1.16 The Show Where Lilith Comes Back
Whatever happened to the sanctity of divorce?
I wonder when they decided on the conceit of title cards in Frasier. We’ve discussed the class position of the storylines and character arcs in the show before, but I don’t recall much of us discussing the class aesthetic of the show as a production. By that I mean the noodley jazz intro, the conscious situating of the show within a tradition of bourgeois farce, and then the little things: the typeface, for example, or the title cards.
I can’t think of another show that uses them, certainly not another sitcom. They have a dual quality to them; in the first place, tying Frasier to the earliest days of cinema when, lacking sound, movies would include cut screen titles to either relay important dialogue, or to set the scene. Perhaps less directly, they give the show an almost literary quality, their abstract, sometimes cryptic phrases acting like chapter titles. In a way, they function almost as a motor of what playwright and dramaturg Bertolt Brecht called verfremdungseffekt, the distancing or estrangement of the audience from the characters before them. Brecht put the techniques of distanciation to good use in order to deny the opportunity of the audience to become subsumed in the fiction, forcing them to keep their critical wits about them and really understand the fact that the ethical and narrative tangles of the characters are politically determined. All very well, but I doubt the writers of Frasier were attempting to wake the workers from the slumber of bourgeois performance. Nonetheless, whenever they pop up I’m reminded of the injokes of writers and performers backstage or in the writers’ room. The titles do function to remind you of the false nature of the show, and I think, with farce, that’s intended to add to the enjoyment. You’re watching a dance of humour.
That’s what makes the title of this episode so strange; it’s a title that, of course, reminds you that it’s a show, but it reminds me as much as an episode of Friends, a later, more popular, and worse sitcom that used the same format for each show title: The One Where.... Perhaps this self-conscious title reflects the fact that the character of Lillith is one of the few in the show who played a significant part in Cheers. But I thought of Friends because both shows feature figures of fun, even hate figures, who I simply do not hate.
I remember watching Friends on Channel 4 when it was first screened in the UK. I would have been 8 when it came out, and I certainly enjoyed it on first watching. I watched a series again recently, and was struck by the figure of Janice. Janice is a brassy, exuberant, big/haired woman, in the best tradition of Jewish New Yorkers. She’s Chandler Bing’s long-time, on-again off-again girlfriend, and played as a figure of fun by the writers. You’re intended to find her incredibly grating and annoying, as the assembled friends, and even Chandler do. Sorry, but I just don’t see it; watching again, I was struck by the fact that of all the characters in the sitcom, the only one I could conceive of being friends with, of enjoying the company of, is Janice. She’s big-hearted, full of life, fun, and open, a stark contrast to the cynical and sarcastic Generation X main characters. Her big hair and lipstick, her clothes, her guileless embrace, I’m afraid, are sexy. Janice was genuinely sexy; I guess her attitude was out of place in the nineties. She’s a character who, to use the words of the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, “was a fanfare of existence”.
I feel similarly about Lilith; not a “fanfare of existence” perhaps, but certainly a character who has aged better than many of the others. Like Janice, Lilith is a woman who does what is needed to live on her own terms, and who is characterised as difficult as a result. Like Janice, she’s Jewish, her named derived from the demoness figure within Jewish folklore, but she’s not portrayed with the same force of exuberant self-will as the Friends character. Lilith is instead supposed to be a ruthless and calculating figure, a breath of icy north wind into the warm Crane home. The men fear her, the other women regard her as cold, perhaps even a traitor to their feminine values.
Is she? I can never see it. For the first part, plots in which Lilith is involved, even if she doesn’t appear on screen, often see other characters unable to understand why Frasier married her in the first place, as though he was taken with a fit of madness. In fact, his desire for Lilith is almost seen as a pathology, or even that he was victim of some otherworldly seduction. But the moment she appears on screen, it’s clear why he married her; she’s a self-possessed, sharp, witty, and extremely beautiful woman. The one supposed quality she lacks, unsurprisingly for a show devoted to the worship of it, is maternalism. True, she’s not maternal, or at least, not in a Daphne Moon, cooking and cleaning and warm bosom hugs manner, although she is always portrayed as a caring and attentive mother who challenges her son while offering him all the opportunities he wants. No, Lilith, like Janice, is a demonic figure within the show for the same reason as Janice: because she refuses to make her number one priority making men feel comfortable around her.
For Janice, that plays out as not toning herself down. She’s “too much” when she is herself. For Lilith, she’s too cold, refusing to offer the warm reassurance and praise towards the insecurities of mediocre men. I understand that, I am such a man. In The Show Where Lilith Comes Back that coldness is used as a foil against the fact that, of course, she’s a sensitive individual, one scared to be vulnerable but who feels love deeply. She feels, she says, “like a perfect fool” for mistakenly thinking Frasier to still be in love with her, and coming to Seattle to get back with him.
Perhaps what’s interesting, both problematic and productive, in the show’s portrayal of Lilith is how her attitude towards men is professed to masculinise her. Throughout the series, there are repeated references to her being overly masculine, or even male. Even while locked in a passionate sexual embrace, Lilith tells Frasier that he’s the only man she’s ever loved. “So are you!” he responds. Lilith, in turn, leans in to this presentation; wearing her hair up is her professional mode, as are her razor sharp tailored suits. Without doubt, the depiction of Lilith as unattractive is misogynistic. Yet, on the inverse, it’s exactly the fact that despite her ice queen, cold bitch representation Frasier is both enraptured by her sexuality and, in a way, “able to handle it” that is used to depict Frasier as somehow an unlikely alpha male in the show. Where other men cower away from her, he is willing and able to ‘conquer her’, as it were, and somehow free her real ‘womanhood’: namely her vulnerability. It is only Frasier who can reveal that Lilith is, after all, a wilting rose.
Doesn’t this misogyny pop the bubble, though? Isn’t what’s attractive about Lilith exactly her ruthless strength? I would love nothing more than for her to throw me headfirst into a row of gym lockers, but perhaps that’s my business. What is never truly explained is not Lilith’s desirability, but what she sees in Frasier, an insecure man with poor impulse control and a palpable jealousy around his ex-wife’s intelligence.
We will consistently return to the theme of homosexuality in Frasier a show that was both genuinely groundbreaking in its mainstream sympathetic treatment of homosexual characters, deeply inflected with queer tropes, and also, at times, casually homophobic. But I can’t help but feel they missed the trick in not allowing Lilith to be more explicitly queer, years before Friends opened its run with a deeply homophobic, weird and sad representation of lesbian women. In the spirit of the Cheers/Frasier crossover, I could think of no more deserving lover for Lilith Sternin than her New York counterpart, Janice Litman.
Check out my non-Frasier writing at utopian drivel.