Gayest Episode Ever: When ‘Frasier’ Finally Acknowledged Its Subtext
In short, Frasier (the show, italicized) was pretty gay, even if Frasier (the character, non-italicized) was always 100% hetero.
Over its 11 seasons, Frasier touched on gay topics a few times. First, there’s the Season 2 episode “The Matchmaker,” in which Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) is romanced by his gay station manager (the hunky Eric Lutes), and lastly, there’s the Season 1 episode “The Doctor Is Out,” in which Frasier is publicly (and incorrectly) outed as gay.
However, it’s the fourth-season episode “The Impossible Dream” that might be the most interesting to talk about in terms of the overall vibe of the show. In it, Frasier has a recurring sexual dream about his coworker, Gil Chesterton (the openly gay Edward Hibbert). Sitcom hilarity ensues, but so does more introspection than we see from most TV characters.
Frasier Crane, Purported Heterosexual
Before we get into the meat of “The Impossible Dream,” though, I want to take a step back from Frasier, mainstream sitcom hit, and look at how the gay themes were baked in right from the start. Frasier Crane, as a character, was written into existence for the third-season premiere of Cheers, where he was introduced as a love interest for Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) and a foil for Sam Malone (Ted Danson). Whereas Sam was aggressive, gruff and physical, Frasier was soft-spoken and intellectual. That first series eventually paired him off with a domineering wife, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth).
All throughout, the Cheers audience was prompted to regard Frasier as a sissy; for characters on the show as well as the people watching it, Sam Malone was a paragon of swaggering masculinity.
Frasier sent the character to Seattle and made him the protagonist. However, that intellectual-verging-on-sissy nature remained, and in order to make Frasier seem a little less “that way,” the spinoff also introduced his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), who’s even nellier than Frasier. The show also introduces Frasier’s ex-cop father, Martin (John Mahoney), who probably would have had an easier time being Sam Malone’s dad; he likes sports and he often seems confused by the refined world his sons live in. In fact, the dynamic isn’t all that different from what a certain sort of gay man might experience with his own father. Notably, the pilot for the series shows Frasier and Martin having only recently moved in together and still trying to figure out how to enter each other’s worlds.
So take that premise and add to it the fact that Niles is one of the most stereotypically gay heterosexuals in the history of sitcoms, that Pierce himself came out in 2007, and that, in Gil Chesterton, the show added a third effete character just to make it seem more easier for audiences to believe Frasier and Niles’ constant search for romance with women. That’s a lot of quasi-gay for a mainstream TV show.
This 1996 episode focuses on Frasier’s recurring dream about waking up in a seedy motel, seeing the name “Chesty” tattooed on his hand and then having Gil step out of the shower. The implications of the dream have Frasier shaken, but in his telling of it, he’s simply annoyed at the lack of sleep caused by resulting anxiety, not repulsed by the suggestion that he’d have sex with a man.
At least initially, he doesn’t seem especially worried that anyone will perceive him as gay. When Roz (Peri Gilpin) makes fun of him for the dream, it’s hard to tell if his embarrassed reaction stems more from having a gay dream or a sexual dream about someone they both know.
(Also, is it weird to note that Gil Chesterton looks better shirtless than we’d maybe expect of a food critic? Yes? Fine, I’ll move along.)
In this episode — and every other episode, really — Frasier and Roz have a strange relationship, at least as far as bickering sitcom pairs go. In most cases, two single, heterosexual co-workers who share a close bond would have ended up as love interests for each other. Frasier and Roz never did, excluding the ninth-season episode where they sleep together and then almost immediately resolve to remain platonic friends. You could credit this lack of sexual chemistry to the showrunners not wanting to retread the Sam and Diane territory and instead putting the “will they or won’t they?” suspense on Niles and Daphne (Jane Leeves).
Regardless of the motivation, Frasier and Roz ended up friends without benefits who spend their off hours gossiping about their mutual friends and bemoaning their unsatisfying love lives. With the prospect of ending up together just completely off the table, even for unspecified reasons, Frasier and Roz are more Will and Grace than Sam and Diane.
Then Gil shows up and does his busy bee thing, annoying Frasier as he always does. You have to wonder if Frasier finds Gil irritating just because he’s a pest or because Gil is more at ease in his own skin and with his many queeny mannerisms. Frasier, apparent heterosexual, has something to prove, after all, while Gil doesn’t. (Or so you’d think. In a fifth-season episode, Gil defensively announced that he’s married … to a woman … who’s a Sarah Lawrence graduate and the owner of “a very successful auto body repair shop.” Frasier concludes that Gil has just “inned” himself.)
Finally the scene concludes with a quick appearance from Bulldog, the station’s sports show host. Played by Dan Butler, the hypermasculine Bulldog is to Sam Malone as Gil is to Frasier: the basic mannerisms pushed to the max.
The fact that Butler is himself openly gay only adds another dimension to Bulldog’s aggressively macho personality. (Unlike some gay Frasier actors, Butler was out before he took a role on the show. Some of the actors on the show remain closeted today.)
Despite All Appearances
Over the course of the episode, Frasier and Niles come up with one theory after another in an attempt to determine what subconscious feeling the dream is trying to make Frasier realize. When they exhaust all other options, Frasier has a late-night conversation with Martin in which he wonders aloud if the obvious explanation could be the right one: He’s just been gay this whole time and in denial about it.
This is a remarkable scene. Over the course of their lives, many people question and rethink their sexuality to a degree, but that’s not something that’s often depicted on American TV shows — especially by an otherwise heterosexual character who happens to be the main character, especially before Ellen DeGeneres came out. Martin quickly relieves Frasier of any doubt about his sexuality, but just the fact that the male lead on a popular sitcom was able to put that out there, just for a second, during prime time in 1996? That’s surprising, to me at least.
(Aside from Ellen, the only other of-the-era examples I can think of include Kyle Secor’s Det. Bayliss on Homicide: Life on the Streets and Neve Campbell’s brief flirtation with Olivia D’abo on Party of Five.)
Before the matter is put to rest, more or less, Frasier and Martin also talk about Frasier’s childhood, and again, it’s not the kind of discourse we usually get on sitcoms. In addition to underscoring the generational differences between the two Cranes, Frasier outright states that he’s aware that he reads as gay to most people — and has all his life. “I was sensitive as a child. I didn’t go out for sports. I was every cliché in the book,” he says. “Surely it must have occurred to you at some point.” In response, Martin admits that, yes, it had occurred to him that his son might be gay but also that if Frasier were, he’d had realized by this point in his life.
The conversation concludes with Martin accepting his son as is and also with them gently encouraging the audience to acknowledge that someone who might seem a little gay could turn out not to be. When I remember that Frasier was airing at the same time as, say, Home Improvement and all its grunting, or even Seinfeld with its mixed bag of LGBT representation, this episode seems progressive to me.
In fact, the show’s other gay episodes play with the same themes. In “The Matchmaker,” Frasier never suspects that his new boss is gay, and his boss never suspects that Frasier isn’t gay. In “The Doctor Is Out,” the plot begins with Frasier and Niles suspecting that Roz’s new boyfriend is gay. He’s not, despite some mannerisms that could indicate otherwise. And in “Out With Dad,” Martin plays gay in a way that involves imitating his straight sons. (In 2015, Pierce himself touted the show’s gay-themed episodes as progressive for their time.)
I wish the episode ended there, but there’s one more scene with Frasier having the dream again. This time, it’s not Gil who walks into the room but Sigmund Freud himself.
Frasier was having a recurring dream, you see, because the shallow analysis he offers call-in patients on his radio show wasn’t fulfilling him professionally. To keep himself on his toes, his unconscious mind generated a dream that defied all logical analysis. (Again, this is fairly heady concept for a ’90s-era sitcom, no?) But then this scene concludes with Freud hopping into bed with Frasier, and the scene cuts away to a show of his apartment building, late at night. His bedroom light flips on. He’s still disturbed.
This, of course, is a joke to end the episode on, but if you really wanted to read it as such, you could choose to see this final scene as a suggestion there’s a lack of resolution about Frasier’s sexuality. It gets a laugh, for what it’s worth.
All in all, I think there’s a lot in Frasier that lends itself to a gay reading, and this episode touches on a lot of it. Just as the first installment of Gayest Episode Ever looked at an installment of Roseanne (but probably not the one you might have guessed), I’m hoping to maybe revisit some of Frasier’s other gay-themed episodes later. If you can think of a classic TV show — sitcom or otherwise — that might be fun to dive into, hit me up on Twitter.