Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Need To Hear The Blues A-Callin', The Complete First Season Of Frasier Is Wonderful!

The Good: Funny, Wonderful characters, Good acting, Interesting stories
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Some repetition of ideas
The Basics: Frasier The Complete First Season on DVD is a great investment for anyone who loves wonderful, character-based comedy they can watch over and over again!

It is a rare, but not impossible thing, for a spin-off of a show to be more enduring, more complex and all-around better than the series that it was spun off from. Still, as an adult, I have found much more to enjoy with spin-offs like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Angel than the shows that began their respective franchises (Star Trek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, respectively). So, it is not entirely surprising that I would be able to enjoy Frasier more than Cheers, the series which introduced the world to Doctor Frasier Crane, psychiatrist.

In the first season of Frasier, Frasier Crane has returned to Seattle, Washington and his family there. On DVD, the four-disc set is an unremarkable presentation of the impressive comedy series. The show looks as good as it did in its original run, but the DVD set is light on bonus features, which makes it a tougher sell than some more mediocre comedy series' which have better bonus features. Still, as Frasier falls out of syndication in more markets (oddly, it seems to be being replaced by Everybody Loves Raymond or King Of Queens in many markets I've searched) there is greater reason to purchase the DVD boxed sets, like "The Complete First Season," so one might get their Frasier fix any time they need one!

Dr. Frasier Crane returned to his hometown of Seattle six months ago and he has set up a life as a radio call-in psychiatrist offering simplified psychological answers to the callers in the greater Seattle region. Unfortunately, Frasier is visited by his brother, Niles, one day and delivered bad news; their father has fallen in the shower and damaged his hip. Given that Martin, their father, was shot in the hip, his decreased mobility means that he might not be able to live on his own. After a tense encounter with his ailing father, Frasier bites the bullet and takes Martin in.

So begins a season where Frasier and Martin struggle to get used to one another. While Frasier verbally spars with his producer, Roz, at work, he often returns home to conflict in his apartment. Having hired a physical therapist for his father, Frasier still works to maintain his home as his own and make his father feel welcomed through such incidents as his father having a neighbor over for the night and dealing with his father's ugly reclining chair. While Niles competes with Frasier professionally (he, too, is a psychiatrist, though he despises the pop psychiatry which Frasier now represents), he and Frasier work together to help Martin rehabilitate. But just as Niles struggles to avoid actually interacting with Martin, he finds himself continually drawn to Frasier's apartment, because of his attraction for Daphne (Martin's physical therapist). As Frasier tries to keep the married Niles from making mistakes of his own, he makes mistakes when a supermodel wins him in a bachelor auction, Lilith returns and he tries to identify a criminal among Martin's poker buddies.

Frasier is much more about linguistic humor than it is about situational comedy. Indeed, situations in the first season have a way of repeating, like the sheer number of arguments that come up between Frasier and Martin about Frasier's space and the way the latter wants it kept. Jokes tend to be about working class and upper class type differences, with Frasier and Niles representing a sensibility quite different from Roz and Martin. Martin and Roz, for example, get along quite well, while Frasier is often at odds with Martin and does not understand Roz. In the beginning of the season, the show makes a rather obvious commentary on the class differences through Niles repeatedly meeting Roz and never remembering who she is.

In addition to adding genuine humor to the situations Niles and Frasier find themselves in - the seedy bar in "You Can't Tell A Crook By His Cover" is a remarkably funny scene - Frasier works because it is lightly serialized. The characters grow and develop throughout the season, which allows for recurring jokes like the Roz/Niles bit and Niles's growing obsession with Daphne. In fact, the whole reason that "A Midwinter Night's Dream" - where Niles's wife, Maris, storms out on him, leaving Niles and Daphne trapped at Niles's mansion alone during a storm - works is because the characters have been building to moments that are complex and reasonable the entire season.

Set largely in Frasier's apartment, Cafe Nervosa and the KACL radio station booth where Frasier has his radio program, Frasier is visually unexciting, but verbally witty throughout. There is very little physical comedy, though Kelsey Grammer's stare - usually at Niles, who finds himself in awkward situations with Daphne when Frasier is not around - adds an element that is unique to the series. In this season, characters struggle to relate to one another more often than not and characters like Roz are given a quip an episode in support of Frasier's diatribes, but are otherwise neglected.

Still, this is largely a character-based comedy and as such, it is germane to note who the essential characters are. In the first season, the primaries are:

Dr. Frasier Crane - Recently divorced from his wife, Lilith, he is the father of Frederick, who lives with Lilith. The talent behind "The Doctor Frasier Crane Show," he receives callers daily who ask him for advice, which he dispenses . . . when they are not too busy living out their various psychosis'. After six months of peace and quiet, he takes in his ailing father and discovers the transition is a greater burden on him than he thought. He deals with other Seattle personalities who hate his call-in show, feeling his age (he is forty-one), and the resurfacing of Lilith, who found an old love note he wrote,

Dr. Niles Crane - Married to the unseen Maris, he is an obsessive compulsive germaphobic psychiatrist (Jungian) who does not respect Frasier's pop-culture approach to psychiatry. Lonely because of how horrible his wife is, he is smitten with Daphne and joins Frasier for many activities as a result. He competes with Frasier when the two try to write a book together and takes over Frasier's show when Frasier falls ill,

Daphne Moon - A psychic physical therapist, she is oblivious to Niles's affection. She works with Martin to help him recuperate and lives in Frasier's apartment with the two men. She is cheerful and kind,

Roz Doyle - Frasier's producer, she goes through about a man a week and is quite proud of her sex life. A pragmatist, she is hungry for awards for "The Frasier Crane Show" and she offers a counterpoint to Frasier on many issues,

and Martin Crane - Retired police officer, he is obsessed with solving a murder case involving a dismembered stripper. Cranky and injured over having to move in with Frasier, he struggles to understand the son he never knew well before. Widowered, he misses his wife and he finds unlikely companionship with a woman he meets through a telescope and a neighbor he hits it off with. His favorite things in the world are a cool beer (Ballentine's), pork rinds, his old reclining chair and his dog, Eddie (who is a thorn in Frasier's side). In this season, Frasier makes his dream of seeing the United States in a Winnebago come true.

Frasier has an amazing cast and in the first season, it establishes itself as one of the more stable and winning casts on television. Peri Gilpin and Jane Leeves (Roz and Daphne) play off David Hyde Pierce (Niles) and John Mahoney (Martin) beautifully. David Hyde Pierce steals every scene he is in as the neurotic Niles, with an amazing sense of awkward physical body language that is often enough to make one cringe or laugh.

The irony here is that the supporting cast and characters are often far more interesting than the show's namesake. Frasier Crane is adequately played by Kelsey Grammer, but his character is hardly the most interesting, even for those coming only to this series (i.e. those who have not seen him on Cheers). Grammer has a wonderful deadpan and he plays Frasier as slightly tense almost all the time, and he does that well. But mostly, it is the one note we see from Grammer this first season.

As for those coming just to Frasier, there is nothing one needs to know coming in that is not covered in this series. One need not be a fan of Cheers to fall in love with Frasier. Allusions to Lilith begin in the first episode, so by the time she pops up near the end of the season, virgins to the franchise are likely to be ready for her and will recognize her.

On DVD, Frasier is rather light on extras. There is a single commentary track on "The Good Son," which basically has two of the three executive producers talking about the genesis of Frasier from Cheers. There is a lone featurette besides that on the making of Frasier and a tour of Frasier's apartment. As well, each disc has a recap of the celebrities who lend their voices to Frasier in the form of guest callers. That is pretty cool, though one need only check out the closing credits to get the same thing.

Still, there is enough here to eagerly recommend this DVD set to those who love great, smart comedies.

For other first seasons of comedies, please check out my reviews of:
30 Rock – Season 1
The Big Bang Theory - Season 1
Family Guy – Volume 1


For other television program reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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