Launched as a spin-off of the popular 80s sitcom Cheers, nobody could have seen Frasier coming. Of all of the characters populating the famous Boston bar—the dumb but sweet Woody, the biting Carla, the wry Sam—the bumbling, ineffectual psychiatrist Frasier Crane seemed the least likely to land his own series. And yet he did, kicking off one of the greatest anime of all time.
dr. crane, what's anime
— frieza kahlo (@juanchupacabra) August 12, 2018
In season one of Frasier, the titular doctor has returned to his hometown of Seattle after a difficult divorce with his ex-wife Lilith, starting his own radio therapy show—much to the chagrin of his younger brother Niles. Soon, his father Martin—an ex-cop forced into retirement by a bullet in his hip—moves in, bringing along the physical therapist Daphne Moon. Together with Frasier’s producer Roz Doyle, they form the core cast of the show.
So we have a lecherous, cantankerous but ultimately well-meaning old man, the maid, the best friend, the little brother, and, of course, the protagonist who has returned home and now finds himself in the midst of family conflict, over-the-top farce, and dramatic romance.
Of course, the defining story arc of Frasier is Niles’ forbidden love for Daphne. Initially, Niles is married to the formidable and invisible Maris. When he is finally divorced, the very same lawyer who helped him through the process moves in on the object of his love. Throughout the series, Niles’ remarks and reactions to Daphny frequently sail over her head. The man practically has a bleeding nose every time she appears in a dress. And when they finally get together at the end of season seven, we experience the kind of visceral, full-body relief that we did when the cast of Dragon Ball Z finally left the planet of Namek, signifying an end to a seemingly-interminable conflict.
Meanwhile, Frasier is a greedy, arrogant, pompous man who frequently gets himself into hot water with friends, dates, and strangers because of his vanity and pride. One can easily imagine Daphne comedically smashing the doctor over the head for one of his many indiscretions or off-color remarks. Whenever Frasier finds himself in the possession of good luck—he gets a date with a beautiful woman, for instance—his darker impulses get the better of him and end up ruining everything. He may be rich, effete, and refined, but at his core Frasier is the hapless protagonist of a slice of life anime.
But more telling than the show’s structure is the current renaissance it is enjoying. In past year, Frasier was a show for “nerds.” Those who watched it were regularly bullied by older children doing impressions of Jerry Seinfeld, or chased relentlessly by kids barking like Tim “The Toolman” Taylor. And yet now, so strong is the collective interest in Frasier than we face the prospect of a new series. How are we to explain this?
First, the ascendance of irony as a dominant mode of communication online may be partly responsible. Frasier Crane is a popular target of cultural warping and ironic reframing because of the character’s nature as an out-of-touch, blundering fool. The fact that Kelsey Grammer has ended up a publicly repugnant man with a tattoo abutting his member only magnifies the pleasure to be gained here.
And yet, can irony alone explain Frasier’s rebirth?
No. In order to understand, we must broaden our perspective, away from Seattle, away from the Pacific Northwest, and observe the cultural exchange between Japan and the United States. We must look to the mid-90s, when anime was much-maligned in the US even as it tentatively crept onto the airwaves. In this period, “anime” was a dirty word, one that relegated its fans to the side of the cafeteria where the Magic: The Gathering players, goths, and theatre kids dined. Children who wished to emulate the style were told that it was “not real art.” Jokes about the sexual perversion of a whole nation spread based on limited exposure to the concept of women fornicating with cephalopods.
But this was not to be forever. Over the years, anime gained popularity in the US—shows like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z lured children looking for something different than Looney Tunes, and those kids began to grow up. And they grew up into a world that was vastly different from that of their parents—one defined by late capitalism, a structure fostering instability and precarity for all but the superrich.
These children, in other words, now had nothing to lose. With the advent of massive social media platforms, anime fandom moved out from the dark spaces of the Internet into public, and millennials with little fear of sinking a nonexistent career were free to let their freak flags fly. Anime is in. Michael B. Jordan watches anime. And with that surge into the mainstream, Frasier was once again thrust into the public consciousness.
“But,” you protest, “could not all sitcoms of the 1990s be classified as anime according to your schema?” And I respond: no, you churlish simpleton. Is Seinfeld anime? It is not—there is no satisfying sense of progression, none of the character archetypes. And Home Improvement? I say again, no—it is a program about a family’s attempts to deal with their deranged patriarch. Friends? Closer, but only because of the series’ multiple animal mascots. The only show amongst this crowd which could perhaps be considered to be anime is the Fresh Prince of Bel Air—a series frankly better-crafted than Frasier, but leaning hard on the recurring gag of Jazzy Jeff being thrown out of the house in a bid to qualify as anime.
Perhaps other factors are at work here—we love to watch the rich suffer, we weep for the loss of John Mahoney, we admire the physical comedy of David Hyde Pierce—but astride them all is the simple, and unavoidable fact that Frasier is anime, and an entire generation is no longer afraid to embrace their love for it publicly.