Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re beginning our coverage of the best episodes from Cheers (1982-1993), one of the most consistently written situation comedies of all time and second only to I Love Lucy as my personal favorite. I’m pleased to announce that every episode has been released on DVD.
The staff and regular patrons of a neighborhood Boston bar share the highs and lows of their daily lives. Cheers stars TED DANSON as Sam Malone, SHELLEY LONG as Diane Chambers, NICHOLAS COLASANTO as “Coach” Ernie Pantusso, RHEA PERLMAN as Carla Tortelli, JOHN RATZENBERGER as Cliff Clavin, and GEORGE WENDT as Norm Peterson.
I’m elated that we’re finally covering Cheers, one of several series that this blog was actively created to highlight. The influence this show has had in enforcing my love of comedy and informing my aesthetic sensibilities about story and character is immeasurable. To put it succinctly, Cheers is the show to which I point as evidence of what the multi-camera format does best: the weekly one act. And as a person whose roots come from the theatre, there’s a certain vindication that comes from watching a fantastic Cheers episode because a good portion of the show’s electricity comes not only from the characters and their relationships, but from the interaction between the players and that “live studio audience.” This interplay also feeds into the show’s classic sensibilities, particularly in Season One, in which the action never leaves the confines of the bar. Many of these episodes are written such that they could be performed live, and to me, that’s television.
However, Cheers has often been likened to a vintage radio comedy, since so much of the humor is wrought from the conversations had by a select group of exceedingly well designed characters. And it’s worth noting that James Burrows, who directed about 87% of the series and created the show with two other Taxi alums (Glen and Les Charles), is the son of Abe Burrows, who co-created the classic radio comedy Duffy’s Tavern, which also concerned itself with people in a bar — although most of their stories were guest star oriented. (Don’t worry, some episodes will be highlighted in a future Wildcard post.) The genesis for Cheers is different depending on who tells the story, and again, there’ll be an upcoming Wildcard Wednesday post (that may surprise a bit) that will tell a mostly forgotten chapter of the show’s backstory. For our purposes, the three wise men, Burrows and the Brothers Charles, wanted to do an ensemble comedy in the MTM vein (a style that was, unfortunately, to grow out of fashion as the ’80s progressed and domesticity on TV was prized) and fairly quickly settled on setting the series in a bar.
The mainstay of their concept was to be the Tracy/Hepburn relationship that develops between the blue collar bartender and his white collar waitress. The casting of Diane Chambers and Sam Malone, initially a football player instead of a baseball player, was vital, and much has been made about the other contenders (Fred Dryer, Julia Duffy, etc.). But is there any doubt that the right pair was chosen? No, because even in these initial 22 episodes, the Sam/Diane connection is already the stuff of legend. The writing for these two, as the show flirts and flirts and flirts with the possibility of them hooking up, only to finally climax with their conjoining in the final moments of the season finale, is breathtaking, and the chemistry shared between Danson and Long is magical. Long, in particular, is one of the medium’s finest comediennes, and she sells every single line of dialogue. The actress’ perfection is important because Diane’s introduction to the characters is our entrance into the bar, and so really, her attempts to understand and adjust to these new people is the primary focus of most stories. Although Cheers is an ensemble show, Diane is structurally the star of these early offerings — even trumping Sam, otherwise the anchor (who’ll really thrive in years to come), in guiding the audience’s POV.
This will remain mostly true for the duration of Long’s run on the series (that is, before her ingratiation with the others is regressed), but it’s particularly relevant in a discussion about the first two seasons, which are considered by many to be the show’s finest era. Season One slowly makes the audience root for a Sam/Diane pairing, while Season Two slowly shows them why this couple is toxic together. This thematic construction is brilliant, particularly when the two years are juxtaposed against each other. In fact, I’ve personally gone back and forth over which I prefer, because although they both are superb, each one gives us different things. I’ll save my thoughts on Season Two for next week and just tell you now that I’ve officially decided that Season One is the best. The scripts build in hilarity, the characters are already fully formed (with the exception of Cliff, who isn’t made an official regular until Season Two and actually takes a while to become the wacky character we all remember), and there’s an inherent energy to putting this combination of players in the bar for the first time. So although I’ve long believed that Cheers found a way to maintain a level of high quality throughout its run, the first year represents a high that’s never quite duplicated.
The irony of this brilliance is that the show was a ratings disaster in its first year, and survived only as a result of the faith and favor of network executive Brandon Tartikoff, who championed the show and granted it a full first season. With hindsight, we know what a wise decision this turned out to be, for critics not only loved the show (Can you blame them? Look at the other shows we’ve covered from the ’82-’83 season…), but Cheers‘ first season was an award magnet, winning four Primetime Emmys (Comedy, Actress, Directing, Writing), a Creative Arts Emmy, and two Golden Globes (Comedy, Actress) — the latter two in January, when the season was still running! This helped give Cheers a reputation of high quality and although the summer ’83 reruns helped build an audience, it wouldn’t be until Season Three that the show took off as part of NBC’s “Must See TV” line-up. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For today’s post, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 1: “Give Me A Ring Sometime” (Aired: 09/30/82)
Diane’s fiancé leaves her at the bar while he visits his ex-wife.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
A long time ago on this blog, I commented that Cheers produced one of the best pilots that I’ve ever seen, and I must echo that truism now. Not only does the premiere script do a fantastic job of painting clear portraits of the five regulars, but the characterizations will prove more or less consistent over the run of the show (a feat that really deserves celebration). Additionally, there’s such sharp comedy — like the phone call Diane intercepts for Sam and the iconic debate about the sweatiest movie of all time — all of which helps to define the tone of the show. It’s beautifully constructed. You can download a copy of the final draft of the script here — note the inclusion of Mrs. Littlefield, an elderly wheelchair bound character who was intended to be a regular (although not, as claimed elsewhere, played by Elaine Stritch), but whose dialogue ended up on the cutting room floor. (What a smart decision it was to excise her!)
02) Episode 2: “Sam’s Women” (Aired: 10/07/82)
Sam is challenged by Diane’s claim that he doesn’t date smart women.
Written by Earl Pomerantz
My views are complicated. Pomerantz’s script is easily among the funniest of the season, but there’s a certain greenness here about the characters and their everyday relationships — with which the pilot, as a pilot, didn’t have to contend. The installment focuses on exploring the dynamic between Sam and Diane, and really illustrates the type of comedy that these two will share for the rest of the season. As a result, their stuff is beautifully rendered. In the meantime, however, the other characters and the tone of their interplay feels noticeably less formed. Other episodes will strike a better balance, and/or present more naturalistic depictions of everyone in total. Yet this installment is boosted by guest appearances from Donnelly Rhodes and Donna McKechnie, and despite its flaws, remains essential to the show’s presentation of Sam/Diane. And because it’s hilarious, it’s a personal favorite.
03) Episode 4: “Sam At Eleven” (Aired: 10/21/82)
Sam gets a renewed taste of fame when he’s interviewed for television.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
As the Charles Brothers’ only script this season aside from the pilot and season finale, this installment is blessed with an evident sense of character consistency and premise fidelity. In other words, this script simply feels like what a great Cheers episode should be, even building to the (now almost requisite) second act Sam/Diane climax. The one here is a true winner, as Sam misconstrues Diane’s advice about taking pride in his past but seizing the present as a come-on, leading naturally, to some expert judo on Diane’s part. Aside from the comedy, however, are some really truthful character beats, particularly between Sam and Diane after the aforementioned physical bit. Also, this one is notable for the first appearance of Harry Anderson as Harry the Hood, a con-man who will appear a few times (before Anderson got cast in Night Court), and the inclusion of Sam runner-up Fred Dryer as Sam’s old friend.
04) Episode 8: “Truce Or Consequences” (Aired: 11/18/82)
Carla plays a prank on Diane when Sam forces them to bond.
Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs
While the relationship between Diane and Carla up to this point has never been warm, I look to this installment as truly establishing the antagonism that will come to typify all of their interactions from this point forward (extending all the way until the series finale). Levine and Isaacs’ script is hilarious, providing marvelous opportunities for the regular cast to showcase their heightened comedy chops. This seems like it would be a great Carla episode, and it is, simply because we get a deeper understanding of her character, but Long steals the show again, and Diane’s drunk bit, followed by her outrage at the perceived situation between Sam and Carla is divine. I’m fond of the long conversation that the two women share, because it’s full of delicious laughs, but I think the second act, in which the ramifications of Act One are allowed to play out and figuratively combust, is even better.
05) Episode 14: “Let Me Count The Ways” (Aired: 01/13/83)
Diane is shocked that no one can empathize over her cat’s death.
Written by Heide Perlman
It’s been reported that this is Long’s favorite episode of the series, and it’s not difficult to see why: this episode is all about Diane! An actor’s egotism aside, this installment is actually also a straightforward representation of the show’s principal conflict — Diane as the “fish out of water.” Indeed, that theme is more than subtext; it’s actually part of the story, as Diane is hurt by her new friends’ inability, or more aptly, their unwillingness to understand her the way that she has tried to understand them. The charm of this beat is in all of the little happenings, which of course, build to a majestic office scene between Sam and Diane in which he comforts her over the death of her cat (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) and then tries to push for sex. It’s a fabulously funny moment and makes for another iconic first season Sam and Diane conversation. There are funnier episodes, but seldom better written.
06) Episode 15: “Father Knows Last” (Aired: 01/20/83)
Carla finally announces her pregnancy, but Diane thinks there’s more to her story.
Written by Heide Perlman
On paper, this is a very difficult one to pull off comedically. It starts off with a function: introduce Carla’s pregnancy because Rhea Perlman is expecting her first child and the decision has been made to write it in to the series. (This is the start of a wonderful running gag, for Perlman will get pregnant twice more during her Cheers tenure, and with Carla already having four children, the continued increase of her output is a joke that gets funnier with each addition.) But the story has Carla attempting to manipulate a good man into believing he’s the father: an unlikable maneuver, even for her. But, of course, Diane’s moralizing has an effect on Carla, and the consistent “big laugh” quality of the dialogue elevates the proceedings and lessens any potential sting. And, frankly, points must be given to any offering that can justify concluding with a full cast rendition of a song from Carousel.
07) Episode 17: “Diane’s Perfect Date” (Aired: 02/10/83)
A misunderstanding develops when Sam and Diane set each other up on blind dates.
Written by David Lloyd
Written by one of the finest television writers of the 1970s (responsible for many absolute classics, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s “Chuckles Bites The Dust”), this installment is on the short list of my favorite episodes of not just the season, the series, or the decade, but of situation comedy in general. In fact, it’s almost difficult to come up with words that are appropriate for a script as finely constructed as this one, but I’ll try. First of all, it’s a fabulous premise — Sam and Diane setting each other up on blind dates, only for Sam to believe that Diane’s intention is to date him herself. When he’s proven incorrect, Sam has to come up with a guy on the fly, and the results, in true David Lloyd fashion, are ridiculously funny: Andy (a.k.a. “Andy Andy”), a man out of prison for murdering a waitress — who thinks his hands are claws. Diane’s reaction to Andy Andy are a scream, and this will be a recurring source of comedy, but it’s never as fantastic as it is here. Miraculous.
08) Episode 19: “Pick A Con . . . Any Con” (Aired: 02/24/83)
The gang appeals to Harry the Hat to con a man who conned Coach.
Written by David Angell
Were this kind of story done on any other series, I could almost guarantee that the offering would not make my list as one one of the best, and it’s because the premise is inherently driven by the beats of the story and not by the characters. This simple fact is true even for the Cheers episode, but Angell’s script addresses my concerns by making as much time as possible for character moments — outstanding character moments — to support the story at hand. There is a lot of marvelous stuff for Coach, this series’ most reliable laugh getter, and some unrivaled Sam/Diane bits. In addition to the ribald Kierkegaard joke at the start, there’s the final “Wild West” themed gag at the end, in which the tension between the two is palpable. So I doubt that any other series could do a “con” episode as well as Cheers does, because they make it not about the story, but about the characters. Wonderful.
09) Episode 21: “Showdown (I)” (Aired: 03/24/83)
Sam’s perfect brother captivates the bar, particularly Diane.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
We all know what’s coming at the end of the season, so the first half of this two-part finale seems like it could just be the necessary build to the final coming together of Sam and Diane. But I’m going to take a minority opinion and claim that Part I is actually funnier than Part II. One of the primary reasons for this is that, although Sam and Diane are once again the principal focus, all of the characters have something to do, particularly as it pertains to Sam’s inferiority complex regarding his visiting brother, making this a great ensemble offering. Also, unlike Part II, which is sort of told from Diane’s point-of-view, Part I is focused on Sam, and that’s a refreshing change of pace. For instance, the scene where Sam tells Diane to go off with Derek is all about HIS wanting her to stay but not being able to say it to her directly, and that’s what makes it so powerful. And as always, the script is hilariously sharp — among the year’s most laugh heavy.
10) Episode 22: “Showdown (II)” (Aired: 03/31/83)
Tension erupts when Diane plans to go away with Sam’s brother.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Although I said above that Part I is funnier, Part II is obviously the famous episode and the one that most casual fans are going to want to watch because it’s the big moment — the one promised to us all the way back in the pilot (or at least, “Sam’s Women”) in which the line between Sam and Diane’s contempt for one another turns into passion. The long scene between them in the office is a series hallmark and while I think there are better moments in stronger offerings, it’s undoubtedly the season’s crescendo and represents a peak that the series, for all its forthcoming greatness, will never again match. It almost seems like everyone involved knows this to be true, for they throw all of their energy into ensuring that this is an episode that you’ll never forget. (At the time of production, it could have been the series finale.) And it sets up some interesting territory for exploration in Season Two . . .
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Any Friend Of Diane’s,” in which Diane runner-up Julia Duffy guest stars as Diane’s old nerdy friend who hopes to have a romantic rendezvous with Sam, “Endless Slumper,” in which Sam almost falls back off the wagon following the loss of his lucky bottle cap (a bit too heavy to make my list), and “No Contest,” in which Sam submits Diane in a Miss Boston Barmaid contest (this story was originally planned for Taxi). All three of these episodes (and frankly, all but maybe three of the other installments that aren’t on the list) are fantastic, but I’m guessing the latter’s failure to make my top picks will be the biggest surprise to most readers, so I’ll address it now. If you’d have asked me to select my favorite episodes before writing this post, “No Contest” would have been included. But in watching the episodes consecutively and analyzing each one, I find the script slightly deficient — requiring breaches of logic (like Carla’s inconsistent characterization) with which I’m not completely able to excuse. My primary concern is that the stuff between Sam and Diane feels somewhat off, likely stemming from the fact that his submitting her into the contest isn’t justifiable or consistent with what we know about his character. (It makes much more sense in the Taxi outline linked above, in which Louie submits Elaine without her knowledge. It fits his character and how he feels about Elaine.) I know most fans — including some who’ve watched this episode with me — feel differently, but I consider the ten episodes highlighted above either stronger or more valuable. And despite my conviction to keep it from the official list, it’s an ideal honorable mention.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Cheers goes to…..
“Diane’s Perfect Date”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!