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TV Notes: Frasier lightens up for its final season

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

There's a lightness to Frasier's step these days.

Following a difficult year, the NBC sitcom "Frasier" (9 tonight) has engineered an off-camera reunion in an attempt to re-create its glory years.

At the producer's suggestion, "Frasier" brought back the writing team of Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan, who had left three years ago. Some critics, and the star, have already noticed an improvement.

"We'd lost a little bit of the amiability of the character of Frasier," said Kelsey Grammer, who is going into his 20th year of portraying the preening psychiatrist.

Last season, the show's 10th, was the first to produce whispers that maybe "Frasier" had overstayed its welcome.

Certainly viewers sensed something. The show's weekly audience dropped to 12.6 million, down from 15 million a year earlier. In the 1998-99 season, when its five-year Emmy-winning streak as best comedy ended, the show regularly had 22.5 million viewers.

Last week's season premiere was seen by 14.5 million people, way below the 21 million who watched the season opener in September 2002.

"American Idol" cut into its audience, and NBC didn't help by scheduling weak shows around it, said Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president. ABC's "According to Jim" has also become a surprisingly tough competitor.

But "Frasier" bears part of the blame for the sinking fortunes.

"It was an off year creatively," Zucker said. "All shows go through that, especially if they've been on the air for 10 years. I'm thrilled to have [Lloyd and Keenan] back, and I think Kelsey would tell you the same thing."

With story lines like brother Niles Crane's heart problems and Roz Doyle's departure from Frasier's radio station, the show occasionally forgot it was a comedy, Grammer said.

"We spun our wheels a bit too long last year, that's all, and now we're back on the right footing," he said. "There's just a lightness again. There's a frivolousness about the tone of the show that I think was always there that was kind of muted last year."

Grammer, a three-time Emmy winner for best actor in a comedy, scoffed at the notion that "Frasier" stuck around too long.

His own interest in milestones may have fed that perception. His 20-year run playing Frasier Crane -- the character was introduced during the third season of "Cheers" -- ties James Arness of "Gunsmoke" for the longest stretch playing a character in prime-time TV.

It was also important to Grammer that "Frasier" last at least 11 seasons, the same duration as "Cheers."

"I'm a driven, competitive man," he said. "I used to be in denial about that, but I'm OK with it now. Coming from 'Cheers,' there was always the onus of 'Cheers' hanging over us. I thought if we could equal 'Cheers,' that would be just right."

Although "Frasier" will stop producing new episodes next spring, the show will live on for many years in syndication, enriching Grammer beyond his dreams.

Grammer, 48, said he plans to take about a year off, then continuing acting. He's talked about a future in politics but said that's several years in the future.

He doesn't expect a melodramatic end to the series, only to leave the characters "in a place where we can, hopefully, imagine them going on to someplace else."

Will Frasier Crane ever be happy, ever settle down?

"I think Frasier is going to find true love," Grammer said. "But I don't know if it's going to be this season." (David Bauder, Associated Press)

Channel surfing

CBS's "Joan of Arcadia" won its time slot in key demos Friday night. ... FX has canceled late-night entry "The Orlando Jones Show" due to low ratings. ... Debra Light, a 1985 graduate of Allderdice High School, was part of the team that won an Emmy Award this month for multi-camera picture editing in a miniseries, movie or special for its work on "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Passions: America's Greatest Love Stories." (Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor)

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