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''Frasier'' returns to Thursdays

”Frasier” returns to Thursdays — The series succeeds ”Seinfeld” in the coveted 9pm slot

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And the winner is…Frasier! Kelsey Grammer and Co. have snagged four consecutive Emmys for best comedy series, yet their biggest victory came when NBC announced the sitcom would succeed Seinfeld in the hallowed Thursdays-at-9 p.m. slot. It’s a long-overdue reward for a show that has performed above and beyond the call of duty for five years.

When it was first announced, Frasier seemed like a desperate attempt by the network to squeeze a few more years out of Cheers. But it quickly became apparent that Frasier was no AfterM*A*S*H (CBS’ short-lived Harry Morgan-Jamie Farr retread). The producers had taken Grammer’s tightly wrapped shrink — not the most natural candidate for his own show, mind you — spun him off to Seattle, and surrounded him with a family of fresh characters as vividly conceived as Boston’s infectious barflies. Viewers immediately flocked to Frasier. In its first season, it actually increased on its Seinfeld lead-in, a feat never achieved by the female-centered sitcoms (Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, et al.) that have since inhabited the slot. Then, in an attempt to shore up one of its weakest nights, NBC shifted Frasier to Tuesdays, where the show took a hit opposite ABC’s Home Improvement.

Frasier slowly crept up on Tim Allen’s alleged comedy, however, and now regularly trounces it. All the while, the show has maintained a high level of quality in acting, writing, and directing. This season was among its strongest, with several instant-classic installments, including a door-slamming farce set in a ski lodge that was so well-staged, it should be eligible for a Tony.

What finally caused the Peacock to honor Frasier with the most sought-after spot in TV? Given the alternatives, it was a no-brainer. Just Shoot Me was touted as the frontrunner, but the show needs time to grow. We haven’t fallen in love with its characters yet; viewers aren’t as emotionally invested in the flickering flirtation between Maya (Laura San Giacomo) and Elliott (Enrico Colantoni) as they are in the beautifully choreographed dance between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves). Moving Shoot to Frasier‘s old Tuesdays-at-9 slot seems a lower-risk test of the sitcom’s long-term viability.

Friends was also considered a contender, but unlike Frasier, it seems past its peak of popularity. Perhaps because the show was so hysterically hyped in its first few seasons, its appeal burned out quickly with some viewers. And with three series on NBC’s Thursday schedule — Friends (at 8 p.m.); Christina Applegate’s new single-mom sitcom, All My Life (at 8:30 p.m.); and Veronica’s Closet (at 9:30 p.m.) — executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane can hardly complain about not getting Seinfeld‘s slot.

The other two candidates, Mad About You and 3rd Rock From the Sun, have been hurting in the ratings lately, and it would make no sense to give your most prized piece of real estate to a show with no momentum. (Mad will stay in its Tuesdays-at-8 berth, while 3rd Rock will remain on Wednesdays, at 9 p.m.)