Lilith, superbly played as always by Bebe Neuwirth, makes a welcome return to Frasier. Here’s our review of episode 7.
From the moment Frasier's return was announced, it was inevitable that we would see Dr Lilith Sternin – the title character’s ex-wife and the mother of his child – once more. As sun is to day and dark is to night, she’s part of Frasier’s DNA.
Bebe Neuwirth has played Lilith for almost long as Kelsey Grammer has portrayed our loveable Dr Crane. Their relationship goes all the way back to Cheers, the Boston-based bar sitcom and a 1980s comedy sensation that spawned Frasier as the rare case of an even more beloved and critically acclaimed spin-off. Frasier and Lilith’s first date in the fourth season of Cheers led to later co-habitation and eventually marriage, one that in the eleventh and final season of Cheers fell apart after Lilith cheated on Frasier with another psychiatrist.
This was the key to their dynamic – both are psychiatrists, with Frasier not following his own mother, Hester, who married outside of the profession (though she too cheated on her husband). Lilith was only meant to be a one-shot character, but in the grand tradition of storytelling, the actor made enough of an impression that the writers saw the potential of a woman designed as a fairly stereotypical, elitist, educated ‘ice queen’. Cheers writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs amusingly described her relationship with Frasier as “Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy mixed with Prozac”, which sets the tone for a dynamic that moves steadily from sparky to viperish as time wears on.
Before the advent of Frasier, Neuwirth described her character as such: “I find Lilith very innocent, very sweet, very naïve. She’s socially inept. She has no idea how to react with other people. She’s shy and uncomfortable with people. She’s a scientist, she’s very analytical, she’s very honest. And she loves her husband [Frasier] very, very much … and she loves her child Frederick, too.”
Though Frasier and Lilith had their child during the run of Cheers, by the time of Frasier in the early 1990s they’d divorced, which meant Lilith played much less of a role in the sequel series than she did in Cheers where she notched up 80 appearances. Cheers ended with the possibility of reconciliation between the two, but Frasier clarified this on his radio show in the pilot of the 1990s era series: “Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating. So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my home town of Seattle.”
Lilith was only in 12 of 263 Frasier episodes, in the main given she and young Freddy lives in Boston and Frasier was based in Seattle during that show. She roughly appeared once a season, be it in the city for conferences or visits, and though she married a seismologist at one stage, she later divorced him and at various points hooked up with Frasier, the two flirting with reconciliation before deciding it wouldn’t work – and Frasier’s proximity to Marty and Niles, both of whom hated her with a passion, made it all the harder. Though Lilith was presented as a devil in human form for comic effect, there always remained, buried within, a mutual affection between she and Frasier that never went away.
This too is apparent in the elderly Lilith’s return in Freddy’s Birthday, as Frasier learns his son has been secretly meeting with his mother and both end up in proximity working to outdo each other at his bowling-alley birthday party. Old comic ideas wrought by writer Sasha Stroman and director Grammer, in his second instance helming the show after ‘Trivial Pursuits’ earlier in the season (he also directed 36 episodes of the original series), but ideas that work well. Of course you need to put Frasier and Lilith in opposition and pivot them around Freddy. That’s often how it worked in Frasier around the young version of him.
Considering their personalities, be it Frasier’s pomposity and Lilith’s stone-cold rationality, it’s a miracle that Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott) turned out the way he has, and is perhaps in spite of his parents’ influence in truth. Freddy understands that he needs to work his difficult parents in different ways. Frasier wants reconnection after years being absent in alternate cities. Lilith retains a protective factor, still referring to him as ‘Frederick’ (as mothers do), and she doesn’t initially like that father and son are living together. As someone from a broken home with two parents who never became friends after the failure of their marriage, I can sympathise. I’ve been Freddy.
It’s fair to say that Neuwirth, much like Grammer has with Frasier, doesn’t miss a beat slipping back into his comic partnership with Lilith after two decades. As is quite fair, she gets a huge amount to do here, at the expense of numerous regular characters. Olivia (Toks Olagundoye) gets a fun moment in the post-credits scene, but that’s it, and both David (Anders Keith) and Eve (Jess Salgueiro) are fairly background. Nicholas Lyndhurst is thankfully again given some great material as Alan, dressed like the Man from Del Monte as a means of trying to remind Lilith who he is, as despite him playing a key part in their wedding she has no memory of him. It’s all great fun.
Also, not to get too Cheers Universe nerdy, but it works on a continuity level too. Alan obviously is important enough a character to Frasier’s past that we should have seen him in earlier shows, had he been invented yet, so you have to make a few leaps of logic to explain why he’s never seen or mentioned until 2023, but… we didn’t see Frasier and Lilith’s wedding day. It happened off screen and they ended up re-creating it to please Lilith’s mother in ‘Smotherly Love’. So Alan could have absolutely been present on the day. Let’s assume he was, as it allows us the sight of Lyndhurst pretending to be Blofeld in his office, which I can’t be more thankful for.
So Lilith dominates, but if you have Bebe Neuwirth for half an hour, you need to use her. Lilith remains an excellent comic creation, a great foil for Frasier, and Neuwirth and Grammer’s chemistry remains in evidence after almost 40 years. That’s some incredible longevity. The rest of the cast largely step out of the way of these two rekindling it, albeit allowing us to witness Freddy’s exasperation at his parents’ behaviour on his birthday, or especially the nightmare of walking in on them making out on his bed. Yikes. He’ll need a therapist after that.
Let’s hope, then, that Lilith serves a similar function in this iteration of Frasier, should it last some years, as she did the last – popping in once a season to provide a welcome dash of comic nostalgia for two of the greatest American sitcoms ever. It’s possible. After all, as Cheers canonises, she technically outlives Frasier. A flash forward in Cheers episode ‘I’m Okay, You’re Detective’ sees she and an adult Freddy at Frasier’s will reading, hopefully many years in the future even from now, encountering a mix up with Sam Malone’s sperm count, leading Lilith to quip “that damn bar.”
Lilith, like Cheers and Frasier, will outlive us all. I’m okay with that.
Read AJ’s review of Frasier season 1 episode 6, Blind Date here.
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