Frasier Crane is back in Boston. Sometimes you want to go somewhere where everyone knows your name.
If only the “Frasier” revival for Paramount+ evoked something close to the spirited wit of the Seattle-set original that ran for 11 seasons on NBC from 1993 to 2004. Or even create the comedic fervor of “Cheers,” in which the character first appeared. He came to life in 1984 as an unlikely but winning addition to the cast, from the annoyingly cultured, Harvard-educated loudmouth to the show’s older Boston spew.
Frasier was never an obvious side character. There’s nothing about Kelsey Grammer’s performance (though sharp) that suggests otherwise. “Cheers” was full of talent, but it worked because of the group’s unique chemistry together. It was always a risk to take a character out of that. But it paid off, thanks to the creative instincts of David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, who were as adept at verbal swordsmanship as they were at screwball comedy.
More importantly, they understood comedy, giving the show a sparkly-silly sensibility that still has a place in the theater (“Noises Off” shouldn’t work that well!) but has become something of a rarity on the big screen. Frasier was created to be insufferable but also likeable. Valuable but never cruel. He thinks he’s the smartest person in the room, but he’s also a great straight man who allows everyone their own quirks. So they moved him to Seattle, gave him a radio show to host, and surrounded him with a family—biological and chosen—who tuned in and satirized his (and everyone else’s) innate ridiculousness while maintaining his sense of humanity about it all. .
This time around, there’s a different team behind the reboot; Joe Cristalli (“Life in Pieces”) and Chris Harris (“How I Met Your Mother”) serve as executive producers, but their efforts resemble an AI photograph that gets the broad strokes but can’t get any of the details right, in an uncanny valley where the humor goes to die gets stuck. I had concerns that sitcom writing was a dying art, and Cristalli and Harris didn’t inspire feelings to the contrary. Where’s the sparkling repartee? Cheerful physical comedy?
There’s cynical intellectual property usurpation, and then there’s whatever this is. Is there a way to fill Grammer’s bank account even more? He looks tanned and rich. And half checked. Dressed in dark jeans and Allbirds, he looks like a sixty-year-old emperor looking for his next networking opportunity in Sun Valley.
Instead, he returns to Boston to be closer to his son Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), who is given little to do but gets startled when Frasier does anything finicky. In the absence of the original cast, including John Mahoney (who died in 2018) as Frasier’s angry father, the show’s main source of tension and affection rests on two shoulders.
As a kid, Freddy was part of the old block. Now in his 30s, he rejected all of that to become a hard worker. A firefighter. He was supposed to be the casual yin to his father’s cocky yang, but Freddy was absolutely taken aback by Frasier’s attitude. FrasierismAs if this was all new information. It’s like she just met the guy! It is strange!
But in reality, the reboot misunderstands how to extract comedy from Frasier’s arrogance and arrogance. He needs to be surrounded by dying people to explode his ego with a tasty answer or two. “Another young woman is falling under your spell,” he mutters happily to himself. “Damn, Frasier, you know how attractive you are!” The line hangs there because it’s not funny. This isn’t even a joke! It’s a trap, but the punchline never comes.
Without a similar stand-in for Niles (and the talents of the great David Hyde Pierce), Frasier was left without anyone to share his intellectual ridiculousness. Only Nicholas Lyndhurst, a wizened old friend from Frasier’s Harvard days, brings a wry pizzazz to their bickering.
The lyrics of the original theme song, sung by Grammer himself, make absurd references to tossed salads and scrambled eggs. Without anyone to balance Frasier with his signature comedic gravitas, a reboot is the equivalent of a salad minus the eggs.
“Frasier” — 1.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Paramount+ (The first two episodes of the season will also air on CBS on October 17)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.