We're back, fearless Television Travellers! So far on our intrepid journey, your handsome and brave Captain Baddie has whisked you back to the black & white of 'The Honeymooners,' through the psychadelic colorful effects of 'Batman,' up to the downright nutty 'Gong Show' in the 1970s. Kudos to those of you who have survived the trip and are still with us as we reach The Me Decade. To those of you who are new to travelling the cathode rays, know this: we're all blue from projection tubes. We're all blue from projection tubes.
As we find ourselves in the 1980s, we find our way to what is largely considered the greatest scripted situation comedy of all time: none other than NBC's eleven-year smash-hit 'Cheers.'
'Cheers' wasn't just another television comedy; the ensemble cast of 'Cheers' were more than just family members to one another, they became like family to an international audience that only grew larger with each passing season. 'Cheers' was destination-television--no small feat for a sitcom, as usually when a family would gather around in the family room they would be waiting for the latest plot development in an ongoing drama, not the episodic antics of a sitcom group. Yet the characters on 'Cheers' were so well-drawn with an inclusion of pathos and genuine love (which is entirely absent from even the most acclaimed sitcoms today) that each episode became akin to a visit with friends.
As Jeffrey Stepakoff (writer of the smash-hit 'Dawson's Creek') writes in his memoir "The Billion-Dollar Kiss," any writer working in television in the 1980s was "only as good as his 'Cheers.'" What this meant was, every television writer had made an attempt at their own 'Cheers' episode--tackling the well-drawn characters, the speedy witticisms and the heart of the series--and that the episode they had written was the barometer of how good of a writer they really were. Not only that, Stepakoff explains that selling a script for 'Cheers' meant you had reached the promised land: if you had sold a 'Cheers,' that signalled to executives that you had what it took to succeed and you could basically write your own cheque for any script sales to come. This wasn't an arbitrary distinction: 'Cheers' delivered simply the finest in television comedy for a complete decade, and audiences and critics were in rare agreement.
'Cheers' was about a former Major League pitcher who lost his career due to alcoholism (Sam Malone, played by the inimitable Ted Danson) who, when he got sober, decided to purchase a bar in the town where he played ball: Boston. A bartender who doesn't drink became the lynch-pin for an ensemble of characters that included his best friend, an aging third-base coach named, well, Coach (played for laughs and love by Nicholas Colasanto). His spark-plug of a waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) would verbally spar with his beloved regulars Cliff & Norm (John Ratzenberger and George Wendt) and life was as it should be. That is, until the pilot episode brings erudite and elitist Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) into all of their lives as their newest server--and Sam's love interest.
The cast would grow and change over the years, losing Colasanto (who sadly passed away between seasons) and adding Woody Harrelson as Woody, Kirstie Alley as Rebecca, and Kelsey Grammer as the role he would play for a record eighteen years: Dr. Frasier Crane. Going over that list it's awe-inspiring not only to consider the talent assembled but how incredible it is that each and every cast member played off of each other so well.
'Cheers' took all of these different characters of disparate backgrounds and collected them all in the titular bar. No cameras followed anyone around, we were a fly on the wall who saw the comings and goings of these friends and co-workers. In fact, the entire first season takes place within the bar--it wasn't until later years that scenes were filmed at Sam or Diane's home, or any other location. The bar itself is as much a character in the ensemble as Sam himself--in this respect, 'Cheers' draws from the finest stage comedies ever written.
Sam & Diane.
Those names in tandem mean so much to a generation of North American people. Sam & Diane had the greatest on-screen chemistry that this Bad Guy has ever witnessed. Everything that Ross & Rachel meant to the 1990s, Sam & Diane meant about ten times more. 'Friends' came as close as anyone since to capturing the lightning in a bottle that was 'Cheers' will-they-or-won't-they love affair, but the manner through which that relationship is slowly built over several seasons could never truly be duplicated.
The moment that Diane left the series remains the only time a sitcom has ever moved me to tears. I have included the scene below; obviously, do not watch if you intend on watching your way back through the show (AND YOU SHOULD) as it will spoil many things. But this scene is indicative of many things about 'Cheers' as a whole: this was a sitcom that dealt with alcoholism, death, love and loss; a far cry from the meaningless absurdity thrown at the screen ala 'Arrested Development.' This also marks the only time that a network sitcom has moved me to tears.
'Cheers' didn't simply pay lip-service to social issues. As the first-season episode 'Boys in the Bar' shows, when the writers addressed an issue they did so humorously but realistically. In the episode, an old Boston Red Sox teammate of Sam's writes an autobiography wherein he comes out of the closet as a homosexual. Several of the male characters that frequent the bar become worried about the press attention Sam is receiving from his appearance in the book--the unspoken fear is that 'Cheers' will become a gay bar and the clientelle would somehow alter. After several of his regulars confront Sam and attempt to bully him into denouncing homosexuals and barring them from his business, Sammy stands his ground and announces that anyone and everyone is welcome at 'Cheers,' regardless of sexual orientation.
As admirable as such an episode would be today, this aired in 1982. This groundbreaking episode came out at a time when the general populace and the media were so homophobic and misguided that the condition we know as AIDS was known as GRID--'Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.' Even the medical community incorrectly and inappropriately discriminated against homosexuals, falsely blaming them for the AIDS epidemic (a mentality which sadly in 2012 has yet to be corrected, as moron and general waste-of-blood-and-hair Paris Hilton showed us recently). And yet there was a prominent prime-time NBC sitcom announcing their acceptance of the gay members of the populace.
After the scene in the photo above, did series regular Norm utter a slur or act disgusted? No: he paused, shrugged his shoulders, and closed out the episode with an observation: "...was better than Vera," referring to his never-seen wife, the butt of many of Normie's jokes.
'Cheers' reinvented the sitcom and set the bar for all ensemble comedies, which has yet to be surpassed. It spawned the mega-hit spinoff 'Frasier,' a show worthy of its own Television Time Machine spotlight all its own. And it brought its audience together as a surrogate family, to laugh and cry with them each week. 'Cheers' remains indicative of an era of television that can never be replicated. The sheer volume of programs available today means the audience is inevitably splintered; 'Cheers' aired at a time when you knew that everyone you worked with was watching the same program with you, would be discussing it the following day. In this sense, 'Cheers' is the last vestige of the Family-Room-Era in television, a very important era... maybe one that will be visited in a column... a column written by a handsome heel...
In short: go and watch 'Cheers.' It is criminally difficult to track down seasons of the show on DVD. If any of you can find the pilot episode, I stand by it as the finest example of a pilot ever recorded--when I taught a course on creative writing in Windsor, I submitted that pilot as the text from which the students could learn. 'Cheers' is practically perfect in every way--step aside, Poppins. Go and watch (or rewatch as the case may be) and thank me later.
That does it for this week's trip through time! Next week we run into the awkward 1990s... where do we go from here?? Only TIME.... will tell.
I came to Cheers late in the game (pardon the pun!) - Colasanto had already passed by the time I started watching. I have to agree with you...Cheers was one of the best shows made, and it's unlikely there will be anything like it again. But the image(s) of Cheers that stick in my mind - the ones that popped up when I saw the title of this article - happened right at the end of the series. The bar is dark, Sam is about to leave and a shadowy figure comes to the door, tries to open it but can't, and knocks. Sam takes a step towards the door, stops...and, raising his voice so the person can hear him, announces that the bar is closed. Fade to black.
But as heartbreakingly sad as watching the series finale was (for me, anyway), there was also some comedy surrounding it. While the finale was airing, NBC held a viewing party for the cast in the bar that was used as the model for the bar in Cheers and during the commercials, NBC showed some of the activity that was going on at the party. It was pretty hilarious watching the cast members getting bombed...and believe me, a couple of them got good and plastered!