For weeks, I've been struggling to come up with a way to write a farewell to "Frasier," which signs off tonight after 11 seasons.

I've written literally thousands of stories about television over the past 14-plus years. And I've written plenty about "Frasier." But this one just wouldn't come.

Then it suddenly dawned on me why. I said goodbye to the sitcom years ago. And, having gotten so much joy from the show for so many seasons, it pains me to admit that I gave up on it.

I feel such continuing fondness for the show, the characters and the actors that I don't really want to write that while this was one of the best shows on television — certainly the best sitcom — for many years, it became forced and repetitive in recent seasons.

Oh, I'll be watching tonight. But I fear I'll derive more enjoyment from the hourlong retrospective that precedes the hourlong finale than from the finale itself.

This is like attending the funeral of an old and dear friend you lost touch with. You have many fond memories and you're grateful for the time you had together, but somehow you grew apart. It wasn't a falling out, it was just a falling away.

When "Frasier" premiered in September 1992, it hit the ground running and caught a lot of people (including me) by surprise. Not only did it have the seemingly impossible task of filling the shoes of the No. 1 show on TV at the time — "Cheers" — which spawned the character of Frasier Crane, but it was looked upon as a latter-day "After-M*A*S*H," a spin-off of another hugely popular sitcom that quickly crashed and burned.

"Frasier," on the other hand, soared. "It was kind of a seamless transition," Kelsey Grammer understated.

"The characters just jumped off the page," said Jane Leeves (who plays Daphne). "Everybody came in with a strong character right from the start."

Taking fussy, effete psychiatrist Frasier Crane across the country from Boston to Seattle, "reuniting" him with a father (John Mahoney as Martin) and brother (David Hyde Pierce as Niles) we'd never met and making him a radio host who dispensed free therapy was a stroke of genius by creators/executive producers David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. As was giving him a feisty producer (Peri Gilpin as Roz), a live-in physical therapist for his father (Jane Leeves as Daphne), even Martin's dog, Eddie. And who could forget Niles' never-seen wife, Maris, who was one of the funniest "characters" on the show for five seasons.

It's the sort of show that we haven't seen anybody duplicate in the past 11 years. And we may not see duplicated anytime in the foreseeable future.

"I also think that networks, by and large, don't feel that upscale, intellectual sort of characters are relatable to a large audience," said executive producer Joe Keenan. "I've always wondered if 'Frasier' had been created as an independent show and not spun off 'Cheers' . . . how interested they'd have been in doing that show about this very smart, fussy psychiatrist and his even fussier psychiatrist brother — if you could have sold that idea if it was not already a character sort of beloved by America."

"Frasier" won an unprecedented five consecutive best-comedy Emmys those first five seasons en route to a total of 31 Emmys and a slew of other awards. If the show had retired after five seasons — after six or seven or even eight seasons — this would have been an easy story to write. The hardest part would have been trying to keep the gushing to a minimum.

Not that it's hard to understand why these people kept going at least three seasons too long. Sure, they were making a lot of money. But they remained quite obviously fond of each other.

"You know what?" Grammer said. "This is the most creative and professional group of people I've ever worked with."

"We've always really enjoyed this," Gilpin said. "It's been a great ride."

"I don't think any of us walk away easily from this," Pierce said. "Nor do we toss away this incredible crew and everyone else who is working on the show."

And if there's a bit of denial about what happened to the quality of the show, it's hardly surprising. "We've always been, creatively, I'd like to think, setting a very high bar," Grammer said. "And we can go out saying that we continued that to the end."

Mahoney, of all people, was on the verge of tears describing his experience on "Frasier."

"I emigrated to this country when I was 19, and I didn't think there'd be anything harder than leaving my family. It devastated me," he said. "But this is going to be 10 times harder than saying goodbye to my family when I left my country. It's been a glorious 11 years of magnificent scripts and great direction and working with great actors. It's something I'm extremely proud of."

As to the show's quality, Mahoney said, "I don't think we ever slipped," although he allowed that recent seasons "might not have been as good, but that's because the first two years were so unutterably brilliant, and you just can't maintain that," he said, pointing to the fact that each of the 264 episodes had at least two story lines weaved through it. "I don't care who it is, Shakespeare or Arthur Miller can't tell (that many) brilliant stories."

Fair enough. If nothing else, the show remained, as executive producer Christopher Lloyd said, "sort of classy" up to the end.

Goodbye, "Frasier." I will miss you . . . even if we have sort of lost touch the past couple of years.


If you watch

What: The final episode of "Frasier"

When: Tonight from 7:54-8:59 p.m., NBC/Ch. 5

Web: www.nbc.com

Also: An hourlong retrospective of the series airs from 7-7:54 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com