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Cheers, Frasier

A comedy classic makes a triumphant return

Artillery Row

Dr Frasier Crane is back, and it’s great to see him. Having first appeared in Cheers in 1984, where he helped prop up the bar for a decade, before going onto 11 glorious seasons navigating family, friends, romance and Daphne’s cooking in the original Frasier, this third instalment finds our titular psychiatrist returning to Boston. There he aims to reconnect with his old Oxbridge pal, Dr. Alan Cornwell, and his errant son, Freddy.

Co-developer Joe Cristalli is a self-professed Frasier superfan (having run the twitter account @FrasierContempo, which imagined modern storylines for the Crane boys), and this affection bleeds through.

The opening episode manages to juggle a lot of set-up and exposition, whilst delivering jokes, warmth and even a nimble, twinkly dinner party farce. Episode two is even better: the writers stack joke upon joke, including a terrific old-skool visual gag involving a chest-of-drawers. Later, there is a marvellous set-piece involving table hockey, plus a brace of neat misunderstandings: one, triggered by an off-the-cuff remark from new character Eve (played with gusto by Jess Salgueiro); another exposing Freddy’s tall tales about his father.

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, by a review in The Hollywood Reporter, which felt the whole operation had an air of “this’ll do”. I thought precisely the opposite: it seemed obvious to me that a great deal of love and effort had been poured into this new series.

Indeed, the US press has thrown up a good deal of negative coverage. I think this should be taken not as evidence that the show is bad, but that it is confidently kicking against current trends: a sitcom that is happily, deliberately warm and fun. Complaints that the premise is “creaky” and “low stakes” are the sort of easy, lazy objections all multi-camera sitcoms face — particularly from television reviewers who are, let’s face it, paid to snark.

British television comedy has, with few exceptions, become almost unbearably cold and miserable, which makes this Frasier reboot even more refreshing.

Of course, the task it’s taken on is massive, given its antecedent is probably the best sitcom of all time. I always feel squeamish ordering programmes in this way. Because of their different approaches, it usually makes sense to judge British and American sitcoms separately. In the UK, the traditional model of one or two writers being responsible for six or eight episodes a year was so different to America’s mammoth runs and writers’ rooms that comparisons seemed unfair.

Certainly, the US has produced some truly fantastic shows: The Golden Girls, Seinfeld and, of course, Cheers being amongst the absolute greats. For me, though, Frasier — original Frasier — is the king. The cast are fabulous, and the structurally transgressive stroke of genius (making Niles a more extreme, more neurotic, version of Frasier himself, rather than his antithesis, a role beautifully filled by Martin) elevates it into unique territory.

The reason for making a sitcom should be that it’s funny

There are very few sitcoms that can boast so many exceptional episodes. “The Matchmaker”, “The Innkeepers”, “The Ski Lodge”, “The Seal Who Came To Dinner”, “They’re Playing Our Song” — these are some of the best episodes of television comedy ever made. By the turn of the millennium, the show also began experimenting metaphysically: pushing into stories that played with time and perception, whilst keeping the farce going with “The Show Must Go Off”, “The Doctor Is Out” and — not a farce exactly, but probably my favourite episode of all — the hilarious “Murder Most Maris” (“Are you forgetting that just this afternoon I was punched in the face by a man now dead?”). It’s a fine record, possibly an unbeatable record.

To complain that new Frasier isn’t old Frasier is to miss the point, though.

Whilst the title card and the music echo the original, lots of changes (aside from the obvious: the cast) have been made to kick the premise on.

The Frasier who arrives in Boston to a whoop from the audience at the very start of Episode 1 is less uptight — still pretentious, yes, but dressed more casually and cushioned by huge success during his off-screen period in Chicago.

He is a mellower character, and he would be, too: we all mellow with age. Grammer’s performance is pitch perfect. Nicholas Lyndhurst is equally excellent. This is a surprise perhaps for Twitter, but not for anyone who realises that he wasn’t actually Rodney Trotter and actors, y’know, act. The rest of the ensemble slip into it nicely. Anders Keith is particularly good as David, an even further heightened Niles, Jnr.

The question “why now?” is one that crops up too often in modern television. It forces creators to try to pin their ideas to some kind of political or social trend, leading to gluts of programmes revolving around the same issues. The reason for making a sitcom should be that it’s characterful and funny, not that it’s got a zeitgeisty message at its centre.

Frasier’s answer to the “Why now?” question, “Just because”, is fine. In fact, it’s better. When life is tough, and the world is dangerous, a good sitcom provides an escape from the news, and the shouting, and the division and dogma.

Like many great sitcoms, Frasier’s focus on character and relationships is a blessed relief from the slew of issue-led vehicles that clog up British and American television. That doesn’t mean that individual episodes should not deal with social or political topics, simply that popular sitcoms usually work best when they’re not overtly political constructs. We all need a break — and sitcoms should provide that break.

Very few shows make their finest episodes in their first season. Judging by the spirit and intent of these first two episodes, though, more classic Frasier — respectful of the old, but breezily, confidently new — is on its way.

I hope this charming, joke-filled reboot will be recommissioned immediately.

“Damn it, Frasier, you know how magnetic you are,” our favourite psychiatrist chuckles to himself. He does. But, then, he is.

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