Happy Birthday, Frasier
My first memory of watching Frasier is as a pre-teen abroad. Living in Singapore, my only depiction of life in the US came from movies and television. And given the shows that were exported (Seinfeld, The Nanny, and Friends), I thought the US was filled with a lot of white people with blown out of proportions problems living in New York. Frasier felt different. Raised on a steady diet of Enid Blyton and classic BBC sitcoms, and being the product of an upper middle- class Indian family, I was predisposed to anglophilia and Frasier delivered. (On a side note, my pop culture beginnings and life would be so much richer if Singapore also had gotten Girlfriends or Living Single…).
The second time I became acquainted with Frasier, I was going through a rough emotional patch not dissimilar to today. Several years into my green card application process, I felt trapped at my job, and was feeling dehumanized by Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Dealing with a particularly bad bout of insomnia, I sought out white noise in the form of a Netflix show. Frasier seemed to fit the bill at first- a soothing laugh track, muted colors, classic 90’s shenanigans.
But a few episodes in, I was hooked. Here’s a fact I’m not proud of (okay, a little proud); I binged all 11 seasons in 6 weeks*. It was first thing I put on when I woke up, a background to my morning routine. I would sneak an episode during lunch, let it lull me to sleep at night. I was simply obsessed. With each failed relationship Frasier would recover from, I could feel myself getting better too. As Frasier & Martin’s relationship grew deeper, I grew lighter. I found a kindred spirit in Roz, Frasier’s fiercely independent, sexually active (and owning it) producer.
Frasier retained the comfort of the formulaic sitcom without being overly predictable. It would delight me with its plot machinations and narrative zags. It rewarded my love of trivia, peppering in jokes about Wagner, Freud, and Baudelaire while also delivering perfect farce (see the Ski Lodge or Ham Radio episodes). Frasier & Niles were often the butt of the jokes, their pretensions and affectations gently mocked (check out any episode that has the brothers Crane competing).
Frasier is not a perfect show. It’s exceedingly white, even for a show set in Seattle in the 90’s. There are transphobic and fatphobic jokes that punch down. I’m not dismissing the harm it caused, and I absolutely understand why people don’t connect to this show. Regarding representation, I’m not used to seeing myself represented anyway, and expecting any tv show to be completely unproblematic (especially from 25 years ago) is an exercise in disappointment.
Today, Frasier is comfort food more akin to a restorative soup that nourishes as opposed to a cheesy carb-laden mac & cheese that seems like a good idea at the time but leaves me feeling queasy and sleepy (to continue this tortured metaphor- binging The Office). In an interview with Vanity Fair, Frasier creators Peter Casey and David Lee share their mantra for the show- “no stupid jokes, no stupid characters.” They focused on delivering “smart, heartfelt content framed within awkward situations”.
In a television landscape where showrunners and writers seem often contemptuous or even hostile to their audiences, shows that genuinely seem to care about the people watching feel refreshing. There were definitely jokes in Frasier that were not intended for everyone but they key difference here is that the show didn’t judge the 90% of people who didn’t get those 10% jokes.
Here’s a hot take for you- today’s Frasier is Bojack Horseman. If Frasier is a dick joke wrapped in an opera joke, Bojack is a stark exploration of depression and isolation camouflaged by animal puns and barbs about celebrity culture. Both shows experiment with classic sitcom tropes, the titular characters are hard to like, and at their core, both shows remind us hard it is to make a genuine human connection. There’s a reason millennials are discovering and connecting to Frasier- and David Hyde Pierce’s impeccable comedic timing is only part of it.
As for me, my love of Frasier has become a joke in and of itself. It’s sometimes feels like an affectation or seemingly cultivated quirk. But just like Frasier, I promise you it’s sincere.
*That’s almost 6 episodes a day