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, JACKIE SWANSON as Kelly Gaines, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
I would guess that if one were to take a straw poll of Cheers fans asking them what season was their least favorite, Season Ten would be the most frequently cited of the eleven. The reason for the year’s diminished standing in comparison to the others is fairly obvious. While some may argue that the show is even broader than it was in seasons past, the weekly storytelling isn’t much different from what we saw last year (although, unlike Season Nine, Season Ten is saddled with a few flagrant duds from conception), so it’s not the telling of the stories that’s the issue, it’s the stories themselves. Well, let’s be clear: it’s really only one story that’s damaged the season’s reputation. You all know to what I’m referring: the Sam/Rebecca arc, in which the two non-romantic leads decide that they’d like to conceive a child together, sans a commitment of any other kind. (My disdain is evident, yes?) It’s a fundamentally flawed premise on several levels — more on that below. But first we have to understand why it happened.
As mentioned last week, the baby storyline was crafted to solve two problems. The first was creative; Sam was in dire need of some character growth following his successful crusade to regain ownership of the bar, so giving him a paternal yearning restored in the character a goal — a tangible motivation that also addressed the unavoidable inevitabilities of his mortality, along with his realization of the increasing likelihood that he would be growing old alone. From this point-of view, one can see why this would seem a powerful arc for the show’s central character — and indeed, the final two installments of the ninth season introduced and established this story in ways that were poignant and comedic, poising it for potential success. Meanwhile, the second problem solved by this storyline was logistical; after a devastating miscarriage at the top of Season Nine (Rebecca was almost pregnant too), Kirstie Alley continued her efforts to conceive naturally. Being a team player, she decided to time this pregnancy around the show’s schedule, hoping to conceive in late summer so the baby would be due at the conclusion of the production season, allowing her to take maternity leave during the show’s natural hiatus and not have to miss an episode. Knowing Alley’s intention, the show decided to set-up in advance a scenario in which Rebecca would become pregnant as well.
But Alley’s attempts proved unsuccessful, and when production resumed, the show was stuck in the position of not only having to continue the storyline, but having to continue the storyline until a natural conclusion arose — a.k.a. Alley finally got pregnant, allowing Rebecca to become so as well. When it became clear that having no baby was a possibility, and therefore, the story was never going to work, the arc concluded midseason, with Sam and Rebecca recognizing that their motives for becoming parents weren’t as noble as they needed to be. It’s actually a pretty sad ending, made even worse by the fact that the story had never ever worked. Let’s talk about why. First, as noted above, without a baby, the storyline’s metaphorical engine was perpetually in neutral, lacking the crucial development needed to propel the action forward. Second, and probably more disastrously, in the cold light of Season Ten’s day — free from the cliffhanger-building night of Season Nine and its well-plotted character explorations — we see two individuals who are COMPLETELY incapable of becoming healthy parents. And the stakes, in this case, are high, so no matter how broad the show goes in order to mine comedy and thus make the storyline seem palatable, the inescapable gravity of their bearing a child is juxtaposed against the trivial laughter, negating any ability to bolster the story through humor.
Part of why Rebecca and Sam appear to be heading down a disastrous path is due to their resolve to conceive and raise a child without engaging in a romantic relationship, a choice which not only lacks logic (does anyone think this a healthy situation?), but also remains endemic of the characters’ selfishness, as their decision making is obviously independent of any consideration for the child. Now, I think that had Alley gotten pregnant as anticipated, Rebecca’s baby would have been a means used to draw Sam and Rebecca into a relationship, thus adding another dimension to the arc as the pair realizes that they’ve really loved one another all along. (I think this not only because of the season premiere, which makes them seem more romantically poised than the other ensuing installments, but also because I find it impossible to believe the show would promote having children not just out of wedlock, but also out of love.) Yet because the baby never came, the relationship never came. And because neither one came, the whole storyline — almost the entire first half of the season — became a waste of time. But was this ultimately for the better? Yes. Babies kill adult shows, so it’s good we never saw one. Also, Sam and Rebecca’s romantic possibilities ended in the Season Nine premiere; they work better as friends, and even with a baby as a story machination to drive them together, it still would have felt a major contrivance, and at odds with everything we had seen in the four years prior.
When this 13-episode story ends, the season is removed of its only long-range arc, with the only other semi-serialized runner being Woody’s pending marriage to Kelly (Jackie Swanson), which despite producing episodes that are of an inherently lesser quality, does climax in memorable a one-hour season finale that will be discussed below. Instead, the rest of the season is geared towards the ensemble, which now (officially) includes Neuwirth’s Lilith, who was finally added to the opening credits after two Emmy wins, and Willson’s Paul, who appears in 21 of the 26 offerings, aiding every one of them. In fact, this is the season where the show once and for all becomes an ensemble without specialized rank for anyone but Sam, as any potential argument for his carrying the show with Rebecca (as he once did with Diane) is destroyed by her diminished usage in the latter half of the year (following, of course, the aforementioned and very misguided arc that they share in the first half); now it’s just Sam as the anchor, and everyone else, including Rebecca (who’ll never again be presented as above the others, like she was in other seasons) in support.
This is actually a good thing for the series and probably a natural development, for by now Rebecca’s characterization has broadened even beyond the season’s sometimes loony stories, and because Robin Colcord had unfortunately been used as the tool to keep Rebecca within a more logical and definite characterization (after her first augmentation in Season Seven), his removal means that she’s no longer tied to the more conservative depiction of yore (which governed her presentation in Season Six, but existed in some variety in the few years following). Now she’s as loose as that oft-referred to goose, being whatever the show needs her to be each week. And while Alley is a performer who can regularly deliver laughs, the depiction of Rebecca (who’s amusingly, but perhaps inexplicably, settled into a sort of resignation about being the bar’s biggest loser, rivaling even Norm) is nevertheless empty — lacking the substance, the logic, and the consistency needed to both strengthen her comedy and allow the character to center smarter stories. This wishy-washy presentation will continue in Season Eleven, and while it’s not a huge detriment to the show (because, after all, she’s now one among the ensemble), this evolution (or devolution, if one wanted to be particularly harsh) is why the character often compares unfavorably when discussing the more consistent writing afforded to Diane (the obnoxious rendering in early Season Five notwithstanding, but I digress… )
And yet, through a trainwreck Sam/Rebecca arc, a few episodes that don’t work, and some characterizations that are losing consistency, this season still knows how to keep the comedy flowing — thank goodness. And, frankly, there are some downright classics in this collection, which end up balancing out the year’s problems and allowing for an overall appreciation that recognizes Season Ten not as one of the show’s weakest, but as a year in which difficult situations were overcome by meteoric comedy (maybe not within every episode, but within the majority of them). Cheers is still impressive, and believe me when I tell you that there’s a lot to enjoy here — even amidst the troubles. So, 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 Ten. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember that one-hour episodes are considered two separate installments. Of the 26 half-hours, 22 of them were directed by James Burrows. Any chosen offerings that aren’t directed by Burrows will be noted below.
01) Episode 223: “Get Your Kicks On Route 666” (Aired: 09/26/91)
While the men go off for a road trip, the women stay back and ogle Carla’s nephew.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson
Harrelson is not in this episode (probably finishing up production on the film White Men Can’t Jump), and this script was likely written in advance to exclude him. There are two stories here but they never interrelate, and while that usually is a recipe for forsaking my affection, the strength of the individual plots — and the comedy therein — makes this installment worthwhile. The A-story has the men of Cheers (sans Woody and the chronically forgotten Paul) going off on a cross country trip to find their “inner hairy man” (it’s a Frasier thing), only to break down in the middle of the desert. The B-story has Lilith and Rebecca lusting after Carla’s nephew. There are great laughs in each, really illustrating the show’s status as an ensemble piece.
02) Episode 227: “Unplanned Parenthood” (Aired: 10/24/91)
Sam and Rebecca agree to babysit Carla’s kids.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
While I wouldn’t go so far as to label this the best offering to come out of these first 13 episodes’ otherwise lousy Sam/Rebecca arc (that superior installment is noted below), this particular offering does gain distinction for taking this development and successfully manipulating it for the show’s comedic gain. The script works because so much of the humor comes from the show’s own acknowledgment of Rebecca’s and Sam’s ill-preparation for parenthood, and also because the means for showing this are not imposed out of left field — it comes from Carla’s frightening family, which has been a joke since the first season. But with full disclosure, this is the only episode on today’s list that’s good-but-not-great (like the honorable mentions below).
03) Episode 230: “Head Over Hill” (Aired: 11/14/91)
Carla is physically intimate with John Allen Hill.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long | Directed by John Ratzenberger
Hill asserts himself as a still viable source of comedy, for although he no longer has a maniacal hold over Sam via ownership of the back rooms, his lust-hate relationship with Carla becomes the character’s primary raison d’être. This beat is introduced in this offering (directed by Clifford C. Clavin himself), in which Carla’s attempt to lay into Hill results in her actually laying into him. The bathroom scenes are probably the highlight (and like “Route 666,” the three women really get a chance to bond and interact on their own), but there’s also a great sequence where Frasier spreads gossip that Lilith’s just told him about Carla and Hill. For everyone — particularly Perlman’s funny but occasionally one-dimensional Carla — this is a great episode.
04) Episode 232: “I’m Okay, You’re Defective” (Aired: 12/05/91)
Sam goes to the fertility doctor while Frasier and Lilith prepare their wills.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
Of all the episodes that directly contend with the mini-arc of Sam and Rebecca’s decision to have a baby together sans relationship (which, as noted above, I think would have inevitably developed had the writers made the pair successfully conceive), this one is the best. The possibility of Sam being sterile is great fodder for both comedy and drama, as the infamous ladies’ man could actually have to deal with the fact that he’s, in Rebecca’s words, “shooting blanks, pal.” Meanwhile, there’s a delicious subplot involving Frasier and Lilith (both of whom are having and will continue to have a great year) and the drafting of their wills. The stories dovetail in a final scene that doesn’t jive with the events of Frasier, but is still hilarious.
05) Episode 236: “My Son, The Father” (Aired: 01/16/92)
Carla has carte blanche to sin when her son plans to go into the priesthood.
Written by Dan Staley & Rob Long
You’ll notice that most of Staley and Long’s episodes have earned my favor (since their first offering in Season Eight), and that’s because their scripts operate on an elevated comedy quotient, all the while maintaining the characters’ truth and a sense of believability. This holds true in this fine episode, in which Carla believes she can be as nasty and rotten as she wants because she’s got a “get out of hell” free card, as her son has announced plans to go into the priesthood. But when he changes his mind, she must repent. Okay, there’s obviously lots of laughs there. Meanwhile, the subplot is a comedic treasure as well — Cliff decides to try stand-up comedy (even though Lilith, of all people, is the only one that finds him amusing). Funny!
06) Episode 237: “One Hugs, The Other Doesn’t” (Aired: 01/30/92)
Lilith learns that Frasier was once married to a beloved children’s entertainer.
Written by Cheri Eichen & Bill Steinkellner
Emma Thompson guest stars in this entry as Nanny G, a renowned children’s entertainer who has the distinction of being Frasier’s first wife. Of course, this was unbeknownst to everyone except Frasier, and Lilith’s response to this revelation, along with the mounting evidence that Nanny G wants to steal back her husband, is the crux of the comedy. The party sequence, during which Nanny G starts to sing a seductive rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” to Frasier, is a beautiful comedic crescendo, culminating in a cat fight between the two Mrs. Cranes. Even though this is a much broader and less believable episode than most on today’s list, the laughs are so darn good, that this one is an easy late Cheers classic.
07) Episode 239: “License To Hill” (Aired: 02/13/92)
Rebecca tries to keep Sam from learning that the liquor license has lapsed.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
What I appreciate about this episode is that, like all of the installments from Season One, the action never leaves the bar, allowing the proceedings to play like — say it with me now — a one-act play, which, in my opinion, is what makes the multi-camera sitcom a special phenomenon. This is another fantastic showing for the ensemble, affording fine moments to everyone, including Cliff, who gets drunk on non-alchoholic beer, Lilith, who reveals herself to have been the “bad seed” in high school, and Paul, who extorts an unseemly proposition from Rebecca. But it’s Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca who really takes charge of the episode, and her frantic desire to keep control (despite the fact they can’t legally serve alcohol) is very well played.
08) Episode 245: “Heeeeeere’s . . . Cliffy!” (Aired: 05/07/92)
Cliff thinks he’s sold a joke to Johnny Carson.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Just two weeks before Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show, he made an appearance as himself on this hysterical episode of Cheers, in which Cliff heads to Los Angeles under the mistaken belief that he’s sold a joke for use in Carson’s opening monologue. Okay, it’s a bit of a ridiculous premise (and its reminiscent of Season Five’s “Dance, Diane, Dance”), but there’s such marvelous comedy, particularly from Frances Sternhagen’s Esther Clavin, who charms Johnny and ends up being a guest on his show. (Norm also ends up sitting with Johnny too.) This is a rather iconic episode — another fan favorite and series classic — and actually, I agree that it deserves all of the high praise it’s been afforded. Great showing for Cliff fans.
09) Episode 246: “An Old-Fashioned Wedding (I)” (Aired: 05/14/92)
The gang prepares for Woody’s wedding to Kelly.
Written by David Lloyd
As the first half of the one hour season finale in which Woody and Kelly get married, this episode is, as you might expect, a lot of set-up for what will be paid-off in the second half. But given that this is a script by veteran sitcom scribe David Lloyd, you can bet that there’s outstanding humor in almost every moment, as each member of the ensemble is allowed to do what he/she does best. Even the first act, which features only Kelly and the eight official regulars, is an exquisite example of comedy writing, and there are too many delectable moments to list. Of course, once we get into the Gaines kitchen, the hijinks really start to ensue, building up to the second act finish in which the minister falls dead. Uh oh — get ready for a farce!
10) Episode 247: “An Old-Fashioned Wedding (II)” (Aired: 05/14/92)
Woody’s wedding is shaping up to be a true disaster.
Written by David Lloyd
All bets are off in the second half of this dynamic farce, which takes place entirely in the Gaines kitchen and plays with the breakneck speed of a classic stage comedy. Yes, it’s the very embodiment of the one-act, playing in near realtime and forcing the characters to run back and forth in an attempt to handle all the chaos that threatens to jeopardize Woody’s wedding: his sexual attraction to Kelly (which must be kept from Mr. Gaines), the jealous German husband who has a vendetta against Sam, the huffy chefs who walk out and force Rebecca to finish preparing the cake, and the dead priest that must be hidden (along with the drunk replacement priest, who must be sobered up). It’s an absolute riot, and a candidate for the most fun, original, and exciting entry in the entirety of Alley’s tenure on Cheers. A pinnacle for the series and a height never again reached. My MVE.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Where Have All The Floorboards Gone?,” in which the gang puts Kevin McHale into a slump by sparking his obsession with counting the number of bolts on the floor of the Boston Garden (the show went on location for this episode, also shooting a handful of Boston-based cold opens to be sprinkled throughout the year), “Don’t Shoot… I’m Only The Psychiatrist,” a solidly rendered bar-only entry with a pretty good main plot involving Frasier and his low self-esteem group and an amusing subplot in which Woody cuts Sam’s hair, and “Smotherly Love,” a showcase for Frasier and Lilith (and Marilyn Cooper, playing Lilith’s mom) that’s a bit too predictable for my tastes but should still satisfy fans of the Cranes.
The most memorable cold open in Season Ten is from “Unplanned Parenthood,” as Carla opens the bar to the sounds of Irving Berlin’s “I Got The Sun In The Morning,” while the year’s funniest comes from “My Son, The Father,” as regular barfly Phil tries to make conversation with Lilith.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Ten of Cheers goes to…..
“An Old-Fashioned Wedding (II)”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eleventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!