Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re continuing 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.
Season Two, which expands the action of the first year ever so slightly by introducing one new set (Diane’s apartment), lives and dies by its commitment to giving the audience exactly what they thought they wanted in Season One: Sam and Diane together. The problem with this premise is that, not only does the show have to live up to the expectations established in the first season, but the pairing knowingly strips the series of the sexual tension that helped fuel so much of the comedy in its debut year. Sam and Diane are together — what now? It takes about half a season for this question’s answer to crystallize: the series has put them together to show us exactly why they don’t belong together. It’s a fascinating viewing experience, especially in watching the gradual accumulation of issues and resentments, which finally bubble up to the surface in the narratively predictable, but nevertheless tonally shocking, season finale.
The last string of episodes, in which the show becomes as focused in destroying them as Season One was in pairing them, is collectively fantastic, and much superior to the first half of the season, which seems unsure of the point-of-view it wants to take. In fact, there are some episodes in which it almost seems like the couple belongs together; that’s interesting on paper, but not comedically satisfying taken on its own terms. So the year’s primary arc can be polarizing, yielding fruits both sweet and sour. (Frankly, I love all the characters and enjoy the travesty that is Sam/Diane, but if you’re not a fan of their relationship, this season is going to be even more difficult for you than the last, as their material consumes these scripts.) Ultimately, however, every moment of Season Two is necessary, and despite lacking some of what made the previous year so strong, the marvelous creative team is able to humorously justify almost every script and create wonderful new facets that are unique to this season (and will prove equally hard for later years to match).
Meanwhile, the slightly bumpy first half of the year also contains a few installments designed primarily, and obviously, to dimensionalize the ensemble, who — though well defined in Season One — weren’t afforded the same emotional depth as Sam or Diane. This is necessary and doesn’t really hurt the season, but it does tend to slow down the effortlessness with which most scripts (this year and last) beautifully display. However, after all that functionality is cleared, the show is back to clicking, and once again, by the final string of offerings, everyone, excepting maybe Cliff — who was bumped up to regular at the start of the year and doesn’t come into his own until the next — is well explored. This is one of many reasons that I think Season Two is essentially of the same high quality as Season One; the complexity of the characters, the smartness of the comedy, and the uniqueness of the stories all remain miraculous.
Now although I said last week that Season One is the best, this year’s presentation of Sam/Diane as intrinsically flawed is more fascinating (to me) than the will-they/won’t-they, so there have been occasions where I give a slight edge to Season Two. Ultimately, however, Season One wins out for the higher volume of classics and the unmatched freshness of the whole operation — but Season Two is close behind quality-wise. Fortunately, the country seemed to slowly notice what Cheers had to offer, as the ratings built in Season Two from all the good press and awards. But it wasn’t until the start of Season Three, after the show had won four more Emmys (including Comedy, Writing, and Supporting Actress) that the show became an actual hit. Nevertheless, I think the first two years represent the series in its golden era, when the show was proud to be theatrical and was able to do it exceptionally well — on a weekly basis. So 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 23: “Power Play” (Aired: 09/29/83)
Sam and Diane go back to her place for their first night together.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
I’m sure this was one of the most challenging episodes of the entire series, for it has the unenviable responsibility of following what already looks to be the show’s most explosive moment, the culmination of an entire season worth of sexual tension, in which Sam and Diane finally fall into each other’s arms. And ultimately, the final product, which has a lot of expectations to overcome, succeeds because it strikes an appropriate balance of continuing that which was begun at the end of last season’s finale, while simultaneously showing us something new — figuratively (in their changed dynamic as a couple) and literally (in Diane’s apartment, the first non-bar set, and the only other place that action will occur this season). Not an overall favorite, but very strong nonetheless, and really sets the tone for these Fall ’83 scripts.
02) Episode 26: “Homicidal Ham” (Aired: 10/27/83)
Diane arranges Andy Andy an acting audition, with her as his scene partner.
Written by David Lloyd
David Lloyd grants us this sequel to his quintessential first season offering (and my choice for last year’s MVE), “Diane’s Perfect Date,” which sees Sam inadvertently setting Diane up on a date with Andy Andy, a deranged waitress killer. Lloyd’s teleplay for “Homicidal Ham” is filled with a lot of really big laughs, building, of course, to the memorable sequence of Andy and Diane doing the scene from Othello where he strangles her; only this time, the threat’s for real after Andy finds out that Diane, with whom he’s fallen in love, is seeing Sam. It’s certainly a much broader gag than the usual fare that Cheers was delivering at this time and the whole episode does feel like an elaborate excuse to get to the big block comedy scene, but frankly, the results are worth it — the end justifies the means. A favorite and series classic!
03) Episode 29: “Old Flames” (Aired: 11/17/83)
Diane wants Sam to give up his little black book, prompting a fight.
Written by David Angell
A double Emmy award winning episode (for writing and editing), this installment is the strongest Sam/Diane offering from the first half of the season because instead of trying to prove, like Season One, why they belong together, this installment simply poses the question of their durability to the audience by having them (kind of) break-up after a fight over Sam’s black book (following some meddling by the slimy Dave, played by Sam runner-up Fred Dryer, whom we met last season). Despite the reconciliation by episode’s end, the whole rendezvous essentially sets up the fact that, no matter what, their relationship will never work; and as discussed above, that’s an angle I find ripe for comedy. Mention must also be made of Angell’s letter-perfect script, which has some of the series’ best dialogue. Hysterical writing.
04) Episode 32: “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Call You Back” (Aired: 12/08/83)
Diane gives Sam one week to think about the future of their relationship.
Written by Earl Pomerantz
In my estimation, this, the season’s tenth, is the last episode in which the series explores the viability of Sam and Diane’s relationship without obviously exerting a point-of-view that attempts to make the audience root for their demise (which I think is the intention in almost every episode that follows on today’s list), so I consider it the conclusion to the season’s first half, in which the comedy is about Sam and Diane trying to make it work. This relationship episode has Diane forcing Sam to think about the meaning of their coupling after he absentmindedly says he loves her. It’s an incredibly simple premise, and that’s all these characters need to add complication. Interestingly, neither character is favored within the script and both Long and Danson give equally strong performances. (Her drunk bit is memorable!)
05) Episode 33: “Just Three Friends” (Aired: 12/15/83)
Diane believes that her best friend is hitting on Sam.
Written by David Lloyd
As with several Fall 1983 episodes, my sentiments about this one are complicated. On the one hand, I find the structure of this episode to be, like Lloyd’s first offering this season (the aforementioned “Homicidal Ham”), one big and somewhat manipulative trek, designed simply to get to the big, broad comedic beat — in this case, Diane freaking out at both Sam and her friend Heather (played by a pre Night Court Markie Post). Obviously, the episode is here because I find that the end once again justifies the means, because on the other hand, although a lot of the comedy here is a little too broad and “sitcomy” (not meaning to use the word derogatorily, because you all know how I do love sitcoms), the premise is believable and does allow for an interesting dynamic between Sam, Diane, and Heather. And the script is just darn funny.
06) Episode 38: “Cliff’s Rocky Moment” (Aired: 01/26/84)
Another patron challenges Cliff to a fight.
Written by David Lloyd
Unlike “Li’l Sister Don’t Cha,” which is clearly designed as a way to give some emotional life to the previously underdeveloped Cliff, this episode does a more organic job of telling the audience who he is and reconciling a concrete personality with his obvious comedic potential. (Although, as noted above, we won’t really tap into Cliff’s well of humorous possibilities until next season.) Another script from Lloyd, this is another one of those offerings that’s breathtakingly well-written, as the subplot of Sam and Diane betting on football outcomes is as unique and engaging as the primary story of Cliff being challenged to a fight by a disgruntled patron who finds him obnoxious. It’s a painfully real idea (and kind of dark too, with a clear antagonist), but Lloyd shows us how it can be done comedically. A favorite.
07) Episode 39: “Fortune And Men’s Weight” (Aired: 02/02/84)
Pandemonium ensues when Coach buys a scale that also gives fortunes.
Written by Heide Perlman
If you’ve read ahead, you’ll know that this is my choice for the year’s MVE, and I’ve selected it because it’s the ideal representation of Cheers in its second season. The script is ingeniously crafted; it’s set entirely in the bar, there’s great moments for every single member of the ensemble, and the laughs are plentiful throughout. Additionally, like a lot of the episodes on today’s list, there’s a strong Sam/Diane component, and since the season is building towards its conclusion, the show is beginning to make it clear that these two figures are toxic together. Their fight about honesty is so rawly realistic in the way it suddenly springs to the forefront, while the lack of resolution is a haunting choice. Also, I love that this is the first official appearance of Al, “The Man Who Said ‘Sinatra’.” Brilliant offering — underrated, classic — maybe not the year’s funniest, but the perfect summation of Season Two and its strengths.
08) Episode 40: “Snow Job” (Aired: 02/09/84)
Diane learns that Sam is going away with his friends for a weekend of “debauchery.”
Written by David Angell
As with the above installment, which actually was produced after this one, “Snow Job”‘s aim is to further the implosion of Sam and Diane’s relationship, but this time the exploration of honesty is reversed. Last time, Diane lied to Sam; this time, it’s all about his lie to her, as he pretends to be going to a relative’s funeral instead of the ski lodge where he plans to meet a lot of “snow bunnies.” The design is interesting. Diane learns about the truth before Sam even begins his lie, so the entirety of this story becomes about Diane’s decision to enact her revenge by psychologically guilting Sam into confessing, making them both culpable in their wrongdoing. For although Sam intends to be unfaithful, Diane is ruthless in her emotional manipulation. Theatrical, hilarious, revealing offering — and deliciously theatrical too.
09) Episode 41: “Coach Buries A Grudge” (Aired: 02/16/84)
Coach learns that his late best friend once made a play for Coach’s wife.
Written by David Lloyd
This episode feels like a ’70s sitcom because it knowingly wrestles with the relationship that can exist between genuine personal tragedy and consistent character comedy. Lloyd is an ideal person for this script (just check his credits to see what I mean), and I’ve always been drawn to his ability to make you laugh really hard without undermining the truth of the drama that’s occurring. And this is a dark installment, as Coach finds himself consumed with hatred once he overhears Sam telling Diane that Coach’s late friend (for whom Coach is mourning) made an unsuccessful pass at Coach’s wife. That’s meaty material, and yet somehow, the comedy of this episode exists as equally potent. In addition to the fine performance by Colasanto, his chemistry with Long is beautiful. The final moments, eschewing comedy completely, are poignant.
10) Episode 44: “I’ll Be Seeing You (II)” (Aired: 05/10/84)
Sam and Diane fight over her decision to pose for Semenko.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Ah, the infamous Sam/Diane break-up, which consumes the entire second act and climaxes in a expertly performed sequence in which they slap each other back and forth. It’s shocking, purposefully, and helps to heighten the drama in ways that words never could. (Then it gets funny with the nose grabbing.) As with “Showdown,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” is the culmination of all of the tension that had exited between the pair in Season Two, so the abundant drama is well deserved. Christopher Lloyd, who was introduced in the episode prior as Phillip Semenko, the artist, also shares a wonderful scene with Diane, where she utters the most truthful line about her relationship with Sam: “Sometimes he hurts me and seems to like it.” That sentiment is mutual, and that’s the beauty of this offering — and season. The perfect ending to an unforgettable year. More on this one tomorrow . . .
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Sumner’s Return,” an appealing offering that presents Sam and Diane as a long-lasting couple (that’s one of the reasons that some fans like it) and also reckons with the ghost of Sumner, who as the title suggests, returns, “They Called Me Mayday,” which features a better script than story and boasts a better subplot (with Norm and an old high school rival) than the primary Sam/Diane plot, “Norman’s Conquest,” an underrated, but justifiably so, offering which utilizes one of the season’s funniest scripts but is saddled with a story that presents every single character as unlikable and is therefore completely unworkable, and “I’ll Be Seeing You (I),” which is obviously the build-up to the second half but has its fair share of comedy, particularly in the introduction of Phillip Semenko. There are a lot of others that are really worth your time, but I can’t list everything. In fact, for the most part, all 22 episodes this season actually have something recommendable — and the only script that completely doesn’t work is comedically superior and highlighted above as an HM!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Cheers goes to…..
“Fortune And Men’s Weight”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!