Should sitcoms be resurrected?
If there is to be a Frasier revival, producers should learn from the mistakes of past spin-off shows
Anyone who is an aficionado of the very best of TV comedy will undoubtedly be familiar with the sitcom Frasier; one of the sharpest and wittiest shows of the past few decades.
It followed the adventures of a Seattle-based pair of psychiatrist brothers, Frasier and Niles Crane, and the various characters who they were entangled with, including their loving but often baffled ex-policeman father Martin, his straight-talking carer Daphne, the subject of Niles’s increasingly frustrated romantic attentions, and Frasier’s wry producer Roz. As played by Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, the Cranes were an unusual duo: cultured and sophisticated, but also vain, snobbish and given to meddling in each others’ affairs, usually without success.
Frasier ran for 11 seasons between 1993 and 2004, and remained enjoyable and witty until the end
It is the highest compliment that one can pay to the programme that at its best it had something of the style and verve of the greatest opera buffa, helped by plotlines that nodded to the great traditions of farce but never felt stagey or overblown. It ran for 11 seasons between 1993 and 2004, and remained enjoyable and witty until the end, even as the cracks began to show. It was probably a mistake to make Niles and Daphne into a couple, as that destroyed one of the most enduring running jokes, and by its conclusion the situation and characters, delicious though they remained, were beginning to show signs of wearing thin.
It has therefore come as something of a surprise to find that Frasier is now going to be resurrected as part of the newly launched Paramount Plus streaming service. As film and television studios find themselves increasingly panicked by the dire state of the industry, they are taking great interest in a service that would once have been denigrated as “direct to video”, and milking their existing intellectual property in order to make as conspicuous a success of it as they can. Therefore, we are promised television adaptations of hit films such as Fatal Attraction and The Italian Job, amongst others, and, of course, the return of Dr Frasier Crane. Grammer may have sung at the conclusion of each episode that, “Goodnight, Frasier has left the building”, but now, no doubt lured back by a vast amount of money, he shall be skipping back onto screens worldwide next year.
This may well be a disastrous decision. Although Grammer seems to be excited about the return of the show, his enthusiasm has not hitherto been shared by his co-stars David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves. Hyde Pierce even said, when asked about the possibility of a Frasier reunion a couple of years ago, “No, I won’t be involved … I don’t think that they would want one.” Leeves, meanwhile, has indicated that she would be reluctant to leave her current job, a show called The Resident, and cautioned that, “there’s a lot of pieces that have to come together to make it happen.” Although Peri Gilpin, who plays Roz, has been more receptive, saying, “I’m wondering what’s going on. My agents and manager are really wondering what’s going on”, one actor who certainly won’t be returning whatever enormous sums of cash are dangled before his co-stars is John Mahoney, who played Martin: he died in 2018, at the age of 77.
The creators of the Frasier reboot are therefore faced with a series of difficult decisions. Should they jettison Niles, Daphne and Roz, move Frasier from his Seattle base and attempt to update the character to a world of podcasts, social media and cancel culture? Or should the programme continue to operate as if it is business as usual, albeit with the acknowledgement that the protagonists have aged two decades and that watching the farcical exploits of two men in their sixties might be more unbecoming than when they were younger?
The projected revival of Frasier is not being greeted with the excitement that it might once have anticipated
There is also the difficulty that Grammer himself is far removed from the liberal figure of Frasier, being a conservative Republican who has vocally supported Trump and Brexit. While most viewers are sophisticated enough to be able to separate the offscreen lives and attitudes of actors from the characters they play – as otherwise every actor who has played Hitler would find themselves unable to work again – there is a small but noisy minority whose vociferous objections to Grammer’s public stances on political issues have already been made, and no doubt will resurface again when the programme is released. A friend of mine, a noted Frasier aficionado who can recite many of the scripts off by heart, sent me a picture of Grammer looking smug while wearing a pro-gun T-shirt, with the caption: “It would be really great if we could stop giving this man money.”
It is fair to say, then, that the projected revival of Frasier is not being greeted with the unalloyed excitement that it might once have anticipated. Yet when a sitcom returns after a lengthy period away, either with its original cast or in the form of a spin-off, it is taking an existential risk that will often be greeted with disaster. While Frasier was itself inspired by the perennially popular Cheers, in which Frasier Crane gradually became one of the major characters, the two shows were subtly different entities. It would be an over-simplification to call Cheers the rowdy, unsophisticated cousin to Frasier’s sophisticated metropolitan elite, but there is a distinction between the programmes that means that it would be entirely possible to enjoy one without ever needing to bother with the other.
Which is more than one can say of Joey, the ill-fated Friends spin-off that followed the character of Matt LeBlanc’s dopey would-be actor Joey Tribbiani in his attempts to have a Hollywood career. The programme limped on for two increasingly unhappy seasons before it was eventually put out of its misery, and LeBlanc took a lengthy hiatus from acting before returning in a more successful self-parodying mode as himself in the show Episodes. Whenever Joey was alluded to, it was as the punchline to a running joke, with LeBlanc saying, wistfully, “They said Joey was going to be a success…” Yet, like Frasier, the programme originated from one of the most popular sitcoms of the twentieth century, and one that continued to inspire great affection years after it concluded. It is easy to see why Joey was commissioned, and equally obvious why, deprived of the support of the ensemble cast, its likeable lead actor ended up floundering.
If a programme has been successful, the desire to resurrect it in some form seems never to disappear
So it has proved over and over again, both in America and Britain. Few people now remember The Green Green Grass, a show derived from Only Fools and Horses and revolving around the character of John Challis’s Boycie, just as it was a mistake for the makers of On The Buses to take the immortal character of Stephen Lewis’s Inspector Cyril “Blakey” Blake, and transpose him to Spain as a whinging retired expatriate in the now-forgotten show Don’t Drink The Water. Sometimes, executives and writers have hesitated before besmirching the reputation of their legendary shows. It is probably a blessing that the mooted Dad’s Army spin-off, It Sticks Out Half A Mile, was only broadcast on the radio after Arthur Lowe’s untimely death in 1982. Its post-war setting loses much of the humour and heart of the original show, to say nothing of the absence of Mainwaring being very keenly felt.
Yet if a programme has been successful, the desire to resurrect it in some form seems never entirely to disappear. There have been consistent rumblings and rumours that Blackadder will return in some form, perhaps with Blackadder as a university don in the Sixties and Baldrick as his scout. Leaving aside the question of whether a BBC comedy budget could now afford the no-doubt stratospheric fees of Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – to say nothing of the likes of Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson and Tim McInnerny – the last attempt to recapture the programme’s alchemy, a one-off 1999 special created for the Millennium Done, Blackadder: Back and Forth, felt desperately contrived and flat, despite the presence of the show’s original cast and creators Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. And even the most fervent admirers of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office would surely acknowledge that the Merchant-less attempts to continue the character’s travails in the film David Brent: Life on the Road cannot match the original’s wit and surprising levels of depth and poignancy.
As a devoted admirer of Frasier, I hope that the new series is a worthwhile and funny continuation of its characters’ lives. There is certainly a decent amount of comic mileage to be had from the fish-out-of-water exploits of Dr Frasier Crane in the contemporary world, but I fear that if Niles, Daphne and Roz do not return, that whatever is produced will feel like a rather limp epilogue to a once-great programme. Even as the successful existence of Frasier itself is proof that spin-off sitcoms can equal, and even surpass, the shows that they have originated from, we live in a noisy and agitated time where there is simply too much competition for our attention and time for a show to be granted the nostalgic indulgence that it would once have craved. Perhaps, after all, it would have been better for Frasier to have left the building for good, trailing glory, and not to have to crept back in via the broadcasting equivalent of the fire escape.
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