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10 episodes of Frasier for when you hear the blues a-callin’

Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
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It was only a matter of time before TV’s revival trend turned its rapacious eye to Frasier, one of the most successful spin-offs in programming history. The long-running multi-cam sitcom from David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee has found new life in memes as well as in pillow forts across the country, offering a soothing alternative to the endless news cycle and puzzle-box shows. Fourteen years after Frasier wrapped an 11-season run on NBC, it remains eminently watchable—and what network or streamer could resist bringing back a series with such a vocal built-in audience?

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

We’re not here to argue the merits of a Frasier revival, especially not when its lead actor, Kelsey Grammer, seems ambivalent about the prospect. The series itself was a continuation, as it followed Grammer’s character, Dr. Frasier Crane, from Boston’s Cheers to Seattle, where it raised that West Coast city’s profile. Steeped in the memory of one of TV’s greatest ensembles, Frasier was inherently familiar. When it debuted on September 16, 1993, its charms were immediately recognized, even if the premise was hardly groundbreaking. Workplace humor had bled into family-centered sitcoms in the past, and trumpeting your lead character’s multiple divorces was hardly taboo by the mid-’90s. Frasier’s theatrical staging, which turned most episodes into 22-minute plays, and innuendo-filled farcical humor were inspired by Norman Lear’s oeuvre and series like Three’s Company and Fawlty Towers, respectively. But, as Frasier and his equally snooty brother would argue—and the show’s five consecutive Outstanding Comedy Emmys might contend—the classics are never out of fashion.

Casey, Lee, and Angell first floated the idea by Grammer, who played Dr. Frasier Crane for nine of Cheers’ 11 seasons, during that beloved sitcom’s eighth season. Their original concept was retooled, as NBC didn’t care to see Grammer as a reclusive, paraplegic publishing magnate working out of an immaculate high-rise apartment, with a “Rosie Perez-type” as his live-in caretaker who won’t be bossed around (just reading that sentence makes us glad that the show never came to fruition). Grammer agreed to don Frasier’s tweed blazer again, but Casey et al. reworked much of the backstory to avoid comparisons and crossovers. Frasier was transplanted back to Seattle—his origins were rewritten so the show could be set as far from Boston as possible—where the twice-divorced psychiatrist planned to take his place among the glitterati. The good doctor left private practice to reach the masses as the host of the Dr. Frasier Crane Show at KACL (the station’s call letters were made up of the creators’ initials).

Once both Grammer and NBC were on board, the rest of the show quickly came together. Lee’s relationship with his own father informed Frasier’s initially contentious dynamic with Martin Crane, who grudgingly moves in with his fussbudget son. The late John Mahoney (who, incidentally, had guest-starred on Cheers) was the first choice for Martin, a former cop whose blue-collar tastes clashed with Frasier’s posher sensibilities. As Vanity Fair’s oral history of the series attests, Jane Leeves had to win over Grammer, who initially worried that casting a Brit as Martin’s live-in physical therapist, Daphne Moon, would be too reminiscent of Nanny And The Professor. Lisa Kudrow was initially cast in the role of Roz Doyle, but producers soon decided they needed someone to play the character—an ambitious, quick-witted producer who initially taught Frasier the broadcasting ropes—as a more “formidable opponent” for the doctor. Enter Peri Gilpin (who, yes, also guested on Cheers), whose back-and-forth with Grammer was one of the show’s highlights. But the most significant bit of casting again involved capturing lightning in a bottle.

Romulus and Remus. Wilbur and Orville. Frasier and Niles. The decision to give Frasier a brother was inspired by nothing more than David Hyde Pierce’s resemblance to Grammer, but it paid off throughout the series’ run, ushering in one of the most iconic pairs of brothers ever. The only thing better than seeing one garrulous snob with egg on his face was watching two of them get skewered. Their characters may have been cut from the same cashmere cloth, but Grammer and Pierce crafted distinct albeit complementary personalities. Niles initially saw his big brother’s return as a threat to his status as Seattle’s most prominent Dr. Crane. Some of their best fights came from slugging it out (figuratively, of course) on what they both considered their home turf, whether it was the opera, Café Nervosa, or the wine club. Sibling rivalry was never more stylish—or amusing.

But the instant chemistry wasn’t limited to the actors playing siblings. Over the course of 11 years, Frasier’s writers mixed and matched the five core cast members into all kinds of winning combinations, including the marriage of Niles and Daphne. Grammer provided a more grounded but still flappable center, which encouraged his castmates to amplify their characters’ sillier attributes. As Niles, Pierce was, in many respects, a more fastidious version of his brother, while Mahoney turned Martin into the other, salt-of-the-earth end of the spectrum. Gilpin made Roz one of the small screen’s sex-positive pioneers, who spoke openly about desire and loneliness, while Leeves’ Daphne, who believed herself to be psychic, seemed to operate in an entirely different realm. Frasier was also incredibly lucky in its guest stars, from Patrick Stewart, Sela Ward, Patricia Clarkson, Laura Linney, and Rita Wilson to Jean Smart (who picked up two Emmys for her role as Lana Gardner). The call-in format of Frasier’s show allowed for even more big names to squeeze in an appearance—Grammer fielded calls from the likes of Laura Dern, Mel Brooks, Mary Tyler Moore, Alfre Woodard, John Waters, Halle Berry, Ron Howard, and Patti LuPone (the Broadway star later played Frasier’s Greek aunt in an episode that is only remarkable for its inclusion of Patti LuPone).

With such a talented main cast to anchor the flights of fancy, the producers could experiment as much as they wanted with the format. But, with the exception of bottle episodes and some stabs at surrealism, Lee et al. focused on refining the show’s mix of low and high humor. At its core, Frasier was a comedy of manners, waging the battle between “snobs and slobs” for most of its 11 seasons. Frasier’s rigidity and belief in his own superiority made him the target of most of these takedowns, but Niles’ own foppish ways were also mocked. But the writers, including Christopher Lloyd (not that one), Joe Keenan, Anne Flett-Giordano, and Ken Levine, also took aim at Martin’s discomfort with his sons’ displays of non-traditional masculinity: an opera box in place of a toolbox, a preference for wine over Ballantine’s. Even Daphne was teased about her “psychic visions” and obnoxious family. Poor Roz, on the other hand, was routinely criticized for having lots of consensual sex, which is one aspect that a revival would hopefully leave in the past.

What Frasier produced was a type of humor that was as comforting as it was challenging. In the Vanity Fair interview, Lee says, “We decided there could be jokes that not everyone got. We called them ‘10 percenters.’ As long as we were delivering high quality for the other 90 percent, it was fine.” Some of these 10 percenters further established Frasier and Niles’ yuppie bona fides, while others were deployed as insults (“Copernicus called, and you are not the center of the universe!”). But any reference that might elude the audience in written form was sold in the delivery—whether it was a “simple Visigoth metaphor” or comparing the “jejune” to the “bourgeois”—and the fact that, underneath all the affectations and Italian wool, Frasier (and Niles) was flawed but decent. His attempts at romance and a fresh start, at making room in his life for an adult parent and his son (the rarely seen Frederick), were all relatable, even if his exacting tastes weren’t.

As the show celebrates the 25th anniversary of its premiere, we’ve singled out some of our favorite episodes, entries that showcase Frasier’s dynamite cast, Grammer and Pierce’s theatricality, and the humanity that beckoned Cheers fans to Seattle.

“Author, Author” (season one, episode 22)

Frasier’s first season was such an accomplished debut that it’s difficult to pick a favorite early episode. “My Coffee With Niles,” the season-one finale, is often cited, but “Author, Author” is a pure distillation of the sibling rivalry that was one of the show’s most reliable sources of comedy. Many people think they “have a book in” them, and Frasier and Niles are no different. They even have the ideal subject: themselves. A last-minute pivot to make good on Niles’ book deal inspires the Crane brothers to write a book about sibling relationships, and they nearly destroy their own in the process. But not before the all-too-brief data-collecting phase, in which Niles takes to radio broadcasting like a Dalton man to an Ivy, thereby sowing the seeds for his future takeovers in “Frasier Crane’s Day Off” and “Head Games.” The misadventure ends with hotel fisticuffs and the acknowledgment that although there’s enough room in the vast field of psychiatry for two Doctor Cranes, they still need to maintain some distance.

Breaking The Ice” (season two, episode 20)

Bringing Martin to live with him did more than just throw off Frasier’s floor plan—it forced the two men to question why they’d grown apart and if they could mend their rift. By season two, they’d learned to tolerate living with each other, but “Breaking The Ice” marks one of the most significant developments in their relationship: a late-in-life “I love you” (it’s actually a very Nancy Meyers-like “I love ya”). An otherwise inhospitable ice house provides the ideal setting for the admission—Martin’s reveling in the outdoors, and neither man can really leave the room. Naturally, Niles is also there; it’s his idea to join Martin’s fishing trip after Duke cancels. Thanks to some cheap whiskey, the impromptu family therapy session goes down easy. Frasier spent a lot of time preoccupied about finding “the one,” but Frasier was just as concerned with reexamining the established relationships in his life.

“Chess Pains” (season three, episode 18)

No one enjoyed bringing Frasier down a peg like Martin. And Niles. Roz, too. Even Daphne got a kick out of taking some of the starch out of her stuffed shirt employer. In “Chess Pains,” Frasier suffers defeat after defeat while playing his favorite game, a situation made even more humiliating by his father’s utter lack of knowledge on the subject. It’s savant against psychiatrist, a situation that escalates until Frasier bets his father $5,000 for a final rematch. The episode captures the milestones you can achieve in middle age, though beating his father isn’t the thrill that Frasier anticipates. But it’s a win-win, as we’re given reason to suspect Martin put being a dad above being a victor, and threw the last match. Their battle of wills is frequently and hilariously interrupted by a lovelorn Niles, who’s found a surrogate for his wife, Maris—an imperious whippet.

“Ham Radio” (season four, episode 18)

Most Frasier episodes were structured like short plays, a format that lends itself especially well to Frasier’s unwavering-to-the-point-of-unreasonable desire to reenact KACL’s first mystery-theater broadcast. One of the series’ best episodes, “Ham Radio” is farce of the highest order, as Frasier plays actor, director, and critic (though he’s still about a dozen roles short of Niles’ repertoire). And who better to compose this high-spirited romp than co-creator David Lee, under direction from fellow Cheers alum David Lloyd? They pile on inconvenience after inconvenience to throw off Frasier’s plans, every incident heightening the absurdity, and the resulting laughter making the breathtaking pace even more so. Grammer is every bit as committed to the makeshift production as his character—he maintains Frasier’s gravity even when Niles resorts to using helium to voice a dwarf. We may never hear Gil’s “boyhood in Surrey” speech, but “Ham Radio” remains a disastrous affair to remember.

“Ski Lodge” (season five, episode 14)

“Ski Lodge” is rightly considered by many to be Frasier’s best episode ever. A gut-busting and intricately constructed half-hour, it earned writer Joe Keenan one of his five Emmy nominations. A series of miscommunications ends with Frasier, Martin, Daphne, and Niles in a cabin in the woods, along with Daphne’s flirtatious friend Annie (Cynthia LaMontagne) and a handsome ski instructor named Guy (James Patrick Stuart). Lights are snuffed out and Niles’ bottled-up feelings for Daphne threaten to spill over, even as he wards off the advances of their new “friends” (Frasier is left out in the cold). Keenan et al. could have easily turned out a fun, if standard, holiday-themed episode, but “Ski Lodge” unfolds like a Pacific Northwest Midsummer Night’s Dream, full of misunderstandings and compromised positions, which all melt away before the sun rises again.

“Dinner Party” (season six, episode 17)

Like the show writers, we’re returning to the “curses, foiled again!” well a lot, but Frasier—and Niles—losing his cool made for some of the show’s greatest moments. And what wasn’t gentle ribbing usually led to an epiphany anyway, so it’s all in good fun. “Dinner Party,” however, absolutely delights in singling out the brothers’ flaws. Lee directs the episode, and his grasp of the apartment layout turns the open concept into a cage match between siblings. Their exclusive gathering grows more so by the minute, thanks to their one-upmanship during planning. After taking immense joy from blackballing each other’s suggestions, Frasier and Niles are left a third-rate caterer, no guests, and the realization that they might be the only two people fully capable of tolerating and understanding each other: As one of their would-be guests says, “You get the one, you get the other one.”

“A Tsar Is Born” (season seven, episode seven)  

There was more than just a generational gap between Martin and his sons—Frasier and Niles considered themselves to be in a different class, but “A Tsar Is Born” takes some of the shine off their upward mobility. Frasier’s reflexive disdain for a cousin’s wedding plans upsets his dad, but they quickly make up when they realize they both love Antiques Roadshow. Once again, Niles is there for the spat and the reconciliation, as well as the on-camera segment that seemingly confirms what the brothers suspected/desperately hoped: that they’re descended from royal blood. John Mahoney is so great here; Martin fills his kids’ bubble just to burst it (so maybe he was still upset about cousin Dodie’s wedding). But Frasier and Niles recover from one devastating blow just in time to dream up another illustrious pedigree, remaining locked in their classist folie à deux.

“Daphne Returns” (season eight, episode 19)

After seven years of pursuit, Niles and Daphne are finally in a committed relationship. But “Daphne Returns” demonstrates that the doctor is in denial about just how much he’s idealized his father’s lovely physical therapist. As Frasier counsels his brother following Daphne’s return from a weight-loss spa, director Pamela Fryman drops them into Niles’ memories of the source of his burning love. It’s an inspired take on a clip show, with Frasier acting as the angel and devil on Niles’ shoulder, which gives way to the realization that Niles actually fears that he’ll never live up to her expectations. In order to give their new romance a chance, he has to give up the idealized version of Daphne and embrace the real one (which he did, easily). There were doubts about how well the narrative shift to “they did, and they’re happy” would hold up after such an exquisitely uncertain will-they/won’t-they, but “Daphne Returns” proved there was a compelling new relationship to explore.

“Room Full Of Heroes” (season nine, episode six)

“Room Full Of Heroes” is a return to form for Frasier and Roz. The series struggled in its later seasons, especially during Frasier’s unemployment period; there wasn’t anything funny about this depiction of depression. Meanwhile Peri Gilpin tried to make the most of an uninspired motherhood storyline. But in this season-nine episode, they both bounce back from criticism. First, Roz stands up to her snobby boss and his snobby brother, admitting that, yes, a polyglot Amazon is in fact her hero. Her friendship with Daphne grows stronger as the Crane men fall apart—Frasier sulks and Niles turns out to be a mean drunk who takes potshots at his dad while dressed as his dad. “Room Full Of Heroes” has all the trappings of the most enjoyable Frasier episodes: withering retorts, needless complications, and a neat resolution.

“Goodnight, Seattle” (season 11, episodes 23-24)

Season 10 was really no worse than season nine, but it lacked a standout like “Room Full Of Heroes.” Frasier’s final season couldn’t quite recapture the magic of the first five, but it was still a great ending for the show. The two-part finale, “Goodnight, Seattle,” is especially moving, but it still maintains the farcical humor that was the show’s lifeblood. It’s a “family” affair from the top down: Lee directs from a script by Lloyd and Keenan. Spurred on by Martin’s wedding and the birth of Niles and Daphne’s son, Frasier’s eager to start the next chapter of his life. Only now he’s driven not by envy, but by hope. The tears flow before the midpoint, thanks to a botched cosmetic procedure (Frasier Crane, vain to the very last moment), and once Grammer’s dulcet tones share Tennyson’s words—“to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—they don’t stop. The final moments are somewhat open-ended (which is really a shame, since Laura Linney was wonderful as Charlotte), but there’s no doubt that this was a fitting sendoff for Dr. Crane and Frasier.

If you liked these, you should also check out “Slow Tango In Seattle,” “The Botched Language Of Cranes,” “The Candidate,” “Frasier Crane Day,” “The Doctor Is Out,” “Desperately Seeking Closure,” “Moon Dance,” and “The Matchmaker.” And don’t forget these episodes with guest appearances from Grammer’s Cheers castmates: “The Show Where Sam Shows Up,” “The Show Where Diane Shows Up,” “The Show Where Woody Shows Up,” “Cheerful Goodbyes,” and literally every Lilith episode, from “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” to “Guns And Neuroses.”