Peak TV — which, admittedly, has been on the decline (obligatory reminder that “peak” refers to volume, not quality) — has brought us all sorts of previously unimaginable scenarios: revivals of cult classics, dueling documentaries on cults, reality TV spin-offs that don’t seem to grasp their anti-capitalist drama roots. This week, it led to the kind of multiverse-crossing moment you’d expect from Loki, in which Bebe Neuwirth blessed our screens in two different shows on different streamers, set in two different time periods (albeit in the same state, Massachusetts), and managed to dunk on Frasier Crane from both settings. Or at least, loquacious blowhards of his ilk.
Paramount+ teased Neuwirth's return to the world of Frasier earlier in the week with a clip of Dr. Lilith Sternin’s (Neuwirth) reunion with Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), which is as fraught as you’d think. Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott) may be in his 30s now, but he’s no better at managing his parents now than he was as a kid. The two exes lob barbs at each other at the bar that is definitely not Cheers, but Lilith easily wins this round: "I'm used to seeing you wedged between commercials for injury attorneys and walk-in tubs. I'm just joking, I've never seen your television show."
Lilith’s return in “Freddy’s Birthday” is no mere stunt — Neuwirth shades her familiar character with maternal protectiveness and even insecurity. When Lilith finds out that Freddy has kept his living with Frasier a secret from her, she’s clearly hurt, even if her voice never falters from its even tone. Frasier’s reappearance in Boston hasn’t just disrupted Freddy’s life; it’s disrupted hers. Soon enough, she and Frasier are considering another roll in the hay (in their son’s bedroom, which, if he weren’t so put off from therapy, might encourage him to get some).
Showrunners Chris Harris and Joe Cristalli may not have been able to recapture the magic of the original with their reboot yet, but they nail the Lilith-Frasier dynamic, a key element of which involves her dunking on him. It’s not just that Frasier exists to be dunked on, which he does, even if his gratifying 11-season journey on his eponymous show gradually made less of a target for such humorous takedowns. But Lilith’s verbal slings are actually insightful: "When I liken your father to a potato chip at the bottom of the bag because he's broken and no one wants him, it's just harmless fun.”
Now, that’s just a great line, delivered with Neuwirth’s signature deadpan and just a hint of a smile. It also shows how well Lilith knows her ex, who still struggles to make meaningful connections. Of course, she also ends up telling on herself, given how frequently she’s drawn to this “broken potato chip,” but what’s that they say about physicians/psychiatrists healing themselves?
“Freddy’s Birthday” is the best episode of the Frasier spin-off (that’s what the showrunners are calling it) to date, thanks in large part to Neuwirth picking up right where she left off. But it isn’t the only opportunity she has this week to crack on self-important men like the good doctor. Neuwirth also returned to Julia, in which she stars as Julia Child’s (Sarah Lancashire) best friend and sometime producer, for Season 2 on Max. With Julia in France for the summer, hard at work on her next cookbook, Avis DeVoto (Neuwirth) had to find something to fill the time in Cambridge (the one in Massachusetts, that is).
When she tells Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) she’s been working at Harvard, the WGBH producer can’t help but ask what it’s like being among all those Ivy Leaguers. Avis smiles and says, "I have a number of men in my life now. Some of them are brilliant. A few are insufferable. One is adorable.” In just a few sentences, Avis sums up Dr. Lilith Sternin’s life in Boston, just three miles away from Cambridge and 60 years in the future. Frasier’s currently teaching at Harvard, after all — a situation that’s apparently as outlandish as our proposal for ex-husband jokes that travel through time.
Frasier will likely continue to deal with the return of the repressed as it heads into its Season 1 finale, and Avis DeVoto will no doubt find her way back to working alongside Julia. But no matter where or when she is, Lilith Sternin will get the best of Frasier Crane and Frasier Crane-types.
Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.