Part of a series: Two choices—which do you choose?
Two 90s sit-coms, and at first glance they couldn’t seem more different. “Frasier” is set in a fancy apartment with panoramic views of a Seattle that bears little resemblance to the actual Seattle in Washington; “Roseanne,” in a linoleum-sided house in a nondescript
southern Illinois town that could be anywhere in Middle America. “Frasier” is about the wealthy; “Roseanne” about the working class. However, both programs tell stories of families grappling with the strange social (implicitly political) changes of the decade—and both carry with them the fumes of 80s class tumult. “Roseanne,” which debuted in 1988, unspools like a rejoinder to Reagonomics; while “Frasier,” coming along five years after, brings in a healthy dose of good ol’ city-slicker American consumerism. So, in the interest of education by historo-time-capsule entertainment, which should you watch?
“Frasier” is a very white show, starring white people and making fun of white people for being pretentious, misogynistic, homophobic and elitist.* It should be horrible, but it’s actually brilliant; at its core, it’s a playful satire of the empty elitism and weird sexual politics of the 90s (and beyond!). From their obsession with rare wines and classical music to their knack for alienating those around them with their extreme anal-retentive tendencies, the brothers Frasier and Niles Crane are caricatures of a certain breed of Baby Boomer yuppie. Both are overeducated, appearance-obsessed, psychiatrists who cannot cope with—and in many cases, are oblivious to—their own personal problems.
The show treats sexuality in an interesting way. Frasier and Niles love to beat up on Roz, Frasier’s cheerful, bawdy producer, for her perceived sexual looseness. Sample dialogue:
Roz: Well, I think hugging is very healthy. I read somewhere that if you have physical contact on a regular basis, it can actually extend your life.
Frasier: Well, in that case you should outlive Styrofoam!
And they harp on Gil, Frasier’s effeminate colleague. “Honestly, the conclusions people make, just because a man dresses well and knows how to use a pastry bag!” Gil exclaims when Frasier and his other co-workers eventually find out he’s married to a woman.
Meanwhile, Frasier and Niles are obsessed with sex, but don’t have it regularly. Instead, they mourn their failed marriages to emotionally icy women, make fun of other peoples’ sex lives, and go out to French restaurants and the opera together. It’s the gayest show in history to never have any gay people represented on it. But if Frasier and Niles were actually gay and out, would it still be funny? Probably not. “Frasier”‘s heyday was in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell years of Clinton, after all, which could have been, come to think of it, a suitable alternative name for the show.
Besides sex, status is a preeminent theme in “Frasier.” As Anita Gates wrote in The New York Times in 1998, “Frasier” spoke to America’s class system in a way no other show had by bringing together under one roof the new elites, Frasier and Niles, with their blue-collared compatriots, their dad Martin and his home health-care aide, Daphne, without resorting to crass stereotypes. As Gates argued: “One reason ‘Frasier’ works is that both classes are made up of good people with values, which happen to be expressed in different ways. The show gives both coastal yuppies and Middle America a good name.”
Well, kind of. Martin Crane is indeed a lovable, if vanilla, character, and I rarely tire of Daphne’s Mancunian accent. But it’s Frasier and Niles who transcend the flat dimensions of the proto-sitcom character; they blow out the reality of what they represent. Hyperbolically affected, Frasier and Niles are on the viewer’s side, speaking to the audience in zings, puns and cultural references. They’re silly men, and they’re in on the joke: pretentious people suck. Where “Seinfeld” riffed on the absurdity of modern life, “Frasier” turns it into a farce.
On “Roseanne,” Roseanne and her husband Dan are Boomers, like the Crane brothers. But they’re not yuppies. They’re overweight and underpaid; the heads of a dysfunctional but cohesive family unit. “Roseanne” is what would happen if Tolstoy was a woman, moved to the Midwest, had a sense of humor and maybe got a little drunk on Bud Light. “Roseanne” was basically the drawing on a cave wall that predicted reality television. True reality, not “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” reality.
The show succeeds in being unfailingly honest and of its time. Case in point: On “Frasier,” when Roz gets pregnant by a 20-year-old Cafe Nervosa waiter, she decides to keep the baby. Martin condescends to her that “every baby needs a father,” but that’s about the extent of the hand-wringing. When Roseanne becomes pregnant in season 7, the abortion talk is frank and funny but most remarkably, they really talk about it. When Roseanne’s grandmother reveals that she had two abortions, Roseanne’s mother Bev recoils in disgust: “I think it’s an abomination,” she says. “If you’re willing to lie on your back and have sex, you should be willing to face the consequences.” Nana Mary responds: “Who said I was on my back?” Roseanne keeps the baby, but still: abortion talk on primetime in 1994? Progress not seen since ” Maude.”
Sure, Roseanne the character can be grating, and the episodes can be schmaltzy. But sometimes I wonder if we will ever see a funny, smart, heavy leading woman write her own television show again, making fun of the way other “family” shows romanticize life’s trials. To boot, we get one of the most authentic romantic relationships every portrayed on television, between Roseanne and Dan. They love each other and their kids, and they fuck them up, Larkin style, as parents tend to do. They bicker about money. They make lasagna and chili and eat together. They even still have sex! Oh, and they also smoke pot:
Roseanne Barr herself summed up the show’s impact in an article she wrote for New York last year. “Call me immodest—moi?—but I honestly think Roseanne is even more ahead of its time today, when Americans are, to use a technical term from classical economics, screwed,” she wrote. “We had our fun; it was a sitcom. But it also wasn’t The Brady Bunch; the kids were wiseasses, and so were the parents. I and the mostly great writers in charge of crafting the show every week never forgot that we needed to make people laugh, but the struggle to survive, and to break taboos, was equally important. And that was my goal from the beginning.”
So, take your pick. A biting bourgeois farce or a biting heartfelt family comedy (Warning: both shows devolve equally in their final seasons.)? I always come back to “Frasier,” which goes down as smooth as the nightcap I’m too lazy to make and drink. Plus, Eddie.
* For a satire within a satire within a satire, please see “Black Frasier.”
Previously in series: Angela Lansbury Or Betty White?, Wallis Simpson Or The Queen Mother and Hard-Packed Ice Cream Or Soft Serve
Leah Finnegan works in the op-ed section of The New York Times. She also really likes the show “Just Shoot Me,” but has no plans to discuss that in print.