Frasier, review: fear not, Craniacs, TV's funniest fusspot is as hilarious as ever

Kelsey Grammer returns as Frasier Crane
Kelsey Grammer returns as Frasier Crane - Pamela Littky/Paramount+

To exhume a beloved old show is to flirt with danger. Can the revival ever match the original? Will the characters seem out of step with today? The return of Frasier (Paramount +) feels less of an insurance risk. Itself a spin-off of Cheers, it has regeneration in its DNA. It helps too that in his fussy pomp Frasier Crane already had midlife bones. Like the finest malt – a running gag in the new show – he’s pre-aged.

The years have put a crook in Kelsey Grammer’s lower back so he now moves with a scurrying waddle reminiscent of his cranky old dad, Martin (the late John Mahoney). But Frasier’s magnetic complexities, the snobbish ego and laughable need, are still there, cryogenically preserved and now unleashed upon Harvard.

As he swaggers back into Boston, a huge TV star seeking professional renewal and a deeper connection with his son Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), those snobby priorities of his will out. “Trust me,” he tells his unlike-minded boy about soft mattresses, “once you go yak you never go back.”

Kelsey Grammer with co-stars Toks Olagundoye and Nicholas Lyndhurst
Kelsey Grammer with co-stars Toks Olagundoye and Nicholas Lyndhurst - Chris Haston/Paramount+

The original show’s domestic dynamic has been cannily rebooted: having suffered the blue-collar tastes of his live-in father, a retired policeman, Frasier has now bribed his down-home firefighter son to cohabit. Thus resumes the debate about how to furnish a room, begun when Martin had his scuzzy armchair delivered to that impeccable Seattle apartment in the very first episode of Frasier back in 1993. Freddy is fond of a Perspex boxful of dust from the Fenway Park pitch of his beloved baseball team, the Red Sox. “Fenway, meet Steinway,” Frasier says as he solemnly plants it on his priceless piano: a dad v lad culture clash compressed into three nifty words.

Sadly, there’s no Niles (David Hyde Pierce), but his hyper-neurotic spirit is reincarnated in his socially awkward boy David (Anders Keith), who was born in the very last episode of the old show. “I have a laminated card,” he pipes up when someone asks about allergies. “The ones in red are fatal.”

For the returning fan there are plentiful callbacks to Niles and other absentees – and beyond that to the bar where everybody knows your name. Freddy’s chilly mother, who barely appeared in Frasier, is evoked with especially eager frequency. “My ex-wife Lilith!” says Frasier, answering a question in a barroom quiz. “Oh, I’m kidding. The Arctic Circle.” It’s enthralling to know that Bebe Neuwirth, who played her, and Peri Gilpin, as Frasier’s radio producer Roz Doyle, are both promised for later in the season.

While allusions to old and unseen characters – even Eddie the dog – may fly clean over the heads of incomers, they’ll be catnip to those with a longer memory. But Frasier 2.0 is not all about recycling. Like a lot of 1990s sitcoms, the old show had no room for non-white ethnicities among its main cast, now corrected by the presence of actress/waitress/single mother Eve (Jess Salgueiro) and Frasier’s go-getting faculty head Olivia (Toks Olagundoye). Such is the sharp delineation of the writing and acting that they feel familiar within an episode. Freddy’s fire crew are also great value.

And what of the curious outrider Nicholas Lyndhurst? When it was announced, the prospect of dear gormless Rodders entering Frasier’s orbit felt inconceivable. And yes, there is a physical overlap in the way Lyndhurst’s head wobbles on his shoulders. Actually he’s deliciously dry as Frasier’s old Oxford pal Alan Cornwall, an indolent and cynical professor of psychology who lives for historic whiskys. With no Niles, Alan is the one who enables recherché gags about Middleton, Shackleton and – surprise, surprise – the Bullingdon.

Does it work? On the strength of the first five episodes, very much so. At the press launch I attended, the first squalls of outright laughter came when Frasier stands in front of a kitchen swing door and blocks it to prevent David, trapped the other side and trying needily to batter through, from interrupting. It’s a brilliant mingling of physical and psychological comedy, and I laughed just as much when I watched again on my own.

In the interregnum, we learn, Frasier was the host of a Letterman-like TV show, which mercilessly spoofed in a flashback. It turns out that Frasier’s many devotees are known, hilariously, as Craniacs. Their ranks are now certain to swell.

Frasier begins on Paramount+ on Friday October 13