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, PAUL WILLSON as Paul Krapence, ROGER REES as Robin Colcord, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
We’re nine years into Cheers‘ run and it’s still the cream of the TV crop, not only in viewership (#1 for the ’90-’91 season), but also in quality, as it would be difficult to deny the unbelievably high standard that persists throughout this dynamic collection of episodes, made even more remarkable by the fact that this is Season Nine. Not Season One. Not Season Three. Season Nine. (Can you think of any other series that can claim a ninth year this strong?) While my polarizing thoughts on Season Eight were hinged upon a perceived lack of adroitness at the fundamental script-crafting level, Season Nine sets things back on track, elevating the average comedy-per-episode quotient without jeopardizing the logic that must exist for character cogency. The jokes are sharp, the plots are tight, and the characters rarely behave in ways that break their established forms. In fact, Season Nine is probably the funniest year of the entire series. Sure, there are better written years (like Seasons One and Two, and of the Alley era, Seven, which uses more grounded ideas than Nine), but the density of laughs and the relatively low level of duds is impressive and unique to this season. The Academy seemed to agree, for awards were given to Alley, Neuwirth, Burrows, and the series itself (its fourth/final as Outstanding Comedy), with Danson, Alley, and the series also netting Golden Globes.
Interestingly, the last three years of the series are considered by many, including Burrows and the two Charles, to be more farcical than the three prior. But I think this pat classification is a bit too simplistic; the difference between this year and the last can help illustrate why. Season Eight featured a focused arc that stretched from premiere to finale and came to define the whole year (despite episodic stories throughout), while routinely demanding that we suspend disbelief with regard to the story points and character beats that filled out each script. Season Nine is the opposite, deciding that the only focused storytelling to be utilized is that which involves the loose ends of the year prior, while the individual episodic plots themselves, many of which are heightened and wackier than ever, are the only things requiring such suspension. In other words, we have to leap over logistical hurdles regarding some of the stories, not the way the characters behave within them. That’s my preference, for my position has always been that a well-written script can overcome a problematic story (because smart writers can motivate characters so that a plot that wouldn’t ordinarily work for them in theory, does in practice), but a well-crafted story can not overcome a problematic script (because an idea alone does not a good sitcom make). That’s why these two seasons complicate my ability to split the final six years evenly; sure, the later seasons are more farcical — but mostly in story, not construction.
But what of the stories being told? As mentioned above, the only major arcs are those left over from last season. With Sam having bought back his bar, the early episodes have to do some metaphorical tap dancing to keep Rebecca part of the ensemble. Her decision to stay aboard as a waitress is expectedly short-lived, necessitating that Sam hire her back to be his manager. These machinations don’t play very well, because they’re functional and obvious, detracting from the show’s getting back into its weekly groove, while wasting time in the process. It isn’t until the fourth episode that the storytelling gets back to its more enjoyable character/comedy-focused nature. Also, the season has to deal with the residue from the Robin Colcord arc, and after last year’s cliffhanger (in which Sam and Rebecca finally have sex), Rebecca decides to stand by Robin, who goes to jail and is released midseason. Fortunately, the storyline ends there with Rebecca leaving the recently paroled Robin at the altar, and this lengthy arc, so defining for Rebecca (but debatable in the strength of its execution), is concluded. However, because we see less of Robin than we did last year, Rebecca’s stories mostly feature the other members of the ensemble and she’s therefore able to continue building the comedic rapport with them that was established in Season Seven. The result is another one of both Alley and Rebecca’s best years.
Alley’s personal life, however, saw some strife, as the actress miscarried shortly after production on the season had begun, and while the original intention was to drum up some “who’s the father” drama as Rebecca learns she’s pregnant with either Sam or Robin’s child, the show’s sudden, but respectful, abandoning of this arc (and you all know that I believe a baby would have spoiled things anyway) means that the Rebecca/Sam romance that the show had been teasing since her introduction in Season Six ends here in Season Nine not with a bang, but with a whimper. In fact, their tryst in the premiere ends up an anti-climactic affair, and while that makes the most sense given the friendship they developed in seasons past (which we wouldn’t want jeopardized), one still wishes that that that three-season wait was for something more worthwhile than this. But that’s something that can only be discussed in hindsight, for Season Nine actually ends with an indication that the Sam/Rebecca arc may not be for naught, as Kirstie Alley’s continued attempts to conceive naturally converge with Sam Malone’s desperate need for growth, making way for a possible new direction for the following season. More on this below (and mostly, of course, next week)…
Meanwhile, Season Nine is notable for the continued expansion of the ensemble. Not only is the always outstanding Lilith featured in two-thirds of the scripts, but Paul Willson (who just came off of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) also appears in over half the episodes as regular barfly Paul, a kooky little character who’s always good for a few laughs and earns his position as the series’ funniest non-regular regular. Additionally, this season introduces Keene Curtis as John Allen Hill, the new owner of Melville’s, who pesters Sam and makes him pay rent for use of the back rooms (which Hill technically owns). This recurring character serves as a great antagonist for Sam, and the development eventually ties nicely into Rebecca’s arc, for she and Sam wind up becoming partners so that he can buy the rooms back from Hill. With this established near the end of the year, the protracted Rebecca machinations conclude and the show finally settles into this dynamic for the rest of its run — a great place to be. And, despite all of the maneuverings (which, again, are a result of Season Eight), Cheers’ possibilities during Season Nine seem endless, and these episodes are filled with excellent writing and explosive laughs. As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Nine. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) The one-hour 200th episode special is considered two separate installments, although it was barred from consideration on this list. Of the other 25 half hours, 18 of them were directed by James Burrows. Any that aren’t will be noted below.
01) Episode 201: “Breaking In Is Hard To Do” (Aired: 11/01/90)
Rebecca decides to visit Robin in prison, while Frasier and Lilith debate over Frederick.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Andy Ackerman
This episode takes two unrelated stories and doesn’t do a great job of justifying why they co-exist within the same half hour. That’s usually a no-no, but each story is awfully enjoyable when taken on its own terms. The primary plot has Rebecca sneaking into prison for a booty call. The scene itself suffers from a broad and audienceless rendering, but the story wisely pairs Rebecca with Carla, who’s so horny that she decides to tag along. These two share great chemistry and it’s fun to see them interact in the earlier scenes. The second story, which is set all in the bar, is actually the more enjoyable, as Frasier decides to prove to Lilith that he can do a better job of caring for Freddie than she can. But, of course, his idea of watching Freddie is bringing him to the bar. The final gag (where Freddie says his first word) justifies the episode’s inclusion here.
02) Episode 204: “Bad Neighbor Sam” [a.k.a. “I Hate Leases To Pieces”] (Aired: 11/15/90)
Sam starts a feud with the new owner of Melville’s.
Written by Cheri Eichen & Bill Steinkellner
Keene Curtis makes his debut as John Allen Hill, who starts off on the wrong foot with Sam and then demands rent for use of Cheers‘ bathrooms and pool room, which Hill technically owns. The feud between Sam and Hill is more precise than the bar’s rivalry with Gary’s (about whom we only hear once/twice a year), and features a more comedically ripe antagonist, particularly because of the effect he has on Sam. Furthermore, introducing Hill as a recurring character is a great way to expand the show’s universe without forcing the action to leave the bar. As for this episode, it’s one of the list’s most outrageous, because Sam’s hysteria is something we’ve never seen from him, and it would stretch believability if not for the fact that this response is a rarity from Sam (and therefore can exist as something triggered specifically by Hill and these circumstances). And Curtis is so good in the role that it’s easily worthwhile.
03) Episode 207: “Woody Interruptus” (Aired: 12/13/90)
To compete with a Frenchman, Woody considers having sex with Kelly.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
While I do consider myself a fan of the Woody/Kelly pairing and generally feel that the show did a good job in crafting her character and building their relationship, episodes that center around the two of them often don’t constitute my favorites, usually because they’re set outside of the bar. Also, I’ve never been a fan of Henri (Anthony Cistaro), who’s way too adept at playing obnoxious and therefore isn’t a presence you want to see every week (unlike Hill, who doesn’t have to do as much to antagonize — it’s all in Sam’s reaction). But despite all of the factors that could bar this episode from entertaining me (including a so-so final scene), I have to note this is one of the best written scripts of the entire season. The scene where Woody seeks advice from Sam, Rebecca, and Norm about having sex with Kelly is just brilliant, epitomizing why Season Nine is a writer’s tour de force. Also, Burrows won an Emmy for this one.
04) Episode 210: “Days Of Wine And Neuroses” (Aired: 01/24/91)
Rebecca has second thoughts about accepting Robin’s marriage proposal.
Written by Brian Pollack & Mert Rich
Kirstie Alley gives the best performance of her entire Cheers career in this installment, which also won her a much deserved Emmy. Set about a year from the start of the season (and the timeline here has never quite made sense to me), Robin is about to be paroled and he’s proposed marriage to Rebecca. They plan to wed the day he’s freed, but Rebecca gets drunk at the celebration that Sam throws for her the night before, and when Sam visits her apartment, Rebecca drunkenly confesses that she doesn’t love Robin and wants to sleep with Sam. That scene is a laugh-a-minute (the funniest material of the season) and Alley’s performance is firing on all cylinders. It’s the best thing to ever come out of the Robin arc, and the offering’s comedic strength makes it an easy choice for the best of the year. Easily. In fact, this may be the best episode not just of the season or Alley’s career, but of the “Alley era” in total. Also, I must mention the running gag with the karaoke machine, towards which Frasier is particularly drawn — hilarious. A classic installment, filled with big laughs and fantastic performances.
05) Episode 211: “Wedding Bell Blues” (Aired: 01/31/91)
Sam tries to stop Rebecca from marrying Robin.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson
The conclusion to the marvelously strong episode above, this offering does take things a little too broad for my tastes, as the entire wedding sequence, with Rebecca marching down and then back up the aisle (and generally causing a tremendously embarrassing scene) feels a little too over-the-top for a series who generally does best in quieter moments (and this will even be true in the seasons ahead). However, times are a-changin’ in the series, and there’s so much rich comedy here that justifies any moment that rings a little false, thus tamping down my qualms. Also, this one is notable for both ending the Robin Colcord storyline and giving Paul one of his first really funny moments, as he attempts to console and counsel Rebecca as she’s deciding whether or not to go through with marrying Robin. The big laughs make this one work.
06) Episode 212: “I’m Getting My Act Together And Sticking It In Your Face” (Aired: 02/07/91)
Sam worries after leaving Rebecca an embarrassing voicemail.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long | Directed by Andy Ackerman
My thoughts on this one have wavered back and forth over the years. On most recent viewings, I’ve been impressed with the generous amount of comedy, which, like the above, helps to mitigate storytelling contrivances. So although I find some of the Rebecca stuff to be, again, too much from a narrative point-of-view, I can easily overlook that in favor of the other character moments in which she’s surrounded. Meanwhile, the gag at the end with Sam trying to pass off a friend as his boyfriend is overly silly (and reminiscent of Season Seven’s “Norm, Is That You?”), and even though it’s hard to believe Sam would even think this would fool Rebecca, Staley and Long give us laughs to make us forget to question that. However, the real gem is the subplot in which Frasier attempts to introduce the bar to classic literature by making up ridiculous stories more attuned to their tastes — less Dickens, more Stephen King. Hilarious!
07) Episode 216: “Cheers Has Chili” (Aired: 03/14/91)
Sam protests when Rebecca turns the pool room into a tea room.
Written by Cheri Eichen, Bill Steinkellner, and Phoef Sutton | Directed by Andy Ackerman
A lot of this episode’s worthwhileness comes from the fact that, unlike the majority of this season’s entries, the story is confined to the bar, playing in the manner of a much revered one act play. (Y’all know how much I love that!) The conflict is taken from the recent development in which Sam and Rebecca have become business partners via ownership of the bar. Since Rebecca paid for use of the back rooms, she decides to turn the pool room into a tea room, something Sam, as one would anticipate, disdains. But they make a deal that if she makes $500, the tea can stay. Then Rebecca gets a secret weapon: Woody’s chili. As usual, the episode lives on the success of the character moments, and while there are funnier offerings on this list, it’s amusingly sharp and consistent, making good use of the Sam-Rebecca arrangement.
08) Episode 217: “Carla Loves Clavin” (Aired: 03/21/91)
Carla enters the Miss Boston Barmaid contest, only to learn that Cliff is a judge.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
Although many fans hold Season One’s “No Contest,” in which Diane competes in the Miss Boston Barmaid contest, with high regard, I think this sequel, in which Carla decides to enter the competition, is much funnier, simply because the premise is naturally cartoony and therefore works better at this point in the series’ run, when broader stories are the norm (pun intended). The offering’s high comedy quotient is met by the added complication of Carla having to shmooze Cliff when she learns that he’s one of the judges for the contest. (Of course, this turns out to be something Cliff concocted to get back at Carla, a story machination that proves lucrative.) So for fans of either character or the relationship they share, this is going to be one of your absolute favorites. And as with most Staley/Long scripts, it’s very smartly crafted.
09) Episode 219: “Rat Girl” (Aired: 04/04/91)
Lilith mourns the death of her favorite lab rat.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Bebe Neuwirth won a second Emmy for her outstanding work in this memorable offering that concerns itself with the rift that develops between Frasier and Lilith when the latter goes into intense mourning for the death of Whitey, her favorite lab rat. The script builds this conflict to a climactic sequence where the pair has to visit a ritzy preschool into which they’re hoping to enroll Frederick. Lilith’s outburst is among the year’s biggest laughs, and it’s so easy to see why Neuwirth was lauded as much as she was for her work as this character (both on Cheers and Frasier, coming in 2017). But aside from the delicious A-story, this episode also boasts two amusing subplots, as Rebecca tries to introduce the patrons to healthy bar snacks (easy comedy), and Sam gets turned down by a chubby chaser who much prefers Paul. (Yes, Paul!) The latter is particularly hysterical. A classic installment and another personal favorite.
10) Episode 221: “Uncle Sam Wants You” [a.k.a. “Elvis Ex Machina”] (Aired: 05/02/91)
After bonding with Frederick, Sam decides he wants to be a father.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
I’m going to leave most of my thoughts on the storyline that this season finale launches for next week, but I will note now that this episode works much better than anything that follows; it actually employs logic. Sam’s desire to become a father marks a fascinating and understandable growth for the character, and Danson plays it surprisingly pensively. After several years of treading water as he attempted to both bed Rebecca and win back the bar, this season left him mostly aimless after achieving both goals. This episode gives him a new purpose and the character is better because of it. The entire last scene, in which Elvis visits Sam in a dream, is a comedic highlight, and the reasoning Sam presents to Rebecca about their having a baby together makes some sense, especially given her own emotional journey over this particular season. Also, it serves as a nice bookend to the start of the year, where they also had sex — but without any commitment. They’re growing up, as misguided as, well… stay tuned…
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Where Nobody Knows Your Name,” the funniest installment from the year’s first batch, with a great subplot involving Carla and both the physical and sexual heat of Indian Summer, “Veggie-Boyd,” which features a rather sophomoric Woody A-plot, but a very funny gag with Frasier having hypnotized Lilith and a hysterical bit about Cliff and the bar’s new trivia napkins, “Crash Of The Titans,” a decently written offering that sets up Sam and Rebecca as partners in Cheers, but suffers from both too much story and an uncharacteristically obnoxious portrayal of Sam towards her, and “Home Malone,” the penultimate episode of the season, which establishes the course that the season finale will take and juxtaposes two amusing fish-out-of-water stories: Sam with a toddler and Kelly in the bar.
While most of the cold opens from Season Nine are sufficiently enjoyable, none are of exceptional merit or memorability to warrant mention. Stay tuned next week for Season Ten!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Cheers goes to…..
“Days Of Wine And Neuroses”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the tenth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!