Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re concluding 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 Boyd, and KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane.
Another impressive collection of episodes, Cheers‘ swan season cements the show’s status as one of television’s most consistent, something unclaimable were Season Eleven, the show’s last, not a strong showing itself. You know, I’ve often said that Cheers is among the finest for its ability to stave off the inevitable dip in quality that plagues all long running shows. Now, as you’ve probably read over these past few months, there are certain periods in the show’s history that are particularly well-written (the first two seasons) and noticeably superior to others (like Seasons Eight and Ten, which each have their problems), but the writing never descends to reach a point of continued and egregious disappointment (or worse: mediocrity) in which the show’s brilliant reputation seems truly unwarranted. And yet, with both my appreciation for Season Eleven and my belief that Cheers never endured a fatal slump noted, I do think this final season is uneven. Well, let me clarify — I think the season is evenly uneven, naturally splitting into two halves: episodes produced in 1992 and episodes produced in 1993.
The episodes produced in 1992 are, unlike the disappointing first half of the season prior, not concerned with a single long-running arc, although there are two bold two-episode stories explored: Rebecca burning down the bar and Lilith cheating on Frasier. Both are ostentatious premises, with heady drama forming the foundation of the comedy, and both work fairly well, although the more-melodramatic fire arc ends up feeling like an unnecessary season-opening gimmick, because after the second episode, where everyone comes back to the renovated Cheers, the only impact this beat has on the show is an amusing subplot two episodes on in which Sam forces Rebecca to confront her cigarette addiction. In contrast, the Frasier/Lilith arc impacts a handful of the stories ahead and irrevocably alters the histories of both characters forever, and because the initial storytelling is done so well (or, as well as could be expected), this arc becomes a highlight of the season. But in general, serialization is not on Season Eleven’s agenda, and in the first half of this year, the scripts continue along the easy breezy episodic trend, leading to some stories that are fundamentally better than others. (Example: Sam attempting to get back his Corvette vs. Rebecca maybe having to move back home.) But as has been discussed before, it’s not really the story that determines quality; it’s the storytelling, and that’s where the first half of Season Eleven warrants criticism, for there appears to be a slight tiredness in the comedy and how the characters are being presented — it’s the same old, same old. And the show, while far from declining, seems poised towards, at the very least, a slowing down.
This could have continued the entire season, but in late November 1992, Danson decided that he was ready to leave Cheers; after briefly considering otherwise, Burrows and the Charles Brothers decided to reject the already proposed new season deal and end the series with his departure. The December knowledge of an impending finale, as it does for so many other long-running shows, reinvigorated the season, giving the writers something definite to which they could crescendo. Watching these episodes today, you can tell which ones were conceived after this announcement: those produced starting in January 1993 (airing from February onwards), which are more focused, and with an eye towards bringing things full circle. The results of this new enthusiasm are supremely engaging ideas that illustrate and help perpetuate the enormous growth that has occurred in (almost) all of the characters since their inception. (Rebecca gives up on millionaires, Carla forgives her ex-husband, Woody gets a new career and a new addition to the family, etc. — more of this discussed below.) So the stories improve. But also, the storytelling is boosted as well, as the laughs for each character are amplified, with almost every moment one to treasure. And, of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the last few episodes see the return of several of the show’s strongest writers, like David Angell, Peter Casey, David Lee, and Heide Perlman, all of whom have great understandings of the characters and why they’re comedic. The second half of the season, therefore, is a collective tour de force.
All of this leads up to the finale (again, discussed a bit more below), in which Diane Chambers returns, and in spite of all the grandness and hoopla that surrounded its original airing (usually a mistake, as expectations should never be willfully set high, and big is usually a no-no as far as I’m concerned, because less is usually more for me), it’s still an intensely satisfying experience, treating Cheers and its characters with a reverence that never once ignores both the duty it has to the show’s history and the era in which it is currently residing. The Sam/Diane story is well-handled. From a storytelling point-of-view, reuniting Sam and Diane — seemingly forever — would have negated the growth (although it was spotty at best, there was growth) that Sam’s character had undergone since her departure. It would have totally invalidated the previous six years. And regardless of how many fans actually wanted a Sam/Diane reconciliation, I personally don’t believe the show ever presented them as a viable pairing, so to have changed course in the finale would have been a rejection not just of the last six seasons, but of — at least — the four that came before as well. Also, it would have been impossible to mine humor from an earnest attempt to convince the audience that a relationship which had failed spectacularly several times in the past could all of a sudden work. The laughs could only come from our own knowledge of their incompatibility, which we wait and hope the two characters will also realize before the end credits.
As a result, the series concludes on an appropriate note, and I have no real complaints about the ending (aside from the fact that I wish Rebecca met Don and married him during the season, instead of in a rushed final two episodes development that happens too quickly for us to get completely on board). So I’ll just take this remaining space to note what a pleasure it has been to cover this series, which has set a standard that may never be replicated on this blog. (And I’m looking forward to covering Frasier, the pilot of which had been filmed a few weeks after Cheers wrapped and was actually teased during the broadcast of the finale. Expect Dr. Crane’s show here sometime in 2017!) For the last time with Cheers, 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 Eleven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember that one-hour episodes are considered two separate installments (and the finale is considered three). Of the 28 half hours, 25 of them are directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 249: “The Beer Is Always Greener” (Aired: 10/01/92)
Sam prepares for the bar’s re-opening, but Carla has trouble leaving her new job.
Written by Tom Leopold
While the idea of Rebecca burning down the bar is amusing, the story itself requires drama that doesn’t co-exist well with the comedy (as evidenced in the creaky season premiere). This installment, which directly follows, makes the whole mini-arc more worthwhile, for in addition to jettisoning all dramatics, the script uses a funny premise in which Carla takes a job at a modern sports bar where she’s forced to be peppy and upbeat, but only in service of a check that’s difficult to reject. The highlight of the story is the final straw that gets Carla to leave — a waitress with an uncanny resemblance to Diane Chambers. Also, the subplot of newlyweds Woody and Kelly having to negotiate the differences in their Lutheran upbringings is comical as well. Note that of the three new writers this season, Leopold delivers the strongest scripts.
02) Episode 254: “The Girl In The Plastic Bubble” (Aired: 11/12/92)
Frasier threatens suicide after Lilith leaves him for another man.
Written by Dan O’Shannon
This is the second half of a two-parter in which Lilith confesses to cheating on Frasier; after he decides to stay with her, she reveals that she’s leaving him to join her lover in the “eco-pod,” an underground experiment (which was actually established in the cold open of a previous episode — so cleverly, I might add). Both parts deal with material that’s a little too dark to enjoy with abandoned frivolity, but this installment is slightly funnier than the first because there’s less story and more character and, also, oddly enough, the quality of the drama is also heightened, making the balance more even. Sure, the on-location ledge bit is overblown and cliched, but Lilith actually makes the sequence hilarious, turning what could have sunk the episode into something that saves it. A great episode for Neuwirth, in particular, if not for Lilith or her fans.
03) Episode 258: “Love Me, Love My Car” (Aired: 12/17/92)
Sam befriends a widow in the hopes of buying back his old Corvette.
Written by David Lloyd
David Lloyd gives us another offering that’s attuned to his speciality, addressing a comparatively dark subject matter with unparalleled humor. In this installment, Sam learns that the man to whom he sold his beloved Corvette (after the bar burned down) has died, leaving an impressionable widow, played by Dana Delany, to handle the responsibilities. Sam’s manipulation of a widow’s feelings as a scheme to regain his car is a delicious new low (yet we never detest him due to the script’s dynamic comedy in support), and interestingly, the script is careful not to make their interplay disrespectfully sexual (which probably would have condemned the character and his actions). The climax with Sam in Delany’s character’s Kindergarten class’ doghouse is screamingly funny, and this is easily the best outing from the first half of the year.
04) Episode 262: “Loathe And Marriage” (Aired: 02/04/93)
Carla is shocked when Nick Tortelli returns to see their daughter married.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
After six years in TV limbo (following a 13-week spin-off in the spring of 1987 that probably is best left unmentioned), Nick and Loretta Tortelli make one farewell return — just in time to see Serafina, played by the future Queen of Queens, Leah Remini, get married to her retired cop boyfriend. This is among the season’s funniest, hitting big laughs with the ease of the electrically inclined (and still supremely smart) early seasons, a time which is also naturally evoked by the revival of these two indelible characters from Cheers‘ past. Hedaya is funnier than ever, and surprisingly enough, this may be my favorite appearance of his from the entire series. This is also a great episode for Carla and one of the Season Eleven offerings that brings her character a welcome sense of closure (since she has no big finale developments). A classic.
05) Episode 264: “The Bar Manager, The Shrink, His Wife, And Her Lover” (Aired: 02/18/93)
Lilith and the gang at Cheers are held hostage by her psychopathic jilted lover.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe
In the second half of another two parter (the first half can be found with the honorable mentions below), Lilith has returned to find Frasier getting it on with Rebecca (a beat that doesn’t 100% work, but one that we’re willing to accept for the sake of these two episodes). When Lilith goes to the bar to learn more, the others’ reactions to her return are as amusing as you’d expect. Naturally, Frasier and Rebecca follow, only for all of them to be met by Dr. Louis Pascal, Lilith’s jealous ex-lover who threatens to shoot her and everyone in the bar if she doesn’t return with him. Now, guns and sitcoms often don’t work (because the stakes are raised so high that the proceedings can’t help but become cartoonish), but this is Stumpe’s best script and she never lets the imposed threat overtake the character-driven humor. Also, I love that the show incorporates nice moments for recurring players like Paul and John Allen Hill, who are both in on the fun. A great one act!
06) Episode 267: “Look Before You Sleep” (Aired: 04/01/93)
Sam has trouble trying to find a place to sleep for the night.
Written by Rebecca Parr Cioffi
You know, in some ways this offering is the antithesis of the type of script that I usually enjoy. Instead of long sequences with all of the characters together and interacting off of one another, the structure of this installment is fragmented and itself episodic, taking us to each of the characters’ humble abodes, as Sam searches for a place to stay during the night (after getting locked out of the bar). The set-pieces build in hilarity, with Sam’s sequence at Cliff’s, where Ma Clavin is as irascible as ever, being the show’s clear funniest. What makes this installment work, aside from the able script, is the fact that it does afford moments of greatness for each member of the ensemble, using what we know about their home lives for maximum comedic value. An atypical offering — but a risk that’s fresh and ultimately rewarding. Surprisingly enjoyable.
07) Episode 268: “Woody Gets An Election” (Aired: 04/22/93)
Frasier helps Woody mount a campaign to get elected onto the city council.
Written by Dan O’Shannon, Tom Anderson, Dan Staley, and Rob Long
Four of the most talented writers from the final years (who were actually running the day-to-day activities in the writers’ room this season) join together for this hysterically absurd episode that finds Frasier betting the others that he can successfully get Woody on the ballot for city councilman (running against the incumbent) and have him achieve at least 10% of the vote. When Woody actually begins gaining traction, the gang decides to go forward and mount a full-scale campaign. But Frasier, the much needed voice of reason, begins having second thoughts. There are so many laughs in this offering, which works beautifully from beginning to end, that I can’t even single one out. And Woody is left in a great place — a new job, and as we find out via Kelly at the end, a new baby! (Also, look for a cameo by the future Roz Doyle, Peri Gilpin.)
08) Episode 269: “It’s Lonely On The Top” (Aired: 04/29/93)
Carla sleeps with a Cheers guy after a drunken celebration — but she can’t remember who.
Written by Heide Perlman
Interestingly, this installment was filmed the week after the bulk of the finale (aside from the latter’s final cigar scene, which was held over and shot after this episode wrapped), earning this one the distinction of being the last original Cheers script to go into production. It’s another great ensemble showcase, confining its action to the bar, as Carla tries to recall the identity of the Cheers regular with whom she had a physical encounter during the previous evening’s drunken melee. In a delicious twist, the man turns out to be Paul, which is an understandable source of devastation for Carla. Sam decides to cheer her up with a surprising (but appropriate for Danson) revelation: his secret toupee. Note that this episode was penned by wonderful longtime writer Heide Perlman, Rhea’s sister, who hadn’t contributed a script since 1986.
09) Episode 272: “The Guy Can’t Help It” (Aired: 05/13/93)
Rebecca dates a plumber and Sam goes to a group for sex addicts.
Written by David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee
If you’ve scrolled down, you’ll know that this is my pick for the best episode of the final season. It must be recognized that this installment was written by David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee, three fantastic writers who left several years back to create Wings (1990-1997, NBC). They know the show really well, and they know how to cultivate the comedy without forsaking an innate sense of logic that must exist in every sitcom character who aims to be believable. Tom Berenger is introduced as Don, Rebecca’s soon-to-be husband, and while I wish that there was a longer build-up for this development and Rebecca’s end-of-the-series status, the irony of Rebecca chasing millionaires and settling for a plumber is deliciously ripe, combining character-oriented laughs with some breathtaking growth. Speaking of growth, Sam Malone becomes introspective after a terrifically written scene in the office with Rebecca, recognizing that he’s going to be alone if he can’t face his sexual compulsivity. (It almost seems like a way to address the exaggerated portrayal of the character’s romantic exploits during the Alley years.) This begets a remarkable scene in which Sam introduces himself to a group of sex addicts, which somehow manages to end on a joke with deeper implications. It won Danson another Emmy and it’s no surprise. This may be Sam Malone’s finest half-hour of the entire series.
10) Episode 275: “One For The Road (III)” (Aired: 05/20/93)
Sam and Diane call it quits again, and he returns to the bar.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Over 80 million people tuned in to watch the 95-minute series finale (approximately 74 minutes of show). I shared a little bit of my thoughts about the finale above, but without a doubt, the final half hour, as it’s divided in traditional syndication, is the strongest. Not only does it end the relationship between Sam and Diane in a poignant but funny sequence in which their consciences both realize that reuniting is a mistake, but the show climaxes in a mesmerizing scene between the other regulars, who sit around the bar smoking cigars and talking the meaning of life. It’s hilarious and sad, a simple Thornton Wilder conversation: a pensive, emotional, and substantive note on which to end this fine series, which concludes as Sam closes the bar, honors Coach, and walks back into the dark poolroom from which he first entered.
Other memorable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Teaching With The Enemy,” the first half of the Lilith affair storyline, which doesn’t quite work as well as its follow-up but does feature an amusing subplot involving Tiny, the bouncer, “Norm’s Big Audit,” in which Norm flirts with an IRS agent played by Sharon Barr, who appeared before in my MVE from Season Six (this is a very funny offering for Norm and it was definitely considered for the ten), “Is There A Doctor In The Howe?,” the lead-in to “The Bar Manager, The Shrink, etc.” in which Rebecca and Frasier nearly have an intimate encounter (it’s a development that isn’t so smooth, thus weakening the installment’s standing in total, even though it uses a very funny script and came close to inclusion as well), and “Rebecca Gaines, Rebecca Loses (II),” in which Rebecca shows signs of maturation and Alley gets to do a another great drunk bit (in general both parts are too broad and rendered with too little logic, so this wasn’t really a contender, although there are few stellar moments).
The most memorable cold open in Cheers‘ final season is from “Do Not Forsake Me, O’ My Postman,” in which Andy Andy makes a surprise return in search of Diane.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eleven of Cheers goes to…..
“The Guy Can’t Help It”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Mama’s Family! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!