Review- The ‘Frasier’ Reboot

“Life’s callin’ again,” Kelsey Grammer croons in the updated version of “Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs” that plays over each episode’s closing credits in Paramount+’s Frasier revival. Life, in this case, must be short for television executives thirsty for a nostalgia-driven hit, because it’s hard to believe anyone else was clamoring for more of an 11-season sitcom that was itself a Cheers spin-off. When you figure in the absence of virtually every original cast member besides Grammer, as well as new leadership behind the scenes, writer-showrunners Chris Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and Joe Cristalli (Life in Pieces), the project starts to sound especially dire. And it is.

Premiering Oct. 12, Frasier 2.0 picks up about two decades after its predecessor’s 2004 finale—an episode that found Seattle’s favorite pretentious radio shrink at a crossroads, as his widower father remarried, his brother and employee-turned-sister-in-law had a baby, and Frasier decided to forsake a job opportunity in San Francisco for a chance at love with Laura Linney’s Charlotte, who lived in Chicago. In the first few minutes of the revival we learn that he’s been there ever since, amassing fame and fortune as the Windy City’s favorite pretentious TV shrink. But now the show and the relationship are over. His parting words to the network: “Get off your knees, stop begging, I’m already out the door.” Charlotte, meanwhile, “told me the same thing.”

Now, in the wake of his dad Martin’s funeral (John Mahoney, who played the elder Crane, died in 2018), he’s in his former home city of Boston for what is supposed to be a quick visit. Apparently he no longer keeps in touch with anyone from Cheers, because the face that greets him at their airport is an unfamiliar one: Frasier’s best friend since his Oxford days, Alan (Nicholas Lyndhurst), making his first-ever appearance in Dr. Crane’s four decades of existence as a TV character. Though his real passion is alcohol, Alan is a psychology professor at Harvard, where Frasier’s high-strung nephew David (Anders Keith) happens to be an undergrad. Practically the moment he arrives, Alan’s ambitious department head Olivia (Toks Olagundoye) offers Frasier a faculty job. (The sound you hear is a nation’s worth of unemployed PhDs groaning.) Of course he takes it. If nothing else, the move promises to give him a chance to reconnect with his semi-estranged, 33-year-old son Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), a Harvard dropout turned Boston firefighter. (The word Harvard comes up often in this show.)

Review- The 'Frasier' Reboot

With this multigenerational ensemble, Harris and Cristall seem intent on replicating the dynamics of the canonical Frasier cast without actually bringing back Grammer’s old co-stars. (Peri Gilpin is slated to guest star at some point in the season as Frasier’s producer Roz, but she wasn’t in any of the five episodes sent for review.) Once again, there are the effete snobs and the salt-of-the-earth people who tolerate them. Freddy is the show’s answer to Martin, a retired cop. The actress he lives with, Jess Salgueiro’s Eve—a character whose backstory I’ve been asked to avoid discussing, not that it makes for an especially exciting reveal—is the Daphne-like ingénue. Olivia drives the status-conscious Harvard plots, like a Type A Roz, restoring the original show’s balance of family and workplace comedy. David, a delicate soul prone to fits of anxiety, and Alan, a sometimes rival who’s quick with bon mots, fill in for Niles.

But let’s be real. There’s no replacing Frasier and Niles’ frenemy (bronemy?) rapport, which fueled endless sibling-oneupmanship story arcs rendered gently hilarious by the narcissism of two very similar narcissists’ small differences. And there’s certainly no replacing David Hyde Pierce’s performance as Niles, whose feline mannerisms and puppy-dog panting after Jane Leeves’ Daphne made him the show’s breakout character. (In case you were wondering, the market for extremely specific Niles Crane tribute merch is booming.) Grammer disappears back into his signature role, but without his one true sparring partner, Frasier feels adrift.

It’s not that the supporting cast is a complete bust. Lyndhurst can be pretty funny as a glib, dissipated British academic of a certain age. Salgueiro adds some much-needed effervescence and charm to a relatively low-energy milieu. But the show strains to find reasons to throw these characters together in humorous situations. Harris and Cristall invent a third-space pub whose clientele appears to consist solely of firefighters and Harvard faculty; Eve is the bartender. For a college student living on campus, David—who comes across as a collection of neuroses more than a fleshed-out character—spends an alarming amount of time with his uncle and cousin. 

The writing, in other words, disappoints. Gone is the fizzy dialogue of Frasier’s heyday, replaced by dated “Baby Shark” gags and broad exchanges like the one in which Freddy notes that a new (spoiler-y) development in his life is “not exactly catnip for ladies” and David—who is, again, studying at America’s most prestigious institution of higher learning—marvels: “There’s catnip for ladies?” One early episode recycles a plot the original series did at least once, as Frasier, Alan, and Olivia all vie for two open membership slots at an exclusive faculty club. 

The tone feels off, too. It’s nice that the new episodes were filmed in front of a live audience, but their laughter, which reads as artificial in 2023, makes the revival feel too much like a kitschy throwback. Frasier’s quest to prove, after a couple of decades as an overeducated talk-show host, that he’s got more substance than, say, Dr. Phil makes for a decent premise. But his guilt over passing his daddy issues onto the next generation is more of a bummer than a light comedy can support. The show needs more jokes and less earnest emoting, at the very least. Still, I’m not convinced that any amount of tweaking would be enough to justify its existence. 

The new Frasier presumably exists to capitalize on the new audience that the NBC original, a ’90s Must See TV staple, has found on streaming platforms. In 2017, the critic Lili Loofbourow made the case that it was the ideal show to fall asleep watching; a few months later, The Ringer went so far as to dub the languorous Friday after Thanksgiving Frasier Day. And just last year, a roundtable of Atlantic writers pronounced Frasier the ultimate comfort show. The consensus is, essentially, that we still love Frasier because, in this age of struggle and strife, it feels uniquely luxurious to sink into a warm bath of Clinton-era rich-people problems. Who wouldn’t want to take a 22-minute virtual vacation to a time when conflicts between white-collar snobs and blue-collar populists ended in a shared chuckle rather than, I don’t know, an insurrection?

It’s impossible to recreate the same soothing atmosphere today, although Harris and Cristall do wisely avoid political hot topics. (Among other groan-worthy possibilities, this spares us from hearing Dr. Crane crack jokes about nonbinary pronouns, like every other nonplussed baby boomer in a multi-cam comedy since 2016.) Not even the return of Niles, Daphne, and the rest could have compensated for the loss of the show’s original context. Frasier—all 264 infinitely rewatchable episodes of it—will always be a comforting place to visit. But central to its appeal, which only increases with age, is our awareness that we could never live there in the present.

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