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, GEORGE WENDT as Norm Peterson, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
The third season of Cheers has the dubious honor of following the first two, which both individually and collectively represent the best of this series (and frankly, this entire decade of situation comedy), and because the show is no longer at that extraordinary level of quality, the whole year gets a bit of a bad rap. Additionally, Season Three is marred by the evident physical deterioration of Nicholas Colasanto, who died during the production season, only making it into 18 out of 25 episodes (although the season finale features him in a cold open held over from earlier in the year). It’s a major loss for the series, and every single episode in which he does not appear significantly misses him. It’s the end of an era . . . and the start of another one, as Kelsey Grammer launches his 20-year run as Dr. Frasier Crane. For those who remember him best from his own series (which we’ll be covering sometime in 2017), Frasier’s a very different character here than he’ll ever be again: not as pompous, yet even less self-aware. He’s all “egghead,” and much more tightly composed than he’ll be next season even. He doesn’t share a lot of chemistry with Shelley Long’s Diane, and he’s brought on at the start of the season as her new love interest, but their characters do seem intellectually compatible, and that’s exactly what this arc needs.
Unfortunately, Diane herself is a major reason why Season Three suffers in comparison to the preceding years. Shelley Long was pregnant, and because Rhea Perlman/Carla was also pregnant (again), the decision was made not to write in Long’s blessed event. This necessitated a complete restructuring of the season’s shooting order, also requiring that Diane be used less frequently in a handful of episodes. As a result, the last few offerings of the season find Diane and Frasier away in Europe, where they are featured in a handful of short cutaway scenes (filmed in advance). The inability to use the character the way she was used before, and the accompanying opening up of the action when she goes across the pond — note that this is the first time the show regularly journeys outside either the bar or Diane’s apartment (save a few short single-cam flashes earlier in the year) — irrevocably alters the season’s balance. And the tension between Sam and Diane suffers, never quite reaching the heights that it once could. (Part of this is the simple fact that getting Diane back to Cheers after the events of last season is a MAJOR stretch that’s never 100% believable. Heck, it’s not even 60% believable. ) Sure, there are great offerings here, and many of my favorites are Sam/Diane focused, but the extenuating circumstances do take their toll. Nevertheless, in revisiting the season, I think you’ll find that, while not as good as the first two years, there’s still a great standard of quality being met (in almost every offering), 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 47: “I Call Your Name” (Aired: 10/18/84)
Sam learns that Diane called his name while making love to Frasier.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
After a heavy (although, perhaps necessary) two-parter that introduces Dr. Frasier Crane and gets Diane back to Cheers by having her stick around to save Sam from falling back off the wagon, this is the first installment to deal with the Sam-Diane-Frasier dynamic in a regularly plotted episode, and fortunately it’s very funny! The story of Diane calling out Sam’s name instead of Frasier’s is a bit sitcom commonplace, but the script (by Casey and Lee, taking a break from the miserable final season of The Jeffersons) is filled with such nuance, making for many great bits — like the Thor and Electra nicknames and Diane’s attempted Sam Goldwyn deflection. It’s one of the few offerings that qualitatively operates on the same level as Season Two, but within the unique dynamic only provided by Season Three. Great character comedy.
02) Episode 49: “Sam Turns The Other Cheek” (Aired: 11/01/84)
Sam lies about a gunshot injury to his backside.
Written by David Lloyd
You’ll notice that three of David Lloyd’s (four) scripts for this season have made my list of the best, and like his past entries that we’ve highlighted here, they’re all marked by a slightly broader form of comedy, all generally building to a traditionally rendered climax. But he knows the characters’ voices better than any other writer in today’s post and given his extensive background, we all know that he really knows comedy. As for this episode, I find the story a bit ostentatious, as any time there’s a gun involved in a situation comedy, the results are either unearned dramatics or disorientingly cartoony. This installment is closer to the latter, but frankly, the laughs are there and the episode’s accompanying (and intentional) irreverence is appreciated. In some ways, the heightened silliness looks to what’s ahead, but we’re still in a logic-filled era.
03) Episode 52: “Diane Meets Mom” (Aired: 11/22/84)
Frasier’s visiting mother makes threats on Diane’s life.
Written by David Lloyd
Sitcom fans and regular readers may notice the similarities that this episode shares with a second season Taxi offering that we highlighted here this past fall; the premise is essentially the same: regular character (Diane/Louie) meets the mom/folks of a love interest (Frasier/Zena) and the mom makes threats on his/her life. Lloyd’s take on the story is an improvement on Barry Kemp’s for Taxi, largely because it does a better job of structuring the idea, as more of the comedy comes not from nerves upon meeting the mother, but the reaction that ensues once the seemingly sweet mother makes her insanely violent comments. It’s an easy premise, but it helps to advance the Diane/Frasier arc, and because the comedy fuels the function, it’s a strong showing, with big laughs and probably among the year’s most memorable scripts.
04) Episode 54: “Diane’s Allergy” (Aired: 12/06/84)
Diane develops an allergic reaction after moving in with Frasier.
Written by David Lloyd
I think this is the most consistently comedic script of the year, and actually, the season’s strongest because it does a great job of matching big laughs with a major development in the Sam-Diane-Frasier arc: Diane and Frasier moving in together. It’s an episode with a purpose, but Lloyd knows how to make it funny; he crafts the story around Diane’s supposed allergy to Frasier’s dog, Pavlov. Just to irk Diane, Sam agrees to take Pavlov (and rename her Diane, in another bid to be obnoxious), thus removing any obstacle in Diane and Frasier’s way. But Diane’s allergy only intensifies with a bizarre vocality (and this part, in particular, plays into that typical Lloyd broadness mentioned above), leading Sam to surmise that her reaction is actually “psychosomatic.” The storytelling is incredibly funny, very in character, and once again makes the most of the third season’s unique charms, which is what the best offerings this year do.
05) Episode 56: “A Ditch In Time” (Aired: 12/20/84)
Sam regrets getting involved with a woman Diane knew at the mental institution.
Written by Ken Estin
Unlike most Cheers episodes, which are beautifully written but only thrive once given life by this fantastic ensemble cast, this is an installment that probably works better on paper than it does in execution. The story, about Sam unknowingly dating an emotionally needy and dangerously imbalanced friend that Diane met in a mental institution (as she was trying to cope with her break-up from Sam), is a great one for the show to explore, and the casting of Taxi‘s Emmy winning Carol Kane is a natural fit. But the energy is ever so slightly off, with Kane sticking out as she tries to inject larger-than-life spark in an offering that feels at half-mast. Meanwhile, some of the jokes, while of regular quality, don’t land as well with the audience. It’s a strange phenomenon, and I think it’s partly because of the diminishing tension between Malone and Chambers. However, in the larger context of the series, this is still a solid and worthwhile entry.
06) Episode 57: “Whodunit?” (Aired: 01/03/85)
Carla becomes pregnant with Frasier’s mentor’s baby.
Written by Tom Reeder
Much credit should be given to Reeder, this episode’s author, and the entire creative team for doing what is essentially the same story from one they did in Season One, Carla becoming pregnant out of wedlock (even though she already has way too many kids), and doing it in a way that’s entirely fresh — and absolutely hysterical. What makes this episode work is that, before the pregnancy announcement (which itself begets some great stuff — like the guttural reaction that Diane has to the news), the story is mostly about Carla’s relationship with an overly intellectual stuffed shirt (James Karen). But this isn’t just any stuffed shirt, this is Frasier Crane’s mentor, which naturally gives way to wonderful interplay between Carla and both Frasier and Diane. It’s an underrated favorite, and even better than its aforementioned predecessor!
07) Episode 58: “The Heart Is A Lonely Snipe Hunter” (Aired: 01/10/85)
The men haze Frasier when Diane asks them to take him along hunting.
Written by Heide Perlman
Whether this was the episode’s intention or not is unknowable, but this is the installment that proves Frasier’s durability as a character, as the series establishes a way for him to exist among the other members of the ensemble. We learn that Frasier really wants to be included and treated like “one of the guys,” and this sets up an identity for him beyond the overly analytical shrink who exists solely as an obstacle for Sam and Diane’s inevitable reunion. This new aspect of his personality will remain for the duration of the series. But aside from its necessity in the series’ trajectory, this installment is also notable for being delightfully funny and showcasing each member of the cast in a comedic and believable manner. Grammer and Long, in particular, both do some fine work, and this was on a short list of MVE contenders for the season.
08) Episode 59: “King Of The Hill” (Aired: 01/24/85)
Sam mercilessly beat the Playboy Playmates in a charity softball game.
Written by Elliot Shoenman
Strangely, this is an offering that I think functions like “A Ditch In Time,” as the idea behind the episode is strong and its overall construction would otherwise indicate another classic, in line with the iconic Sam/Diane material that made the first two years so delectable. But the collective performance is off. The audience is quieter than usual, the pace is slower than normal, and the players seem to hit the beats as if they’ve already played them all before. This is Shoenman’s only script for the series (his best credits are some laugh-heavy Maude offerings), and while it does have a formulaic quality, the premise — Sam’s competitiveness trumping his lust — is richly funny and worthy of exploration. In some ways, the simple plot makes the episode feel like it would better belong in the first season. Good-but-not-great territory.
09) Episode 60: “Teacher’s Pet” (Aired: 01/31/85)
Sam and Coach go back to school to get their high school diplomas.
Written by Tom Reeder
“Albania, Albania . . .” This episode has become synonymous with Coach’s last hurrah, even though it’s neither his last aired nor last filmed appearance. But it is the final story that makes major use of his character, and this knowledge definitely infuses the episode with a special quality, as everyone’s sweet treatment of Coach takes on a poignant sentimentality. But that doesn’t hamper any of the comedy, because Reeder has made sure that both the story and his storytelling are treated with big laughs. Naturally, Sam is polishing more than his teacher’s (the aptly named “Ms. Purdy”) apples, and this revelation means great material for Sam and Diane; it’s a testament to the script, that the performances in their office scene are so effortless, clicking with a durable quality from which several of the above installments could have benefited.
10) Episode 66: “Cheerio, Cheers” (Aired: 04/11/85)
Frasier asks Diane to move with him to Europe.
Written by Sam Simon
After a string of episodes without Coach, this installment marks the last time that he appears in a full episode. (His actual last appearance is in a held-over cold open used in the season finale.) But you’ll notice by his appearance (and Long’s smaller belly) that this offering was shot earlier in the season. This had nothing to do with Colasanto, but was a result of the heavy usage of Diane, whom they knew would be all but out-of-comission by the time this script would have otherwise come up in sequence. The European arc has never been a favorite because it takes us out of the bar and yields no great payoffs, but this installment comes the closest to any episode this year of recapturing the excitement that once previously existed between Sam/Diane, as their brief reconciliation is a beautiful letting of explosive energy.The tension that had been missing this season resurfaces, just in time to burst and, once again, evaporate.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Behind Every Great Man,” a misunderstanding driven installment that should appeal to Sam/Diane fans, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” my favorite of Nick Tortelli’s appearances in the Diane era, and “The Bartender’s Tale,” a really funny offering and the best of the Coach-less, Diane-lite offerings (and the one closest to making the above list).
The third season, in my opinion, sees the beginning of the series’ great cold opens, and thanks to a suggestion from regular reader Brandon, I’ll be sharing with you my favorite seasonal teasers for the remainder of these nine posts (well, for the seasons that have teasers worth mentioning). The best cold opens from Season Three are from “The Heart Is A Lonely Snipe Hunter,” in which “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” travels across the bar until it reaches Coach, and “Behind Every Great Man,” in which the patrons celebrate the death of the old beer keg with “Taps” and the birth of another with “Hail To The Chief.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Cheers goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!