All your Frais are problematic

Stuck in lockdown, what else is there to do other than rewatching old sitcoms ad nauseam?

When I was a kid, Frasier seemed to be the epitome of sophistication and wit. It is still, mostly, hilarious. The farce is sublime, the puns intricate, and the pomposity is cringe-worthy.

But, naturally, large parts of it have not aged well. Originally I was planning on writing an episode-by-episode critique - but who has time for that?

Whiteness and White Fragility

There's an almost complete absence of People of Colour. There's an unnamed barista in the first few seasons. Martin's cop buddy, Artie Walsh, gets a whole episode. A couple of minor KACL employees and, a Mexican station owner. I don't know the demographic makeup of turn-of-the-century Seattle - but it feels weird.

There are a few episodes with Mary Thomas (played by Kim Coles) which deal with Frasier's discomfort around his lack of racial awareness.

That's a recurring theme - both Frasier and Niles are deeply uncomfortable with most non-white people they meet.

Brian Stokes Mitchell appears in a handful of episodes as a guest star. Martin has a brief inter-racial relationship. But it's pretty slim pickings. I don't think we ever see Frasier date a Black woman.

One episode does see an interracial gay couple. But, overall, it's a whitewash.

(See also the Café Nervosa Podcast episodes "True White Nonsense" and "People of Colour Season 2".)

Sex and Sexuality

It's a bit of a mixed bag. Roz is a sexually liberated woman and is (usually) celebrated for it. Senior Citizen Sex is cheerfully discussed.

Gay characters are present and accepted. The show won a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award and is routinely celebrated by gay fans.

Mostly the humour comes from the straight characters' discomfort. Mostly.

We're never encouraged to laugh at the gay characters for simply being gay. Well, perhaps the camp Gil Chesterton - who is routinely mocked for being in the closet. The episode with Patrick Stewart was undoubtedly progressive for 2003, but today feels like it veers into some uncomfortably homophobic territory.

Trans and Transexuality

There a bunch of really uncomfortable anti-trans jokes. Not much to say about that. Lands about as well as a turd in a punchbowl.

Fat and Fatality

During the eighth season, the actress Jane Leeves became pregnant. In the show, her character gains weight - leading to some pretty harsh "jokes".

This is an interesting question of intertextuality. If you accept the premise that the audience knows the actress is pregnant, then it is a reasonably funny way to fatten the character, give her a few weeks off, and bring her back slimmer.

But it's a rare case of "punching down" from the show.

Masters and Mistresses

In the first few episodes, it is made clear that Niles pays Daphne's wages. This really colours their whole relationship. Daphne is paid to keep these three men happy. Her employment relies on Niles continuing his patronage of her.

It casts an ugly shadow over their relationship.

Niles doesn't ever take advantage of this power imbalance, but his behaviour often lurches into the deeply inappropriate for the workplace.

Which leads us to...

Harass and Harassability

Bulldog regularly sexually harasses the women in the office. He's never celebrated for it, and it usually ends with him coming off the worse. But it's pretty grim.

There's another interesting bit of intertextuality here. The actor, Dan Butler, is gay. He was publicly out in the early 1990s - but does the audience know that? It reminds me of "How I Met Your Mother"'s Barney Stinson - a serial womaniser played by Neil Patrick Harris. Part of the meta-joke is that the actor is happily married to a man, while playing a conniving heterosexual.

Monsters and Monstrosity

The character of Frasier is an incel. Martin is a homophobe. Niles is a stalker. And the less said about Maris the better!

The whole cast of characters are awful. A bunch of self-obsessed bores. Watching an episode once a week is cathartic. Binge-watching a box-set can be an ordeal.

All your faves are problematic

That was a brief and incomplete run down of the weird and problematic tropes I noticed.

For all that, the show is still funny. Like any sitcom, it has its ups and downs - but it knows that its characters are monstrous. We spend more time laughing at the snobs than laughing with them.

But it is impossible to fully enjoy it without a critical eye on what it gets wrong. I mean, c'mon, even Saved By The Bell had a multi-racial cast!

So, which childhood memory should I ruin next?

5 thoughts on “All your Frais are problematic

  1. says:

    ...but back on topic.

    He was publicly out in the early 1990s – but does the audience know that?

    No. I watched it (from the UK, admittedly) back in the day and I’ve done several rewatches and missed it each time. I just assumed it was a bit crass and ‘of it’s time.’

  2. I find it really hard to watch these shows today. Not just because there’s no-one who looks like me. It’s a measure of personal growth to see the problems with today’s eyes and minds.

    Wonder how Farscape would hold up?

  3. We’ve been watching Seinfeld all over again and to say it’s problematic it a huge understatement. And don’t get me started on looking back at Sex in the City with 2020 eyes! I hero worshipped those shows growing up. Ugh 😫

  4. We started to rewatch it a while ago and found it was hard work to binge. We had previously gone through Cheers, which did come to feel like a slog. Everything in moderation I guess.

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