When Frasier was at its best, no sitcom was better. Sadly, it hasn’t been at its best in years, and years, and years.

Sophisticated ‘Frasier’ signs off
As smart and crisply written as Seinfeld, as warm and well-cast as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as out-and-out funny as I Love Lucy, Frasier represents the American sitcom at its creative peak. No, it didn’t remain at its peak for its entire 11-year run; neither did Cheers, the show that gave it birth. But the legacy of those first five or six blissful seasons is undiminished, and their shimmer has sustained the show through to tonight’s unpreviewed two-hour NBC conclusion (8 ET/PT).
Indeed, on the list of desirable sitcom qualities, the only thing Frasier lacked was Friends’ blockbuster level of popular appeal. But who should expect that from a show about an effete Seattle psychiatrist who shares his life with his even more effete brother and their elderly father? The wonder is that Frasier was as popular as it was.
Why did the show work? You can start with the superb cast led by Kelsey Grammer, whose Frasier Crane is not just TV’s longest-lasting sitcom character, but one of its most indelible. So many sitcoms are constrained by the limited acting abilities of inexperienced or inadequate stars. The cast of Frasier ó Peri Gilpin, Jane Leeves, John Mahoney (whose failure to share in Frasier’s record-setting Emmy haul is deplorable) and the brilliant David Hyde Pierce ó was talented enough to let the writers run free.
By and large, those writers rewarded the cast (and us) with scripts that assumed the audience was as smart as they were. The compliment extended beyond the references to opera, theater and literature. Those series-defining Frasierian farces rely on viewers who will wisely and patiently wait for the plots to fall into place, knowing the comic payoff will be well worth the investment.
Frasier could be witty, droll and sly, but the humor in this show about two snobs was never itself snobbish. Jokes about “the perils of refinement” and the proper vintage of wine could giddily collapse into a slapstick ironing accident that ignites a couch.
And yet for all its brains, Frasier never lost track of its heart. Under the comedy was a sensitive and sometimes painful exploration of the joys, disappointments and demands that flow among brothers, fathers and sons. In the end, love won out: A family that began the show estranged leaves united.
The younger members of that family were, of course, more sophisticated and persnickety than most, but Frasier and Niles read “gay” only if you assume the Survivor standard of beer-belching rubes is the only measure of manhood. Back when the standards were set by Fred Astaire and William Powell, Niles and Frasier wouldn’t have been labeled as homosexuals or metrosexuals; they would have simply been called “men.”
Sad to say, smart as Frasier was, it wasn’t smart enough to know when the time had come to get off the stage. Stretched out past a decade, Frasier’s string of bad dates became tiring. As the show matured, characters either went nowhere, or went in the wrong directions. (Try to expunge Frasier’s bout with unemployment from your memory.) And while it’s true that Niles couldn’t go on pining for Daphne forever, bringing them together, while necessary, robbed the show of one of its funniest dynamics.
No doubt, had the show left after its seventh or eighth season ó or found a way to avoid the drastic quality dip of the 10th ó it would now be getting a more fervent farewell, instead of being treated as a Friends afterthought. Still, sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. And my bet is that as time passes, Frasier will only look better.
Maybe even best.