Greetings and salutations, TVRagers of all ages! It’s time for the inaugural edition of a new feature column here on TVRage. You love the Chrononaut Chronicles, the Television Time Machine, well now there’s You’ve Got Character to give you even more to look forward to!
In You’ve Got Character I place the spotlight on an important or famous character in television series history. Not the actor who played the character, not the show itself, but the character, their story and what they represent.
So why characters themselves? Because one of the biggest reasons we tune in to our favorite series is to spend time with the characters we’ve come to know and love. These comfort-characters begin to feel like people we know; we can predict their reactions to things. But rather than take away the enjoyment of the series via predictability, that knowledge of the character serves to increase our enjoyment of the series, making it so we ourselves are in on the joke.
Take ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Sex and the City:’ all shows about groupings of characters that each have a clearly-defined persona and role to play. Even America's longest running comic book follows the same formula: I mean, who really wants to see Jughead Jones resolve his overeating issues by coming to grips with the fact that he's actually in love with Archie and dives for the picnic basket whenever Archie starts flirting with Betty at the beach? No one: you want to see Reggie and Archie to battle over Veronica, Betty to be sweet and endearing, Juggie to pester Veronica's butler in the kitchen, and finally have Archie trip over the rug and break yet another one of Mr. Lodge's priceless vases.
I'm not trying to argue that characters or shows should be uninteresting, I just believe that this 'Comfort Character' formula is the best way of doing things in serials. Tuning in every week, watching these characters stay true to themselves no matter what madcap crazy thing happens this time, is almost enough to make them feel like they're friends of yours. You can always count on them and they'll always be there for you.
So that’s what You’ve Got Character is going to become: a closer look at the characters that kept us company over the years.
So where do we begin? Well how about with the lead of one of the most popular sitcoms of all time? I’m talking about Sam Malone, the lovable barkeep from ‘Cheers.’
Sam Malone was the backbone of what was perhaps the greatest ensemble cast of characters ever assembled. An ex-MLB relief pitcher, Sam had a fairly successful career with the Boston Red Sox before succumbing to alcoholism. It was during his tenure with the Bo Sox that Sammy met Ernie Pantuso, a loyal but dim-witted third base coach who would become Sam’s friend for life after he helped him kick his bottle habit. Then, Sam retired and did the unthinkable for any recovering alcoholic--he purchased a bar.
‘Cheers’ is named for that bar; a little downtown Boston spot beneath a fancy restaurant. Sam’s minor celebrity status would help bring in customers and he would tend bar and stay sober and find a new niche. However one aspect of his ball-playing days never left him: Sammy remained an incorrigible womanizer.
As if having been a professional baseball player wasn’t sufficient to draw admirers, Sam’s notorious string of flings with beautiful women made him a local legend to the beer-swilling masses who comprised Cheers’ regular customers. Sam was sober, living large, dating whomever he pleased--except he did have standards, of course. As he mentions in a first season ‘Cheers’ episode, he doesn’t date women who are “married, underage or comatose.” What a humanitarian!
This brings us to where ‘Cheers’ begins; Sam has been spending his days in pursuit of cheap thrills, however he is slowly and surely becoming a trusted friend and advisor to a collection of Cheers patrons... a fate he never expected. And at a turning point in his life, in walks a woman who would change Sammy forever: the pilot episode of ‘Cheers’ introduces us to Diane Chambers.
Everything that Ross & Rachel of ‘Friends’ meant to the 1990s, Sam & Diane meant about ten times more in the 1980s. The pair became the template for on screen chemistry. '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 Sam & Diane’s relationship is slowly built over several seasons could never truly be duplicated.
Why would such a womanizer become caught up with one woman? Why would he select a woman so completely opposite to himself, at that? Diane was an over-educated know-it-all, far more conservative than Sam... however Sam’s machismo proved magnetic and Diane was drawn to him like so many women before her. So how do we explain Sam’s attraction to Diane?
Despite being lambasted as a cheap counter to the feminism of the 1980s, Sam Malone has always been more than that, as a character. While on the surface, or perhaps at the time of the pilot episode, Sam is that roguish rake character who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em, the point of the Diane relationship on ‘Cheers’ is to show that our Sammy wanted more. Throughout the first few seasons we see Sam strive to improve himself in order to impress Diane, including reading Tolstoy’s “War & Peace.” Diane represented a richer life for Sam that he never knew how to embody, which is why the pull towards the smart-mouthed blonde remained even after the sexual conquest that used to mark the end of Sammy’s affairs.
In many ways, Sam Malone is as much a victim of overbearing masculinity as the women he was serially dating. Several ‘Cheers’ episodes center around an inner conflict in Sam to live up to a masculine ideal (thus placating the teeming masses who live through his antics vicariously) despite feeling on some deeper level that the masculine ideal is wrong. But it cannot be denied that Sam as a character embodied far more than the masculine ideal--storylines including his acceptance of gay couples in his bar (a bold statement in the mid-1980s) to his refusal to ever pursue a woman under false pretenses show a man deeper than the shallow conception he was often painted as.
So where did Sammy go from there?
Well, eventually, Diane left his life and he didn’t see her again for six years. During that time, ‘Cheers’ tried desperately to recreate the chemistry between the characters by introducing Rebecca Howe, a sexy new manager who purchases ‘Cheers’ from Sam. While Rebecca and Sam never quite lived up to the magic of Sam & Diane, the pair managed to explore a new facet of Sam’s character: his desire to be a father. Both Rebecca and Sam were cognizant of their age and felt a pull to have children... going so far as to plan to have a child together, despite the underlying awareness that they didn’t love each other as anything more than friends. In the end, no baby was conceived, however the relationship between Sam and Rebecca had been strengthened and their characters had grown.
Sam was played by Ted Danson in the role that Danson is still known for today (despite successes with ‘Becker’ and ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’). Not only had the years of ‘Cheers’ made a generation of viewers fall in love with and come to care about Sam Malone, but Danson had come to care about the character as well--and that caring became the reason that ‘Cheers’ went off the air when it did.
How did an actor’s love for a role spell the end of that role? Well Danson was getting older; he had already begun sporting a hair-piece while playing Sam, in order to keep up the appearance of the dashing womanizer. (Sam’s hair-piece was once revealed on the show as well, in a private moment between Sammy and his longtime friend Carla). Danson identified with how lonely Sam was as a character and as a man... as such, Danson refused to sign a new contract to extend the life of the series (despite mammoth ratings figures) because he didn’t wish to see poor Sammy continue to chase women passed his mid-forties. As such, ‘Cheers’ had to come to an end... but how should they end it? Would Sam finally end up with Diane or Rebecca?
In the finale of ‘Cheers,’ one of the highest-rated episodes of any show in history, Sam attempted to rekindle the passionate affair with Diane... only to see the pair both come to the ultimate conclusion that they love each other but aren’t right for each other. The series ended with Sammy closing down his bar, the place that longtime friend Norm told Sam was “his one true love.”
That wasn’t the last we would see of Sam Malone, however. The unexpected popularity of the ‘Cheers’ spin-off series ‘Frasier’ allowed several ‘Cheers’ characters to appear in reunion episodes. In the episode, Sam has come to terms with his sexual addiction and is engaged to a woman that he met in group therapy... until it is revealed that she slept with several of Sam’s friends and the engagement is called off. Sam Malone leaves ‘Frasier’ and our lives as a single man, facing down loneliness with a humorous buoyancy like so many rakish characters before him.
Sam Malone captured a generation with his charm and humor. Both women and men loved the character and the close of ‘Cheers’ left very few dry eyes amongst the audience. As sad as Sam’s send-off is, both in ‘Cheers’ and ‘Frasier,’ it seems only fitting; Sam is a vestige of a type of male that society no longer abides. He was unabashedly himself, never striving to live up to anyone’s ideals but his own and we loved him for it... but the character was doomed to be alone, one way or the other.
Sam Malone is a character that changed sitcom television forever and that television viewers from the 1980s and 1990s will never forget. He’s certainly got character.
That does it for our inaugural edition here at You’ve Got Character. Got a character that you think would make a good column? Let me know in the comments below!!