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, RHEA PERLMAN as Carla Tortelli, JOHN RATZENBERGER as Cliff Clavin, GEORGE WENDT as Norm Peterson, WOODY HARRELSON as Woody Boyd, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
Season Four doesn’t want to be defined, for it’s a little bit of everything; its strengths to some are perceived as weaknesses to others. In fact, my own personal sentiments about the season are more complicated than those for any other year. I could tell you that it’s an improvement over Season Three; I could tell you that it’s inferior to Season Three. Both are true. For instance, the addition of Woody, who gets the same type of jokes as Coach but has a different history, along with the growing use of Frasier Crane, allows the show to feel much more stable than it did the year prior, when two actors were pregnant and one was deathly ill. Now we have a full cast again! At the same time, Season Four is the least focused yet, and the stories regularly expand beyond the confines of the bar, thus eliminating the theatrical quality that made the early years so electric. In other words, the show is becoming more and more like any other sitcom, albeit with better defined characters. (I’d also like to mention Coach again, whose death is quietly explained in the season premiere. I discussed the way the show handled this in the comments section of another post, reprinted here: “[I]t would have been difficult to address the gravity of [his] loss while maintaining any genuine sense of hilarity, so I’m ultimately glad that there’s no Very Special Episode, where laughs are (respectfully) few. The audience knows what’s happened, so a sincere mention of the character and how much he/she is missed by the others, along with a public expression of grief on behalf of the entire cast is enough of a tribute.”)
I could also tell you that the show is returning to its roots; I could tell you that the show is attempting to chart new territory. Both are true. For instance, the dynamic between Sam/Diane sort of resets itself back to the Season One days, where they’re both single, but spend much of the year fighting their attraction for one another (and waiting for the inevitable reunion that may or may not come by season’s end). Yet at the same time, the series wants to cover new ground, taking pride in the ability to transition itself from a relationship show into a true ensemble piece, throwing many of the funniest material to the other characters, particularly Frasier and Cliff, the latter of whom really becomes a force for hilarity this year. This developing story structure is not without its growing pains, however, and it’s not until January 1986 that the transition no longer feels jarring, making the second half of the season far superior to the first.
Furthermore, I could tell you that Season Four is funnier than seasons past; I could tell you that Season Four isn’t funnier than seasons past. Both are true. For instance, the show is riskier in its comedy, occasionally breeching the sanctity of character (although, Cheers is never as guilty of this as most of the shows out there — even the ones we’ve covered) for stratospheric laughs. At this point in the series, most of the risks yield rewards, resulting in some of the funniest stuff this series has ever seen (see: “Cliffie’s Big Score”). But with both the widening narrative and comedic aperture, there are more episodic ideas that, from inception, establish themselves as inferior (see: “The Groom Wore Clearasil”). This happens to every show as it progresses, and seems to indicate a knowingness amongst the creative team (with Casey and Lee now among the producers) that the show, finally a ratings hit, has longevity; thus, there are times when the writing seems to put in less effort, knowing that they have more leeway to “coast” on past successes — and known sources of comedy. Of course, this is all subjective, and any of the mediocrity here (and again, it’s not an exorbitant amount) could simply be a result of the regular old hit-and-miss inevitably of series television (of which we saw a bit last season, for sure).
Ultimately, in spite of a comparatively higher number of lesser offerings, Season Four doesn’t make — and doesn’t have to make — as many bad decisions as Season Three did. Getting Diane, who can be a big player every week again, back to Cheers is, once again, a stretch, but the machinations are not nearly as ridiculous as they were at the start of the year prior. (It’s actually harder to rationalize Frasier’s recurring inclusion in the group, but because the character is such a welcome presence, it’s an easy leap for us to make, especially since we observed his desire to bond with the men in last season’s “The Heart Is A Lonely Snipe Hunter.”) And while the chemistry between Sam and Diane was noticeably diminished in the third season, there are a handful of offerings — many of them below — that successfully manage to recapture much of that old magic, even tricking the audience into sometimes rooting for a reconciliation, despite the obvious tragedy that was their last coupling. This is no easy feat — something only great writing and playing can accomplish. So even with all of the above observations and nitpicks noted, we’re left with another year of (mostly) great storytelling, filled with a lot of laughs, and a lot of moments worthy of attention. As usual, 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by James Burrows, except one (which has indeed been highlighted and noted below).
01) Episode 75: “I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday” (Aired: 11/07/85)
Sam gives Diane a loan to buy an original Hemingway novel.
Written by Cheri Eichen & Bill Steinkellner
Season Four opens with a string of installments that are collectively as well written as anything we’ve seen from this series, but without the usually high volume of laughs (excepting the hysterical final scene of the otherwise troublesome season premiere, in which Sam visits Diane in the convent — logic be darned — for a lot of great interplay). This particular offering is appealing not just because of the elevated comedy quotient, but also because Eichen and Steinkellner imbue the script with bountiful smarts, never once doubting the intelligence of the audience. Like much of their work, this episode actualizes the differences between Sam and Diane and their respective intellectual spheres in a way that the series hasn’t done (as well) since Season One. Great, cerebral, character laughs here — just as the show did in the very beginning.
02) Episode 78: “From Beer To Eternity” (Aired: 11/28/85)
The Cheers gang faces Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern in bowling.
Written by Peter Casey & David Lee
Structurally, this is an episode that isn’t easy to like, because so much of the strongest stuff occurs outside of the bar — in the bowling alley, to be exact — and in a sequence clearly shot without an audience. So it’s also stylistically not what this series does best. However, it’d be incredibly difficult to deny the episode’s inherent hilarity, as the Cheers gang goes up against the guys and gals from Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern for the first time (on the show). This will spark a wonderful series of annual installments, the “Bar Wars”. Note that this Gary entry is the only one to feature Diane, who really is the episode’s star, as her surprise turn as a master bowler makes for a deliciously fun twist. Meanwhile the script is filled with the appropriate number of sharp lines, with the interaction between Gary and Diane as its highlight. Plenty of good laughs!
03) Episode 80: “Don Juan Is Hell” (Aired: 12/12/85)
Sam volunteers to be Diane’s subject in her sexuality term paper.
Written by Phoef Sutton
I look to this year as one of the first in which both Sam’s intelligence (or supposed lack thereof) and his sexuality become exploited for the sake of regular dependable laughs, and this installment actually makes both of these a major part of its storyline. But this episode boasts a wonderful premise because it makes great sense: Diane, the perpetual student, would naturally be attracted to Sam intellectually and fascinated with the heretofore unexplained reasons as to why he is the way he is. Of course, beyond the well-rendered story, it helps that this episode is hilarious, building lots of great moments for Sam and Diane (some of the strongest we’ve had in a while), including a steamy final scene that, again, is reminiscent of the tension that existed in the halcyon days of Season One, which they are obviously trying to have recaptured.
04) Episode 81: “Fools And Their Money” (Aired: 12/19/85)
Thinking he’s being noble, Sam doesn’t place a bet for Woody that ends up paying off.
Written by Heide Perlman
This installment features a lot of well-made character laughs allocated out to every member of the ensemble, including Frasier, who scores the biggest guffaws with his subplot, which is actually more comedically rewarding than the primary story. His chronic correcting of Diane’s grammar both reinforces the idea that Diane has changed as a result of being at Cheers (a theme that factors into several episodes here, but will reverse itself next season) and allows more continuity regarding Frasier’s lingering unrequited feelings for Diane. Meanwhile, the A-story with Sam and Woody, although not hysterical, is sweet without being syrupy, and the way Perlman’s script parallels Sam’s relationship with Woody to Coach’s relationship with Sam is masterful — perfectly honoring Coach while bringing Woody closer into the group.
05) Episode 84: “The Triangle” (Aired: 01/23/86)
Sam pretends to still love Diane so Frasier’s confidence in his psychiatric ability will be restored.
Written by Susan Seeger
Now in the second half of the season, the show slowly begins a not-so-subtle campaign that seems poised for a finale reunion between Sam and Diane (which interestingly, doesn’t quite come), not unlike the style of what we saw in the final episodes of Season One. However, there’s so much water under the couple’s metaphorical bridge that there’s an unavoidable complexity (great for story, of course) that accompanies any possible reunion. The story in this outing concerns Sam and Diane’s attempts to restore Frasier’s sense of self-worth by giving him something to diagnose. He decides that Sam is still in love with Diane, and demands that Sam confess his feelings to her. So the centerpiece of the show is Sam and Diane’s crafting a phony story that they can tell Frasier about their mutual confession of love. Naturally, it’s a dynamically written scene that turns into, as usual, a big ol’ fight. Great for fans of these three characters and probably the season’s most satisfying exploration of the show’s core conflict at this point in its run. Burrows’ direction for this offering was Emmy nominated, and note that this is the only Cheers script by Susan Seeger, who will go on to co-create FOX’s Duet.
06) Episode 85: “Cliffie’s Big Score” (Aired: 01/30/86)
Cliff asks both Carla and Diane to be his date at an event.
Written by Heide Perlman
Although I think the episode highlighted directly above is the season’s strongest (and most indicative of what makes Sam and Diane’s fourth season dynamic fresher than you’d think), this is easily the funniest episode on today’s list. Easily. And it all comes from Ratzenberger’s Cliff, who’s clearly having a breakthrough season, developing into a source of unbridled lunacy and proving himself as a consistent purveyor of big laughs — the kind that don’t need (and actually, shouldn’t utilize) logic to work. This episode is among his finest offerings, as comedy is mined from his antagonistic relationship with Carla (whom Cliff fixes up with a date you have to see to believe) and his total inability to read women, climaxing in a misguided attempt to seduce Diane in the car ride back from the event. Hysterical outing — a classic — laughs seldom matched.
07) Episode 86: “Second Time Around” (Aired: 02/06/86)
Frasier enters a whirlwind romance with Candi, one of Sam’s ladies.
Written by Cheri Eichen & Bill Steinkellner | Directed by Thomas Lofaro
What the previous episode is for Cliff, this one is for Frasier, reaffirming that the character has untapped comedic potential outside of being an obstacle for Sam and Diane. Hindsight tells us just how rich Frasier would turn out to be, but this installment surely must have been a deciding factor in making him a regular for Season Five (where the stuff given to his character is even better). Aside from the laughs, this one is notable for introducing Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith Sternin, who appears in a brief scene as an awful date that Frasier endures. Interestingly, the episode was designed to showcase Jennifer Tilly (who’s equally hilarious — surprisingly) as Candi, a bimbo who was intended to recur as Frasier’s love interest. Their pairing is a bit of a stretch, so I understand why she was scrapped, but for one episode, it works divinely.
08) Episode 91: “Diane Chambers Day” (Aired: 03/20/86)
The gang tries to make Diane feel included by going with her to an opera.
Written by Kimberly Hill
Following an intensely emotional episode in which Sam and Diane confess their love to one another, which is actually decently amusing despite gross storytelling manipulations, this installment is the one that comes closest this season to a Sam/Diane reconciliation (and given its distinction as the year’s highest rated, I would imagine it was promoted heavily as such), only to dash all hopes at the last minute. The big-laugh story, about Diane still feeling like the fish-out-of-water as the group’s sole outsider, is one large build-up to the final Sam and Diane scene where they very nearly fall back into bed with one another. It’s such a tantalizingly frustrating turn of events when Diane decides she’s not ready, thus leading us into the final string of episodes, where Sam and Diane grow further apart, and the now inevitable cliffhanger.
09) Episode 94: “Strange Bedfellows (II)” (Aired: 05/08/86)
Janet asks Sam to fire Diane, who overhears the whole conversation.
Written by David Angell
The series finale consists of three half-hours, and while I usually feel that multi-part sagas are often unnecessary and unsatisfying, I can make an exception here, because each individual script is both necessary and satisfying. Truthfully, not one of these three installments is hilarious, but they’re each filled with indelible, worthwhile moments. This, the middle part of the trilogy, is the most excitingly strong, even if it may not be the funniest. (Although a case could be made, due to the bit where Frasier tells Max Wright’s character that Diane has undergone a sex change operation; hilarious!) Narratively, this episode provides needed closure for Frasier/Diane, and features a heavy scene between Sam and guest Kate Mulgrew that’s so marvelously well played. Oh, and Diane’s goodbye scene (now an annual attraction) ain’t too shabby either.
10) Episode 95: “Strange Bedfellows (III)” (Aired: 05/15/86)
Diane returns to cause havoc for Sam and Janet during a press conference.
Written by David Angell
As the actual finale to the season, I must admit that I find it the most hit-and-miss of the trilogy. The first act doesn’t play with the same humor as the previous two episodes, and a lot of the beats feel like retreads of what we’ve already just seen (or have been explored before — and better — in other offerings). But the second act, featuring a hilariously classic scene in which Diane, who’s left Cheers, comes to a press conference at the bar simply to antagonize Sam and jeopardize his already crumbling relationship with Janet (which she once again, overhears, in another Shakespearean, and thus forgivable, contrivance). Long and Danson do some great physical comedy, and though it’s big and broad, it’s become an iconic Cheers moment (and, in this case, deservedly). As for the cliffhanger, well, it’s a BIG moment and it feels like one…
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Diane’s Nightmare,” a surrealistic Halloween themed offering in which Andy Andy returns (it’s just not as good as the first two episodes with his character), “Take My Shirt . . . Please,” David Lloyd’s last Diane script, which revisits the theme of Sam attempting to recapture the former glory of his days as an athlete, “Suspicion,” a story-driven installment that largely contends with Diane still being the outsider and features a mediocre first act and a marvelous second, climaxing with Diane clucking like a chicken on local TV (a close contender), and “Dark Imaginings,” a sadder offering in which Sam struggles with his mortality and the thought of growing old, but features plenty of laughs to balance out the drama. All four of these are strong installments.
The year’s best cold opens are from “Take My Shirt . . . Please,” in which Diane asks the others to greet her with the reception they grant Norm (which they literally do) and, “Suspicion,” in which Sam plays The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” to help Carla relieve her stress.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Cheers goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!