''Frasier'' and ''Spin City'' started their new seasons with a few comfortable old faces, says Bruce Fretts
Rita Wilson, Shelley Long, ...
Credit: Frasier: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Predictable sitcom premieres are a relief

Reruns are the TV equivalent of comfort food, and lately I’ve been gorging on them. After a steady diet of horrific news coverage, I indulged in multiple helpings of ”Diff’rent Strokes” on Nick at Nite and ”Press Your Luck” (”Big bucks, no whammies…STOP!”) on the Game Show Network — anything mindless to take my mind off what was really happening in the world.

Now the fall TV season has finally begun, but I’m still taking solace in the familiar. The one hour premieres of ”Frasier” and ”Spin City,” for example, were so predictable, they felt like repeats. Normally, I would mean that as a criticism, but right now, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

The sense of deja vu was partially due to the highly-touted return visits by old TV friends Michael J. Fox on ”Spin” and Bebe Neuwirth and Shelley Long on ”Cheers.” Each show has also been on so long that it’s established its own comic routines — reliably hoary jokes about Daphne’s bad cooking or Stuart’s perennial horniness.

Plus, these series were built around TV personalities who have remained virtually unchanged since the early ’80s. Kelsey Grammer created the title role of ”Frasier” on ”Cheers,” of course, and ”Spin” might as well be a spin-off of ”Family Ties.” Who is Fox’s deputy mayor Mike Flaherty but a grownup version of the politically ambitious Alex P. Keaton? Coincidentally, both former staples of NBC’s Thursday lineup are joining Nick at Nite — a ”Family Ties” marathon is running this week, and the ”Cheers”-fest starts Oct. 7.

Watching old episodes of ”Family Ties” makes you appreciate the depth of Fox’s talent. His grace-note comic timing and gift for physical shtick were already in evidence when he was in his early 20s (but playing a teenager). And seeing the sly Fox share scenes with Charlie Sheen, his plodding replacement on ”Spin City,” is a case study in natural vs. unnatural sitcom actors. It’s the difference between a tap dancer and a steamroller.

As enjoyably fluffy as they were, the ”Frasier” and ”Spin” openers couldn’t provide a complete escapist experience. Not when David Angell’s credit flashed on the screen; the ”Frasier” cocreator and his wife, Lynn, died on board one of the airplanes hijacked on Sept. 11, and the episode was dedicated to their memory. As for ”Spin,” it’s set in the New York City mayor’s office, but the problems faced by the blissfully above-it-all Randall Winston (Barry Bostwick) can’t compare to Rudy Giuliani’s real-world crisis management.

Still, I’d rather try to lose myself in a sitcom than another soul-numbing reality show like Fox’s over-optimistically titled ”Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage.” Judging from the first night’s ratings, I’m not alone: ”Cruise” sank, while ”Frasier” and ”Spin” sailed on.

Are you watching comedy shows this week?

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