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!