Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating. On top of that, my practice had grown stagnant, and my social life consisted of…hanging around a bar night after night. You see, I was clinging to a life that wasn't working anymore, and I knew I had to do something, anything. So, I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my hometown of Seattle. Go Seahawks! [laughs] I took action, Russell. And you can, too. Move, change, do something; if it's a mistake, do something else. Will you do that, Russell? Will you?
Frasier Crane provides this monologue to a distressed caller at the top of ‘The Good Son,’ the pilot episode of Frasier. It gives the audience everything they need to know; we’ve left Cheers far behind, and there are some big changes coming. It was a risk that paid off. Frasier went on to become one of the most successful spin-off’s in television history, winning a total of 37 Emmys over its eleven year run. But I’m not content to call this a happy ending.
Let’s look further at this. There are two lines in his monologue that I think are horrible lies: “[M]y social life consisted of…hanging around a bar night after night,” and “I was clinging to a life that wasn't working anymore[.]” What exactly wasn’t working? What’s wrong with hanging around a bar night after night when that bar is a place where everybody knows your name? Right from the top, something isn’t quite right about this move into Seahawks territory.
No, something happened when Frasier moved to Seattle, something bad. The move did change him, but it didn’t change him for the better.
The Rise of Dr. Crane
Frasier was written onto Cheers as the anti-Sam Malone. Where Sam was down to Earth and affable, Frasier was stuffy, pompous, and out of touch. He wore expensive suits and couldn’t tolerate the kind of everyday folks that populated the bar. But as time went on he softened up: he ditched the fancy threads for warm cardigans and eventually became one of the guys. He got married, had a kid, and while he never lost his snooty tastes, he wasn’t above watching a monster movies with the gang. It was a wonderfully satisfying arc: the warmth of Cheers turned the prissy doctor into a lovable everyman.
But then came Seattle.
The Frasier on Frasier almost exclusively wore crisp, foreign-tailored suits, ate at expensive restaurants and drank fine wines. His apartment was tastefully decorated, and the sight of his fathers’ beat up old chair and Jack Russell Terrier turned up his nose. Instead of monster movies, he took in operas and symphonies, and instead of beers, he sipped on sherry. By the time Frasier wrapped in 2004, he had completely lost all of the goodwill he had earned over eight seasons on Cheers.
What happened to Frasier?
Exhibit A: Where Is the Love?
One of the biggest changes in Frasiers’ Seattle life was his marital status. Where was Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane, his great love? Of course, she had left him for another man in the 11th season of Cheers, but the two reconciled. When Cheers ended, things between them seem tentative yet hopeful.
It makes sense to me that Frasier would take Lilith back. She’s perfect for him in every way. The writers created her as the ideal match for him, and Bebe Neuwirth and Kelsey Grammer share an incredible on-screen chemistry. On Cheers, the monotonous and idiosyncratic Lilith centered Frasier, making him more relatable as their bond grew. They had a child, Frederick, and as a family they provided much of Cheers’ heart.
But in Seattle, there’s no Frederick and no Lilith. He is without a son, without a wife, without any obligation to his family. With this freedom, Frasier dates dozens of women, many much younger than he is, never finding a bond that lasts more than a few episodes. Lilith becomes the butt of scornful jokes, and he sees his son maybe once a year. It’s a listless life, and without his family to ground him, Frasier became more and more the snooty sophisticate he began as.
But why did he fill that void with caviar and classical music? What kind of wicked influence would keep him from getting his head out of his butt?
That influence has a name, and his name is Niles.
Exhibit B: The Bad Brother
Niles Crane is the worst thing to ever happen to Frasier.
David Hyde Pierce describes Niles as "what Frasier would be if he had never gone to Boston and never been exposed to the people at Cheers." This provides us with an opportunity to peer into a strange alternate reality, and we find out that without Cheers in his life, Frasier would became a fussy, loveless germaphobe like his brother. When Frasier arrived to Seattle, wounded and impressionable, he should have avoided the fidgety Niles at all cost. Instead, the two became inseparable.
As the show progressed, Niles became much more than a bad influence. Season by season, Frasier grew more arrogant and aloof. But Niles underwent a change himself; at the start of Frasier he was an incredible stiff. But by the end, he had married Daphne, had become a father, and had softened considerably in the process. His character arc is essentially the same Frasier went through in Cheers. Like some kind of emotional vampire, I propose that Niles Crane encouraged all of Frasier’s worst habits, while feeding off of all of his good ones.
The Conclusion: Fall of the House of Fraiser
Frasier Crane was on television for twenty years. Through Cheers, a guest spot on Wings, and Frasier, we got to know the guy pretty well. It’s a rare achievement for one character to have such longevity, and through great writers like Glen and Les Charles and Joe Keenan we got a fully realized person and not a static archetype.
Over those twenty years, his story evolved in steady steps. If you watch any one episode on it’s own, it’s easy to miss the slow climb to happiness in Boston, or the slow spiral into loneliness in Seattle. But it’s there. Through Lilith, joy and stability. Through Niles, frustration and deterioration. He’s a man who had nothing, got everything, and lost it all again.
On May 20th, 1993, ‘One For The Road,’ the Cheers finale, first aired. In it, Frasier is sitting in the bar with Carla, Norm, Cliff, Woody, and Sam, smoking cigars and pondering the meaning of life. Frasier, moved by friendship, offers this wonderful tribute to his pals:
You know, no one wants to be the first to say it, but I’m not ashamed to admit what I think we’re all feeling. Time goes by so fast. People move in and out of your life. You must never miss an opportunity to tell these people how much they mean to you. Well, I…I…I…
He can’t find the word, but the gang all knows that it’s love he’s feeling, and love he’s giving. In that bar, surrounded by friends, he had truly found a home.
He should’ve stayed in Boston.
Stephen Winchell is a writer and performer in Chicago. You can see him every month in the bizarre variety show, The Telethon.