Call it You Might Wanna See TV: NBC’s Tuesday-night sitcom lineup of Mad About You, Something So Right, Frasier, and Caroline in the City adds up to the network’s most uneven scheduling strategy. Both Something and Caroline have recently been grappled with in this space; it’s the other older, more familiar yet still-vigorous shows that deserve a fresh squint.
The best first: This week, Frasier offers nothing less than a classic episode with ”A Lilith Thanksgiving,” a raucous farce guest-starring Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier‘s ex-wife. The premise is simple: Lilith and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) must unite briefly to be interviewed by the head of a private school they’re hoping will accept their son, Frederick (Trevor Einhorn). But as in the best Frasiers, simplicity becomes terribly complicated. The headmaster, played with grand imperiousness by the exemplary British stage actor Paxton Whitehead, takes an instant dislike to the fatuous fawning of Frasier and Lilith, who in turn become desperate to repair a bad first impression. Meanwhile, brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and dad Martin (John Mahoney) have been placed in charge of both Thanksgiving dinner (Niles bastes the turkey while getting snockered on cooking sherry) and Frederick (Martin teaches the bookish little pantywaist how to play catch, with bruising results).
One of the small miracles of Frasier is the way the show’s high-strung, highbrow characters have managed to become mass-appeal favorites. Granted, that’s because the jokes are on them; Frasier and Niles are forever having the air let out of their cappuccino-stoked pretensions. But in a first-rate episode like this one, the caricatures of arid intellectualism are beautifully nuanced. And most likely because she doesn’t have to do Lilith every week, Neuwirth clearly felt free to give her character a freshly ferocious, almost scary coldness that’s a thrill to behold.
As for Mad About You — well, I was no fan of the high-rated, cliff-hanging story arc that ended last season, which found Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) on the verge of breaking up. It wasn’t the premise I found annoying (each had flirted with people outside the marriage — interesting sitcom grist); it was their tone. Those episodes strained to say something profound about the fragility of relationships, but they were at once drained of jokes and yet never poignant enough to be moving. The result was a lot of droopy-eyed soulful staring and self-conscious Serious Acting.
This season, things have gotten better. How nice that Jamie’s pregnant — it gives her and Paul something to talk about besides themselves. Mad started out a sitcom about a couple of snappy yuppies, but five years into the marriage, Paul and Jamie Buchman are often dreary company, all attitude and jabber. The 100th episode made this startlingly clear with the guest appearances of Carol Burnett and Carroll O’Connor as Jamie’s squabbling parents. Burnett’s sheer comic physicality — the way she shrieked her despair and stretched her body when reaching for something at the dinner table — made Reiser and Hunt seem like zombies.
Hunt remains immensely likable and skilled; when a script fails her (i.e., gives Paul all the good lines even when the show’s about Jamie), she registers the necessary emotions with her face and gestures. But anyone who’s seen Reiser’s grating AT&T ads will realize he’s on the verge of becoming less an actor than a mannered comic, frequently trying to save a bad joke with an aggressive delivery. Watch both Mad and Frasier on the same night, and the distinction is obvious: Despite the cartoonish exaggeration of its protagonists, Frasier comes closer to the prickly complications of everyday life that once were Mad‘s reason for existing.
The Lilith episode of Frasier deserves an A; as for season grades thus far … Frasier: B+ Mad About You: C+