Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tossed salads and scrambled eggs

I don't know why I'm so closely following the Kelsey Grammer breakup story. But the whole thing fascinates me to no end. Not the personal details of the stars' lives, although it's striking if unsurprising how much the young new fiancé resembles the dumped wife, but what's being acted out publicly.

First, you have an actor famous for starring in the sitcom that was meant for people who claim not to own a television. It was always supposed to be kind of intellectual to watch "Frasier," like you're actually reading a book or going to an opera, because Niles was so refined, Frasier so haughty, and there was always wine, and the mood was so high-brow, even though the show was no more cognitively challenging than "Friends," arguably less so than some episodes of "Two and a Half Men." We were supposed to identify with Frasier, not his aw-shucks father, who'd planted his ratty chair and purebred pooch right there in the center of the room.

A high school English teacher of mine once tried to teach our class about, well, class, using the father on "Frasier," and his own family, which was "Frasier"-esque, as an example. I remember years-long chunks of this teacher's life, but not what we read in the class. It was in discussions of this teacher that I learned the expression "captive audience."

Because Grammer was "Frasier," he is assumed to be a man of great dignity. Not that Frasier had such dignity, but it's seen as classier to have been on a show portraying a Harvard-educated professional (he's not a doctor, but he played one...) than an out-of-work soap actor ("How you doin'?").

So then there's the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," repeating "Frasier" as farce. The RHOBH is also a show about the classy, the fancy, and the schmancy. At the center of the drama is none other than Grammer's real-life wife Camille. Viewers know her as Grammer's estranged wife by the time the show airs, which makes her my-husband's-a-big-shot act all the more painful to watch.

The trick with all these authentic-housewife shows is that the women themselves believe they, their houses, their leisure activities, are representing high culture, while the viewers get to see a rich-people version of "The Jerry Springer Show." So it's kind of like "Frasier," in that we're in the presence of a buffoonish cast playing at "elite." But while "Frasier" flatters the viewer into thinking he, too, is a sophisticate, the housewife shows flatter the viewer by showing him that for all their wealth, the cast members are indeed far less sophisticated than most. (Thus the fun of watching a self-awareness-challenged Real Housewife of NY sing a song about how "money can't buy you class.")

All told, then, we have this totally trashy narrative - old rich dude dumps spend-spend-spend wife #3 for 29-year-old flight attendant, proposes to her while still married, there are kids? oh well - under this strange banner of, these are our country's, uh, coastal elites. They are sophisticated. Following this story, you're as good as keeping track of Swann and Odette.

So I have to hand it to that high school teacher. There is, after all, a lesson about class to be learned from studying Frasier.

11 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

Excellent post.

Phoebe said...

Thanks!

profmondo said...

We were supposed to identify with Frasier, not his aw-shucks father, who'd planted his ratty chair and purebred pooch right there in the center of the room.

Not sure I agree on this one. We were expected to laugh at Frasier, not least because of his hauteur. Much of the humor seemed to me to be Frasier taking social pratfalls and looking foolish, often as a result of his sense of his own elitism. Niles, meanwhile, was Frasier + prissiness. (And I say this as someone whose parents described him as a cross between Frasier and Niles.)

Frasier's dad, for all his seeming vulgarity, was in fact much more capable of dealing with the "normal world" than his sons, despite the fact that they constantly underestimated him -- e.g., the episode in which he kept beating Frasier at chess.

Yeah, I watched too much TV...

Phoebe said...

profmondo,

First, I'm obviously in no place to judge anyone else for having watched too much TV.

As for where the viewers' sympathies were supposed to lie... you're right insofar as the father comes across as the good guy, as the one who, despite not having all that fancy education, has good ol' common sense in his favor. But my interpretation of this was that it was all kind of patronizing - of course we (Frasier, Niles, and the viewer) must give the working-class character dignity, because it would be cruel to mock him. He's not so unlike another pop culture cliché, the sassy black sidekick. The viewer who laughs at Frasier also identifies with Frasier, and so is able to chuckle in a self-deprecating, not-hurting-anyone-else way.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I actually like Frazier and I think the inside joke is that the father is smarter than either of his two sons. Hence the episode where he solves a cold case murder while Frazier thinks the monkey did it.

Phoebe said...

J. Otto Pohl,

"I actually like Frazier"

It was an immensely popular show, so surely someone did!

"I think the inside joke is that the father is smarter than either of his two sons"

See my comment above. I don't think it's quite an "inside joke" that the father's common-sense, folksy wisdom makes him smarter, in a way, than his sons. This is fairly central to the show, repeated in each episode. ("Frasier," like, say, "Keeping Up Appearances," is a one-episode-repeats-itself kind of show, if not as tragically so.) But the father's role for the implied viewer is almost that of a nagging conscience, teaching the haughty (Frasier, Niles, the viewer who identifies above all with Frasier) humility.

PG said...

Was there any study of the actual demographics of the Frasier fans that would support the idea that it's a substitute for opera? Considering that the show was a spinoff of "Cheers," and that in "Cheers" the Frasier Crane character was generally the butt of jokes for his snootiness, I'm skeptical that the majority of people who watched "Frasier" identified more with the Crane sons than with their father. Indeed, pretty much all the supporting characters -- Dad, Roz, Daphne -- mock Niles and Frasier for their pretentiousness. (Just as Roz gets mocked for being too desperate for a man.) While I agree that the referentiality of Frasier was pitched at a quasi "high culture" level, sort of like Murphy Brown's political referentiality (well snarked by a Family Guy episode), I'm not sure it was taken by the audience to mean they were having a challenging intellectual experience.

All that said, I think the guy who wrote "Everything You Think Is Bad Is Good for You" has a take on Frasier similar to yours, though I think he recommended reality TV, not Two and a Half Men, as a more stimulating option.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"Was there any study of the actual demographics of the Frasier fans that would support the idea that it's a substitute for opera?"

I think this demonstrates where you and I differ in terms of how important we think quantitative research is to blogging about something like one's impressions of a '90s sitcom and its reception. It's not that pop-culture shouldn't ever be researched, and if I were presenting a paper on this I'd look into it; for this post, I don't think it's necessary. My authority on this subject is purely anecdotal, as someone who lived through the run of "Frasier" and thus real-life, journalistic, and online discussions of it, and who had a brief conversation about the show not that long ago with my grandmother and a friend of hers. I googled around for something more concrete, and... nothing.

But I don't see how demographics - how many viewers were college-educated, etc. - would matter so much here. My reference to opera was hyperbolic, but it is my impression that "Frasier" is and was a more "sophisticated" taste to express, more "adult" in the non-pornographic sense, more "refined," etc., than other contemporary sitcoms. Claiming fandom of this show could just as easily have been an well-educated person's way of asserting seriousness as someone working-class getting to identify, for 30 minutes, with all that is elite. In other words, I don't literally mean that people were sitting in their living rooms, trying to decide between the Met and NBC.

Re: "Cheers." True, that show wasn't high-culture (though it might seem so compared with "Bridalplasty"), but the spinoff wasn't the same show by any means. Not unlike how it's more embarrassing to confess to watching "Two and a Half Men" than "Big Bang Theory," even though they're equally complex, by the same creator, even, but one is about Charlie Sheen, the other physics postdocs. People feel smart by watching a show whose characters, though they mostly act in the same buffoonish/universal ways as all sitcom characters, have listable attributes that label them as "smart." (For the record, I'm not saying "2 1/2 Men" is the place to go for complexity on TV, just that it's no worse - contrary to what the shows' reputations might suggest - than "Frasier.") To be a "Frasier" fan was, it was my impression, supposed to be consistent with yourself liking wine, perhaps even going to a psychiatrist, having gone to or knowing people who've gone the Harvard, or fancying yourself someone for whom these experiences were plausible.

As for what can be gleaned from just watching the show, in terms of where identification was supposed to tilt... I might repeat my response to the previous two commenters, which I think gets at why I don't think the mockery of Frasier and Niles means we're not supposed to identify with Frasier. But I'll add, since it doesn't seem that was convincing enough, that the tone of the dialogue is one of witty repartee, even if nothing all that witty is being expressed. It's the feel of Oscar Wilde or similar, the vocabulary of "elite," with the content, complexity-wise, of any other sitcom. "Frasier" fans, my point is, should be just as ashamed of themselves as are fans of less "classy" sitcoms. But it was my impression that "Frasier" was the show for people ashamed of admitting to watch sitcoms. And here, I really do doubt it's been systematically looked into whether "Frasier" fans admitted to watching sitcoms generally, although anything's possible.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Also, re: Cheers and Frasier not being the same, aside from the mood, the setting, bar vs. wine clubs, etc., there's the fact that one is generally meant to identify with the main character. On "Cheers," Frasier wasn't very developed as a character, and was in more of a comic-relief role than he would be, almost by definition, when starring in a show of his own.

PG said...

I'm just not sure that one IS always meant to identify with the main character of a sitcom. Take "All in the Family": surely its liberal creators were not assuming that they'd get an audience of Archie Bunker bigots. I think sitcoms can work at a more complex level than simple identification with one character. Instead, the audience gets entertainment from watching various characters with their different foibles interact. Meathead is certainly more representative of the political/cultural preferences of the show's creators, and he's a foil to Archie, but he's still someone we laugh AT; Archie's digs at him for not making much money and for his occasional lefty excesses and hypocrisies are just as important to the show's comedy as Meathead and others mocking Archie's prejudices.

A similar dynamic, though more class than politics-based, plays out on Frasier. It's as implausible that the average viewer has deep identification with Frasier as it was with Archie Bunker. They're both main characters whose obvious, character-defining biases are the easy target of humor, but who are presented as mostly good guys underneath it all.

I got the book title slightly wrong in my previous comment; here's an excerpt of it that focuses on TV http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html

Phoebe said...

PG,

That article looks interesting and I'll have to read it more closely later. (A TV break for now that I have no TV.)

"Meathead is certainly more representative of the political/cultural preferences of the show's creators"

Precisely, which is what makes that show something of an exception. I wouldn't underestimate how much Archie was the character viewers (remember, this show aired a while ago) identified with, if not overtly but in a kind of, huh, I do think those things and say them when in my own armchair kind of way. But he was not the one viewers were supposed to sympathize with, at least not till the later, Very Special, episodes if I remember correctly, once it started to feel rude to mock even Archie for being of a certain background.

Anyway, Frasier and Niles, we can probably assume, are more the stand-ins for the show's creators than is their father. Their antics are never close to as cringe-inducing as Archie's. The viewer may have caught onto the idea that the father always has the right answer, but is still on (in reality-TV speak) Team Frasier.