More as this Television Show Develops

In September of 1999, Caryn James, the television critic for the New York Times, published a scathing review of one of NBC’s new fall dramas. She wrote that the first episode  was “sometimes smart, sometimes stupid, eventually gooey and, despite its sharp cast, not often entertaining.” In taking stock of the central character, she stated that he was “written and played for maximum hokiness.” The show to which Ms. James referred was Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” the fourth-winningest television drama in history that claimed over 16 million viewers weekly, even in its seventh season.

It seems inarguable that Caryn James might be retrospectively embarrassed by her review of what she called “an insulting mess,” and I have a feeling that the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum will feel the same way a few years from now. Nussbaum has affixed her name to a similarly-scathing review of Sorkin’s latest show in next week’s New Yorker, labeling “The Newsroom” as “naive” and full of “patterspeak.” Though I haven’t yet seen the show – I have to wait with the millions of other people who don’t have press credentials – I’m fairly confident that what Nussbaum portrays as inarguable, universal criticism is really just a matter of taste. What she regards as “arias of facts” others will regard as Sorkin’s signature banter; what she terms “moral eczema” will be viewed by others as courageous and refreshing.

A recent advertisement for Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom.”

This dissonance is the nature of taste and the way different types of television attempt to satisfy it. What is most problematic about Nussbaum’s review is her refusal to acknowledge the possibility that Sorkin might just be honestly, genuinely trying to produce thought-provoking television.

I didn’t watch “The West Wing” when it first aired. I was seven years old. When I finally did start watching, around the airing of the fifth season, I fell in love with program immediately. I’ll never know whether I would have had that same feeling watching the show when it first aired in 1999, and I don’t yet know how I’ll feel about “The Newsroom.” Regardless, at least at this point, I’m willing to place Emily Nussbaum and her review in the same group as Caryn James and hers; I call it…well, I’ll let President Bartlet do the talking.

The Fallen Standard of Frasier

I’ve been home in Maine now for a little less than three weeks, and I’ve spent one of those weeks – last week – with pneumonia. It’s the first time I’ve been truly “bedridden” for days at a time since middle school, and I had quite a bit of time to catch up on books, magazines, and television shows.

One of the highlights of the various forms of media I consumed was “Frasier.” The sitcom, a spinoff of “Cheers” that was on the air from 1993-2004, won 37 Emmy awards – more than any comedy show ever – and is one of my all time favorites. I still miss it. I started watching in 2002, and have since watched the whole series on DVD. While I’ve enjoyed comedy series that came before and after – “Murphy Brown,” “30 Rock,” and “Arrested Development” all come to mind – I have never seen a show that so brilliantly combines incredible acting talent, first-class writing, and a creative blend of “high” and “low” comedy.

As I watched a few episodes in bed last week, I began to ask myself when another show would come along that ‘did’ the sitcom format as well as Frasier did. Watching episodes of “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation” – while very enjoyable – reminded me how much comedy has changed since Frasier went off the air, and not necessarily for the better. What, then, has changed? It certainly isn’t the actors; Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves, and John Mahoney (the four actors that were the core parts of the Frasier Crane household) have all acted in other television programs and movies, though none have received much acclaim. While the charm of Frasier was frequently derived from the high- quality cast, it’s pretty clear they’re not behind the show’s unique success.

If the actors are relative mainstays on screen and stage, the writers are the opposite. Almost all of them ended their careers after Frasier. The five writers who are credited with penning more than a quarter of the series all appear to have ended their careers in film and television with Frasier. Peter Casey, David Lee, and Glen and Les Charles all have Frasier at the very top of their IMDB profiles. David Angell, who is credited equally, died onboard American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11. Whether retired or deceased, it appears that the people behind the genius of Frasier decided to leave on the high note of the series finale.

What do they leave the rest of us, besides Netflix Instant? It might be too soon to tell. In my humble opinion, no show has lived up to Frasier’s fallen standard: just the right blend of slapstick and highbrow, Broadway and Hollywood, humor and heart. That said, many of the people that had smaller roles in writing and directing Frasier’s eleven seasons – people like Lori Kirkland and Christoper Lloyd – now lead promising careers. Kirkland has an executive producer credit on the popular (and sometimes, irresistible) “Desperate Housewives,” and Lloyd has one on the equally enjoyable “Modern Family.” While neither show replicates the standard or success of Frasier, they’re very good in their own right. Maybe it requires a little more temporal distance from Frasier for writers and actors to create a successful sitcom that picks up on its singular comedic style. I’m okay with that, and I understand; for now, I guess I’ll be spending a little more time on Netflix than on NBC.