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Television Reviews: Frasier and Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

AS PART OF "Frasier Night" on New Year's Day, Channel 4 screened the episode which viewers had nominated as their favourite. It was a remarkable show, but an even more remarkable choice, because Frasier himself was on vacation and Kelsey Grammer appeared in only one fleeting scene. You wonder whether Grammer would take that vote of no-confidence as badly as his character would.

In the new series (C4), Frasier has been fired from KACL and appears to have landed a job as a TV shrink. We found him welcoming viewers to his new slot, and making respectful noises about the previous occupant. American viewers would have read that as a subtextual homage to Seinfeld. For this sixth series, Frasier has stepped into Seinfeld's shoes in NBC's prestigious 8pm slot on Thursdays. The studio audience duly gave it a knowing laugh. The camera pulled back to reveal that this was only a screen test, and that Frasier has by no means got a new job. There's a sense in which the character is auditioning not only in America as Seinfeld's replacement, but also for the British audience, whose favourite episode was the one in which Niles took Daphne to a ball after his date dropped out. In this new series, their romance has finally been allowed to blossom. They may as well start calling the show Niles.

There has been only one episode of Gimme Gimme Gimme (BBC2) so far, and I've already nominated my favourite. It's the one where the two main characters go on holiday in the first scene and never come back. In this dream episode their neighbour, a retired prostitute, wouldn't have to complain about the noise. "Ambient trip hop I can put up with," she drawled last night, "but when you put on Acker Bilk I was sick." There's no actress on the planet who could make that line sing.

On paper, this flatshare sitcom has enough going for it. It sees Kathy Burke as a lonely, bitter nymphomaniac, and James Dreyfus as a gay actor between jobs. The script is by Jonathan Harvey, whose bittersweet stage plays make wry observations on gay life. In a play, you can imagine him riffing sublimely on a scenario in which a straight woman and a gay man both lech after the same hunk. But is there enough in it for an entire series?

Racking my brain, I can't think of any playwrights who have successfully written sitcoms, or vice versa, unless you count Patrick Marber's co-writing credit on Knowing Me, Knowing You. The rhythms of the two forms are so different that excellence in one area is no guarantee of even mild talent in another. This looks like a tribute to the campness of the awful sitcoms Harvey grew up on, in the form of an impersonation. He's got the campness down to a T, with his frank allusions to gay lore, but he's also got the awfulness, too. Harvey uses a much broader brush than he would for theatre, and, for the most part, the dialogue is too frenzied, too eager to make an impression.

In truth, it is done no favours by the casting. Burke and Dreyfus are the obvious choices for these roles, but maybe they're too obvious. I know they're meant to be doing caricatures, but their overacting has the ring of desperation about it, as if the only way to get a laugh is to beg for it. There are occasional flashes of subtle brilliance from Burke, but this is not the psychologically detailed study that, from the evidence of her interview in The Independent this week, she thinks she's giving. At one point, they wonder whether the mysterious man in their flat is a ventriloquist, solely so that Burke can utter the line, "I wouldn't mind him sticking his hand up my skirt and making my lips move." Between them, the writing and the acting have created something too grotesque. As for Dreyfus, who did one hilarious mincing routine, he'd be twice as funny if he gave half the performance.

In the end, you need some reason to like sitcom characters. Frasier, for all his veniality, is rewarding company. These two seem to hate themselves and each other. How can we be expected to feel any differently?