The Cheers Legacy: Season 11

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By Roger Cormier

Sorry, we’re closed.

Free to research what the rest of the world had to say about Cheers after watching all of the episodes, I discovered that the finale was ninety minutes long because then POTUS Bill Clinton expressed serious interest in appearing in “One For the Road.” That never happened, so Glen and Les Charles, the initial showrunners, co-creators, and writers of the episode, were stuck with what they believed to be too much time to keep the casual watcher interested. That is what guest stars are for, yet they were entertainingly random, even in 1993: Sports Illustrated swimsuit model/regular model Kim Alexis; Mike Ditka (a year after the end of his Chicago Bears coaching stint, a few years before that other coaching experiment, neither team based in the New England area), Tom Berenger as Rebecca’s boyfriend, a carryover from the previous episode, and NBC executives Warren Littlefield and Grant Tinker nursing beers at the bar in the first scene. Alexis and Ditka only appeared via the bar television for a couple of minutes, and Rebecca’s story didn’t get to have all that much time to play out, which left a sizable amount of time for the return of Diane Chambers.

But all of the time in the world couldn’t bring Shelley Long’s character back to what it once was. I had always known that in the series finale, one of the most watched television shows in history, Diane returned to Cheers. Before I watched the entire series, I knew that Sam and Diane would be on a plane, and that Sam would decide not to go with her back to whence she came, but as I watched the Diane years with you, I was more and more confused about how that would happen. I was almost angry at the thought of “One For the Road” featuring a scene that would awkwardly find Sam coming up with a good reason for getting off that plane.

But throughout the Rebecca years, the attachment of Sam to the place he owned, didn’t own but worked at, and then owned and worked at again became all the more stronger. The same goes for the mostly unhealthy symbiotic relationship between Mr. Malone and the regulars, and Rebecca as she dissented further into her madness – friends that gave him company and support and almost always needed his older brother approval. When Diane re-entered the bar, only Sam and Woody were cordial to her. She became a stranger. Frasier was downright angry. Carla was frightened. Norm and Cliff let the scene unfold before answering two questions from her about their lives. Their reactions no doubt colored the impression to everyone watching that night that Diane was an interloper and an enemy to their world. Diane was *always* an interloper, but in a way that she could herself take pride in. This was different.

And because Sam’s goodbye to the bar was abrupt and took place at the end of part two of the three parter, what would happen next on that plane made even more sense. As Sam and Diane daydreamed the pilot and stewardess respectively say that what they were doing was a mistake (the only part of the episode where it felt like Diane was at any point an important character on the show and not just a MacGuffin), it would have felt like the Charles brothers talking themselves out of the ending that they wanted to write because of pesky realism. Instead, it was just real, and as painfully perfectly convincing as Diane’s explanation of her not returning to Boston for six years because she did not want to come back as a failure as a writer. Some shows since have put their star-crossed soulmates together in the end to give the fans what they think they want, a perfectly understandable impulse, considering that is how a lot of our favorite movies end, and like a movie, you don’t have to deal with the boring aftermath of becoming boring, growing old and having some kids. But the most memorable and critically applauded series finales concluded without the big romantic gesture and with characters making a significant life change. Or in the case of the series finale of Frasier, the main character making a surprise but understated romantic gesture while making a significant career and life change in the process.

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Sam and Diane were not meant to be, and as Woody pointed out during the final few minutes, this just added to the kind of miserable existence of Sam Malone, who by that point had a documented alcohol problem, a sex addiction problem, and had twice lost the “love of his life.” The man was also balding. Unfortunately I was tipped off months ago that at some point in the series, Sam would reveal that he was wearing a hairpiece, but I did not know when, and it was not until the final leg of episodes in this final season that it happened. To make Carla feel better about sleeping with Paul (who episodes earlier oddly enough was about to come out of the closet), he showed her that “Sam Malone is bullshit,” as co-creator James Burrows put it.

There have been academic papers written about Sam Malone and masculinity, and I would bet that they would all mention that moment. Sam claimed he first noticed the hair thinning at the crown on a date that fell between seasons seven and eight, and he didn’t think twice before signing up for a “hair replacement system.” (Shows have sometimes revealed information in the end of their runs that changed the perception of some characters and parts of the entire series – without ruining anything [more] I will cite Scrubs as a fun example of this, and Gossip Girl as the worst.) The pathetic aspect of Mayday’s life as a man in his mid forties acting like he was in his twenties was explored more in the final season than in any other, because Ted Danson had talked about it to the media, and because there was no twelfth season to drag a likable character into deep antiheroism and risking declining ratings.

Sam desperately wanted to get his Corvette back so badly that he romanced a widower (played by a young and great Dana Delany) for a reduced price (thankfully, Delany made him pay for that. Unfortunately she never returned). Rebecca laughed at his face when he proposed an “If we’re not married when we’re 50” scenario, and very hurtfully said women talk about him like he’s a joke. Even Carla admitted that she would never marry a cad like Sam. It led to Malone attending a sex addiction group therapy session (with Sharon Lawrence) in the penultimate episode, something he says in the finale that he was still attending. He was cold and precise in his defensive frustrations at hearing his friends tell him that leaving with Diane to Los Angeles, yelling that they can watch the world go by without him and that he was not their mother. I mentioned last week that Sam may have been the first antihero in comedy, or at least the character freshest on the minds of those that made antiheroes currently popular. This final season intentionally shined a light on the darkness of Sam Malone’s existence. Even in his most triumphant, presiding over his bar and telling himself that he was “the luckiest son of a bitch on Earth”, he was expressing joy at owning a bar as a recovering alcoholic. It’s not quite Walter White smiling at his precious meth lab equipment as he drew his final breaths, but it definitely smells of tragicomedy, something we would see a lot more of when the 21st century rolled around.

Cliff Clavin is also someone I feel like we have seen time and time again – an oblivious joke masquerading as a human being that can illicit pity if the right actor or actress is uttering the words. John Ratzenberger was the right actor, and if anybody thinks otherwise, the season ten episode when he shouts “You botched my joke Johnny Cahson!” is available to watch on NetFlix whenever you wish. A question that had always been on my mind from around season three, as well as Carla and Norm’s, was if Cliff was a virgin. Offhandedly, he revealed in an early season eleven episode that he has had sex three times, yet when his longtime but conveniently long distance girlfriend Maggie came to town pregnant and claimed the baby was his, he admitted to not remembering having sex with her, even though it was implied that Maggie was the one he lost his virginity to. The murky continuity suggests we really shouldn’t care, and Cheers kind of has a point: Cliff knowingly videotaped the world’s most cathartic 50th family reunion without a functioning battery because he was paid up front and literally carried his mother out of a nursing home that she loved because it was costing him too much money, after his closest friends believed that he had murdered her. He got drunk off of nonalcoholic beer (shades of Freaks and Geeks) and lied about being a master equestrian just to take part in a Pony Express reenactment. Three of Frasier’s shrink friends gave him their business cards and “brats” in his neighborhood stole his car and tease him about it. He would not stop believing that Hitler was living in his apartment complex and was repeatedly caught spying on him. Most of those stories were pretty funny, and I stopped being sympathetic for Cliff until he admitted to always wanting to be a stand-up comedian, which naturally led to him failing at the one open mic night he attended.

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When Marshall Eriksen made his awful fish jokes on a stage, he had his environmental lawyer career waiting for him. Dee Reynolds exists in a universe where none of the characters are meant to be taken seriously, so she can make whatever awful jokes she wants with no repercussions. But when Cliff admitted he wanted to be a comedian, after acting so prideful over his duties as a United States postal worker for eleven years, it was pretty sad, and even worse, fitting for the character. Ultimately, Cliff’s big win in the finale was receiving a promotion after bribing his superior more than everybody else. Outside of a memorable philosophical moment where he opined that the meaning of life was about comfortable shoes, we are left believing Cliff is just a part of the rat race until he retires, before that season nine episode of Frasier that I am going to ignore. Cliff’s legacy to television is one of characters serving as one man or woman punching bags. The clown, as it were. It wasn’t new to Cheers, but giving The Clown an episode or two a season to star in the A story was.

I wrote at some length about Frasier and Woody and their legacies last week to avoid a monstrous post today (oops), but it needs to be said that Frasier came off as a bit of a clown in the final year himself, dealing with Lilith’s sudden dalliance with another man. Dr. Crane went off on the deep end, going so far as to step on a ledge and seemingly want to kill himself just for his wife’s attention. Lilith was returned to him from her time in an experimental underground “eco-pod” (the progenitor for Biodome? Why not?) right before he was going to sleep with Rebecca. The good doctor agreed to take her back after he was held up at gunpoint by Dr. Pascal, but that was the last we saw of Bebe Neuwirth and Lilith Sternin-Crane in the series. Any questions about Frasier’s marriage provoked the equivalent of “I’m fine” responses during the final ten episodes. It wasn’t until the finale that the answer to how their marriage was going was revealed, when Frasier announced on his radio show that he was separated from his wife. This wasn’t actually in “One on the Road” – it was in the commercial for Frasier that ran during the final episode. Kelsey Grammer may not had been able to express grief and dark humor over the separation during those ninety minutes (with commercials), but he did get to charmingly falter when trying to tell Sam, Woody, Carla, Norm, and Cliff that he loved them.

As for Woody: he became a city councilman, thanks to Frasier wanting to win a simple bar bet and Kelly announcing on live television that she was pregnant with his child. It was a very ironic turn of events, like with where Klinger ended up in the end of the M*A*S*H series finale. Leslie Knope is of course now a city councilman on Cheers superfan Michael Schur’s show Parks and Recreation, but the bigger influence stems from more comedies taking a liking to irony in general. The evolution of Woody’s character over the years from basically nothing more than a country bumpkin to someone who is capable of debating and even outwitting co-workers worked the opposite way most sitcoms operate, where a character usually becomes broader and dumber.

Which sadly segues perfectly to one Rebecca Howe. I don’t mean to be particularly harsh, because the excuse that Kirstie Alley’s wheelhouse was revealed to be off-the-wall, emotionally volatile comedy isn’t a bad one for the de-evolution of her character, but Cheers has rightfully never been considered to be a great series because of Rebecca. Earlier this year, the Charles Brothers admitted that Rebecca was one step away from a mental institution, and when it all began, Ms. Howe was in a position of power, and acted as much. This was an example of characters becoming broader as the show goes on (The Office EP Greg Daniels recently theorized this occurs when the young joke writers eventually get promoted to the top producer positions while remaining less experienced in character development than the individuals they replace).

While in one way Rebecca was the opposite of Woody, she got her own happy and ironic ending by marrying a “lowly” “poor” plumber (Tom Berenger) she had only known in the time between the final two episodes, after years of exclusively pining for and dating rich men. Before this, and after her and Sam gave up on attempting to have a kid together, it was obvious that the writers didn’t really know what to do with her, outside of have her whine about being bad luck and accidentally setting the bar on fire. Once again ignoring the fact that she paid a significant portion of the money needed to buy the pool room and bathrooms from John Allen Hill, and that Sam made her manager again, most of Cheers wondered what she actually did there. Her marriage to Don Santry wont solve all of her problems, but we are left to believe that if she can seemingly solve one self-destructive tendency that maybe she can do the same with all of her other ones. Whatever the case, Rebecca’s last moment on the show was a rushed promise to come back to the bar “every now and again” before letting all of the regulars from season four onward go ahead and have that iconic final scene about the meaning of life together without her.

The only woman that truly belonged to the bar and didn’t feel like an enemy, or someone out of their element and useless, was Carla. Her lot in life from the pilot until “One For the Road” was waitressing at Cheers. She was always smart enough to possibly set her sights higher, but kept having more and more children as the years progressed, and grew closer to the family she showed love for, sometimes through violence. In the final two seasons, she developed a relationship with the aforementioned new owner of Melville’s John Allen Hill (a.k.a. John Cougar Melonhead), but outside of one awkward scene where the two were forced to realize that they had little in common aside from a talent to sharply insult someone and a mutual lust for the other, it tended to act as a situation to bother Sam, who never cared for Hill and his snobbish ways (Rich vs. Poor was a theme until the very end).

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Carla’s ex Nick finally returned, the punishment for his spinoff The Tortellis and its epic failure lifted to make one final appearance, to relive some of the offbeat characteristics that made their relationship memorable. Her hatred of Ms. Chambers obviously returned in the finale, but because references to Diane dramatically increased during the last few years, we were treated to a scene where Carla quit a much more financially lucrative waitressing position in one episode because a trainee uncannily resembled a young Diane. One aspect of her recurring behavior that was examined was her tendency to unabashedly hit on men she was unfamiliar with, even occasionally when she was in a relationship. In “It’s Lonely on the Top,” she privately said to Sam that while she talks a lot of game she doesn’t sleep with too many men, and she at least always knew their names, another example of acceptable retconning, or whatever the term is for retconning when the facts were implied but never firmly established. (Cheers was unafraid to let most of the characters [everyone but Sam] admit and seem okay with not having sex very often, which is actually something shows did the opposite of ever since). The revelation that Carla’s spiritual advisor was a fraud, and her spoken belief that having children was the meaning of life, made Carla and showed the audience that Carla knows what Carla is about. She was tough and proud but human.

Norm Peterson would never tell you he was a “proud” man, but he knew what he was about too – beer. A human Barney Gumble sounds incredibly depressing, and seeing Sam pull out a huge binder that apparently documented Norm’s bar tab in live action was kind of horrifying (at least NASA was never mentioned to have done the calculations). An episode where Norm became a beer taster at a brewery was a fan fiction -y installment that did not work as well as Cliff’s sojourns to The Tonight Show set or Jeopardy! because of its inherit sadness. Norm couldn’t remember if his father in law is dead in another episode, and when Dr. Pascal had everyone in the bar at gunpoint we found out that he used the excuse to Vera that he wasn’t home because he was being held hostage at Cheers before. When Frasier was on the ledge prepared to jump, he only moved because his car was in danger. He seemingly needed to cheat on Vera to get out of a tax audit, but could not, explaining that there was a difference between being a bad husband and a bad person. When Norm went to the Boston Garden and Kevin McHale gave him a Celtics jacket, it was what he claimed to be the happiest day of his life. He never did pay that massive bar tab, but he bought Sam a boat. When the former owner of Cheers talked about Norm, he remembered him reciting poetry to Vera all the time, and slow dancing with her to songs from the jukebox. Now he spends his time pointing out continuity errors to Casper the Friendly Ghost (without even blogging about it.) Norm was a hero to some who watched Cheers. To others, a cautionary tale. The show was okay either way as long as you watched, although it was telling that Norm is the last person we see besides Sam in the finale, finagling one last beer from the former pitcher. Norm famously told Sam that he knew he would come back, because he can never leave his one true love. Norm believes in one true loves not being another human being, but places, things, or beverages. It could be read as ironic – that a transparently one dimensional man does not seem to or at least admit to a flesh and bone, carbon-based life form as the thing that completes him. Or, it provided Sam a happy perspective on everything to leave the audiences happy.

Believe it or not, there’s plenty of stuff I feel like I left out. The impressive fleshing in of most of the secondary barflies. Did you know that Phil worked on The Manhattan Project?! Particularly in the Rebecca seasons, Cheers would sometimes contain three stories in addition to vignettes, something that James Burrows would apparently forget when talking about how innovative Friends was for doing the same thing but a few years later. How the viewing of Community has forever changed because of watching Cheers – the parallels between Britta Perry and Rebecca Howe are too uncanny to not be somewhat intentional. Jeff Winger’s texts = Sam’s hair. It is all shows really, and in the shows that watched the shows that watched Cheers, supposedly the last popular show written by writers that grew up reading instead of watching television.

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