Old-fashioned American optimism is what imbues the TV critics' summer press tour. There could be great new shows coming: That's the right spirit, and usually, it's warranted. And then, every now and again, one encounters something terribly sad, something that no amount of optimism can overcome. Such is the case with Kelsey Grammer.
In the annals of U.S. network TV, the comedies Cheers and Frasier share something - both are admired, beloved and held up as examples of originality and excellence in a genre that can often be formulaic and witless. Both also share Kelsey Grammer playing radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane.
Frasier was a spinoff from Cheers and is widely considered the most successful spinoff ever made. In it, Frasier Crane returned to his hometown of Seattle following the failure of his marriage in Boston. Grammer played him well, and clearly displayed a gift for inhabiting a pompous character always in need of deflating by regular, plain-speaking people around him.
Three years ago, not long after Frasier Crane had said "Goodnight Seattle" for the last time, Grammer returned to TV in Back To You , a sitcom about Chuck, a pompous, self-regarding TV news anchor who returned to his hometown following the failure of his career in the big city. It lasted two seasons, interrupted by the writers' strike, and was cancelled by Fox in the spring of last year. Not long after the cancellation, Grammer had a heart attack.
Well, amazingly, Grammer is back again, this time in ABC's new show Hank , playing former Wall Street executive Hank Pryor, who returns to his hometown following the failure of his career. Hank Pryor used to run a successful sports-merchandising business. Back home, Hank is seen by his relatives and the locals as a pompous, self-regarding man in need of deflating.
Yep, Kelsey Grammer is doing the same thing over and over again. And here's the thing - if Back To You was mediocre and looked thoroughly third-rate when compared with Frasier , then Hank looks 10th-rate when compared with Frasier . It's hackneyed, and Grammer is doing the same arch comedy about a self-important ass, only more broadly and in a more belaboured manner. It's extraordinary to see a TV icon decline into a hack. Like a boxer bruised in battle and groggy with egotism, Grammer just keeps coming back for more.
Few in the TV racket do what Grammer is doing. Most people stride away happily from a huge hit, proud of the achievement, and enjoy the money. That's what Jerry Seinfeld did. But the odd thing about Grammer is that he seems to have become the kind of character he plays so well. He always talks in the vaguely snooty drawl so familiar from Cheers and Frasier . He comes across as pompous and self-regarding but, because he's iconic and has his own production company now, nobody does the necessary deflating.
The pilot of Hank , we're told, will be re-shot, but only for "little tweaks" and the recasting of the young actors playing Hank Pryor's children. It's impossible to believe that it will be improved.
When Grammer appeared here to talk to critics, one journalist put it to him, delicately, that he was playing a pompous, returning-home, rather-clueless-about-real-life character again and asked if was a particularly appealing theme for him. "No," Grammer said, to considerable laughter. Asked if he'd done other shows with other themes, Grammer said, "No, none."
Asked about the specific appeal of Hank , which Grammer produced and developed, he said:, "I just hope that I can lend myself to the character, you know, in the same way I did to Frasier. He has far less equipment in terms of his life. Frasier loved clutter and conflict. This guy is not that comfortable with all that stuff. He is a simpler man."
The difference might be obvious to Grammer, but not to anyone else. And then Grammer continues:, "Also, he's far less complicated than maybe some of the pompous people. And what might be seen as pompous in this character would really be just the fact that he's out of touch with some things that he's either forgot about - like the other day I was trying to make a pot of coffee in my house, and I have a particularly complicated coffee maker. I actually had three friends trying to make a pot of coffee with me. And none successfully. And I thought it might be a funny thing for Hank because he hasn't made coffee, probably, for 20 years."
The fact that Grammer is talking about bringing elements of his own life into the Hank character doesn't seem to strike him as pompous at all. And when the similarities between his TV characters are mentioned again, Grammer reaches for tiny variations in order to deny the idea he's repeating himself: "The premise here really has more to do with the emotional growth of the [Hank]character, and that's what I find, say, opportunistic in the fact that he has to grow up. Yes, that was a similar quality in the previous show, Back to You , with Chuck. But it wasn't quite the same thing because he was a Lothario. This is a guy who's just been sort of blissfully ignorant about some of the basic tasks of human existence."
Later, a question is put to the producers - who are, of course, employed by Grammer - about working with such a successful man. "He's a television icon, and it's just an honour to be doing this with him," the producer says. And Grammer interrupts, sounding exactly like Frasier Crane: "Oh, stop," he drawls.
Then Grammer is asked about the chore of being both the executive in charge of the show and the star. "I do my best to be as little hands-on as possible," he replies. "I always like other people to do all the creative work, and then I kind of just get in there and mix it up. Or I tell them, 'I just hate this,' or, 'I love this.'" Again, he sounds uncannily like Frasier Crane.
When it is raised that Hank finds humour in the collapse of Wall Street companies and the current recession, a subject many Americans don't find funny at all, Grammer says: "Listen, probably one of the greatest human characteristics is our ability to laugh at our situation. I think irony is our strong suit. Humans are at their best when things are at their very worst, and I think comedy is a necessary part of that."
That's actually true, but Grammer delivers the remark pompously, in a tone that suggests he knows truths beyond the comprehension of other people. And the great irony is that Grammer seems unable to recognize the truth - that the quality of the TV work he's doing keeps declining, and it isn't funny at all. It's sad.