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, ROGER REES as Robin Colcord, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
My overall reaction to this year has always been unenthusiastic, but unlike Season Six (for instance), my opinion has actually gotten less favorable over time, particularly when viewed in a big picture context (as good seasons pale when compared to great seasons). However, I don’t think mine is a popular response for two reasons. The first is, with its year long story arc involving Rebecca and Robin Colcord, Season Eight is probably the most focused of Alley’s tenure, making it easy to watch and digest. The show is telling a complete story this season (well, two stories, because Sam’s mission to regain ownership of the bar is a runner throughout the year as well), and this concentrated plotting is inherently appealing. And yet, while narrative concentration helped infuse the early seasons with a special tension-building charm, Season Eight’s focus doesn’t do the comedy any favors, and it’s because Robin Colcord, while not humorously depleted like Evan Drake, is completely unlikable from start to finish (regardless of how charming and talented the late Roger Rees has otherwise proven himself). And because we don’t care about Robin, who stands in the way of a possible Sam/Rebecca relationship — and this is probably the year, by the very nature of Robin’s existence as a roadblock, where the show makes the two leads seem most poised for coupling — we also start to divest from Rebecca, whose millionaire-obsessed Season Eight characterization is an obvious attempt to balance the uptight portrayal of her first year with the looser, manic persona that dominated her second.
I recognize that the desire to combine Rebecca’s wildly different depictions is noble, and actually, good for story, but why, once again, are we looking to an outside source as the primary means of defining her character? (We already tried this in Season Six!) Last year came across so well because Rebecca was played almost entirely off members of the ensemble, where Alley could broaden her performance under the guise of the character’s growing friendships. (This closeness is why Rebecca and Sam had such chemistry in the year prior, while this season, although attempting to heighten their dynamic by keeping them distant, diminishes it — regardless of the fact that the arc demands a tryst in the final moments of the finale.) Of course, the other reason that Season Eight isn’t as unpopular with others as it is with me is obvious: Alley is in the middle of her comedic apex, and she can elevate a majority of the material she receives, so whatever storytelling shortcomings there exist on the page, her execution acts as a magical redeemer. But then again, mediocre scripts can only be elevated so often, and since the show — despite making her the center of the action — is forcing Rebecca into constructs in which she doesn’t belong (we saw this in Season Six and we’ll see it again in another upcoming season), the character enters a state of flux, where Alley is earning laughs, the characterization is motivated (most of the time), but her integration into the show is regressed. (Frasier had a similar effect on Diane; but Dr. Crane was a delectable presence, Robin isn’t.)
Yet, while Rebecca is largely responsible for informing my take on Season Six’s failings and Season Seven’s successes, she’s not culpable for the root problem plaguing the eighth season — which is that the individual scripts being crafted are not possessing the smarts of what we’ve seen before or the high-octane hilarity of what we’ll see in years to come (even when the storytelling issues are more drastic). So what’s different? The beats are more obvious, there are regular breakdowns in story logic, and the non-big-gag jokes aren’t as strong as they could be. More importantly, there are several episodes this season where the lack of brains within the script is shocking, making for some of the series’ worst offerings. (And this season may have more bombs than any other, because while the final three seasons are often described as broader and more farcical, they back up the heightened stories with big laughs and, in my estimation, a more consistent rationality than seen here.) The only pinpoint-able reason for this decline may be the departure of Casey, Lee, and Angell for Wings, which debuted midseason in January 1990. But this rationale doesn’t make complete sense because that trio actually left in the middle of the year prior, and the team behind Season Eight will essentially be the same in the much superior Season Nine (although the very funny duo of Staley and Long, who contribute one script this season, will be promoted to story editors). Regardless of explanation, Cheers is in a mini-dip that perhaps plagues every long-running series. Fortunately, for this show, a dip simply means that the usually high number of A episodes is replaced by offerings of a B+ variety, and as noted above, this’ll be improved next season.
So given all of the above, it’s no surprise that this was one of those years where I had only a handful of really great episodes that I knew merited inclusion (and for all my gripes, I have to note that there are several great showings among them), and then an abundance of offerings that I thought were good-but-not-great: passively enjoyable but flawed in some considerable way. As a result, the relationship between the slightly lesser selections on today’s list and the honorable mentions is less defined. (That’s what always happens in a lesser season.) But to give us some context, Cheers is still an excellent situation comedy with lowlights that would often be highlights on other weaker series, and while there are much finer years ahead (as the show enters what series director James Burrows refers to as Cheers‘ third era), there aren’t, in this TV season, finer shows. (And let’s note that Danson and Neuwirth both won Emmys for their work this year, with Danson also picking up a Golden Globe.) So, as always, 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 Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) 18 of the 26 episodes are directed by James Burrows; the ones that aren’t will be noted below.
01) Episode 170: “The Improbable Dream (II)” (Aired: 09/28/89)
Sam dreams about Rebecca once she starts dating Robin Colcord.
Written by Cheri Eichen & Bill Steinkellner
It’s the two-part premiere that most structures Season Eight as being the year in which Sam and Rebecca will finally get together, even though there’s a big obstacle in the form of Robin Colcord (who, in the process, will not ratchet up the Sam/Rebecca tension, but actually hamper what had been building). But this, the second half of the opener, is easily very funny — much funnier than the sporty first half — and includes a handful of truly outstanding moments, like the unforgettable dream Sam has in which Rebecca peels off her face mask and reveals that she’s really Al (a.k.a. “the man who said Sinatra”), who has his last spoken lines. Meanwhile, Sam/Rebecca still have chemistry in this two-parter, and every member of the ensemble is decently used, making for a solid, if not spectacular, way to launch the season’s primary arc.
02) Episode 174: “The Stork Brings A Crane” (Aired: 11/02/89)
Lilith goes into labor as Cheers celebrates its centennial anniversary.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Although this is a big event show, having to contend with the birth of Lilith and Frasier’s baby, David Lloyd’s script couches the development in a fun, more enjoyable premise that has the gang at Cheers discovering that the sign outside is wrong — they weren’t established in 1895, but 1889, meaning that this is their 100 year anniversary. The running gag of the barbershop quartet, along with the bit involving the dirty old man and Rebecca’s period-style attire all help to infuse the episode with a Duffy’s Tavern-esque old-fashioned quality (more on that series soon…) where the jokes are a laugh-a-minute. And with the connections to the city’s history (not to mention an appearance by the mayor), this offering feels like a true Boston outing. So in spite of the Frasier/Lilith baby drama, which doesn’t quite work, the show ends up a winner.
03) Episode 175: “Death Takes A Holiday On Ice” (Aired: 11/09/89)
Eddie’s bizarre death isn’t the biggest surprise in store for Carla.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Jay Thomas’ Eddie was reportedly written out at Perlman’s request after the actor jokingly made some unkind remarks about his TV wife during a radio broadcast. Although I’m not sure if that rumor is completely true, the series is actually benefited from his departure, for Carla, now a widow after Eddie’s freak Zamboni accident, has a lot more interesting stories to play (especially because tragedy is the undercurrent of her personality) and it should be said that this installment kicks off one of her best seasons on the show, where every story that she anchors actually works. And this episode, which could have easily been somber, is turned into an uproarious, broad farce as Carla learns at the funeral that Eddie was a bigamist with another family — and wife — about which she knew nothing. It’s a hilarious development and the funeral sequence, which turns into a full-scale brawl, is campy fun.
04) Episode 176: “For Real Men Only” (Aired: 11/16/89)
Frasier and the guys struggle with Freddie’s upcoming bris.
Written by David Pollack & Elias Davis
There are a lot of memorable laughs in this installment and that’s why it’s earned its place on today’s list. However, this was still one of several thats existence here was long in contention, particularly because I think the script is a jumbled mess of big laughs superimposed on top of a disappointing story about Frasier’s baby being circumcised. In fact, the story is so comedically unsatisfying that the freelance script (by two writers whom you’ve seen on several other shows we’ve covered here) essentially becomes a barrage of jokes on the subject, never really connecting in a meaningful way to the premise. However, credit must be given when its due: the Rebecca subplot is enjoyable and is wisely converged with the bris, so as to make the script a bit more cohesive than it would otherwise seem. A favorite to some — not quite to me.
05) Episode 177: “Two Girls For Every Boyd” (Aired: 11/23/89)
Woody has problems with a play and the men of Cheers have a beard contest.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson
Friends fans will undoubtedly delight in seeing a young Lisa Kudrow as Woody’s love interest in the play for which he is chosen as the lead. The play is Our Town, one of the most seminal works of the American theatre and possibly my favorite dramatic piece (a fact that no doubt slightly influences my decision to include this episode here on today’s list). The simplicity of Wilder’s play is a perfect fit for the simplicity of Cheers‘ style of comedy, so it’s an appropriate choice for this story and for Woody, whose decision to start acting (in Season Six) opened up so many new stories for him. Meanwhile, this installment boasts one of the funniest subplots of the entire series as the men of Cheers have a beard growing contest, complete with individual challenges. It’s hysterical, and more importantly, this is a script that I don’t think is of a lesser quality.
06) Episode 178: “The Art Of The Steal” (Aired: 11/30/89)
Sam and Rebecca are trapped by the security system in Robin Colcord’s house.
Written by Sue Herring
I’m sure this episode will appeal to fans of the Sam/Rebecca pairing, for this story bonds them closer together as almost the entirety of the second act finds the two trapped alone together in Robin’s apartment (with laser beams shooting around the room, necessitating careful maneuvering). The truth is that their material isn’t particularly hysterical and Sam’s continued pursuit of Rebecca (which drives him over to Robin’s in the first place) is growing tiresome. Instead, this episode works because of the camaraderie existing between Rebecca and Carla, who gives her boss advice on how to turn on Robin. Their scenes contain the episode’s best laughs, and the bit with the men playing Monopoly (substituting other game pieces) is strong as well, and serves as a more comedic companion to the primary plot, which, because Robin never appears, is one of Sam/Rebecca’s best.
07) Episode 182: “What Is . . . Cliff Clavin?” (Aired: 01/18/90)
While Sam has blackbook troubles, Cliff is selected to compete on Jeopardy!
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Sitcom characters going on game shows, real or fictional, is such an easy gimmick, and we’ve seen it on everything from The Odd Couple to Mama’s Family (well, we’ll see it next month, anyway) because the laughs are mined from the juxtaposition of an off-beat character with a strict set of rules. In other words, there’s a structure already in place, needing only a character to fill out the comedy. This offering isn’t different than any other in the genre, and like so many, it works because the laughs are substantive. Cliff going on Jeopardy! is a hilarious premise in itself, and the gigantic lead he gains over the competitors serves as a nice build to his inevitable fall, when he incorrectly poses a question about the original names of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, and Joan Crawford as “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?” It’s hilarious, it’s unique, and it makes the episode worthy of being the year’s MVE. Classic and favorite.
08) Episode 183: “Finally! (I)” (Aired: 01/25/90)
Rebecca readies herself for what may be her first sexual encounter with Robin.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
After a half season of Rebecca going gaga over Robin Colcord without sharing any physical intimacy (I guess Backseat Becky was out of practice), this episode benefits from its natural crescendo, in which the billionaire-chasing screw-up finally gets her man. The scene in which Rebecca returns to work the morning after her liaison is a tour de force for Alley, whose dreamily relaxed aura is a visible difference from the uptight neuroses that had previously defined the character (and will actually continue to do so for the rest of the run). There are some nice laughs throughout the episode, but that moment alone makes the whole installment worthwhile, for it gives the audience something its been wanting and delivers it comedically.
09) Episode 184: “Finally! (II)” (Aired: 02/01/90)
Sam struggles with his conscience after spying Robin out with another woman.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Regular readers know how much harder it is for half of a two-parter to make one of my lists, not to mention both parts (which is a rarity). But although the above episode is more valuable than this one, the scripting is still consistent with regards to the comedy, and it does feel like a seamless continuation from what came before. The conflict is structured entirely around Sam and the information he’s learned about Robin Colcord’s infidelity, but once again, this two-parter is really about Alley’s Rebecca, and the final scene in the bar, in which her resolve to reject Robin is hampered by a shiny new piece of jewelry he presents her is divinely sharp. (Her mouthing of “it’s gorgeous” is a highlight.) Solid extension of the strong episode above.
10) Episode 191: “The Ghost And Mrs. LeBec” (Aired: 04/12/90)
Carla seeks help when she’s haunted by images of Eddie.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
Ted Danson only appears in this episode’s cold open and Sam’s absence is the offering’s only major disappointment, but we can’t begrudge the actor a week off. Actually, the show, now a true ensemble, goes fine without him. In fact, this is a wonderful outing, reconciling the drama present in Carla’s arc as a widow, as she’s haunted by images of her late hockey player husband after attempting to re-enter the dating scene, with the comedy that comes from the seance with Madame Lazora, Carla’s “spiritualist,” played hilariously by Georgia Brown. The script, by newcomers Staley and Long, is among the season’s strongest, affording both funny and character congruous moments for everyone in the cast (except, of course, the missing Sammy). Frasier is particularly good here with his highly skeptical opinion of psychics. A favorite.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Sammy And The Professor,” in which Alexis Smith makes an Emmy nominated appearance as a mentor of Rebecca’s who ends up sleeping with Sam, “50-50 Carla,” a David Lloyd script in which Carla gets some insurance money and struggles with her conscience, and “Mr. Otis Regrets,” which features an iconic scene of Rebecca enacting revenge on Sam while in an elevator. All three are of “honorable mention” quality; the only installment to really be considered for the above list is “Severe Crane Damage,” one of the most flawed episodes of the season. Let me explain. I appreciate the opening scene, some of the jokes at the TV show, and the bit where Frasier runs with scissors. I hate Lilith’s out-of-character behavior at the show and the final scene with Frasier and Viper, and the lack of logic in both moments ultimately sinks the episode. I struggled with this one, folks, but the minuses were as big as the plusses (maybe even bigger).
This season contains the series’ most memorable cold open; it’s from “Severe Crane Damage,” in which the bar performs the song “We Will Rock You.” The year’s funniest cold open comes from “50-50 Carla,” as Frasier and Robin get into a dramatic recitation contest.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Cheers goes to…..
“What Is . . . Cliff Clavin?”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the ninth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!