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Wednesday, January 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kay McFadden | TV listings | Sports programming

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
Good night, Seattle: 'Frasier' will be missed

David Hyde Pierce, left, and Kelsey Grammer in long-running "Frasier."
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HOLLYWOOD — Asked to consider the end of an era, Kelsey Grammer resorted to philosophy.

" 'I am the dialectic,' " he said, standing on a pleasant back lot at Paramount Studios, then added wryly: "So I can't complain about change."

That's a line Frasier Crane might deliver during one of his self-consciousness flights of reflection.

But it demonstrates why "Frasier," which exits this May after 11 seasons, remains television's most organically intellectual comedy. That's just how the cast, producers and writers of this show really express themselves.

On Monday, the "Frasier" team held a send-off for television critics — not coincidentally, the same day NBC and Paramount confirmed the comedy would end its long run.

The event consequently was tinged with a wistfulness that journalists seldom display around a show.

Although "Frasier" had some rough seasons two and three years ago, many of us know it will be a long time before another program credits viewers with such intelligence.

"We tried not to write down to the audience," said executive producer David Lee, one of the show's co-creators. "If there's a joke we felt was genuinely funny that we thought a lot of people might not understand, we just went, 'Well, then they don't get it.' "

Even in mainstream show business, enough people got it over the years so that "Frasier" earned stellar ratings and 31 Emmys.

Nevertheless, it remains sui generis (which, since we're not producing "Frasier," means one of a kind). The rare blend of concept, cast and writing talent never generated imitators.

Or maybe — gasp — timidity stalks the corridors of corporate television.

"I think that networks, by and large, don't feel that upscale, intellectual sorts of characters are relatable to a large audience," said executive producer Joe Keenan.

"I've always wondered if 'Frasier' had been created independently and had not spun off of 'Cheers,' how interested [NBC] would have been in doing this very smart, fussy psychiatrist and his even fussier psychiatrist brother."

"Frasier" joins NBC's "Friends," HBO's "Sex and the City" and possibly CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" among popular comedies in the midst of their final runs.

The departure of these tent-pole series will be a blow to their networks and — amid the current era of reality TV and police procedurals — an even bigger loss to anyone who values scripted creativity over video peekaboo.

Especially "Frasier," rarer than the other three in its fearless wit and ambitious, playlike structure. It eschews the abrupt, episodic nature of traditional sitcoms such as "Friends" and "Raymond," reaching for long, sustained scenes akin to theater rather than TV.

Which is partly why "Frasier" suits its Seattle setting after all. Often accused of bearing greater similarities to urbane San Francisco than to the earthy Emerald City, it's the most literate, testy and emotionally conflicted work on network TV — in a word, it's Northwestern.

A good chunk of Monday's session was devoted to finding out how "Frasier" will end, especially after Grammer enigmatically offered, "I knew what the last show was when we did the first show."

But maybe that's just another bit of abstract vision. For now, at least, the producers and Grammer won't get specific, beyond noting that the finale will run an hour and will remain true to character.

And no sappy catering to ratings or to sitcom conventions.

"We've always been sort of a little stepchild show," said Grammer, adding, "It will be more of a social phenomenon for 'Friends' to leave than 'Frasier,' so we will accept that.

"But we've always been creatively, I'd like to think, setting a very high bar. And we will go out saying that we continued that to the end."

Kay McFadden:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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