Second Look: Frasier Season 1 Episode 16 – “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back”

Frasier The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

Frasier Season 1, Episode 16 “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back”
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Directed by James Burrows
Aired February 3, 1994 on NBC

It’s crazy to think about it now, but in February 1994, Frasier was still finding its way out of the looming shadow of its predecessor, which had just finished its run as, at the time, the most popular sitcom of the 20th century. Given that, it’s no surprise why it takes sixteen episodes – and the arrival of sweeps week 1994 – to bring back Lilith Stern, the oft-mentioned ex-wife of Frasier audiences (again, of the time) were so abundantly familiar with. It certainly worked, though; the episode would draw the largest audience Frasier would ever see (33.1 million viewers) – and although it takes some time to get going, is a wonderful representation of painstaking work to make Frasier unique from Cheers.

More importantly, it is a wonderfully crafted resolution to their relationship, a beautiful, if rare, example of Frasier treating the dissolved Stern/Crane union as something more than just misery disguised as comedy.

Frasier The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

Lilith’s annual appearance on Frasier, like the series infatuation with farce, is often an exercise in depreciating returns; the sitcom’s inclination is to treat her more as a punchline, which underwhelms both the richness of the character, and Bebe Neuwirth’s iconic performance of the calculated, unnerved psychologist.

At first, it seems her appearance would bring out the worst in Frasier‘s writers; immediately upon appearing in Frasier’s living room (after calling in to his radio show to lightly chastise him), she becomes this caricature of evil personified, giving Daphne “psychic headaches” and throwing Niles into a tizzy when she constantly teases him about the vows Maris spoke to him at their wedding. She’s cruel, uncharacteristically monotone (even for her), and uptight in ways that Cheers‘ Lilith never was; through the prism of Frasier‘s Bizarro West Coast world, Lilith’s wonderful characterization on Cheers (save for that horrible last season story of her cheating on Frasier with a crazy botanist) is twisted into an amalgamation of the cheapest jokes leveled against her – something the series has leaned on in its first fifteen episodes, and would beat like a dead horse as Lilith’s irregular appearances in Seattle would accumulate.

Frasier The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

But then “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” takes a magnificent turn; after Niles, Marty, and Daphne leave the room, Frasier and Lilith realize it’s the first time they’ve been alone together without family or lawyer. Lilith mentions finding a letter Frasier wrote her about reconciling she found, not knowing he wrote it a year ago while depressed in Boston and planning to leave. Though Frasier’s been able to live a bachelor’s life in Seattle, Lilith’s been left in Boston taking care of their child together – and in that stress and uncertainty, found comfort in the letter she mistakenly thought he’d left during Frasier’s recent visit back east. “It was like being thrown a life preserver,” she tells Frasier when he arrives at her hotel room later that evening; and for a moment, Frasier steps aside to give voice to Lilith, perhaps the only woman in Frasier’s life he’s ever truly loved (besides his mother, of course).

Predictably, the two end up sleeping together – once formalities were aside, Frasier and Lilith’s primal attraction (one of my favorite recurring bits on Cheers) comes to the forefront, as the divorced couple find comfort in something familiar after months of drowning in the unpredictable circumstances of their current lives. “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back”, however, plays their sexual foray with an incredible amount of comedic restraint: it doesn’t fall into any kind of farcical or ironic situation, and doesn’t force the two into uncomfortable social situations to laugh at them.

Rather, they quickly realize they’ve made a mistake and fallen victim to some of the most simple psychological pratfalls, the same ones they deal with professionally every day. As they try to enjoy breakfast in bed, they finally deal with the fears they’re living with today: Lilith with raising a child alone and facing the limits of her own inner strength, and Frasier trying to rebuild his life with his family, while his son remains 3,000 miles away from him.

Frasier The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

As great as their marriage once was, Frasier makes it clear that is over – but their ability to be there for each other remains, and it’s here “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” establishes itself as something more than just stunt casting during sweeps week. Lilith certainly won’t be the last Cheers character to make their way to Seattle, but her presence here is easily the most meaningful of the series, one that taps ever so gently into the nostalgia audiences would have for their characters and that world, but going out of its way to show that this moment between them is but a mirror into the people they were, not who they’ve become or the lives they have now.

As a coda for a storyline that was lacking some resolution from its original series, how “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” finds that thoroughline is amazing, a poignant depiction of those metaphysical bonds that can form between people, the kind where time and space always seem to distort our minds.

I really love everything about the extended hotel scenes in the second and third act; images like their embrace, Lilith crying, and Frasier forcing Lilith to look in the mirror and remember what a a strong, independent woman she is, are all terrific moments (and all occur in the last five minutes of the episode!). Their reconciliation, however brief it is presented in the final scenes of the episode, is a really meaningful moment of growth for the series, and its titular character.

Frasier The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

Being a man predisposed to grudges who has moved across the country twice to escape his memories, Frasier’s not exactly the poster child of emotional maturity; but the resolve he finds in his brief tryst with Lilith, is a fantastic reminder of what made Frasier such an engaging character in the first place, and for viewers who never saw them on Cheers, a strong (if short) look at what made their relationship the most meaningful romantic pairing Cheers ever had.

One could argue there is nothing to this episode outside of those final seven minutes; sure, but those seven minutes are so goddamn good, it doesn’t really matter. “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” is a difficult proposition for a comedy trying to distinguish itself from one of the most watched TV shows of its time; the very idea of bringing Lilith back was a tenuous one, given how much the first fifteen episodes disparaged her. But this episode is exactly what it needs to be; a reminder of the identity Frasier has built for itself, and a meaningful coda to the most formative relationship of its’ protagonist life. At that, “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” is an undeniable success, and remains one of the few examples of 90’s sitcom stunt casting that actually worked.

Grade: A-

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Can we just note how gorgeous Bebe Neuwirth is in this episode? Her costuming is phenomenal.
  • Marty: “Whatever happened to the sanctity of divorce?”
  • After letting Lilith on the air, Frasier writes Roz a note and slams it up against her window: “You’re FIRED!” Roz responds with “I’m union!”
  • Lilith tells Eddie to go away, and boy, does he listen.
  • Wait… Marty really prefers Maris to Lilith?
  • Lilith asks Marty if he experienced any repressed sexual urges while he was beating a perp who tried to stab him. Ahh, never change, Dr. Sternin.
  • Lilith, why did you leave your hair down? “I wanted to be playful.”

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