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, BEBE NEUWIRTH as Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
Woody meets his future wife, Lilith announces her pregnancy, and Rebecca officially feels like a fully integrated member of the ensemble in the hilarious seventh season of Cheers, which was the first to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series since Season Two. This is well deserved, for although every season of this series has had a handful of episodes that made the case for why Cheers was still the best on television, I must agree with the Academy (who also voted to give awards to both Harrelson and Perlman, her fourth) in that this is the most universally enjoyable year since the second. Unlike Season Three, which had to deal with several unexpected actor circumstances; Season Four, which had to revive the dynamic between Sam/Diane while focusing on the ensemble; Season Five, which had to further the arc of the primary couple and then deal with a leading lady departure; and Season Six, which had to introduce a new character and then struggled with how to present her; the seventh season can just focus on both the characters and the laughs. No storytelling strings. No cast changes. This freedom from all overriding necessities invigorates the show, and while Season Six tried to tell us how Cheers could exist without Diane, Season Seven conclusively tells us that Cheers can be just as good without Diane as it was with her. And for some viewers, maybe even better.
Now, I still prefer the first two one-act-esque seasons, as each progressive year moves us farther away from the bar (and this year there’s only one episode that never leaves the primary setting), but the comedy is so on point that I can honestly claim, as I did in the very beginning, that there’s not a single episode in this collection that I completely dislike. In fact, the show is funnier than ever, finding an appropriate balance between the ensuing trend towards broad farce and the logical character-centered storytelling that distinguished the series in its Nielsen-challenged beginning. Sure, it’s true that the show will get even funnier in seasons to come, and my pick for the funniest season is thus still to come, but Season Seven is probably the best written of all the Rebecca seasons and for that reason, it’s one I often cite as my favorite — even though my loyalty is split between this and that upcoming year. But why specifically is this season so strong? Aside from the lack of both narrative weight and those pesky machinations that plagued the other seasons noted above, every single character — including the previously struggling Rebecca — is clicking, and this is the first season, and maybe even the only season, where every regular is given both laudable moments to shine individually and delectable moments to shine alongside characters with whom they don’t regularly interact. (It’s a true ensemble here, folks!) Furthermore, characters like Norm and Carla, who I’ve long said were better reactive agents than active agents and therefore weren’t great for story, actually star in scripts that not only work for them, but work for the show and its developing humor.
Also, the presentation of Rebecca, which was discussed last week and will be discussed in probably every remaining Cheers post, is key to this season’s success. While Kirstie Alley’s first year on the show saw the writers slowly trying to transition her character from the uptight boss-lady that formed Rebecca’s initial on-paper description to the hopeless zany that Alley was naturally portraying, Season Seven decides to let the actress’ natural talents dictate Rebecca’s presentation. As a result, zany slapstick abounds, and because this is what Alley should have been doing from the start, the comedy works well and grants the character a genuine opportunity to anchor her own successful episodes. Additionally, unlike later seasons, this broad presentation of the character isn’t without common sense (always essential for this viewer), and since our memory of her starkly different existence in Season Six is still fresh, the scripts know they need to do their best to smooth out the transition. One of their solutions is to introduce the idea of Rebecca being a gold-digger, a woman of the ’80s who wants fabulous wealth but realizes she’s such a loser that she probably won’t get it on her own. (This facet of the character informs much of what she does in the two upcoming seasons.) The two years’ wildly dichotomous depictions are not completely reconciled against one another, but in this case, we’re willing to accept the show’s decent efforts to connect the two presentations, simply because the character, for the first time, is working — and working incredibly well. But keep your eye on this one, because there’ll be more to discuss ahead.
As for the dynamic between Sam and Rebecca, the show continues his character’s pursuit of hers, but because their friendship is already becoming a major component of the series (not to mention a reason for Rebecca’s newfound viability), the show is careful not to make a romance seem imminent. I believe it’s because the show wasn’t yet sure if it wanted to commit in making them romantic, because last season proved more difficult in that regard than anticipated, but there are two specific installments that make the idea look both possible and, surprise surprise, appealing. The first is the season premiere (an honorable mention) which does the most for transitioning us from Season Six to Season Seven, and the second is “Hot Rocks,” discussed below, in which Sam and Rebecca have their first kiss and exhibit a sexual chemistry that’s never been matched by them — before or since. Once again, however, the show decides to take this potential story slowly, pushing off its likely exploration for another season. This is, again, a smart decision in a season of smart decisions. And not surprisingly, given all of these wonderful components, this was a particularly tough list to make — even though the series was abbreviated to only 22 episodes due to the 1988 Writers Strike that delayed every series by a month. So please bear in mind that the honorable mentions in this post are really strong and were seriously considered for the primary list. But, after much deliberation, 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode except for one, not mentioned below, is directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 148: “Swear To God” (Aired: 11/03/88)
Sam vows to give up sex after a brush with fatherhood.
Written by Tom Reeder
This script is carried over from the sixth season, which was cut one episode short due to the 1988 Writers Strike. I’ve always suspected that this funny entry, about Sam’s vow with God to give up sex if it turns out that he’s not the father of an ex’s child (a great premise for Sam, by the way), may have had something to do with the AIDS show that went into production, but was wisely pulled in favor of the broadcast season finale, which the producers knew needed to get in the can before the strike. (It’s just conjecture on my part, but change “not the father” to “don’t have HIV” and it makes a lot of sense.) Anyway, this is a strong episode for Danson, and Reeder’s script is one of the season’s sharpest, including a dozen memorable bits — like Frasier’s iconic question to Cliff: “What color is the sky in your world?” A classic and a favorite!
02) Episode 152: “Norm, Is That You?” (Aired: 12/08/88)
Norm becomes an interior decorator and pretends to be gay to make a deal.
Written by Cheri Eichen & Bill Steinkellner
We’ve seen plenty of sitcom episodes in which one character mistakingly perceives another character to be gay, and on the reverse, we’ve seen plenty of sitcom episodes in which one character pretends to be gay for some explained purpose (heck, that was the whole concept of Three’s Company). But the latter, which is what this hysterical episode presents, is explored less often, and certainly never with a character as Everyman as Norm Peterson. That’s part of what makes the premise so deliciously funny, as Norm’s burgeoning career as an interior decorator (following his transition into painting last season) has potential clients practically expecting Norm to flame. So he gives them exactly what they seem to want. The bit where he tries to pass off Sam as his boyfriend is the comedic highlight, but it’s just one moment in a consistently comedic script, which makes the series’ best usage of Norm (who gets to interact with Frasier and Lilith, two of the richest characters for story). Also, you’ll note that we haven’t seen a lot of Norm episodes covered on this blog, for reasons explained elsewhere, so the fact that this outing works so well is a treat — and part of why it’s my choice for the year’s best.
03) Episode 153: “How To Win Friends And Electrocute People” (Aired: 12/15/88)
Cliff decides to use shock therapy to cure his personality shortcomings.
Written by Phoef Sutton
In my thoughts on the season, I mentioned that the year found a nice balance between the broader, more unrealistic modes of storytelling with the logic-infused fare that the series presented early in its run. But this requires clarification, and this offering can serve as Exhibit A. Many episodes here don’t quite reach an appropriate equality between the two disparate forms of comedy; instead, there’s a little more of one or the other, yet because the end result is delectable, we excuse whatever shortcomings may result from the imbalance. (And often, it’s a pleasure to do so.) In this episode, the premise of Cliff resorting to shock therapy to alter his personality is totally unbelievable. But Ratzenberger’s performance is hilarious, making the whole affair worthwhile. Additionally, it’s great to see Cliff play directly off Frasier.
04) Episode 155: “Send In The Crane” (Aired: 01/05/89)
Frasier fills in for Woody as a clown at a kid’s birthday party.
Written by David Lloyd
Lloyd’s reputation as one of the finest sitcom writers of the ’70s and ’80s has been proven time and again (like in the classic “Chuckles Bites The Dust”), but this lesser known offering remains an example of his great mastery. I’m impressed by the fact that the script introduces the little gag about Frasier wearing a French thong in preparation for a comedic climax that’s not just unexpected, but only actually occurs once the characters and the audience are convinced that it’s been avoided. That’s good writing. As you can see, Grammer is the star of this well-written installment, but the subplot of Sam fantasizing about a mother and her (legal aged, don’t worry) daughter is good for some laughs too, even though it’s a noticeable heightening of his promiscuity, which is becoming a broader source of laughs. Otherwise, an A++ offering.
05) Episode 158: “Please Mr. Postman” (Aired: 02/02/89)
Cliff falls for a postal employee who commits an infraction to be with him.
Written by Brian Pollack & Mert Rich
Admittedly, my appreciation for Cliff’s first real girlfriend, Maggie (played by Annie Golden), who appears several times throughout the course of the series, is tempered and inconsistent. Much of this has to do with their chemistry — but I suppose the couple’s mutual awkwardness is part of what makes the pairing so comedically ripe — and more importantly, the inconsistency of the scripts in which she appears. In this, the character’s debut, the story itself is a little heavy and uninteresting, but the genius script elevates every beat with sharp comedy that more than compensates. The “Green Beret” ending is great (along with Cliff’s line about women’s extra layer of fat), and the subplot, of Sam trying to find the song that makes Rebecca hot, is another classic (no thanks to the musically altered DVD set). Surprisingly funny.
06) Episode 160: “I Kid You Not” (Aired: 02/16/89)
Frasier and Lilith spend time with Carla’s precocious son.
Story by Rick Beren | Teleplay by Rod Burton
An episode so heavily featuring a child among my favorites? Believe me, I’m more surprised than you, but credit must be given when it’s due — the series found the perfect young actor to play Lud, the son Carla had with Frasier’s mentor, Bennett Ludlow. He’s funny, he’s believable, and because he’s used as a natural part of the narrative and not a cheap way of getting “laughs,” I consider him an unquestionable delight. Furthermore, the story is really about Frasier and Lilith, as their joy in spending time with the child is a result of her pending announcement: that she’s expecting a child of their own. But as usual, the primary reason why this episode works so well is the comedy, and the restaurant centerpiece is a hoot, once again giving characters who don’t usually share stories, Carla and the Cranes, an opportunity to interact.
07) Episode 163: “Hot Rocks” (Aired: 03/16/89)
Rebecca thinks the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has stolen her earrings.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
When I think of the dynamic Sam and Rebecca shared in Season Seven, this is the installment that comes to mind. It’s one of those entries that I try to convince myself is funnier than it actually is; the truth is that this script needs more humor to be considered an unbeatable classic. Additionally, the appearance of Admiral William J. Crowe makes little sense (and Ken Levine notes on his blog that Crowe was a last minute replacement for Larry Bird, for whom this script was written). But there’s something nevertheless wonderful about this one, which keeps it among my favorites. For starters, it’s the only episode this season that doesn’t take any action outside of the bar, thus feeling more like the early seasons. And the aforementioned interplay between Sam and Rebecca (with a steamy kiss), is well-written and relationship defining.
08) Episode 164: “What’s Up, Doc?” (Aired: 03/30/89)
Sam feigns impotence to get close to a hot therapist friend of the Cranes.
Written by Brian Pollack & Mert Rich
The second script by the great new team of Pollack and Rich, who wrote the above “Please Mr. Postman,” is another winner. The premise, of Sam feigning impotence, may seem reminiscent of Season Four’s “The Triangle,” but this time his motive is much less altruistic: he wants to bed the hot psychiatrist. Their dialogue in her office is a feast of hilarity, but the final bar scene, in which she psychologically diagnoses him with a harsh conviction and then still expects him to sexually perform is an important moment of realization for Sam Malone, and it’s followed by a great moment where Rebecca tries to convince Sam that there’s more to his life that just sex. With Sam becoming more of a caricature, the humanity depicted here is appreciated, and this theme will be explored in another undoubtedly important episode several years ahead.
09) Episode 166: “Call Me Irresponsible” (Aired: 04/13/89)
Carla waits for Eddie to acknowledge their anniversary.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson
While “Hot Rocks” is the only episode this season never to leave the bar, this one comes close, featuring only a few shots of Eddie as he calls Carla from the road. The contained quality of this installment’s action, as usual, is a factor in why it works so well. Yes, this episode is narratively boring. But it’s all about the characters and how they relate to one another in this limited space. In fact, the script does a phenomenal job of finding comedy in the little moments, much like early Cheers (and Seinfeld). I included it here among my favorites (over honorable mentions that, if they don’t work as quite well, still feature far more striking comedic beats) for a definitive purpose: to illustrate that less is more, even if it’s harder to do. Favorite moment is the bit where Rebecca, Sam, and the other members of the bar get into a mindless discussion about Mormons.
10) Episode 168: “The Visiting Lecher” (Aired: 05/04/89)
Rebecca accuses a married authority on fidelity of hitting on her.
Written by David Lloyd
Contrasting everything I wrote above about less being more, this season finale, written by Lloyd, does exactly what he does best: building to a huge comic crescendo. The results are farcical, broad, and manic — perhaps more so than most of the series’ finest offerings — but the end once again justifies the means. Hilarity indeed ensues. Much is made of the fact that this episode was written and supposed to feature the return of John Cleese, who won an Emmy for his appearance in “Simon Says,” but John McMartin gives a great performance and I don’t miss Cleese. (Interestingly, the prior episode, “Sister Love” was intended to be the season finale, and it was supposed to feature Joan Severance as Rebecca’s sister, whom Sam dates and marries on a whim. Cue cliffhanger and arc for next season. I’m glad that didn’t happen. Again, less is more.)
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above (and in this post, particularly, they were serious contenders) include: “How To Recede In Business,” which sets the season’s more lighthearted tone and features a fantastic performance by Kirstie Alley (and a memorable Al Rosen moment), “Adventures In Housesitting,” a funny freelance script that’s set largely outside the bar, but provides some really solid moments for Rebecca, Sam, and Woody, and “Golden Boyd,” a sweet installment that introduces Woody to his future wife Kelly amidst some cute laughs (this one was very close to making the list). I’d also like to mention an episode that doesn’t fully work due to the utter lack of logic, but is notable for containing Alley’s funniest moment on the series thus far, “One Happy Chappy In A Snappy Serape,” in which her drunk bit is a genuine riot.
My selection for the funniest and most memorable cold open from this season belongs to “Don’t Paint You Chickens,” in which Frasier and the men get into a discussion about Ingmar Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, and everyone in between.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Cheers goes to…..
“Norm, Is That You?”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!