Will 'Frasier' fly alone or on others' coattails?


The most important thing to know about the new NBC sitcom "Frasier" is that it airs at 9:30 Thursday nights right after "Seinfeld." If the "Cheers" spinoff can't make it there, it can't make it anywhere on the NBC schedule.

"Frasier" will get a huge launch tonight, as NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup -- "Mad About You," "Wings" and "Seinfeld" -- begins a new season on WMAR (Channel 2). The season premiere of "Seinfeld," which deals with the topic of orgasms, could to be the highest-rated show of the week.

"Frasier," which stars Kelsey Grammer as the pompous Dr. Frasier Crane, is not in the league of "Seinfeld." The pilot is not even in the league of "Mad About You."

But the series is good enough -- given its cushy time period -- to be considered a hit among the new fall shows. It might even wind up finishing in Nielsen's top 20 for the year, thanks to "Seinfeld's" coattails.

"Frasier" finds Crane living solo back in his hometown of Seattle, having left a Cheers-less Boston and a busted marriage to Lilith. The psychiatrist -- who gives new meaning to the expression, "Doctor, heal thyself" -- is now host of a radio call-in program.

Over an espresso at the local coffee bar, not two minutes into the show, Crane's equally snobbish and tightly wrapped brother (David Hyde Pierce) tells him that their father cannot live on his own anymore. The only solution is for Dad (John Mahoney), a cranky and very blue-collar ex-cop, to move in with Crane.

Faster than you can say the-son-is-now-the-father's-father, Crane has a new family. Besides Dad, Crane's trendy, minimalist designer digs are instantly invaded by: Dad's incredibly ugly, vibrating easy chair; Dad's testy little dog, Eddie; and a home-care worker, Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), who fancies herself a psychic and astrologer.

Will the mix work? The Moon character is a nice foil for Crane, and Leeves is a good comic actress. but the real comic energy and tension has to come from the father-son relationship.

On paper, it's golden. Social climber son vs. unpretentious, blue-collar dad. Highly educated son vs. dad who mistrusts intellectuals.

There's some of that comic energy in the pilot. But not enough. The series looks like it could veer toward a sentimental notion of family, with Crane and his dad both suddenly "needing" each other. And that would make "Frasier" into one sappy drag.

Here's hoping that "Frasier" goes for the gut and not the gooey, rose-colored-glasses view of family ties found in so many new series this year.

** 1/2

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