Opinion by Holly Thomas
(CNN) — The stakes for the return of “Frasier” aren’t just high: They’re astronomical.
Ever since radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane bid the citizens of Seattle “good mental health” for the last time and followed his sweetheart Charlotte to Chicago, Kelsey Grammer’s beloved character and the show that bears his name have remained jewels of TV comedy.
From 1993 to 2004, “Frasier” reigned, winning a then-record-breaking 37 Primetime Emmy Awards. Unlike behemoth contemporaries (notably “Friends”), the show has survived the two decades since its finale with its reputation almost entirely unblemished.
Few sitcoms have ever won such resounding critical acclaim, and no comeback show ever has. That is, unless you count “Frasier” itself.
As dedicated fans know, the character of Frasier Crane originated in “Cheers,” the classic 1980s sitcom about regulars at the titular Boston dive bar. “Frasier” followed him to 1990s Seattle, where he moved in with his father Martin, a retired cop played by the late John Mahoney, and rekindled his relationship with his snooty brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), an also successful (but strictly off-air) psychiatrist.
“Frasier” 2.0, which recently debuted on Paramount+, sees Crane back in Boston after a dazzling TV career and a less-dazzling breakup. Once again, he’s surrounded by an entirely new main cast, most notably Frasier’s son Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), who’s now a fully-grown Harvard dropout-turned-firefighter. Grammer slips back into the role like a beloved Armani suit, and many of the ingredients for the old magic are there. Whether they’ll coalesce this time around is another matter.
Much of what made the original “Frasier” so comforting was its insularity. Frasier and Niles ruminated about the inexpert new server at Cafe Nervosa, bold additions to the menu at Chez Henri and Seattle’s opera program, not Bill Clinton’s second term or Britney Spears’ rise to world domination.
It’s a sleight of hand also favored by perennials like “Cheers,” “Community” and “Modern Family,” and in principle, it’s a wise move. The less time spent in the real world, the more soothing the viewing experience — and the less jarring a rewatch five, 10 or 30 years on.
In the first few episodes at least, the reboot heeds the same wisdom. We don’t know who’s president, we’ve not heard about TikTok and there are no clunky references to current pop culture. But Frasier 2.0 will only prove a true refuge from the 2023 news cycle if it can fill its apolitical bubble with emotional substance.
The original “Frasier” swerved a meaty chunk of contemporary discourse, but made up for it with a simmering undercurrent of class politics.
The tension between Frasier and Niles and their blue-collar father was a necessary rebuff to what would otherwise have been a deafening cacophony of self-indulgence. Their frivolous lifestyles were an unflattering contrast to that of Martin’s caretaker, working-class Mancunian Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), whose relentless daily grind was constantly interrupted by Frasier’s entreaties to “get the door.”
The result was a joyous vacillating harmony: Niles’ secret love for Daphne often saw him abandon his prissy inclinations, and Frasier usually (eventually) conceded his father’s wisdom. Frasier’s producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin) didn’t hesitate to check anyone, but saved her choicest lines — “Well excuse me for not being rich enough to shop at the international house of tight ass” — for Niles and Frasier.
That balance is harder to pull off 30 years later with a group boasting far more homogenous socioeconomic status. Freddy has taken Martin’s place as the chalk to Frasier’s cheese, but in order to reheat the dynamic, the new show has flattened his original quirks.
Freddy has morphed from the dorky natural heir to Frasier and his astringent ex-wife Lilith to an American everyman who wants to eat off a hockey table — and it’s not entirely clear how that happened.
Freddy’s roommate, young single mom Eve (Jess Salgueiro), might offer a dose of realism, were it not for the fact she’s also a bartender-slash-actor and apparently surviving without too much trouble after the year 1995.
Niles and Daphne’s son David (Anders Keith), is a direct sub-in for the most absurd iteration of his father, and was presumably inoculated at birth against the unpretentious influence of his mother. Frasier’s new colleagues Alan (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Olivia (Toks Olagundoye) are Harvard professors. A rare flaw of the original has been cured in that the lead cast is no longer entirely White, but in other respects, it’s arguably less diverse.
Frasier 2.0 is so eager to establish the lay of the land that it paints in far broader strokes. Alan, Frasier’s old Oxford chum, continues the irritating tradition instated by Daphne’s drunken brothers for boozy Brits, and we gather almost immediately that Olivia is picking up Roz’s mantle as “the horny one.”
There’s far less subtlety off the bat compared to the 1993 lineup, whose foibles and vulnerabilities were revealed with such wonderful restraint over the course of years.
In a way, it’s understandable that the new show is hasty to reveal its hand. There’s a ton more television around now than there was three decades ago, and if audiences don’t latch on immediately, there’s an almost endless array of alternatives available at a scroll. And for all its exposition, it is funny.
David’s laminated allergy card — “the red ones are fatal” — is vintage, and by the standards of TV in general, the script sings. But that was never the bar this revival would be held to.
There’s no doubt that audiences in 2023 are primed for a fresh dose of comfort TV. Re-watching “Frasier” proved a popular resort during the pandemic, and this year’s challenges are scarcely more bearable. But while I’m eager to give the new series a chance, I’m not convinced it has the same scope to envelop us in its own sequestered world.
“Frasier” was a cocoon, but one so rich with nuance, intimacy and lyricism that you could happily dive into it without any of your mental faculties feeling underserved. It seems unlikely the reboot can attain the same depth. But then, almost no TV show ever has.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.