January 16, 2004,
Earlier this week, NBC announced that this would be the final season of the long-running sitcom, Frasier. While the Peacock has spent countless hour promoting the last season of Friends ("Get ready to say goodbye to the best comedy ever"), Frasier its record five consecutive Emmys for best comedy series are among its record 31 overall will end not with a bang but a whimper. Declining ratings and revenues are to blame, but NBC will be losing something perhaps more important than dollars: a 22-year legacy that began with Cheers and continued with the spin-off, Frasier. Fortunately, both series are being released as DVDs; seasons one and two of each series are available now, in four-disc sets.
When Cheers premiered all those years ago, it came in last in the weekly ratings. Yet what is most impressive about the early shows is their quality: Many of the highlights of the series come from these two seasons, as evidenced by the best-of 200th episode (hosted by John McLaughlin). The performances are already spot-on, and the writers had a firm grasp of the different personalities. The series' creators Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows, who had honed their skills on Taxi originally contemplated an American version of the John Cleese-Connie Booth classic, Fawlty Towers. However, they came to realize that the best scenes took place in the bar, and set the entire series in a Boston pub based on the Bull and Finch Tavern.
Over the years, Cheers had its growing pains. The second season is weaker than the first, as too much attention is paid to the blooming relationship between Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long). As Norm puts it in one episode, "I kinda miss the good old days when they threw up at the sight of each other." The series would reach its high points over the next two seasons, with the introduction of Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) as Diane's new (and soon to be jilted) fiancÚ, which causes the Diane-Sam relationship to mature. The sudden death of Nick Colasanto (Coach) forced the writers to introduce Indiana farm-boy Woody (Woody Harrelson), as the bar's resident simpleton, but he never was able to equal what Danson refers to as Colasanto's "heart and soul, the sweetness of Cheers." Even so, this replacement worked far better than did the introduction of Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) after Diane left. Apart from the staff, the other characters throughout the years Frasier's wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), Harry the Hat (Harry Anderson), Carla's (Rhea Perlman, the first person cast) various ex-husbands came and drank, but it was really Norm (George Wendt) and Cliff (John Ratzenberger) who came, drank, and stayed in our comedic memories.
Frasier, too, had its up and downs. The last few seasons, particularly after the departure of original writers Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan and the 9/11 death of writer David Angell, have focused too greatly on the Niles (David Hyde Pierce)-Daphne (Jane Leeves) romance. While Cheers brought Sam and Diane together from the get-go, Niles and Daphne had a rockier road. Putting aside, however, the marriages of Frasier and Lilith and Woody and Kelly, Cheers was not primarily about family: It was about a good group of friends who became each other's family, as symbolized in its last episode. The focus of Frasier, however, has always been the Crane family: Frasier, his brother Niles, and their father, Martin (John Mahoney). This was the core of the series, and several of the early-season episodes bring this out brilliantly, particularly those that focus on the difficult relationship between stuffy, intellectual Frasier and his hard-working, blue-collar father.
Cheers and Frasier have retained a great deal of their freshness over the years, mostly because they did not try to stay contemporary. They certainly shirked talking about politics: Sam once justified his inclusion in Boston's most eligible bachelors list by saying that it provided him with the opportunity to discuss political issues: "I told them I thought nuclear war would be bad news. . . . I can always say I was misquoted." And Howard Dean is not the first person to psychoanalyze political candidates: Frasier decides to endorse a liberal candidate against their father's law-and-order choice; but when he calls the candidate "the sane choice," his words come back to haunt him.
The new DVD editions certainly contribute to the series' freshness. The transfer from film to DVD is splendid, and makes you realize what an injustice is done to these shows in reruns (especially the older Cheers episodes). It's nice to be able to skip the sappy Cheers theme, but it would be equally convenient to be able to skip the end credits and play all the episodes on disc at once. In fact, the DVDs contain very little in the way of special features. The first season of Cheers has a brief episode with Ted Danson, and a compilation of highlights featuring various characters; the second season provides a compilation of clips about the show's history and more highlights. Frasier provides a bit more: In addition to the highlight clips, it includes commentaries on one episode per season. These are informative and enjoyable for instance, Nile's trademark wiping of his chairs with his handkerchief was not scripted, but a suggestion from director James Burrows. They leave you, however, wanting to know more, with insights from the stars as well as the writers, directors, and creators.
What I found striking while reviewing these episodes is that I remembered more of the punch lines from Cheers but more plotlines from Frasier. In a way, that summarizes the two shows: Cheers was an exchange of witticisms with more than enough characters to keep it interesting. Frasier, by relying on a smaller cast, was forced to develop the characters it had sometimes well, sometimes not, but always moving forward. While Cheers rarely used the possibilities its characters offered such as Sam's alcoholism the finest episodes of Cheers, in fact, may have come in season 11 when Frasier discovers Lilith has been unfaithful and wants a divorce. In its early years, Frasier retained this emotional core, but it faded over time; in its last season, however, Frasier has improved and refocused on its core three characters, but it still does not possess the strength of the earlier episodes.
Just as Cheers was able to come out with a strong final episode followed by a drunken cast party on The Tonight Show here's hoping that Frasier can do the same later this year. Even despite its recent weaknesses, some critics assembled this week to hear the death knell toll for Frasier booed NBC head of entertainment Jeffrey Zucker for the announcement. Nevertheless, having the DVDs of both series available should ease some of their pain.
Kevin Cherry is an NRO contributor.