Frasier review: Kelsey Grammer clings to the last vestige of his Nineties classic

There is a thought experiment called “The ship of Theseus”, based on the ancient king of Athens. The problem refers to the question of whether you can remove and replace every constituent part of an object – a ship, say – piece by piece, until nothing original remains. Is it still the same ship? It is a paradox that has been applied, in the modern day, to the band Sugababes, and, of course, Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. Now, the patchwork ship sails into view again – this time with Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane at the helm, clinging to that last vestige of what made Frasier, the hit Nineties sitcom, Frasier.

Returning to our screens on Paramount+, Frasier finds himself back in Boston, the city where he began his televisual life. But the setting here isn’t the beer-soaked Cheers (“I may have spent too much time at a certain bar,” he observes, ruefully, of his previous stint in the city). Instead, Dr Frasier Crane – to give him his full title – is off to Harvard, where he’ll be lecturing on psychology and attempting to reconnect with his son, Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), who dropped out of the university to become a firefighter. Joining him at this most august of academic institutions are old mucker Professor Alan Cornwall (Nicholas Lyndhurst, aka Rodney Trotter), faculty chair Olivia (Toks Olagundoye) and his nephew, David (Anders Keith).

In other words, none of the original cast (though Peri Gilpin is mooted to make an appearance as Frasier’s acerbic radio producer, Roz). Without the crutches of Jane Leeves and David Hyde Pierce, both of whom opted not to return, as Daphne and Niles respectively, not to mention Martin Crane (played by the late John Mahoney) or Eddie the Dog (played by the late Moose and Enzo), 2023’s Frasier feels like a different beast. Frasier himself, who always appeared preternaturally middle-aged, is now old. The roles are reversed: Frasier is now Marty, in age if not spirit, while Freddy is Marty, in spirit if not age.

The result is an unsettling collision of Nineties sitcom tropes and present-day sensibilities. Hardcore “Craniacs” will rue ever having heard the strains of “Baby Shark” during an episode of their beloved show, whilst newcomers may find references to Thomas Middleton, “Oregon Rieslings” and herringbone jackets somewhat jarring. But just about discernible, in this muddle, is the urbane yet self-flagellating spirit of Frasier. Generally, sitcoms speak to the dominant cultural generation, rather than the prime socio-economic one. But while Friends was the definitive text of Generation X life, Frasier was stealthily offering something to swathes of boomers. Now, despite air hockey, negronis and sexy calendars, that throwback spirit prevails.

All the same, there is little that is new to this series that genuinely works. Frasier’s adoptive sidekick, Alan, a crusty British soak, is a feeble Niles replacement, while feminine spunk – typified originally by both Roz and Daphne – is delegated to the lesser figure of Eve (Jess Salgueiro), the rather idealised roommate of Freddy. And both Freddy and his cousin David struggle to find a voice of their own. Reminders of the show’s forebear are frequent (“I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with a sibling with whom you have a very intense, competitive relationship…” Olivia asks Frasier; “I outlasted that little mongrel!” Frasier roars at a dalmatian) but the comparisons are unflattering. And even though 30 years have passed, the set design and lighting look cheaper than ever. No quantity of leather-bound books can compensate for the oversaturated flimsiness of the modern sitcom “look”.

Olivia (Toks Olagundoye), Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Professor Alan Cornwall (Nicholas Lyndhurst) in Frasier (Paramount Plus)
Olivia (Toks Olagundoye), Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Professor Alan Cornwall (Nicholas Lyndhurst) in Frasier (Paramount Plus)

The fact that there is something to enjoy in this return to the Craniverse is testament to the joys of Cheers and Frasier, not to mention Grammer’s effective turn in the lead role. Little may remain other than a title and an endearing snobbery, but, just like Theseus’s ride before it, the spirit of Frasier remains intact. Not quite seaworthy, perhaps, but just about afloat.