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After a wobbly start, this new 'Frasier' gets better and funnier as it goes along

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The character of Frasier Crane, the fussy psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammer, first appeared on TV in 1984, two years into the run of NBC's "Cheers." He remained a regular supporting character on "Cheers" until that series ended in 1993. Then he was promoted to series lead and given his own show that same year. That sitcom, titled "Frasier," thrived until 2004. And now, nearly 20 years later, it's back again, a new continuation of "Frasier," still starring Kelsey Grammer, this time streaming on Paramount+ and repeated on CBS. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) How does it feel being back in Boston?

KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Mixed emotions, honestly. I'm not sure I was ever my best self here. I may have spent a little too much time at a certain bar.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Deciding to mount a new incarnation of "Frasier" is a very tall order, bringing with it a lineage as imposing as it is impressive. NBC's "Cheers" won the Emmy as outstanding comedy series four times during its lengthy run. Then the official spin-off series, "Frasier," beat that record somehow, winning the same award five times, along with four individual wins for Kelsey Grammer as the now leading character Frasier Crane. Now Kelsey Grammer and company are going back to the well. And, well, the show takes a while to find its own voice, but slowly, surely, it does.

The new 2023 version of "Frasier" has launched on Paramount+, with shows dropping weekly after a two-episode premiere. The new "Frasier" also shows up this week as a repeat on CBS, partly because most people still don't subscribe to the Paramount+ streaming service, and partly because CBS is so starving for product after the writers strike. Joe Cristalli and Chris Harris wrote the premiere episode with an old hand at the helm, James Burrows, the most celebrated TV sitcom director in history. He also directed many, many episodes of both "Cheers" and "Frasier," so he knows very well the timing and delivery of the major character.

The potential problem with a new "Frasier" isn't the presence of Kelsey Grammer. He's still got his Jack Benny silences and all of her hearty mannerisms down pat. It's the absence of the other wonderful faces from the old series. John Mahoney, who played Frasier's dad, died five years ago. David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves, as the eventually married Niles and Daphne, opted not to repeat their roles as series regulars. And while Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier's ex-wife Lilith will return in a future episode, neither she, nor any other players from the classic "Frasier" series show up in the five episodes made available for critics.

Clearly, this new sitcom wants to stand on its own, and after some wobbly first steps, it does. Like the brilliant pilot to ABC's "Modern Family," the new "Frasier" keeps some of its character relationships secret until the end of the first episode. But without spoiling any of those surprises, I can say this much. After years as a psychiatrist with a popular TV show, "Frasier" reacts to the death of his father by returning to Boston to seek out Freddy, his now-grown son, from his marriage to the caustic Lilith. Freddy is a Harvard dropout and full-time firefighter. Jack Cutmore-Scott plays Freddy, who one day finds his long-estranged father waiting unannounced at his apartment door. Freddy lets Frasier in, but only physically, not emotionally.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

GRAMMER: (Dr. Frasier Crane) Your place is so - damn, when I started that sentence, I thought I'd think of something.

(LAUGHTER)

JACK CUTMORE-SCOTT: (As Freddy Crane) Yeah. Sorry. The Picasso's getting reframed, and the whole second floor is in the shop.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (Dr. Frasier Crane) Well, you have your mother's sense of humor, Frederick.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (Dr. Frasier Crane) No, no. It's it's charming. It reminds me of the sort of place one would wrestle a cartoon rat for a crust of bread.

(LAUGHTER)

CUTMORE-SCOTT: (As Freddy Crane) There it is, your subtle reminder I'd make more money if I wasn't just a firefighter.

GRAMMER: (Dr. Frasier Crane) No, no. I admire what you do. It's a noble profession. Just that you did so well in your psych classes at Harvard.

CUTMORE-SCOTT: (As Freddy Crane) All right. But I wanted to do something important.

GRAMMER: (Dr. Frasier Crane) What I do is important. This is at least as important as what you do.

CUTMORE-SCOTT: (As Freddy Crane) OK. Sure. Let's find someone who has low self esteem and is also on fire and see which one of us they run to first.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (Dr. Frasier Crane) There's that mother of yours again.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: The distance and difference between father and son, so crucial to the original "Frasier" series, is echoed intentionally here, with Frasier now in the father role but experiencing the same sort of clashes. And while Niles and Daphne are absent, they're present in spirit because their college-age son David is always around. And just like the original "Frasier" series was what I call a classic split-com - half of it's set at home, the other half at work, a formula perfected long ago by "The Dick Van Dyke Show" - this time out, the workplace is Harvard University, where, in short order and very improbably, Frasier is offered a job by the chair of the psych department.

This not only makes more room for Frasier's nephew, David, who's just starting there as a student, but for a newly introduced character named Alan, a weary, sarcastic, tenured professor and a friend of Frasier's since their student days at Oxford. He's played by Nicholas Lyndhurst. And after guest lecturing in Alan's class, Frasier is introduced to the department chair, Olivia. She's portrayed by Toks Olagundoye.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, no.

GRAMMER: (As Dr. Frasier Crane) What? Who's that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's our department head, Olivia Finch (ph), brilliant scholar, but an absolute terror - cold, disengaged, narcissistic. She's called me all those things.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Dr. Frasier Crane) She sounds dreadful.

TOKS OLAGUNDOYE: (As Olivia) Dr. Crane, you are a true legend.

GRAMMER: (As Dr. Frasier Crane) And yet there's something about her I just like.

BIANCULLI: This new "Frasier" gets better and funnier in later episodes once it firmly establishes its characters, settings and relationships. Eve, a character with no clear counterpart in the old series - she's a new mother played by Jess Salgueiro - is the most sparkling standout among the new players, but they all emerge as good foils for Kelsey Grammer. And the new series hasn't forgotten to sprinkle in callbacks to the old one. The opening animation is slightly different each week. The title cards between acts are still there. And the new neighborhood bar, where the faculty members and firefighters drink, is called Mahoney's, a nice nod to the actor who once played Frasier's dad.

I was skeptical about the return of "Frasier" and not very impressed by the premiere, but after a few more episodes, I was won over. If you like the old "Frasier," or if you like "Cheers," give this new "Frasier" series a chance. In fact, give it two.

GROSS: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the revival of the hit sitcom "Frasier," still starring Kelsey Grammer. New episodes stream on Paramount+. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with Jada Pinkett Smith about her new memoir, or journalist David Kirkpatrick about the activist Christian legal group The Alliance Defending Freedom, or Lawrence Wright about Texas politics, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.