It’s the golden age of TV.
455 scripted television shows aired in America in 2016 – that’s compared to 192 in 2006. There’s been years of back and forth about whether current TV is the best thing ever – quite possibly the central cultural output of our time – or actually not very good at all, because so-called prestige TV is so often shallow self-serious bullshit. The obvious fact that TV has always been good, and that the “golden age of TV” corresponds only to the rise of paid subscription services (HBO, Netflix, Amazon) and cinematography that made TV look like movies, might be mentioned, but is never of concern. We’ll talk about the fracturing of the television audience – how three of the last five TV seasons had football at the highest rating, because sport is the only thing diverse audiences watch live anymore – but we’ll pretend that it fractures more or less at random, and its only implications are for advertisers.
TV is good if it’s like movies. It’s bad if it’s like television, is the implication – see reviews of Twin Peaks that derisively compare the ass-end of season two to supernatural soap opera Passions, ignoring not only that Passions was the most wonderful, glorious and strange show on television but ignoring that Twin Peaks is and always has been steeped in TV genre conventions: the teen drama, the police procedural, the soap opera. Twin Peaks is good TV, so it can’t be real television, the kind they had before this golden age, the kind that aired on a network.
This simultaneous dearth of interest in television history and over-emphasis on aesthetics as a means of evaluation has done a fair share of harm. But no genre has suffered as much because of it as the sitcom.
I love sitcoms. I love sitcoms so much. I cut my teeth watching sitcoms bought in by RTE and rerun for years and years, and nothing has ever really shaken my belief that the 22-minute situation comedy is the platonic ideal of television. The critical journey of the sitcom is depressingly similar to the story we tell ourselves about the golden age of TV: the adulation of a new version of the genre, praised precisely for being not really in its genre at all. Never mind that for almost all of television history, the best shows have been sitcoms, from I Love Lucy through to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Sitcoms were also – for decades – the best art being made about class.
If you’ve seen any of the breathlessly excited articles about how TV is just now, suddenly and without precedent, tackling abortion or racial profiling or mental illness, that probably sounds pretty silly. But if I told you that Maude got an abortion on Maude, on CBS, in 1972 – before the Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion across America – maybe sincere and empathetic depictions of working-class families wouldn’t sound so outlandish.
The most cursory glance through sitcom history reveals an abundance of shows deeply, inextricably about class. In the 1955-56 television year, The Honeymooners aired – it only lasted one season, but it was one of the first TV shows to portray a gritty, more down-to-earth version of working-class life, and it changed sitcoms forever. By the 1970s, TV came to be dominated by the social problem sitcoms of Norman Lear: All in the Family, a show about how a blue collar man living pay cheque to pay cheque can learn to be less racist, was the most popular show in America, and had around a million spin-offs, most famously The Jeffersons, a show about the social mobility of an African-American family. In the 1980s, it was deliberate and purposeful for The Cosby Show to be about an upper-middle-class family: they were going against the grain to portray black families in a new way. Then in the 1990s there’s Roseanne, which is more about being working-class than any TV show ever has been.
But if you look at television now, it’s different. There are some sitcoms about working-class people – The Middle is a show about a family in Indiana from a former Roseanne writer, and it’s aired eight seasons on ABC. It’s Always Sunny is about class. Several new shows in the 2016-17 season were, to a greater or lesser extent, about being working-class – Atlanta, One Day at a Time, The Mick, Superior Donuts – but that feels like a sudden rush to fill a long-standing gap, and in a year with 455 scripted television shows, it barely constitutes a blip. Louis CK made a Norman Lear-inspired sitcom about a working-class family and it aired one season; he made a show about a successful stand-up comedian in New York and everyone on earth trips over themselves to anoint him.
Weirder still is the expulsion of all class dynamics from shows that aren’t specifically “about” class. Shows where, not only is everyone above working-class, everyone is rich. The mansions on Modern Family, the casual transatlantic flights on Master of None. For the first several seasons of The Big Bang Theory, Penny is a waitress, but she can rent an apartment on her own in the same building as two CalTech physicists.
The instinct – one indulged by just about everybody – is to blame Friends.
“In spite of a long history of working-class sitcoms on TV, executives always seem to be chasing the next Friends,” the AV Club explains, “and Friends doesn’t fit that description.”
It’s true that Friends is not, by any reasonable measure, a working-class sitcom, and it’s true that Friends was such a juggernaut of popularity that I buy it swallowing up everything in its path. The friends on Friends lived in large, beautiful apartments that mostly under-employed twenty-somethings could never reasonably have afforded. But if Friends was a class-free, aspirational sitcom that stuck out in the era it aired, it was at most a stepping stone to the our current era. Watching Friends in 2017, it’s hard to imagine a sitcom now with a cast of characters from such radically different economic backgrounds – Phoebe is formerly homeless, Rachel is a spoilt rich girl in a blue-collar job after being cut off from her family’s support, Ross has a PhD – and while the show was less focused on those class differences than on soapy romantic entanglements, it’s depressing to think of the fawning praise this exchange would generate if it aired this year on Brooklyn Nine Nine:
JOEY: Ok, um, uh, we three feel like, that uh, sometimes you guys don’t get that uh, we don’t have as much money as you.
ROSS: I, I just never think of money as an issue.
RACHEL: That’s ’cause you have it.
To the degree that Friends was a class-free sitcom – and I wouldn’t dispute that it was – it created that space by pretending conflict between classes didn’t exist in any significant way, and that class is exclusively social rather than also economic, not by pretending that class didn’t exist at all. Friends would do an episode about discovering that Phoebe had mugged Ross when they were children, and have Phoebe be excited for them to have a connection going back that far.
But if we’re going to blame Friends, I think we need to consider how big a blame we’re asking it to shoulder. There were still lots of shows about class or with working-class characters long after Friends premiered. Malcolm in the Middle aired from 2000 to 2006 to critical acclaim and good ratings, and was as fundamentally about being working-class as a show can be. Scrubs started in 2001 and, despite having the built-in Get Out of Jail Free card of being about doctors, class dynamics between characters were integral to that show. If Friends was such an all-consuming force, why did it take so long to have an effect?
The same thing was also happening in the UK. British sitcoms were always about class, even more than American sitcoms were: Porridge, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads, Only Fools and Horses. Almost all the jokes on Fawlty Towers or Keeping Up Appearances were about class anxiety. Now there’s pretty much just Mrs Brown’s Boys – which, not insignificantly, isn’t set in the UK. And as much as British people love Friends, I don’t know if BBC or Channel 4 were ever chasing the “next Friends,” especially when Channel 4 could just dine out on reruns for another decade.
In fact, the same thing was happening in another genre, in another medium: teen movies. The teen movies of the 1980s were almost always about class to some degree. John Hughes’s work was particularly class conscious: Some Kind of Wonderful literally features Eric Stoltz living on the wrong side of the tracks. But a whole variety of eighties teen movies dealt with class – Dirty Dancing’s divide not just between the holidaymakers and the staff at the resort, but between different kinds of staff, or how in Say Anything…, Lloyd’s “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career” attitude puts him in conflict with Diane’s upper-class father.
Now, when teen movies get made, they’re not about class at all. Cool kids and nerds no longer signify class distinction, but instead, signify nothing but themselves. Perhaps, as in Edge of Seventeen, the well-off main character will be contrasted with a really, really rich kid – but without the fantastical world and quiet cynicism about wealth that makes it work in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Clueless usually bears the weight of responsibility for class-free teen movies in the way that Friends does for sitcoms. Maybe they both deserve it. Ken Levine says that it’s now conventional wisdom that “working-class sitcoms will seem too depressing,” and I don’t know whether that’s rooted in trying to provide escapism, or a sly acknowledgement that the lives of working-class people have been made harder in America than they once were. There was some kind of seismic shift in how class is portrayed on-screen, and I can’t even pinpoint exactly when, let alone why. There was Friends and Clueless, sure, and there was New Labour and the Third Way and “we’re all middle class now” and the continued decline of manufacturing in the west, there was September 11th, there was the Great Recession, and there was the decline in social mobility into the class of people who write for TV, the class of people who decide what ends up on our screens. There was the Internet, and as a result, a sudden transformation in how reactive TV could be to what came before, and in what ways.
Or it could be something else entirely. I hope we don’t have to figure it out in order to fix it.
But there’s another show that is asked to share the blame for the disappearance of the working-class sitcom. Frasier, like Friends, is set in a large, beautiful apartment in an elite coastal city. On the other side of the country, Frasier is “in the same bubble as everyone back in New York.” Instead of money shortages, Frasier “turned to other methods of developing stakes…[like] intra-family squabbling”. Worse, Frasier hasn’t even had the staying power of Friends in what qualifies for the zeitgeist. Friends is criticised for its part in ushering in the working-class sitcom’s death, but that’s hardly the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of the show. Not when the Internet is abuzz with millions of fans, including people who don’t remember when it was on air. Frasier, by contrast, doesn’t get talked about a lot, so when it gets mentioned for being upper-class or (justly) white, that becomes the dominant story of Frasier that we tell ourselves.
The problem with that story is that Frasier is a show about class.
Frasier is a show about social mobility and class alienation within a single family. The only thing more central to Frasier’s whole deal is gay farce, in a way that harkens back to Oscar Wilde at the same time as it seems so deeply rooted in Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” America (I think all the time about Jack and Karen on Will and Grace wanting to find a new show that combined the gay sensibilities of Sex and the City, Frasier and Friends). The AV Club claims that Frasier replaced class stories with intra-family squabbling, and never for a second considers that the intra-family squabbling was itself about class.
When the character of Frasier Crane was first introduced in Cheers, he was a foil for Sam Malone. He was the obligatory third corner in a love triangle where he would never get the girl. Frasier was the type of man that Diane Chambers claimed to be interested in: a snobby psychiatrist from the upper crust set. The only problem was that Diane was always more interested in Sam, the working-class, athletic, masculine commitment-phobe.
Frasier didn’t get the girl, but he stuck around, wearing sad cardigans and learning to fit in at the bar, even if it was always in a sticking-out kind of way.
It’s easy to try and compartmentalise the Frasier of Cheers and the Frasier of Frasier into two separate characters. Cheers Frasier drinks whiskey and beer, wears cardigans and hangs out in a working-class bar. Frasier Frasier drinks sherry, wears suits and goes to the symphony and the opera. Frasier Frasier is an even bigger snob than he was on Cheers. Part of this is fairly natural character development, part is the change in perspective as Frasier goes from supporting character to protagonist, and part of it is just weird. But if you watch the shows as featuring the same character at different points in his life, it helps to inform who Frasier really is.
In ‘The Heart is a Lonely Snipe Hunter,’ the gang from Cheers play a prank on Frasier, leaving him alone in the woods hunting a bird that doesn’t exist. Asking them not to reveal the truth, Diane says, “He might not find out. Frasier isn’t an outdoorsman, he doesn’t hang around with people like that.”
It was certainly a throwaway line when it was written, but watching Cheers as a Frasier prequel, it made me incredibly sad. Frasier loves Diane, he’s about to marry Diane, but he’s told her nothing about his father.
In the first episode of Frasier, Martin Crane moves into his son Frasier’s new apartment in Seattle, where Frasier hosts a call-in radio show. Frasier once claimed on Cheers that his father was a scientist, and dead to boot, but Martin is very much alive – he’s a working-class cop forced to retire after he was shot in the line of duty. We also meet Frasier’s brother, Niles, who was initially pitched as what Frasier would be like if he’d never gone to Boston but becomes something much more interesting and affecting, and Martin’s physical therapist, Daphne, a working-class immigrant from the north of England. The relationship between Martin and Frasier is often antagonistic, if always ultimately loving. Their antagonism is rooted in family and generation, sure, but it always boils down to class signifiers. Frasier’s apartment is decorated impeccably with expensive furniture and art, and there, right in the middle, is Martin’s beat-up old armchair, held together with duct tape.
When Martin Crane got back from serving in the Korean War, he joined the police force. He was twenty years old when he met his future wife, Hester, a forensic psychiatrist, at the scene of a murder. By the time Frasier starts, Hester has been dead for several years, and there’s a significant gap between the saintly way the Cranes talk about her and what we actually know. She rejected Martin’s marriage proposals until she was pregnant with Frasier, and years later, she cheats on Martin at least once. She once travelled to Boston to threaten Diane, not wanting her son to marry a waitress, whatever her pretensions.
“You know, I used to think you two took after your mother,” Martin says, after Frasier and Niles acted as if they were being tortured by eating at Martin’s favourite steakhouse, “But she had too much class to ever make me or anybody else feel second-rate.”
It shuts the Crane boys up, because they believe it, but we know it isn’t really true.
Martin’s marriage to Hester, as well as to a lesser extent his promotion to detective, allow him to experience a degree of social mobility that, decades later, still informs almost every part of his life and the lives of his children. Frasier is a show about inter-generational class conflict in a family where the dad married up and struggles to relate to his posh kids.
But if Martin was the only character with a sense of social dislocation, it probably wouldn’t work all that well. Instead, class anxiety plays a major role in the lives of all the characters. Except, I guess, for Eddie, the dog.
Frasier never told Diane about his working class dad. He told his friends at Cheers that his dad was a scientist, that he was dead. In the years before Frasier starts, they’ve hardly seen each other: “Yeah,” Martin says, when Frasier explains that he’s been too busy to visit, “I noticed how busy you got after your mother died.” Frasier speaks in a clipped, classically mid-Atlantic accent, like he grew up in the same imaginary town as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant – and that version of Cary Grant is imaginary, too, of course, without any shade of little Archie Leach. Frasier is the son of a working-class father and an upper-middle-class mother, and he desperately wants to shed one half – to deny that informs anything of who he is. To deny any difference from those in the class he wants to be.
The thing about Frasier is that he isn’t posh. He’s just trying so hard to be.
Frasier is remembered in the cultural memory as being upper-class, because he goes to the opera and wine club and makes stuffy references to something you haven’t heard of (one of the most genius tricks in Frasier is how, even if you don’t get the reference, the joke can still land, because you’re laughing at Frasier and Niles’s absurd snobby nonsense). But Frasier is constantly trying to find an in with the upper classes, and constantly tripping over his own feet in the process. He doesn’t have any upper class friends, and he is more often than not the weird guy at the edge of the circle, unless he’s accidentally dating Patrick Stewart. Frasier queues up in the cancellation line for tickets to a play and then pretends he isn’t in the cancellation line when an upper-class couple see him, and then, having not bought tickets for no reason other than to save face, hangs around the front of the theatre until intermission to pretend to have seen the play. Frasier wants to be assimilated into the upper class, and that’s why when he comes home to his working-class dad in a ratty old recliner, drinking a Ballantine and watching the game, he’s always ready to pick a fight.
But there’s a contradiction that pulls Frasier in opposite directions: Frasier wants to be upper class, but his most basic affinity is with working- and middle-class people. That’s why he spent a decade drinking in Cheers. It’s why, to Sam’s shock, Frasier considered him his closest friend. It’s why he gets on so well with Daphne, and why he hangs out in the local English bar until she has to ask him to stop. It’s why his most posh genuine friend is Roz, the producer of his radio show, but despite her well-off background, Roz has shed all the social habits of wealth and barely sees her family – she’s reverse Frasier, and becomes instant friends with Martin.
Then there’s Niles. Wonderful, wonderful Niles Crane, all crippling anxiety and unrequited love and his dad’s sharp wit. Niles, like his father, experiences social mobility by marriage: at the start of the show he’s married to Maris, a cold, upper-class, old-money woman who we never see, but who Niles sincerely loves, even as he is falling for someone else. Thanks to his marriage, Niles becomes upper class in a way that Frasier can’t, not really, but still not in the way that those born into it are, either. When Niles and Maris divorce, his upper-class friends, without exception, choose Maris over him. He’s become the same as his brother, eagerly standing at the edge of the circle.
But the great thing is that Niles’s story isn’t about rejection from the upper classes. It’s about falling in love.
Niles/Daphne is the best sitcom romantic arc of all time, because the writers had the good sense to spend a full seven full-length seasons on pining. I could talk about Niles/Daphne for days, even if most of it would be just quoting dialogue and squirming in my chair (“And then I would have said, ‘What are you doing for the rest of your life?’” gets me every time). But one of the most important things about Niles and Daphne’s relationship is how it acts as the culmination of everything Frasier has to say about class.
Daphne is from a working-class background, and even though she’s a health professional, she’s frequently misidentified as the housekeeper, to the point of it being a running gag. She’s “the help,” essentially, while Niles is luxuriously wealthy. Inter-class romance is not anything new, obviously. See: pretty much all screwball comedies. Usually these inter-class romances are between a working-class man and a rich woman – probably to even out the power dynamics a bit – but not with Niles and Daphne. Most romance arcs between a wealthy man and a working-class woman range from just off in some intangible way (Pretty in Pink) to the overtly rapey (Pamela). But Niles/Daphne is beautiful and romantic, and that’s, in a large part, thanks to Niles repairing his relationship with his father.
Even though Niles lived in Seattle the whole time, at the start of the show, he was as estranged from Martin as Frasier had been. Over the course of the show, he and Martin become close for probably the first time in Niles’s life. There’s an antagonism there, sure, and they continue to squabble throughout the show, but it’s hard to imagine the Niles who wanted to put his retired-due-to-injury dad in an old folks’ home agreeing to sing the theme from Goldfinger with him, let alone get really into it:
Niles was never as desperate to hide the blue collar parts of his background as his brother was, probably at least in part because Niles didn’t need to think about it as much to get a place in the upper crust. Niles is a bigger snob than Frasier, but he’s more sincere about it, where Frasier is much more pretentious. Niles will bitch about wine club, then when he eats fast food for the first time, he loves it. But even if he wasn’t actively shedding his dad’s influence, he still kept his distance from it, like it was something intrinsically alien to him. Part of that is to do with gender, of course: both the Crane boys, but especially Niles, are effeminate, in ways that fall under posh-gay confusion and not, while their dad is traditionally masculine. Frasier rejects his more complicated class identity on its own terms, because it stands between him and the urban elites of academia, psychiatry and broadcast media. But you get the sense that Niles, at least in part, rejected his complex class identity because of its association with a type of masculinity he would inevitably fail to live up to.
In an episode late in the show’s run, there’s a costume party where everyone dresses as their hero. Martin’s Joe Di Maggio, Daphne’s Elton John, Roz is Wonder Woman and Frasier is Freud. But Niles dresses as Martin. It’s very sweet, but later, when Niles gets drunk, there’s a sting:
NILES: No offense, Joe, my kids did not care about baseball. Hell, they didn’t care about anything that was important to me.
MARTIN: Hey, now that’s not fair.
NILES: No, no, no, no, no, I’m just saying that you and me, we’re regular guys. You know, we know how to hang out with regular guys and shoot the breeze and, and, and knock a few back. But, uh, not my kids. No, they’re too good for that stuff. They got all their fancy degrees, but they never learned how to be regular guys.
There’s meanness to it, but there’s also a deep insecurity. Niles puts harsh words in his father’s mouth, but mostly he’s saying what he thinks all the time about himself, from the beginning of the show: that there’s something insufficient in his gender.
But even if class and gender are both wrapped into Niles’s relationship with his dad, he’s learning to parse the difference. Martin’s still his hero.
As Niles becomes closer to his father, he falls for Daphne, that “working-class Venus.” To fall in love with Daphne, and to choose to be with her without question, Niles has to reject the class structures that he and Frasier have built their lives around for decades. He has to, even unconsciously, acknowledge that the class and culture of his father isn’t something alien, isn’t a connection to constantly call into question. Niles falls in love with a working-class woman, and goddammit, love conquers all.
“When there was all this class tension and class hostility,” Neal Gabler said about Depression-era screwball comedies, “Romantic comedies took a partner from each class and put them together; and unified America.”
I don’t think that Frasier unified America. But what Frasier did, what almost no other show did, was take a long, complicated look at what social mobility means. How the American Dream can be more wedding bands than bootstraps, how class conflict and alienation can happen under one roof. It let us laugh at the well-to-do without giving up on their hearts. Best of all, it told us that everything might end up okay. I can’t help but wonder, if Frasier was made today, if it would just be a story about Frasier and Niles, with Martin and Daphne left on the cutting room floor. The working class are too depressing.