Frasier season 1 really finds its stride in episode 3, First Class, with some solid character dynamics and gags. Our review:
Inevitably, as is the case with any reboot of a beloved property, there has been audience push back about the new series of Frasier, with some even suggesting it’s a resolutely unfunny shadow of what it once was.
Putting aside the subjective nature of comedy, and that I personally can’t get my head around that viewpoint, First Class should stand as a proof of concept for what Frasier’s doing. It’s an example of ‘classic Frasier’, in terms of the comic set up and approach, shot through the modern lens that Joe Cristalli and Chris Harris are bringing to a show still filmed in the style of 1990s studio comedy.
After The Good Father established the central new dynamic of Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) back in Boston, living with his son Freddie (Jack Cutmore-Scott) and working at Harvard, and Moving In logically explored how the Frasier and Freddie living dynamic works, First Class (as the title suggests) focuses on Frasier in the classroom as he begins his new career. This is the logical third strand of his new life to probe, given how central taking the job was to him staying in Boston, and not decamping to Paris as originally planned.
It’s easy to forget that during the original series, Frasier was considered something of a pop psychiatrist on his Seattle radio show. Niles never really took him or it seriously, alluded to when his Harvard boss Olivia (Toks Olagundoye) reveals she has a competitive relationship with her sister that drives her, wondering if Frasier knows how that feels. “I can sympathise with that emotion,” he says, as the audience knowingly laugh. Niles considered himself the genuine psychiatrist between them, continuing their late mother’s work, though he always envied the fame and ego-stroking the radio brought Frasier.
Nevertheless, Frasier not being taken seriously was always something that stuck in his craw, and writer Lauren Houseman gets into Frasier’s determination for his return to Boston being partly about proving himself academically. It’s the perfect comic scenario for him. Frasier has always been pompous when given the chance, with both the original and modern series surrounding him with people who prick it (be it Niles’ withering putdowns or Marty bringing him down to earth, which Freddie will no doubt replicate here). Frasier exploring academia is a logical next step for maintaining this balance.
Delving into his work life allows for Olagundoye to shine a little more, displaying Olivia’s charming, effervescent but ultimately quite mercurial nature. Cristalli and Harris admitted in an interview that Olivia was designed initially to be more combative and adversarial, but no doubt Olagundoye’s fun performance helped morph her into more of a collegiate space that contrasts Frasier’s friend Alan Cornwall (Nicholas Lyndhurst), who exists somewhere between Niles (for the put downs) and an extension of characters Frasier might have encountered in Cheers. The writing still hasn’t quite found Alan, as much as Lyndhurst knows how to bring home a punchline.
Arguably, the most fun comes in revealing more detail on the career between both original and modern series that made Frasier a national household name. It was established he moved to Chicago with Charlotte (Laura Linney), who it appeared he’d finally found love with (whether she will ever reappear is unknown, but perhaps not given she hasn’t even been mentioned yet), and starred in his own daytime talk show. We now see it was called Dr Crane, modelled after Dr Phil; a series that started in the vein of a filmed version of the Seattle radio show but evolved over a decade into a zany, ratings-grabbing series of escalating gimmicks and catchphrases.
This was all very funny, and well-executed. It all seems well thought through as a pastiche of a US daytime show which used the psychological woes and family problems of working people as a means of creating melodramatic, forced drama, with a ‘doctor’ as the mediator providing legitimacy. People of a certain age in the UK will know of Dr Phil, as they will Jerry Springer, and the concept was imported for The Jeremy Kyle Show, which in recent years has been brought to task for damaging people’s mental health. Frasier doesn’t stray into those areas, but rather uses Dr. Crane as a means of highlighting how Frasier never escaped the pop psychiatry he has a conflicted relationship with.
The truth is, Frasier always liked the fame. He liked the money that came with it, and the series has been open about how rich Frasier now is. “You’re a Rockefeller!” his nephew David (Anders Keith) says at one point. Were Grammer not so charming and likeable as our lead, Frasier would be hard to get behind, especially in these economically difficult times. This is perhaps why the subplot shows Eve (Jess Salgueiro) rehearsing with Freddie for an audition, making the point that she’s a single mother without means (even if Frasier is paying for her apartment). Though it’s perhaps more for the gag where Eve pretends to be a student and talks about the Ebbinghause theory of mental recall.
Let’s be honest: Frasier isn’t about to make sweeping statements about the state of the world economy. It’s pure comfort food as the original was. Middle-class – even slightly elitist – nostalgia, though punctuated by working-class characters who never allow the comedy to become too arty or distant. The writing hasn’t matched the original series’ ability to throw out a witty cultural reference that is a deep cut, but in First Class there are genuine comic beats that are laugh out loud, employing wordplay, connecting jokes, name puns (“Albert Swinestein”, “you were a Craniac?”) to really solid effect. It’s predictable but if executed well, as this is, that’s okay.
Putting the components of the series together, as Frasier is here, we’re beginning to see a show that continues to be more comfortable with itself, enjoy the strong character dynamics between new players with lots of potential, and remains true to the Frasier we knew before. I’m listening and I’m laughing, and I really hope that continues.
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