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, KIRSTIE ALLEY as Rebecca Howe, 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.
Welcome to a new chapter of Cheers, one that favors the ensemble over a primary couple. The catalyst for this transformation, of course, is the replacement of its leading lady, Shelley Long, with Kirstie Alley, a fine comedienne who not only has big shoes to fill, but also has to transcend sometimes rocky material. You see, Alley’s Rebecca Howe is the only character from the series whose persona isn’t firmly established in her introduction. Sure, Frasier and Cliff got filled out greatly in the years following their debuts, but Rebecca actually changes from inception. The character begins as an icy antagonist, the big boss who’s going to unite the other regulars against her (which actually was the original concept for Sam/Diane, before it was decided to make the leading lady a waitress), but eventually morphs into a big-time loser, incapable of success in work, love, or life in general, despite the high goals she aims to achieve. This major shift in both writing and playing would ordinarily be bothersome, and to a certain extent, it is a bit disappointing that the audience is privy to the show’s obvious attempts to figure out how to write for her (and that’s one of the reasons that this transitional season is believed by some to be among the series’ weakest), but the development is redeemable for two reasons.
The first reason I can forgive Rebecca’s ostentatious journey is that the seeds of her future characterization are already embedded in Alley’s debut (ex: the door knob bit, which was added during rehearsal), and the second is that the evolution the audience sees is paralleled with the evolution that the other characters see; as in real life, people reveal more about themselves the longer we get to know them. In this regard, Rebecca’s development can be excused not as a change in character, but as a change in our perception of her character. She begins her tenure at Cheers trying to project an image that she wants others to perceive, only to find the veneer chipped away a bit with each passing season. So with this logic in place, I can get on board with her somewhat ill-defined depiction in Season Six, which doesn’t really fall into an acceptable place until the tail end of this collection (after she cements a stable chemistry with the cast somewhere around February 1988). And with this big metaphorical hurdle navigated, I am able to view the season not as one of the show’s weakest, but actually as a year that’s forced to navigate a heightened amount of adversity — and find ways to triumph (most of the time).
The simple truth regarding Season Six is that Kirstie Alley saves the show. Now, don’t get me wrong: were I asked to compare, the Diane years are collectively stronger than the Rebecca years (more than anything else, it’s because of the calibre of those early scripts). But the Sam/Diane dynamic was already showing strain in Season Five and there’s no way that this could have sustained for an eleven season run. Furthermore, sans a monopolizing love affair, Rebecca’s inclusion allows the show to FINALLY become an ensemble piece, with Sam now fully at its center and Rebecca, our leading lady, in the second position, possessing more narrative weight than the other members of the group (for a few years at least), but still in deference to Danson, who stations himself as the series’ emotional core. Once again, Frasier is presented as a consistent source of comedically ripe stories, and his relationship with Lilith, whom he marries towards the end of the season, provides the year with a lot of its funniest moments. In other news, Carla gets married and has two more kids, Cliff gets his own place after his mom moves to Florida, Norm starts transitioning from accountant to painter, and Woody shows an interest in the performing arts. Also, it’s worth mentioning that very few scripts here operate with only one story, as most offerings are sure to engage some of the A-story’s unused characters in a small but amiable subplot (which is sometimes funnier than the primary plot). In this regard, the show is becoming more conscious about avoiding the myopic concentration afforded to Danson and Long in the early years, of which many viewers were not fond.
Additionally, you’ll notice that very few episodes this year are set entirely in the bar, as the show’s scope continues to expand beyond the confines of a singular space. This produces new ideas, particularly for the other members of the ensemble, but also invites more traditional sitcom fare, meaning that the success of these wider-aimed stories can only be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis (and are more hit-and-miss than ever). Not surprisingly, with these grander ideas, the show’s comedic sensibilities also become broader. This was plainly evident throughout the wildly funny fifth season, and although Season Six continues this growing trend towards exaggeration, the temporary unsurety surrounding Rebecca’s viability results in a slightly more conservative storytelling, for the first half of the season at least. However, Alley’s slapstick capabilities and skill in playing heightened farce guarantee that bigger laughs — and bigger risks — are in the future. In the meantime, the show seems to enjoy throwing her more and more wacky stuff over the course of the year, so that by the finale, we’ve gotten a full survey of her unique contributions — knowledge upon which the show will capitalize next year.
We also need to talk about Sam/Rebecca, a dynamic the season takes great pains to differentiate from Sam/Diane’s. In fact, the desire to make Rebecca unlike her predecessor is, at first, all about conflict. Like Diane, Rebecca is a fish-out-of-water, but it’s not her intellect that separates her from the others — it’s her power over them. Meanwhile, true to his character, Sam makes it his mission to bed Rebecca, and although it’s buyable that she wouldn’t succumb to his charms right away, it would be much harder to logically delay his inevitable victory for a significant period of time (because, let’s face it, it’s more difficult to believe that it would have taken him longer to win Rebecca than Diane) without another obstacle in place. The solution? A season long arc in which Sam’s attempts to score with Rebecca are countered by her giant unrequited crush on their boss Evan Drake (Tom Skerritt). Now I must confess to not enjoying the Drake story because Rebecca’s growing character isn’t yet strong enough to support an arc with a side player who, let’s face it, isn’t very funny. In fact, the only moments where this storyline works is when it allows Rebecca to connect with other members of the bar, like Norm, and more specifically, Sam. (In other words, the arc only works when it decides to further her characterization instead of her story.) Also, as a means of establishing Rebecca’s vulnerability, giving her a quasi-love interest with whom her obsession is unmatched, is a bit obviously manipulative. One wishes the show could do this independent of a story.
Nevertheless, the Drake arc, though perhaps misguided, does reveal something important: even with an obstacle in place, the show is not going to be able to make the audience invest in a Sam/Rebecca pairing as quickly or as easily as they could with Sam/Diane. This necessitates that the season finale (shot earlier in the year and in advance of the upcoming Writer’s Strike, which cut this season short by one episode — and there was one script WISELY thrown out during rehearsals, in which Sam is worried about having contracted AIDS) avoid expectations by denying the sexual combustion that viewers were likely anticipating, given what happened with Diane at the end of the first season. The denial of this repetition is a very smart move, for it’s congruous with what was actually presented on screen. In fact, it’s not difficult to see that Danson and Alley have a completely different chemistry than he shared with Long. While Sam/Diane’s tension was defined by the subconscious lust that existed within the completely mismatched combination of their personalities, Sam/Rebecca have a tension that’s arisen solely from the situational combativeness, which didn’t initially allow for any believable undercurrents of passion; had a tryst happened, it would have therefore felt a narrative contrivance. Meanwhile, by season’s end, the pair have just begun to develop a strange sense of camaraderie, making a quick romance harder to achieve without some TV tap-dancing. So the show decides to wait — and see what happens with them next year. Wise. Very wise.
Ultimately, despite struggling with Rebecca’s development and being a little off-kilter comedically (from the misses mixed in with the hits), Season Six conclusively illustrates that the show can exist without Diane, and by the end of the season, a fine, consistent level of quality is established, preparing us for even better stuff ahead. In the meantime, 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Approximately two-thirds of this season’s episodes are directed by regular series director James Burrows; the ones that aren’t will be noted below.
01) Episode 122: “Home Is The Sailor” (Aired: 09/24/87)
Sam returns to find the bar completely changed under its new management.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Cheers once again shows its strength by crafting an intelligent debut episode to usher in its new era. In his first office scene with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca, Sam remarks that all of the changes she’s made to the bar have succeeded in taking his mind off of Diane, and that’s an appropriate summation of the episode itself. Of course, the show knows that it needs to address the former regular and explain officially that she hasn’t returned, but the script focuses the audience’s attention on to everything that’s changed over the past six months — Carla’s pregnancy, the new bartender, the uniforms, and, of course, the new manager — that we don’t have time to miss Diane. Also, with the Charles Brothers penning this script, there are some great laughs, particularly that Screaming Viking bit. A difficult episode to get right, but these folks succeeded.
02) Episode 123: “‘I’ On Sports” (Aired: 10/01/87)
Sam fills in as co-host on a local sports talk show.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Many will agree that this installment contains one of the most memorably hysterical sequences in the show’s history, in which Sam takes over for Dave (Sam runner-up, Fred Dryer) as a sports news commentator, providing editorials. Unfortunately, he’s not so good at this, resulting in a misguided rap (“g-g-groin, g-g-groin . . .”) that leaves the bar speechless. For this moment alone, this offering is making my list. Frankly the rest of the episode is only perfunctory, as Sam’s lack of self-awareness, while needed for this story, seems in contrast to his established character; he lacks book smarts, but isn’t buffoonishly ignorant, so these beats are always a tough sell for me. Also, the comedic climax is not the bad rap (the funniest bit), but Sam’s goofy ventriloquist act, and that takes things a little too far — would Sam really do that? (But perhaps I nitpick…)
03) Episode 126: “The Crane Mutiny” (Aired: 10/29/87)
Frasier leaves Lilith after being persuaded that Rebecca wants him.
Written by David Angell
The relationship between Frasier and Rebecca is something this series will explore briefly near the end of its run, but the seeds are planted here in this very funny episode that only works because it’s so early into her character’s tenure on the show. The premise has Norm and Cliff manipulating Frasier into believing that Rebecca has the hots for him. So in a rash decision, he leaves Lilith for Rebecca. When Lilith uncovers the truth, yielding a scene hysterically played by the divine Bebe Neuwirth, she goes down to the bar to confront Rebecca, only to learn that Rebecca barely knows Frasier. The laughs are big and broad, but the story allows Rebecca to bounce off some of the ensemble’s more colorful characters, namely Frasier and Lilith, who become engaged in the episode’s surprisingly sweet ending. Bold humor, big pay-offs.
04) Episode 128: “The Last Angry Mailman” (Aired: 11/12/87)
Cliff fights the destruction of his home, while the bar learns a secret about Rebecca.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Here we have a case that illustrates exactly how humor can elevate a script that is unfortunately saddled with a second-rate story into an offering of exceptional high quality, predicated most acutely on the entertainment value. I won’t mince words; the story of Cliff trying to protest the destruction of his childhood home isn’t very good, and the plotting, which culminates in a big gaudy scene where he chains himself to a beam, doesn’t work. But Cliff and Ma Clavin (Frances Sternhagen) are such hysterical presences, especially when together, that they overcome the rotten premise. Meanwhile, the subplot of the bar patrons trying to uncover more about “Backseat Becky,” Rebecca’s college nickname, is both funny and narratively superior, making for another gradual step into the character’s assimilation into the show’s weekly groove.
05) Episode 129: “Bidding On The Boys” (Aired: 11/19/87)
To spite her fiancé Frasier, Lilith buys Sam in a charity auction.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Thomas Lofaro
My pick for the funniest installment of the year, this episode converges a storyline involving Frasier and Lilith fighting over his proposal of a pre-nuptial agreement with the charity bachelor auction that Rebecca is hosting in the bar. The auction sequence in the first act is comedically superior to the otherwise enjoyable second act (in which Lilith makes Sam take her to Cape Cod while Frasier follows in jealous pursuit), but the entire episode is amusingly crafted. Rebecca thinking she’s won Sam, after her attempt to “up” the bidding looks like it’s failed, is a highlight, as is the woman that wins Woody, a chain-smoking deep voiced broad whose intentions aren’t “honorable.” All of the bits involving this character, played by Sharon Barr, never fail to leave me in stitches. An absolute favorite — great for Lilith/Frasier fans — with earned laughs.
06) Episode 137: “Yacht Of Fools” (Aired: 02/04/88)
Rebecca, Sam, and Sam’s date who’s masquerading as his sister, vacation on Drake’s yacht.
Written by Phoef Sutton | Directed by Thomas Lofaro
One of the few Evan Drake episodes that really works well both comedically and narratively, it’s success is precisely because the story is more about Sam’s growing relationship with Rebecca than just Rebecca or Rebecca’s crush on Evan Drake. The yacht setting, along with the inclusion of Sam’s date (who has to pretend to be his sister because of the lie they’ve already told Drake about Sam and Rebecca being a couple), allows for a pretty amusing bedroom farce, a genre that this series will become very adept at delivering in future seasons. The highlight of the offering is the near sexual encounter between Sam and Rebecca, who’s just learned that Evan is planning a romantic dalliance of his own with Sam’s “sister”. This is one of the few electric moments for the pair in Season Six. And although this one is set almost entirely out of the bar, it’s a favorite.
07) Episode 138: “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” (Aired: 02/11/88)
At his bachelor party, Frasier has doubts about marrying Lilith.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
This episode has plenty of laughs, but it’s one of the few installments on today’s list that I include here not strictly for comedic purposes. Rather, this is among a select number of scripts that don’t have any major scenes set outside the bar, and the limiting of the action into our established space feels like a return to the formula of the early, more magically theatric, seasons (an element that initially made Cheers so special). Also, this is a very character-driven offering, providing consistent moments for each member of the ensemble (and, it must be noted, that this season is very often good at this), and furthering the small arc of Frasier’s engagement to Lilith. The highlight: not Lilith’s drunk but, but Frasier’s revelation that the stripper is one of his patients. “This certainly won’t square things between you and your father.”
08) Episode 139: “Let Sleeping Drakes Lie” (Aired: 02/18/88)
Rebecca gets stuck in Evan Drake’s closet when he comes home early.
Written by David Lloyd
As the only other Evan Drake episode to make my selections of the year’s best, I must confess that the episode has elicited alternate responses from me over the years. I’m a big fan of physical comedy, so I appreciate all of the slapstick gags that Alley’s Rebecca does as she tries to sneak out of Drake’s bedroom, as well as the kooky, and highly absurd, beat of Norm carrying a rich man across the lawn as all of his friends watch. It’s funny. But sometimes I feel that this kind of humor isn’t a great fit for Cheers, especially when set so far away from the bar and with a character (Evan Drake) who isn’t amusing in the slightest. But the performances are good, and Lloyd’s script does its part to inject logical laughs, especially in the enjoyable subplot of Sam courting a woman whom he thinks is a dance aficionado (but really is a pyromaniac).
09) Episode 144: “Bar Wars” (Aired: 03/31/88)
Cheers continues its rivalry with Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Truthfully, there are honorable mentions that probably have both better and a higher volume of laughs. But this episode is a narrative victory, for it introduces the long-running Bar Wars series of installments that will exist from now until the end of the series (these are picking up, of course, from a very funny fourth season offering in which Cheers beats Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern in bowling). Some of the humor in this particular script, which Levine notes on his blog was essentially performed as a first draft — sans necessary rewrites — due to the Writer’s Strike, is a little juvenile, repetitive, and flat, but no one is written out of character. So although some tightening would be in order, there are no holes. Favorite moments include Carla tapping into Gary’s cable with a video of Cliff and Norm reading poetry, and Rebecca’s desire for vengeance.
10) Episode 145: “The Big Kiss-Off” (Aired: 04/28/88)
Sam and Woody have a bet to see who can get a kiss from Rebecca first.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Another offering that never leaves the bar, this very funny outing is, again, reminiscent of the tight storytelling that we saw every week in the first two seasons of Cheers. Although the contest angle is a common sitcom beat, and one that, as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I find to be inherently more story-driven than character-driven, the script never sacrifices its players for its premise. Furthermore, this is another episode to which I look as nobly cementing Rebecca’s place, not just as a viable character, but as a worthy member of the ensemble, for her interplay with everyone, particularly Woody and Sam, reveals her to be — finally — one among the gang (reinforced by her conspiring with Carla). And, of course, there are so many great laughs here that this highly enjoyable excursion was, without a doubt, the only major MVE runner-up.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “And God Created Woodman,” a finely written script that rises above a mediocre premise, and “Slumber Party Massacred,” in which Carla goes into a depression after learning that Anthony has knocked up Annie (a real contender for the list). Also, there are two episodes with moments indelible enough to elevate their stature: “My Fair Clavin,” which gives us a great subplot of Rebecca trying to quit smoking by bartering with Sam that she’ll sleep with him if she has another cig, and “Airport V,” which boasts a hysterical scene of Frasier panicking in front of his fear of flying group (and this one also features a subplot involving Rebecca and a bar critic that’s MUCH better than the primary Carla-Frasier story).
My selection for the strongest and most memorable cold open in Season Six is from “‘I’ On Sports,” in which Sam, Woody, and Carla destroy their new uniforms.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Cheers goes to…..
“Bidding On The Boys”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
I have been itching to pose this question to you for a day now–you have basically become my sitcom guru, I do a cyber pilgrimage to your blog week after week—it may not be germane but it has been nagging me and I think this is the best(not perfect) place to ask. Well, here’s the background Swami: Sunday night I was watching the James Burrow tribute special(which you might have watched yourself), when I realized that between the shows of his early career(eg Taxi and the currently reviewed Cheers) and later career(Mike&Molly and The Big Bang Theory) there is a sizable gap in quality(the gulf between the rich man and Lazarus was smaller). You could use Burrows’ career to track the decline in the caliber of multi camera sitcom writing. It seems as the multi camera sitcom has become nothing more than ratings fodder, wastelands of adolescent, cheap humor; the television equivalent of junk food(no substance).Now, it’s only the singlecam sitcoms that garner any real critical acclaim. So I guess the questions I’m positing are these: Is the mulicam sitcom a lost art? Have the days of smartly written, tightly plotted multicam sitcoms like Cheers a distant memory?
Hi, David! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thank you for your kind words — and for the meaty question. The current state of multi-camera sitcoms is something that’s never far from my mind, and I discuss this quite a bit with anyone foolish enough to engage. In fact, my cousin emailed me several months ago asking for my thoughts on MULANEY, a short-lived multi-cam from NBC’s 2014-2015 season. Here’s the bulk of what I told him:
“Single-camera shows, as you know, are now in vogue. They’re faster, sleeker, and visually more realistic. They’re also easier to write. A bad joke comes and goes so quickly that it can pass unnoticed. In a multi-cam, which developed as a natural extension of radio, a bad joke lingers because there are people there laughing — regardless of whether or not it’s funny. One of the biggest complaints I hear about multi-cams is that people hate the “laugh track”, and justifiably, because it’s insulting for a viewer to be told when to laugh, especially at things that don’t deserve a response.
“The truth is that all multi-camera shows are shot live, but the laughs are replaced/sculpted/sweetened in post so that they sound incredibly manipulated by the time they make it to broadcast. So what was once natural has become artificial, and unlike sitcoms of decades past (in which the sound mix was less complicated, and producers left in all the coughing/sneezing and “buzz” that originally existed from the audience mics), the feeling of intimacy is entirely lost. And that’s what should make multi-cams special.” [Note: I discussed this at length here on this blog: http://jacksonupperco.com/2015/07/01/editorial-on-television-and-intimacy ]
“Storytelling has changed as well; most sitcoms feature multiple plots per episode (another trend made popular with SEINFELD), necessitating short scenes, quick jokes, and no time for anything unrelated to the story/ies. This is acceptable, and appreciated, in a single-camera show, which is aesthetically like a motion picture and can pull off the frenetic multi-narrative action. But a show shot in front of an audience, like a play, cannot handle this type of storytelling because it’s jarring to watch (and doesn’t take advantage of the theatricality that should engender this type of set-up — but that’s another story).
“Also, with the ratio of content to adverts continually shrinking, there’s less and less time for each plot. ALL IN THE FAMILY had 25 minutes to tell one story. THE BIG BANG THEORY has 21 minutes to tell three — that’s 7 minutes each. You have to be exceptional to pull that off satisfyingly on a regular basis. And because producers of multi-cam shows are trying to win in a game overpopulated by single-cams, they feel like they have to adapt to rules that shouldn’t apply to them. It’s a sad irony.
“However, there are two main things that a multi-cam of today must do. The first is establish a reason why it’s going to be shot in front of an audience. MULANEY has an automatic explanation — his career as a standup. Mulaney’s repartee with a live audience justifies the multi-camera format. The other important thing a multi-cam of today must do is be amazing. Multi-cams need genuine comedy to work (because of the accompanying laughter), whereas a single-cam can coast on being “cute” and “amusing.” (Humorous in tone, not always in content.) In this regard, multi-cams are a bigger creative risk, because when they’re bad, they’re horrendous; but when they’re brilliant, there’s nothing better.”
I went on to flesh out my thoughts on MULANEY, but I’ll spare you those and reinforce the point that multi-cams now have to be funnier than single-cams, which makes them harder to produce, and by design, more susceptible to criticism. As for why there are no outstanding multi-cams on today, one of the primary reasons is that they do themselves no favors by narratively attempting to replicate single-cam values, with which they can never compete aesthetically. They have to be better — but only on their own terms.
So, I’m sorry to confirm that there is no CHEERS today. It’s a distant memory. But there’s other stuff worthy of attention, like MOM, which I and many of my fellow multi-cam lovers believe is the best of the format on today. It’s a Lorre specialty, which means some easy jokes and plenty of vulgarity, but the writing is able, 75% of the time, to either deliver one single story with many moving parts (so that it’s digestible for those who need their comedies fast and furious) or two stories that converge narratively and/or thematically somewhere within the second/third act (so that there’s a clear reason for the two stories co-existing within the same 21 minutes). THIS IS ESSENTIAL IF YOU’RE HAVING TWO OR MORE STORIES NOT SET IN THE SAME LOCATION.
Also, I often say that MOM is the grandchild of a Norman Lear comedy, because it tackles serious issues like addiction and recovery, and regularly features gut-wrenching dramatic moments (heck, last week’s original episode featured a recurring character, a teen, dying of an overdose) that are played in earnest and then balanced extraordinarily by HUGE laughs, often from the Emmy-winning Allison Janney. The show, however, is not “about” issues; it’s about characters and their relationships — and that’s precisely why I appreciate the writing and think it’s the best we’ve got right now.
So the style isn’t completely a lost art, but the most visible staples (I’m speaking primarily of THE BIG BANG THEORY and the recently departed TWO AND A HALF MEN) give an inaccurate reflection of why multi-camera shows were the format of choice throughout much of the ’70s-’90s, because the current ones neglect to highlight the lengthy story exploration, breathable character moments, and immediate (theatrical) charm that made them once attractive to master producers like Grant Tinker and Norman Lear.
However, I do believe multi-cams will always be represented, even though they will not be the majority and they will not be viewed as quality — until there are several of them that demand and deserve respect. It may go without saying, but the only way that I see them making a comeback is if there comes a string of multi-camera hits (let’s say three in one season) that are OVERWHELMINGLY better than their single-camera competitors. They can’t be “as good” — they have to be undeniably better. And most of the multi-cams now, some due to perceived risk and some due to small talent, are incapable of rising to the challenge.
I usually don’t like Chuck Lorree’s shows but I like MOM. I would recommend it!! All comedies are pretty raunchy today, but this show isn’t nearly as lewd as TWO AND A HALF MEN and it’s not totally declined like THE BIG BANG THEORY which I haven’t enjoyed in years.
I don’t consider myself a prude, but I was also bothered by the subject matter of TWO AND A HALF MEN, especially because the show became more and more reliant on sex jokes as the primary source of laughs. As for THE BIG BANG THEORY, a second season episode of which I actually saw filmed, my problem has always been with the weekly storytelling, specifically the structure of each script. I feel like almost every episode has a single good idea that isn’t fully explored because there’s one or two lesser subplots that the script decides to employ as well. The end result then becomes the equivalent of three appetizers of varying quality; that can be quite tasty, but most of the time, I’m more interested in consuming a main course. (Pardon the tortured metaphor!)
I won’t report the tortured metaphor this time, but next time you will incur a grammatical rights violation. Maybe I have given up on the multicam sitcoms a little too soon, I’ll trust your discriminating sensibilities and give MOM a shot(which is what I would love to give my tv when I see those other asinine programs). I say we should all stand in solidarity and exercise our rights by petitioning for quality multicam sitoms; if we can petition for Justin Beiber to be deported, we can certainly put that to better service in a worthy cause like this
I had a professor who noted that within the industry’s attempts to reconcile “show” with “business,” no content creator actually wants to deliver a bad product. And yet most of the time, *stuff* happens and they do deliver a bad product. (Stuff, of course, is used in place of another word, which itself is used to imply the many different factors that conspire, through varying cross purposes, to prevent a show from working.) Although I have always been one to believe that individuals have more control over their successes and failures than they’d likely want to believe, the point of her story was that if quality cannot be guaranteed by the people who have the most at stake, as audience members, we haven’t got a chance of impacting an outcome either. But quality is a conceptual term — subjective and impossible to promise.
However, while audiences can’t influence quality, we can create a hit by watching. And we impact the business by dictating trends. If a large portion of the collective audience decides that it all of a sudden loves musical dramas, we’re quickly going to see a lot of musical dramas. Using this logic, we could presumably get more multi-cams on the air by watching the few multi-cams that they’ve already given us. After all, if networks increase the volume of multi-cams getting produced, the higher their chances are of stumbling upon ones that work. Perhaps a wave of similar shows would then ensue.
But in the quest to impact the types of programming we want to see, we’d still have to endure material that doesn’t adhere to our personal views of quality. That’s easier said than done. And even if we were to get more of the types of shows we want to see, once again, there’d be no guarantee of quality. In fact, it’s more likely that we’ll get the same old stuff, because after all, if we’re already watching, the networks think all they need to do is replicate the formula. So the best way, and currently the only way, to encourage the networks to produce quality, as we individually know it, is to watch the shows that we actually believe are quality. And if there are none, we’re *stuff* out of luck.
We’re already here. In fact, I think we’re at the point where it’s completely out of our hands. It’s now up to the content creators, who can’t guarantee quality but fight their hardest while trying. That’s why I want to be one of them.
You like Modern Family
When the series debuted, I thought it had a fresh voice that was filling a previously neglected demand. But I think its strengths have diminished considerably with each passing season, and unlike FRASIER, I don’t think the Television Academy called it right when they gave the show the Outstanding Comedy Award for three consecutive years after its first two much stronger seasons, for a total of five years in a row. (But then again, the lack of viable competition has often helped disguise MODERN FAMILY’s shortcomings.)
I’m guessing the folks behind the scenes at CHEERS either decided they were going in the wrong direction with Rebecca, or realized that Kirstie Alley was a lot funnier as a chronic screw-up who was one of the gang than as a coldly efficient ball-buster who was pitted against everyone else. One of the things I like that they did with Rebecca was to avoid the temptation to try to replicate traits that had worked for Diane. For example, by not putting Rebecca and Carla into the same kind of adversarial relationship that Carla had with Diane. It would have been much too easy to simply write Rebecca as Diane. They didn’t do that. They let Rebecca develop in her own way, and I think the character benefitted enormously from that. Rebecca never became “Diane-lite.” I hate the sitcom habit of replacing one character with another character who’s really nothing more than a rewritten version of the original. For example, while I don’t dislike the character of Woody, it too often feels to me that the sole reason for his existence on the show is to provide a source for the same sort of “dumb” comedy they used to do with Coach and, as with Coach, to have a character around who doesn’t always get it, and has to have whatever’s going on explained to him — a very handy trait if you need to keep the audience caught up on the exposition. Yeah, there’s a big age difference between Woody and Coach, and yeah, the character’s backstories are very different, but Woody rarely comes off (to me) as anything other than a rewritten version of Coach, and that keeps me from ever really warming to him.
Hi, Nick! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I largely agree with you and my preference is also for Coach over Woody. (As with Diane vs. Rebecca, Coach simply got better writing than Woody did.) I specifically agree that the show uses them for almost exactly the same jokes, and that does feel a bit easy. But CHEERS maximized its usage of Woody in ways that were never even attempted with Coach (although who knows what might have been), so he’s ultimately a redeeming character for me because of all the new avenues of pursuit allowed by his inclusion on the series. Indeed, I think there’s no contest in this regard: Woody was clearly a much easier character around whom they could craft story. In fact, I think one of the unspoken strengths of this season, and next season in particular, is the expansion of the Woody character so that by the later years he’s not just anchoring plot lines, but anchoring really funny plot lines. And because the source of his comedy never wavers over the series’ trajectory — he was goofy from inception — Woody is able to go through the run without becoming a caricature (unlike, well, no names… yet), thus making him dependable when it comes to laughs.
Hi, Jackson. I’m glad to see that my favorite episode from this season, “The Big Kiss-Off”, made your list of favorites too. The climactic final scene was hilarious for me, and I love how it did make Rebecca one of the “guys” in not letting Sam or Woody take advantage of her, though she follows that with a statement that let us know that she does [of course] let Evan Drake do that.
I thought “Let Sleeping Drakes Lie” was funny too, and it did get the show out of the bar for a change. I’ve never seen this installment of “Bar Wars”, but I think it’s worth a look sometime when Me-TV comes back around to it.
What did you think of the season finale, “Backseat Becky – Up Front”? I don’t see it in your list of favorites or HMs. Was it too dramatic for you, or too much story in one episode? I remember it did write Evan Drake out of the show permanently, so maybe you were happy with that development at least. I remember Tom Skerritt seemed to by the busiest actor in Hollywood for the two years following his appearance in TOP GUN, culminating in his run as Evan Drake.
Finally did you like Eddie LeBec as a character this season? I see from IMDB that he made most of his appearances this season, with one final appearance the next season, and then his eventual comedic (off-screen) passing. It was nice to see Carla somewhat happy & settled down, at least for a couple years.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Good questions. You know, I think “Backseat Becky, Up Front” is worthy of some discussion, just not as it pertains to the finest of the season. As usual, the simple answer is always, “this is a good episode that’s overshadowed by stronger offerings,” but there’s more to it than that. And, it must be said, you’re starting to know me so well — I do think there’s a lot of story ground the episode has to cover that suffocates what could be some potentially rewarding character beats.
But first I’ll tell you what I like about the offering. I think where the installment most succeeds, to which I alluded in the above post, is in giving us a full circle look at Rebecca’s characterization in Season Six. Contrast the uptight you-know-what we met in the season premiere with the hysterical loser we see in the season finale; talk about both change and range! Similarly, I think the episode is one of Alley’s most animated efforts of the year, serving as a preview of what’s ahead for her on this series. I also like the way Sam handles Rebecca: he’s hot for her, but he’s not going to jeopardize their new friendship. It’s noble, but also in character, and as mentioned above, I really appreciate the “wait and see” decision on behalf of the producers regarding the pair’s potential romance — even if it doesn’t make for a very enjoyable scene in and of itself.
On the other hand, I think something hindering the episode’s overall appeal is that, in comparison to the majority of the other season finales — most of which are bigger, while a few of which (like next season’s) are smaller — this is one that doesn’t comedically stack up as strong. Like other finales, it serves a narrative purpose, but this time it’s for an arc that never completely worked; so if this episode is going to succeed, it has to be funnier than an average entry. And it’s not. Yet what’s even more painful is how hard the episode tries to be REALLY funny, with big broad slapstick laughs that end up being hit-and-miss. (More hits than misses, though.)
Also, for a season where the ensemble continues its rise in prominence, I think the show owes us an entry that’s not so narrowly focused on Rebecca. In fact, aside from the final scene, in which Sam takes back control of the story, it’s really a Rebecca-fest, and I don’t think, given the storyline and her recent characterization struggles, that’s the satisfying experience we need to close out this somewhat shaky season. So what I think this episode ultimately illustrates is that while Alley could possibly carry an episode by this point in her tenure, Rebecca still isn’t yet capable of doing so. That will change soon though…
As for Eddie, I’m sorry to say I don’t have much to say (for once). Dead or alive; it’s basically the same. Although I don’t mind seeing Carla happy, I don’t think his character brings anything worthwhile to the show — aside from an easy explanation for Perlman’s third pregnancy. However, I will add that Carla probably works better as a character when she’s single. And as you will see in two weeks, I’ll have some thoughts to share about the episode that handles his character’s sudden death! Stay tuned…
I must say that that episode is prob in my top 10 fav episodes of the series. Such a dark but funny episode.
Now to the season, I can understand how you say Rebecca was not fully formed yet and I most definitely share your opinion on your thoughts. One episode I liked is Woody for Hire Meets Norman of the Apes. What are your thoughts
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
You’re the first person I’ve ever seen cite “Backseat Becky, Up Front” as one of their all-time favorites. What do you like best about it?
I think “Woody For Hire Meets Norman Of The Apes” features two broad stories that don’t converge narratively or have any thematic reason for being within the same episode.
I actually meant Death Takes A Holiday On Ice
Ah, that makes more sense. Stay tuned in two weeks for my thoughts!
I agree that I love the multi-camera better than the single camera (my one exception would be Scrubs). What do you think about Undateable? The plots can be weak but I love the live audience and the show being live. It seems different for a change but a good change. I wish more shows would go live.
Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I adore live television and would like to lead a mini-revolution that restores intimacy to the small screen. In my mind, that means more live programming. This is a link I share often: http://jacksonupperco.com/2015/07/01/editorial-on-television-and-intimacy/
The problem with UNDATEABLE is that switching from a regular multi-cam to being 100% live (the first sitcom to do so since ROC’s middle season in the early ’90s) has not improved the writing, which even you recognize as often being “weak.” In this regard, UNDATEABLE could be classified as another multi-cam that doesn’t do a good job of representing the format; but in this case, it’s not because the show rejects theatrics, it’s simply because the show isn’t amazing. In fact, it’s far from amazing. And it’s not just reflecting poorly on multi-cams — it’s reflecting poorly on live TV.
I think we have to credit the viewers for being able to smell a gimmick. NBC is trying anything and everything right now — not for the sake of quality content, but in the hope of getting us to tune out of CBS (highest total ratings) and ABC (great in women/minorities demos) in favor of them. Unfortunately, using liveness as a gimmick (and make no mistake, UNDATEABLE was only renewed contingent upon them testing out this new selling point) makes them look grossly commercial and also weakens the chance for a live show that really deserves to be live (and benefits from the set-up) from ever getting a fair chance by the public, for it’ll instinctively be considered a desperate remedy for a series that wasn’t working anyway.
Shelley Long may have had more acting chops than Kirstie Alley, but Alley was funnier. And, as you say, her comic gifts may not be wholly evident yet in this season, but by Season 8, she was definitely killing it. (Her drunken rendition of “We’ve Got Tonight,” which is in either Season 8 or 9, is probably Kirstie Alley’s funniest moment on the series.)
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
You’re thinking of “Days Of Wine And Neuroses” from Season Nine — an episode and a season about which I’ll have a lot to say! (Okay, I’ll spoil: I agree that this installment contains her finest work on the series.)
But I’ll always be reluctant to label Alley a funnier actress than Long, because I think Long supported her laughs with an extraordinary depth that went unmatched by any other performer on the series. Yet by the same metaphorical token, I’ll never knock Alley’s material-elevating abilities as a comedienne. In fact, I got into a discussion on Facebook last evening with someone who attributed the rocky sixth season to Alley’s lack of ability. I disagreed entirely, for my point-of-view has always been that the writing was to blame for Rebecca’s characterization problems (which, I must warn you now, will likely be discussed in every remaining CHEERS post, because the issues never completely disappear, they’re just disguised). However, I want to share my defense of Alley here:
“Rebecca as initially conceived had no source of comedy, so they wrote to Alley’s strengths — allowing the actress the opportunity for laughs and establishing the character beyond the situational limitations that had previously governed her presentation. (As always, a story/situation does not a character make — Alley helped connect the dots.)… I think there are several episodes, primarily in the three upcoming seasons, where Alley elevates already great material, a talent that’s not often delineated when discussing performers who regularly deliver great material and are therefore labeled great themselves (Betty White). Unfortunately, I don’t think Alley has ever been given anything as strong as what she was given on CHEERS. However, to your point, even on CHEERS her characterization varies depending on the season, and sometimes, the episode, destroying any chance of recreating the consistency that Shelley Long was granted/created with Diane. (But, again, I put most of Rebecca’s ills on the scripts, which defined the character in contrasting ways and then tried to reconcile an incarnation that took the best of everything.)”
There’ll be plenty more on this topic, particularly that last sentence, in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned…
Another wonderful blog! Insightful thoughts in the post and really good stuff here in the comments too!
I just finished watching this whole season on DVD and I didn’t like “Back Seat Becky, Up Front” either but I couldn’t put my finger onto why. Your words helped me form some of my own thoughts. I grew to like Rebecca over the course of these episodes but even by the end she’s still so… Not fully formed yet. If I recall, next season is a big leap forward for her.
Thanks again for this. I look forward to these each Tuesday and I already can’t wait for next week!!
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thank you for your kind words — I look forward to each Tuesday as well. Next season’s going to be particularly fun to discuss; stay tuned!
“Bidding on the Boys” has to be my favorite of the season too!!! The chain-smoker who won Woody, I have to say was funnier (though not much) than Lilith winning Sam. But Lilith stripping Sam down as Frasier storms into the room was hilarious. I am in that group that prefers the Rebecca years over Diane years because it became an ensemble show, but I still loved the Diane character too. I just loved Cheers as a whole anyway. I don’t think there was ever a bad episode in this show.
Hi, Zach! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Seven!
Great season six review. I actually like this season quite a bit because it provides some huge laughs such as Screaming Vikings in “Home is the Sailor” and Sam’s Rap in ” I On Sports”.
But, “And God Created Woodman” has hands down my favorite sight gag with the whole squeaky shoes bit. I love when Rebecca yells “fire” and everyone runs out of the bar squeaking on their way out.
Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I actually don’t like the “sound” gag (in this case) of the squeaking shoes, although I do admit that it is memorable; I appreciate the episode most for the strength of its dialogue, particularly at the party sequence.