The end of the adult sitcom.

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May 12 2004 6:35 PM

Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone?

The Frasier finalemarks the end of situation comedies for adults.

Good night, Seattle—and good bye, adult comedy
Good night, Seattle—and good bye, adult comedy

Friends ended last week in a whirl of self-congratulatory network fanfare, when, at the height of the breaking torture scandal in Iraq, NBC's Dateline treated itself to a two-hour special about the Friends finale. Last night, Dateline sealed its reputation as the Peacock's network pimp by devoting its entire hour to a sniffly send-off of Frasier, the multiple Emmy-winning sitcom that will wrap up its 11th and final season in a two-hour episode on Thursday night (NBC, 8 p.m. ET). But despite—all right, because of—Katie Couric's fatuous narration ("In the beginning was the word, and the word was … 'Cheers' "), I managed to get a little choked up about this one. I haven't watched Frasier regularly in years, but the passage into history of the effete Seattle psychiatrist puts another nail in the coffin of a disappearing television staple: situation comedies about adults.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Growing up, I watched my parents watch Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart's eponymous situation comedies: Here were childless professionals in their 30s and 40s who moved in a world that seemed mysteriously complicated and grown-up. Week in and week out, they contended with traffic jams and IRS audits, incompetent colleagues and drunken doormen, and negotiated the intricate dilemmas of bourgeois etiquette: What do you do when a flaky friend asks to borrow a significant sum of money to start a business? Granted, my perception may be skewed by the fact I was 4 feet tall at the time, but even now, revisiting the world of those '70s sitcoms, the texture of adult life is palpable behind the standard sitcom storylines of marriage and divorce, flirtation and friendship. Frasier was a throwback to that time; more mature than its jejune (but still funny) progenitor, Cheers, it posited a world where a divorced, stocky, balding man in his 40s, who collected African erotic art and noodled on a grand piano in his stark modernist apartment, could be a plausible romantic lead for 11 straight seasons. In the post-Seinfeldian TV landscape of perpetual adolescence, where attractive young slackers were hooking up and trading apartments as casually as if New York City were their personal college dorm, Frasier sided with the grown-ups and won the respect of its audience by treating them as such.

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That feat was largely made possible by Kelsey Grammer's remarkable embodiment of Frasier Crane, a character whose 20-year life span on television ties the record run of Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) in Gunsmoke. Some recent eulogies have cited The Odd Couple's prissy Felix Unger (Tony Randall) as one of Frasier's predecessors, but to me, Frasier is more like an elitist version of Falstaff, his outward bluster and bonhomie barely concealing a layer of vanity and cowardice, which in turn give way to a core of kindness and fierce loyalty to his friends and family. Somehow, Grammer managed to keep this complex brew of traits at a simmer for the entire run of the show, even when the limited repertoire of sitcom plotlines began to repeat themselves. 

In his earlier incarnation on Cheers, the good doctor had served mainly as highfalutin straight man for his populist Boston bar buddies, but the creators of Frasier made the ingenious choice of pairing him with an even haughtier and more effete sidekick: his younger brother Niles (played by David Hyde Pierce), a wine-swirling snob who dusted off chairs with his pocket hanky before sitting in them. The Crane boys' rarefied bubble was regularly punctured by their down-to-earth father Martin (played with gruff warmth by the wonderful John Mahoney) and the show's two female regulars, Martin's live-in physical therapist Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) and the producer of Frasier Crane's radio show, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin). Frasier's apparently permanent status as Seattle's most eligible (or at least pickiest) bachelor also made for a revolving cast of high-profile actresses, from Bebe Neuwirth and Shelley Long (reprising their roles from Cheers) to Patricia Clarkson, Téa Leoni, Amy Brenneman, Julia Sweeney, Felicity Huffman, Emma Thompson, and even Patrick Stewart, who mistook Frasier's metrosexuality for homosexuality in an episode earlier this season.

Structurally, Frasier was a classic couch comedy, a domestic sitcom with two basic sets: the living room and the radio station. Many of the episodes revolved around standard setups from classical farce, like the three-way mistaken identity gag in a recent episode, when Martin's physical therapist, Daphne's midwife, and the stripper Frasier was hiring for his dad's bachelor party all converged for their job interviews at the same time, leading to a head-scratching, unintentional double-entendre-making, door-slamming jubilee. But these well-choreographed hijinks coexisted alongside rueful character comedy, often with an intergenerational twist: In one episode, the Crane brothers discover that a long-ago affair they'd always attributed to their father was actually an infidelity on their mother's side. In another, a disastrous attempt to share their father's macho hobby—ice-fishing—forces them to confess that they've always felt less than manly in his eyes. On the romantic front, Niles' unrequited crush on Daphne also provided gratifyingly slow-burning emotional fuel (and endless opportunity for humiliating mix-ups); when the two finally confessed their love, in the Season 7 finale, the series lost a certain energy it never fully regained.

This kind of whiz-bang ensemble work and excellent writing lent the show a cachet as the network's "classiest" sitcom; A-list actors clamored for voice cameos on Dr. Crane's call-in radio show: Listen carefully to the distraught callers on reruns, and you can hear the voices of dozens of stars, including John Turturro, Mary Tyler Moore,  Elijah Wood, Kevin Bacon, William H. Macy, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Halle Berry, and Laura Linney. In one of the main story arcs of the last season, Linney has returned as Frasier's latest (and, if all goes well in tomorrow's finale, last) lady friend; her charisma is so palpable, even on the small screen, that it's hard to imagine she won't be offered a series of her own.

There has been much gnashing of teeth over the fact that television producers have begun to desert the sitcom form and retreat into the comfortable world of reality programming, with its low overhead and even lower expectations. There's no question that if you make stupidity your scriptwriter and greed your casting director, you can draw a lot of viewers for very little money. But, as the long life of a grown-up show like Frasier attests, nuanced characters and well-crafted scripts can sometimes pull off the same trick—a thought I hope at least a few network execs can hold on to through the length of their next pitch meeting. 

Tomorrow night, Frasier leaves the building for the last time, and there's no spoiler I could leak here that you couldn't figure out for yourself. Babies will be born, vows exchanged, and life decisions made, and you know there's bound to be at least one embarrassing group hug. Still, I'll be there with a pocket hanky—and I won't be using it to dust off my chair.

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