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The Long Trek through Frasier

Last year, I wrote down some notes on Star Trek after completing the half-decade experience -- sorry, five-year mission -- of watching all of it; a couple of months ago, I finally finished another television show that has been part of my personal zeitgeist for as long as I can remember: Frasier. Writing these short notes is pure enjoyment for me; it's easy to write about critically-acclaimed work, and by doing so I can engage actively with it, just as millions of others have.

I'm not sure when I first saw an episode of Frasier; its prep-school roots so closely mirror my own school days that it's become hard to know which came first. Did I hear "Goodbye My Coney Island Baby" first in a season six punchline, or had the tune already been so deeply ingrained into me that I remember my classmates and I spontaneously breaking into song backstage during one of our own theater productions? I have a surreal memory of the time my classmate commented derisively on a fellow student's sartorial choice of white socks with his pennyloafers; could anything be more Crane-like? It's no wonder that I went through eleven seasons of this show as easily as a bottle of fine sherry.

For all that, one thing I do regret is that watching this show in my formative years made me think that being snobbish was cool; the acid wit that every episode might be funny, but it is applied to the most petty of subjects and often cuts people for no good reason. I do regret that, and hope I didn't offend anyone too much.

In any case, I know that I saw relatively little of NBC's 1990s sitcoms during their first runs, but began unwinding after school with syndicated reruns at some point in my mid-teens. (I've still never seen an episode of Friends). Since then, Frasier has been there during some lonely times in my life. My first job after university had me living in hotels for months on end; I would come back to the room after work and catch an episode or two on the Lifetime Network, surely the most popular cable network among men in their early twenties. (I never did stick around for The Golden Girls afterward).

A few years later, I bought the entire eleven-series collection on DVD for an absurdly low price and immediately put them aside. Real life took me on my own misadventures for the following decade, and in the quieter intervals, there was always something else to watch. But with the constant isolation of the pandemic, my television has become a friend and companion. I naturally turned back to Frasier's world. It took me back to a time in my own life when I was so naive that I thought an East Coast all-boys' prep school was the place humanity would build a utopia together.

The show itself is hardly that utopia either, of course. It's a recurring theme, if one of the show's less funny ones, that the Crane brothers are barely capable of dealing with the practical aspects of life. And, even in the rarefied atmosphere they have wrapped themselves in, they're constantly trying to break into even snobbier social circles. Indeed, the show is self-conscious about social class in a way that Americans rarely are; I certainly can't think of another American show set in modern times where domestic servants exist at all, let alone one with the accent of a British scullery-maid. Daphne's role as a healthcare professional often seems like little more than a fig-leaf to cover that truth, particularly in the earlier seasons.

Even so, the characters do pursue that utopia. Each season, especially in the early years, ended with an episode intended to explore the personal development of the characters. There is real reflection and growth. Interesting questions about how to live a moral and happy life are asked. I can't think of too many other shows, certainly not on Anglophone television, that walk down these paths.

Frasier, as is the case with any narrative, is told from a particular point of view, but it does try to explore other perspectives and different ways of thinking. In an otherwise unremarkable sixth-season episode about a series of poor decisions that lead to the Cranes' arrest, we also see how Roz feels ignored by Frasier as well as how Martin's experiences in the Korean War have seriously clouded his ability to relate to Asian-American women ("The Seal Who Came to Dinner"). Another episode challenges sitcom conventions by leaving everyone angry and unsettled at the end ("Room Full of Heroes").

The show is rapidly becoming irreproducible in the modern age. Frasier might have a podcast rather than a radio show now, but that's not all. The social class it satirizes, one I am very familiar with, is rapidly evolving; one hardly needs to look past the shuttering of the kind of stores that the Crane brothers patronized to see this. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a marked shift in the social fabric of the country. I was also struck by the language that the Cranes use to talk about psychology. Dreams come from suppressed emotions; inability to get out of bed in the morning comes from fear. The language of Freud is rampant. I wonder if this is really how we framed our own minds in the 1990s. How have we evolved from that to the language we use today to talk about our brains and our bodies? How silly will the way we talk now sound in another twenty-five years?

Finally, I will note that the actors are, truly, talented, and used to physical performance in a way that only stage actors can be. To watch Frasier is to appreciate a performance; many other shows try to hide that fact under a thin veneer of realism. Watch David Hyde Pierce's silent scene in Three Valentines, John Mahoney's portrayal of a man suffering far more than he cares to admit, or Kelsey Grammer opposite Rene Auberjonois to see this -- but Peri Gilpin's fleeting moment of complete vulnerability at the end of the seventh-season episode "Hot Pursuit" is what sticks with me the most. And, then, what other sitcom could pull in Derek Jacobi as a failed Shakesperean actor or Elvis Costello as a busking performer?

For all the ways the series comes out of that traditional, class-conscious world, it is bound to a different set of values. After watching the series finale, I was thinking about Kelsey Grammer's well-known affection for Star Trek, and was struck by the real similarities between 1990s-era Trek and Frasier. The brothers Crane, like the Enterprise crew, never really have money or resource problems. The world that they live in is egalitarian in nature; every member of the main cast is given an equal chance to contribute regardless of their background or role. Indeed, the castmembers are master chefs, polyglots, musical composers, aesthetes, medical doctors: much like Star Trek, the characters challenge us to be polymaths.

Truly, both series' success came in large part due to the strength of the characters; their ability to grow and explore. And both series somehow managed to fit in a few Gilbert and Sullivan numbers.

I am not the first person to make this comparison; in the late 1990s, these shows were so huge that, bizarrely, there was a short crossover parody filmed in 1996 with Voyager's Kate Mulgrew commanding the Frasier cast as part of 30th anniversary Trek celebrations.

More than the setting, though, it is the thematic scope of Frasier that sets it apart from Star Trek. With its focus on farce, on satire, and on the universal human foibles of pride, jealousy, status, and anxiety, Frasier's characters find themselves searching for personal meaning in a much smaller, more constrained world than the Enterprise crew.

Which of these worlds more closely resembles our own?