When Frasier debuted in 1993, the producers chose Seattle as the show’s setting for one reason: because it was about as far away from Boston, where its prequel, Cheers, was based, as possible without leaving the country. There was nothing special about Seattle itself; this was nothing more than an explanation of why Sam and Carla and Coach and Diane weren’t dropping by all the time.
They didn’t know it it yet, but the producers’ decision was made at a critical time for Seattle. We were soaking in the prelude to the dot-com boom, which would be in full swing just two years later in 1995. Suddenly, a decidedly working-class city had nouveau riche and more than a couple of truly fancy restaurants. The richest guy in the world lived here! And how perfect that their buffoon of a fake rich guy, Dr. Frasier Crane, was soaking in it too.
When you boil the show way down, beyond all the absurd clipped mid-Atlantic accents and zany dinner party mix-ups and dog gags, the core premise of Frasier is class tension. The Crane boys preen in their tuxes at the opera, yeah, but their dad’s a cop. Martin Crane knows that the Old Seattle he represents—the blue-collar, pre-Amazoic Seattle of men with calloused hands drinking Olympia Beer in Pendleton work shirts at the crusty old Ballard Eagles lodge (sincerely, not ironically!)—has been vanishing exponentially since right around the time his son moved to town.
Niles are Frasier are portrayed on the surface as clowns. We’re supposed to laugh at their idiotic pomposity and grandiosity. Swilling lattes with nutmeg and cinnamon at Cafe Nervosa, Frasier’s silly posh condo, Maris and her sensory deprivation tank... all preposterous!
But there’s a dark prophecy underneath it that isn’t really a funny joke, when you look back on it knowing what you know now, from a Seattle where income inequality is higher than it’s ever been. There’s plenty of anxiety in the show, but there’s one flavor of anxiety that isn’t addressed: anxiety about a changing landscape.
Martin knows his side is going to lose the battle. For example, in the Season 2 episode “Duke’s, We Hardly Knew Ye,” Frasier and Niles invest in a shopping center that ends up requiring the demolition of Martin’s beloved sports bar, Duke’s—the Cheers of Seattle—and Martin has no choice but to forgive them, because they’re his kids. What a metaphor for the forced resignation of the poor.
Watching old episodes of Frasier now illustrates how much less derision we have for the rich. We were supposed to roll our eyes at Frasier and Niles, and see ourselves in Martin, Daphne, and Roz. But in 2018 Seattle, our sensibilities have been gradually eroded and we’ve been inured to so much that Frasier-esque lifestyles are no longer farcical, but aspirational. Modern Seattleites want to live in Frasier’s condo with a Steinway and real Chihuly on the mantel; we want Frasier’s fancy calfskin briefcase and Niles’s ridiculous shoes that will fall apart if they get wet. Before, Seattleites mocked pretentious Dr. Frasier Crane for wanting status and power. Now, we’re so far beyond the joke that it can’t even be detected anymore.
Back in the day, most of us couldn’t even fathom a million-dollar home, and now they’re largely the norm. Before we only had the Met and Canlis when it came to Frasier-grade culinary pretense, and now we have about a dozen upscale restaurants that only serve oysters and more than one restaurant whose name is a book title, as well as a whole treasure chest of smug-but-legitimately-fantastic restaurants on the Hill. (We have a couple James Beard-nominated spots too, which never would have happened in the ’90s.) Even a one-bedroom in the University District, once a grunge stomping ground, goes for more than $2,000; in the immediate Seattle area, it takes a salary of more than $50,000 a year to afford a typical studio.
The fact is that back in the mid-1990s, when the city really started to mirror the show, the die was already cast, and the barbarians were at the gate, but we didn’t know it yet. The producers didn’t know either—they couldn’t have—but it’s almost as if they did.