NEW YORK -- There's a lightness to Frasier's step these days.
Following a difficult year, the NBC sitcom "Frasier" has engineered an off-camera reunion in an attempt to recreate its glory years, and wring a few more laughs out of the final season.
At the producer's suggestion, "Frasier" brought back the writing team of Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan, who had left three years ago. Some critics, and the star, have already noticed an improvement.
"We'd lost a little bit of the amiability of the character of Frasier," said Kelsey Grammer, who is going into his 20th year of portraying the preening psychiatrist.
Last season, the show's 10th, was the first to produce whispers that maybe "Frasier" had overstayed its welcome.
Certainly viewers sensed something. The show's weekly audience dropped to 12.6 million, down from 15 million a year earlier. In the 1998-99 season, when its five-year Emmy-winning streak as best comedy ended, the show regularly had 22.5 million viewers.
Last week's season premiere was seen by 14.5 million people, way below the 21 million who watched the season opener in September 2002.
"American Idol" cut into its audience, and NBC didn't help by scheduling weak shows around it, said Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president. ABC's "According to Jim" has also become a surprisingly tough competitor.
But "Frasier" bears part of the blame for the sinking fortunes.
"It was an off year creatively," Zucker said. "All shows go through that, especially if they've been on the air for 10 years. I'm thrilled to have (Lloyd and Keenan) back, and I think Kelsey would tell you the same thing."
With story lines like brother Niles Crane's heart problems and Roz Doyle's departure from Frasier's radio station, the show occasionally forgot it was a comedy, Grammer said.
"We spun our wheels a bit too long last year, that's all, and now we're back on the right footing," he said. "There's just a lightness again. There's a frivolousness about the tone of the show that I think was always there that was kind of muted last year."
He doesn't want to exaggerate the decline; Grammer said he confronted a critic who wrote that the writing last year stunk.
"I've seen our worst shows, I know which ones they are," he said. "And then I've seen some other shows that are supposedly their good ones. There's no problem for me."
Grammer, a three-time Emmy winner for best actor in a comedy, scoffed at the notion that "Frasier" stuck around too long.
Grammer's own interest in milestones may have fed that perception. His 20-year run playing Frasier Crane - the character was introduced during the third season of "Cheers" - ties James Arness of "Gunsmoke" for the longest stretch playing a character in prime-time TV.
It was also important to Grammer that "Frasier" last at least 11 seasons, the same duration as "Cheers."
"I'm a driven, competitive man," he said. "I used to be in denial about that, but I'm OK with it now. Coming from 'Cheers,' there was always the onus of 'Cheers' hanging over us. I thought if we could equal 'Cheers,' that would be just right."
The rare spinoff that has succeeded, "Frasier" has eclipsed "Cheers" in quality, Grammer said.
"We did it in a way that was a lot more challenging creatively," he said. "'Cheers' had the great insight to realize that they could retool the show by adding new characters. We have not done that."
His only regret over the years is that "Frasier" dealt only tangentially with the fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
At the time, entertainers debated whether to address it or provide the country with a respite. The only response from "Frasier" - a story line where Frasier was angered when a neighbor's flag draped over his balcony - was so subtle viewers may not have known there was a connection.
"There was this big, giant elephant in the room," Grammer said, "and we didn't acknowledge it."
Although "Frasier" will stop producing new episodes next spring, the show will live on for many years in syndication, enriching Grammer beyond his dreams. It also means as an actor, he will be competing with himself.
Grammer, 48, said he plans to take about a year off, then continuing acting. He's talked about a future in politics, musing on Fox News Channel last week about running for the U.S. Senate in California, but said that's several years in the future.
He doesn't expect a melodramatic end to the series, only to leave the characters "in a place where we can hopefully imagine them going on to someplace else."
Will Frasier Crane himself ever be happy, ever settle down?
"I think Frasier is going to find true love," Grammer said. "But I don't know if it's going to be this season."
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