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‘Frasier’ and the art of repetition

"Frasier" bows out May 13, but really, the show has been doing an amazing job recycling the same plots for years. By Linda Holmes
/ Source: contributor

So this is the end for “Frasier.” The series finale airs May 13 on NBC, and after that, there will be only reruns and DVDs. Every episode will be one you have already seen. And in that regard, very little will have changed, because few shows have ever repeated themselves as successfully for as long as this one.

(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

It’s not that “Frasier” hasn’t been a good show. Its massive haul of awards, particularly in the early seasons, stood on solid ground. But this may be the show that more than any other stands for the principle that execution matters — that if you have enough skill, you don’t need to churn out a lot of new material. This makes sense, of course. People will go to see “Hamlet” or listen to a Beethoven sonata without needing to be surprised. They don’t do it for the material as much as for the delivery. “Frasier” was the same.

It’s unusual, even for a comedy, to change as little as this one did. Alex Keaton grows up, Joey and Chandler get a duck, Trapper leaves and B.J. arrives, Grace marries Harry Connick, Jr. and gets even whinier. But on “Frasier,” almost nothing ever really changed. Yes, eventually there was some resolution to Niles and Daphne, but by then, the show was already fading. During its most successful years, it remained remarkably faithful to the same dynamics it developed from the beginning. Not only have the relationships remained constant, but specific story paths became worn to the point where half of the new episodes seemed to be reruns.

There have been an almost laughable number of nearly identical episodes in which Frasier or Niles or both organize a swanky gathering of some sort, only to see it derailed by a meal gone awry, a bird gone feet-up, or a dead seal under the deck. There is a well-established sequence to these Disaster Party episodes: hope, grandiose overconfidence, frantic planning, chaos, and then some game attempt to rally, which generally fails.

Likewise, the show has taken multiple sips at the trough of “They Think I’m Gay!” Not only was this idea better handled by “Seinfeld” (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but thanks to shows like “Will & Grace,” the idea of misperceived sexuality has reached the point where it isn’t all that amusing anymore.

Repetition, repetition
The best of the repeated themes has been the Insane Competitiveness 101 line of scripts, centered around Frasier and Niles striving frantically for some brass ring of status or accomplishment. Generally, these also end in disaster as the brothers wind up losing their coveted prize to their similarly overcranked engines. They start out to write a book, open a practice, compare their IQs — but wind up doing the same frenetic psychological mambo in which we learn (again) that they remain insecure, jealous, petty maniacs who would rather burn an asset than share it.

There are a few other variations, of course. The script library also includes several rounds of Frasier Meets An Inappropriate But Hot Woman, Frasier Encounters Someone From His Past And Can’t Bear To Tell That Person That He Now Can’t Stand Him (Or Especially Her), and Frasier Loses His Marbles And Obsesses Over Some Mind-Bendingly Petty Thing.

In short, this show only knows about six or eight stories, and it will end at just over 260 episodes. It’s an impressive record of recycling.

So how did they do it? How can a show that has relied so heavily on a thin and largely unchanged routine stay on the air for 11 years, five or six of which were really good? In a sense, the surprise is not that “Frasier” is creaky now, but that it didn’t get even creakier sooner.

Impressive executionThe most obvious key to the “Frasier” formula is its cast. Although he probably didn’t need to win quite so many awards, Kelsey Grammer has been better on “Frasier” than he was on “Cheers” — he has mastered a kind of barely controlled rage that has him perpetually halfway to popping a vein.

Casting David Hyde Pierce as the slimmer, twitchier, more frantically needy Niles was nothing short of inspired, and not only because they look like they could be brothers.

John Mahoney in his role as Martin is probably one of the most underappreciated elements in the cast. (He has been nominated for an Emmy only twice, and has never won, while Hyde Pierce has been nominated every year and won three times.) It is largely Mahoney’s ability to convince the audience that he loves his neurotic sons, with whom he has nothing in common, that helps the audience overlook the fact that if you didn’t know better, you’d think that Frasier and Niles were insufferable, annoying windbags.

The women in the cast are less revered, but just as skilled. Jane Leeves knows how to play delicately dreamy, but she can also rear back and spit out a corker of an insult in a way that helps to ground her. Peri Gilpin gives Roz a nice edge, although she unfortunately has been a victim of the tendency of long-running comedies to turn their smart, capable women into buffoons who can’t handle their personal lives. (Think of “Cheers” and Rebecca Howe, to point out the most obvious example.)

The writing, too, is an enormous part of the show's success. The writers may tell the same jokes over and over, but they almost always tell them well, and while these characters may not change much, the writers have them polished to a gleam. It’s easy, for instance, to credit Hyde Pierce with Niles’s affected weirdness, but it’s been the writing staff that has known how to keep him from flying off the tracks. When you’re writing people who are this close to being thoroughly unlikable, it’s important to know what you’re doing.

In the end, the execution has been so good for so long that the endlessly recycled stories didn’t seem to matter that much.

In a sense, particularly before it ran aground in the last couple of seasons, “Frasier” was like watching a very shiny machine whirring away on a showroom floor. It’s not going to do anything you don’t expect, and you might develop a hankering for something that has a better chance of surprising you.  But the workmanship is admirable, the spinning is fun to watch, and when the demonstration ends, you can’t help walking away and muttering, “All things considered, that was pretty good.”

Linda Holmes is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Minn.