The doctor is out -- of Seattle and our TV screens. The series ended with its impeccable comic timing intact, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
Updated May 13, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Frasier: Justin Lubin
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What’d you think of the finale? Here’s our take

”Frasier” ended its 11-year run last night with the impeccable timing and careful craft that has characterized it from the start — especially right from the start, when it was one of the best sitcoms ever. The finale, like ”Friends” the week before, had a lot of plot exposition to plow through — Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeds) had to have their baby; Martin (John Mahoney) had to marry Ronnie (Wendy Malick); and Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier had to do something to alter his life so that his series could conclude with finality.

It turns out that device was a job offer from San Francisco, which he accepted. (If, as Grammer has suggested, he might be interested in taking his character into a third series — from ”Cheers” to ”Frasier” to… ”Frisco”? — that’s just the right city against which to play off all those theories and jokes that the press and the show itself have made about his character’s gay sensibility, as well as an ideal site for him to pursue his true sensibility: that of a cultivated man in one of America’s culture capitals.)

The subplots allowed for a number of welcome guest stars, such as Laura Linney, wrapping up her endearing run as one of Frasier’s best girlfriends; Anthony LaPaglia as Simon, Daphne’s perennially soused brother (accompanied by their other brothers, including ”Harry Potter”’s Robbie Coltrane); Jason Biggs as a veterinarian; and — more awkwardly — Jennifer Beals as a psychiatrist seated next to Frasier on a plane, to whom he tells the story of the final episode. (This also set up the mini-surprise that Frasier was headed not for San Francisco, but to Chicago, to woo Linney further. Red herring? I dunno: I can’t imagine Linney, an active film performer, would tie herself down to a possible TV commitment, should Grammer make good on his idea of a third Frasier incarnation. But definitely intriguing…)

Oh, but I shouldn’t quibble. ”Frasier” was a wonderful show for many years. It’s too bad that its last three or four seasons weren’t up to the superlative level of its first three or four, but throughout, Grammer was superb. He’s often been compared to Jack Benny for his deadpan timing, and in the clip show that preceded the finale, he frequently looked like Bob Hope, peering down his ski-nose at people.

But ultimately, Grammer — no matter how much help he may have had from producer-writers Christopher Lloyd, Joe Keenan, David Lee, and the late David Angell (who died in one of the 9/11 plane crashes, and for whom I’d guess Niles’ baby boy was named last night) — created his own comic persona: the high-culture man caught in a mass-culture world; the erudite, fussy man surrounded by dumbbells and slobs, and greeting his Seattle world with optimism and zest even when we knew he didn’t feel very chipper inside.

That’s the description of a tragic clown, but Grammer refused to play Frasier that way. Last night’s episode gave him the opportunity to show all his various sides, including his gift for slapstick and double-takes. The show itself was always different; an ensemble that wasn’t the everyone’s-an-equal ensemble that ”Friends” was, and a great show that contained some not-so-great characters.

Pierce, of course was stunningly good as Niles: Given the impossible task of mimicking just enough of Frasier’s mannerisms to be believable as a brother yet establish his own identity, Pierce made this devilish trick look easy. John Mahoney was the perfect, absolutely essential foil to the prissy Crane brothers, always scoffing at their pretensions in a way that a large chunk of the audience could identify with. (But, I must add adamantly, I always hated the notion that ”Frasier” was an intelligent show because it was filled with references to the opera and fine wines; it was an intelligent show because its best plots were immaculate farces and its jokes little treasures of verbal dexterity.)

I thought the chief flaw in the series was bringing Daphne too much to the forefront as Niles’ true love. Daphne was dandy as a shrewdly sarcastic supporting character; as a full-fledged costar, she was a bit of a drag. Similarly, too often, Peri Gilpin’s Roz was a one-joke character — man-hungry devourer — who often seemed more pathetically desperate or annoyingly grouchy than funny. These feelings were only confirmed by last night’s send-off; I laughed harder at Malick’s tough-gal line deliveries than at Daphne’s baby delivery or Roz’s final promotion at the radio station.

All in all, the ”Frasier” finale did what the series did best all these years: amuse you with small, sharp moments, such as the sweet scene of Grammer and Linney playing Scrabble and arguing over the existence of the word ”quilty.” (I kept waiting for the high-culture joke ready to be made — that Vladimir Nabokov invented a character named Claire Quilty in ”Lolita” — but it never arrived. Just as well; Keenan and Lloyd’s joke was better.)

Finally, this is the last time I’ll have an excuse to tell this anecdote, about my sole brush with ”Frasier”-dom, so here it is: In 1994, I wrote a review of the show singling out the exceptional performance of David Hyde Pierce. I concluded by saying, ”If Pierce doesn’t win an Emmy for this season, I’m moving to Canada.” Pierce lost that particular year. A few days after the Emmys, a package arrived. It was a guidebook to Canada. On the flyleaf, this message was written: ”Ken –Thank you for your kind words, and bon voyage. David Hyde Pierce.” Pretty witty and classy of him, eh? Hyde, Grammer, and company remained so until the end.


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