammer, but a supervillain. John Mahoney, the English actor who portrayed Martin Crane, passed away earlier this year, meaning his character will not be present to balance the show’s political spectrum. That means someone, either Kelsey Grammer or Frasier Crane, will have to betray himself. I hear the blues a-callin’.
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