It may have started life as a hopeful spin-off from 'Cheers', but right from the very first episodes, 'Frasier' proved that it had enough style and substance of its own to become a TV legend. Granted, it went on for a couple of seasons too many, and toward the end was clearly starting to suffer from a lack of fresh ideas, but for the most part this was a hilarious, insightful and often very moving programme that my Friday nights throughout the late 90s just wouldn't have been complete without. After so many years of viewing, Frasier, Niles, Martin, Daphne, Roz and Eddie feel like more than just TV characters - they're like your very own neighbours, or even great friends.
Indeed, 'Frasier' worked so well throughout most of its run not just because of the sharp, intelligent scripting, but also due to the sheer depth of its central characters and the ongoing focus on their relationships with each other. The characterisation here was always so rich and meaningful, taking us right from Dr Frasier Crane himself, the highbrow, slightly arrogant but good-natured radio shrink, to his more laidback everyman father Martin (a retired police officer now living with his son), and prissy younger brother Niles, a fellow psychiatrist who fits two slots as both Frasier's best friend and his mortal enemy! A lot of the episodes revolved around their family troubles and clashes of interest, but were handled in a very meticulous way, and the morals always felt smooth and genuine. Though rarely quite able to see eye-to-eye with each other, you got a good sense over the course of the series that the Crane men were gradually learning to bond and grow closer together, in spite of their differences. And that's one of the aspects of 'Frasier' that roped me in head and shoulders above its other contemporary sitcoms - it was never afraid to mix heart and poignancy with its laugh-out-loud hilarity. Episodes like 'Martin does it his way', 'Our Father whose Art Ain't in Heaven' and 'Roz's Krantz and Gouldenstein are Dead' are classic examples.
Daphne Moon, Martin's amiable English physiotherapist, and Roz Doyle, Frasier's sassy producer, were also great characters who added their own unique streaks of humour and personality to the format. Even Maris, a personage who was never seen but talked about at many an ingenious moment, managed to make her mark - it's to the credit of those wily scriptwriters that they could always have you feeling her presence solely on the word-of-mouth of other characters. On the side, any episode featuring Bebe, Frasier's positively demonic agent, can almost guarantee a laugh-riot - she was utterly hilarious, and there was never another semi-regular character quite like her.
In terms of acting quality, the central cast was always strong, particularly Kelsey Grammar, at his utmost prime not just in fulfilling the role of our protagonist, but also in singing 'Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs' over the end-credits of every episode (who knew what those words were supposed to mean, but it was a great theme song! I still catch myself humming it from time to time).
I'll also come clean with my unswerving admiration for Moose, the canine performer who rounded off the Crane household in the role of Eddie, Martin's Jack Russell, for most of the series (before retiring and being replaced by his offspring Enzo for the final fifth). Seriously, he's got to be the most talented animal actor since that cat who played Tao in 'The Incredible Journey'. Those various antics of his amounted to a lot more than just a few dumb pet tricks to secure easy "aww" reactions from the audience - Eddie had easily as much personality as any of the human ensemble, a subtle and canny little dog who's good at getting what he wants and working his way round the no-nonsense Frasier.
As you've probably guessed by now, I loved this show and its cast of characters dearly, and was sorry to see it go in 2004, but at the same time I was pretty much aware that it had run its course. They were starting to rehash older concepts, like Frasier losing Martin's chair, which is always a bad sign. Also, too many OTT British accents from non-British guest actors had a few of us clenching our teeth this side of the Atlantic (Anthony LaPaglia, I'm looking mainly in your direction here!). But I digress, because the general history of this sitcom was just fantastic. Even if the latter-day episodes were a little weaker than the previous instalments, it's the truly great material that, in the end, really stays with you. And throughout the years there was so, so much of it.
Mark my words - this show is all set in time to go down as the classic US sitcom of the 90s. 'Friends' may have gotten the greater media coverage when it left its own building in the same year, but 'Frasier' will always be the superior show.