Best of ’23: Little Things Mean A Lot/Must-Stream TV

Among the scant few experiences I actually got the chance to partake in during 2023 was the opportunity to see a live taping of a sitcom I loved that was being brought back for the streaming wars.  When an executive friend gave me the chance to set foot on the storied Paramount lot on a rainy February night to see FRASIER being shot, to once again experience the sheer joy of seeing something come together in real time, even winning a Starbucks gift card in the process, it was arguably one of the better nights of my year.  Some of you might recall I mused at length about that.

But I suppose those who were involved were much more excited when the show actually premiered much later in the year, as a well-promoted and immediately recognizable new entry for Paramount+.  After a two-episode first week which included the pilot I was fortunate enough to have seen that set up the newest episodes (it’s not a reboot, we were reminded) and introduced the new foils for the esteemed Dr. Crane, it was an almost throwback like scheduling selection that saw individual half-hours dropped on consecutive Thursdays, much like the way shows were released well before the concept of binge-watching and chilling dominated the perceptions of those trying to reinvent the way content is being consumed.  There are plenty of people, particularly those who love to review TV, that are fans of that sort of immediate gratification, and seem to cherish the chance to pop a few Red Bulls and order some Doordash to plow through an entire season of shows in a single sitting.  I’m not ashamed to say I’m not one of them.  I’m also not ashamed to say I actually enjoyed these new episodes.  In the context of a weekly, 30-minute-ish diversion, and particularly at a time when not a lot of new scripted content was being made available anywhere.  

Which is why I’m not surprised by what I’ve observed as a gulf between the ardent fans, and, in some cases, creators and executives of the first 264 episodes of the show and those who were far less judgmental about the 10 that dropped this fall.  The chasms between critics and fans on sites like ROTTEN TOMATOES and METACRITIC are significant.  On the former, critics gave the series a Tomatometer score of 60%; top critics give it 54%.  The audience score, a more favorable 80%.  On the latter, the average critics’ scores fall into the “mixed” range; the viewers, “generally favorable”.

Indeed, the gold standard and the award-winning cast and writers that contributed to the original series, not to mention its progenitor CHEERS, is daunting.  Whether or not these episodes are in line with those is strictly a matter of opinion,  And, unfortunately, since Paramount+ chooses not to release any specifics on actual viewership, both in volume and consistency, there’s no readily available objective and independent third party to weigh in, short of the decent but not overwhelming numbers the first two episodes received on an aberrative Tuesday night second window that ran five days after they dropped on the streamer.  

So I’ll try to offer some counsel from the past as prologue as perhaps some sort of barometer of what should define success.  ALL IN THE FAMILY came to an end after nine seasons when Jean Stapleton determined that she wanted to move on from her role.  Norman Lear felt that was a signal that the show should go out on top.  But CBS president Bob Daly felt differently, and who could blame him?  By 1978, when this was all going down, the three other tentpoles of its once-storied Saturday night lineup, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, had ended production, and ALL IN THE FAMILY was still pulling down top ratings.  Daly actually approached her co-star Carroll O’Connor about continuing the show and asked if he could get Lear to reconsider.  As Wikipedia recounts it, After meeting with O’Connor, Lear agreed to let the show’s characters continue but refused to allow the series to be called All in the Family anymore.  So ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE, executive produced by its lead, was born.  Essentially the formula that Grammer and his current team are employing for these new FRASIERs.  And while Lear and his team were not directly involved with that show’s production, his company owned the rights to that show and eventually reaped the benefits from whatever success it achieved. 

And, whaddya know, despite the many reviews and comparisons to the original from critics lamenting the relative weakness of the new cast, with the omnipresence of its beloved lead character as its sun, ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE actually worked.  It led off a top-rated Sunday night block of shows, delivering nearly a 23 rating in its first season and helped prematurely knock off a critical darling that ABC executives inexplicably decided to move to compete with it, Robin Williams’ MORK AND MINDY.  It ran for 97 episodes that were later successfully distributed to stations by Lear’s Embassy Television, many of whom were still licensing ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns from the company that owned its rights from the time before the Embassy sales machine was set up (ironically, Viacom).  Even at its nadir, it was attracting double-digit ratings.  Sure, it was a different time, still a three-network competitive set with scant little measurable cable viewership.  But if today’s CBS were able to attract even a fraction of that kind of audience on a regular basis, as the two-episode audition hinted it could, there would be no question that the value and potential of continuing this iteration of FRASIER would be a worthwhile gambit, critics and carpers aside.

And I’ll say this much to any of those who harbor a negative attitude about the new FRASIERs:  They’re better than ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE ever was.  And I’m told my opinion is shared by more than a few folks who know a thing or two about TV, including a certain revered sitcom director who has personally told the current team that he believes what they’re doing now is a lot better than a lot of what else is out there now. 

I’ve personally championed a model that would allow future episodes, not to mention the balance of the first season that has only aired on Paramount+, to be shown on CBS as well, perhaps in a manner that would eventually allow the streamer a short exclusive window and then a weekly broadcast exhibition, with the combined audience being able to be sold commercially.  If the parent company weren’t in such disarray at the moment, it might be an idea that would be worthy of more traction.  After all, five hours of anything isn’t going to rescue a streaming service that has undergone more internal change and conflict than any show it has produced; there simply isn’t enough tonnage or subscriber upside to materially matter.  And right now, that issue is, pardon the pun, paramount to any sort of bias for or against that any executive may harbor.  

So at the moment, FRASIER’s future is TBD, and that might make a few veteran snarkers and critics feel justified in their views.  Everyone has the right to an opinion.  But I sure hope at a certain point facts can override any and all, and whatever does happen is a result of that rather than any other extraneous factor.  If Archie Bunker’s fate could be determined in that manner, I’d argue Frasier Crane’s deserves the same.

And I’m personally hoping to be able to have another crack at writing something like this again:

 

At a time when we could all use something to distract us from other news, FRASIER’s long-awaited return drops today on Paramount+, and not a moment too soon.  It’s been waaaaay too long since we were able to get a visit from Dr. Crane, and if ever we needed a good session with a Harvard-degreed shrink, we all need one now.

I’ve been personally waiting since February, when these 10 episodes for this “reboot” were taped, to share details.  As many regulars to this space may remember, I was fortunate enough to attend one of those tapings, done the way it was when dinosuars ruled the Earth–in front of a live studio audience, with actors being able to respond in real time to the reactions of human beings, as anyone in comedy will be certain to tell you is the preference.    I was also fortunate enough to see the first episode that sets up this new iteration, which will be the first of the two that are available to you this week.

So now I can tell you. It’s really, really good.

Grammer is surrounded by a new cast of colleagues and foils this time around, much as he was when his breakout character from CHEERS was moved cross-country to Seattle, where we met his father and brother and some memorable new characters that this time had a radio station and a wine bar as its gathering spots, not a place where “everybody knows your name”.  As VARIETY’s Michael Schneider recounted, since the first FRASIER series ended 19 years ago, he had indeed moved on and now we finally get the chance to catch up:

The new series centers on Kelsey Grammer’s titular character, 20 years after we last saw him preparing for a move to Chicago. Frasier spent the next two decades as a talk show host in the Windy City, but now that has wrapped, and he’s moved back to Boston to reconnect with his grown son, Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), and nephew David (Anders Keith). An old Oxford chum, Alan (Nicholas Lyndhurst), soon convinces him to try his hand as a Harvard instructor, in a psychology department run by Olivia (Toks Olagundoye).

The names and roles may be different, but the touchpoints of how someone so consistently successful in his professional life yet so consistently running into challemhes in his personal life are still there.  His son, a Boston fireman, deftly fills the void left by the late John Mahoney, who as Frasier’s dad was a retired cop.  We learned in the original series that it was Frasier’s late mother who gave him (and fellow shrink brother Niles) the interests in arts, music and wine that he guffaws his way through life evangelizing and, we suspect, some of the personality quirks as well.  The adult Freddy is a natural extension of his entire 23 and Me tree, grounded and determined to save lives and risk his, yet can hold his own with this dad and anyone else as a oenophile.  The rapport that Grammar and Jack Cutmore-Scott have is just like what so many father-son relationships of today are–at times my dad’s a freak, at times my son’s weird to me, but both love each other to death.  Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the dynamic son Frasier had with his father, Martin.

I was also fortunate enough to have briefly spent time with Keith, in his first major television role, who brilliantly channels the essences of both of his parents who, at least for now, won’t be part of the new version.  That wasn’t how it was planned this time around, as co-showrunner Chris Harris explained:

At first, the plan was to bring back the original cast. But then David Hyde Pierce, who played Frasier’s brother Niles in the original series, passed. “We had ways of getting everyone back there, even though it was a little bit crowded,” Harris says. “David, as we know, decided that he didn’t want to revisit playing that character, at least as a regular on a series. 

But much as Cutmore-Scott evokes the traits, if not quite the acting chops, as Mahoney’s character did, thirty seconds with Keith will convince you he could easily be the child of Niles Crane, with looks that show he’s got a little Moon in him as well.  It’s up to some of the other newcomers to fill the intellectual and adult voids, and in Lyndhurst, a talented British actor who Grammer co-starred with a few years back in a London performance of MAN OF LA MANCHA, we get some of the magical lines that were so perfectly uttered by the classically-trained Hyde-Pierce.  In today’s Left Angeles Times review by Robert Lloyd, where we learn that Frasier has indeed found a new place in Boston to drink at, we get these breadcrumbs:

(T)here’s a bar, where Eve works and Freddy’s legitimately amusing firehouse friends — Jimmy Dunn, Kevin Daniels and Renee Pezzotta as Moose, Tiny and Smokey, respectively — gather, sort of filling in for Norm, Cliff and Woody. Here, Frasier indulges in an uncharacteristic beer: “Sitting here with a cold brew in my hand, I feel amalgamated with the hoi polloi,” he says. (“You are the classic everyman,” comments Alan, dryly — though everything that comes out of Lyndhurst’s mouth is dry.)

Yet, as to the Place Where Everybody Knew His Name, he will muse ruefully, “I’m not sure I was ever my best self [in Boston]; I might have spent too much time in a certain bar” — a reference only the audience would understand.

Most of the reviews are positive, and it’s no surprise.  Many familiar faces and hands attached to the 264 original episodes are back, most notably director James Burrows, who helmed tonight’s duo, and, per Schneider, several writers from the original, back to help supervise the rebirth: Bob Daily, Jay Kogen and Chris Lloyd. And Jeff Greenberg, who cast the original, returned for this as well.

I’ll also throw in executive producer and the head of Kelsey’s Gramnet Productions Tom Russo, who first crossed paths with Grammer as a Paramount comedy executive, and who first crossed paths with me a few years before that when he followed me in a station research role in New York when I relocated to California.  Full disclosure:  we’ve been friends ever since, and he’s moved way beyond number-crunching.  But we both know more than a thing or two about the business side, and we when recently chatted he inspired me to offer up this quiet little suggestion to the folks at Paramount Global:

Much as we know you’re focused on growing your streaming platform, you have already demonstrated with the likes of YELLOWSTONE and 1883 that your audience has the capacity to find shows on CBS that have their roots on lesser-distributed services.  Indeed, CBS will offer tonight’s first episodes in a special window Tuesday night, expanded to accommodate the longer length of these new episodes (as opposed to the way that they treated ONE DAY AT A TIME when it moved from Netflix to POP and ultimately turned up on CBS as a pandemic patch).  Somehow, in spite of all of the supposed algorithms and metrics involved, the “scheduling” braintrust landed on dropping these episodes on Thursdays, which after this week will be on a once-a-week basis.  Essentially the exact same way NBC scheduled it 30 years ago.  When it premiered as a Top 10 show, filling the void left by CHEERS with the help of the relocated SEINFELD, which moved into CHEERS’ old time slot with the level of success that made it truly successful and iconic.

It took the entire run of FRASIER and FRIENDS, not to mention THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK, for CBS to claim Thursday night as its own comedy beachhead; indeed, Thursday is now the only night on its schedule with a two-hour block.  At the same time when FRASIER will be releasing a limited number of episodes for a limited audience, CBS will be importing UK-produced episodes of what it believes to be their new hit, GHOSTS.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say this has much more upside that GHOSTS UK, strike replacement or not.

So unless almost every critic in America is wrong, maybe consider putting these episodes on CBS sooner, and once the actors finally do get back to work (and I’m still optimistic despite last night’s meltdown) , ordering a few more than 10.  Maybe release them on P+ with a short, theatrical-like window before they exhibit on CBS?  Perhaps the combined audience of the ad-supported streamer and what is still the most-watched linear network might be enough to cover the costs of a larger order?  Might provide enough tonnage for the new version to establish its own significant library bucket, one that can also run on the product-desperate cable networks you still own?

Maybe these are just old school ideas in a brave new world.  But so is FRASIER.  And that’s evolved pretty well, as I’m sure you’ll also be saying once you see these epsidoes.

I’d love to get feedback on all of this from fellow strategists and schedules who are feeling disenfranchised and ignored.  There’s apparently plenty of us out there.  If anyone at Paramount Global needs any help figuring this out, I know myself and others are more than available to help.

I sure hope, just like Dr. Crane, you’re still listening.

Until next time…

 

 

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