By Roger Cormier
They never left the bar.
That is what struck me watching season one of Cheers. Sure, the characters talk about leaving the bar. We see their legs through the street-level window – on one occasion Sam crouched down to give further instruction to Diane and Carla to not kill one another. Some episodes begin with an unknown character or two without any lines walking down the steps, but we never see them inside. There are establishing shots of the Boston skyline. There were a few times when the bar television was able to be viewed with the bar patrons, communications from the outside world that felt strangely jarring.
Because they never left the bar. Twenty-two episodes, with every single scene inside the Cheers bar (the bar, the pool room, Sam’s office. Am I missing anything?) It is all quite impressive, considering that Cheers lives up to the hype so far. (For the most part anyway, but I’ll get to that.) I am aware that later seasons venture to other places, and I’m not sure how I will feel about that, as agoraphobic as that may sound. Never leaving the bar forced the writers to build all of the characters as three-dimensional beings, as they were learning every week on the fly about their own creations and how they each bounce off of one another. As a result of spending the allotted television time like this, the interlopers, as they are wont to do, all had to come to our beloved barflies and into *their* home, and they almost always were not to be trusted. Harry (Harry Anderson), who grifts and takes money from the regulars, appears in three episodes, but is a likable character not only because he helped Coach out in an elaborate double cross operation, but because he is somewhat familiar, and in protests to the contrary, is not unwelcome at the bar (Sam can always call the cops on him, but never does.)
My one problem with the show though comes from some of those interlopers. Diving into the show, I had assumed I would be watching a grounded comedy – so much is said and written about the witty repartee. While there is some of that, it strangely mixes in with stories involving cartoonishly rich characters. This doesn’t even simply deal with presumably one-off characters like the man who was caught in a lie about being a spy around Christmas time that entertained our friends for twenty-four minutes (!). These are people close to the main characters, like Diane’s mother and Sam’s brother. Diane’s mother shows up to the bar and announces suddenly that if Diane doesn’t get married by that time tomorrow she loses all of her money because of a stipulation in her widow’s will, a development that doesn’t result in complete dignity destroying lunacy, but a sign that the third to last episode of the season was of a season that wasn’t being watched by nearly enough people, and was in danger of being the only batch of Cheers episodes to ever exist. In the two-part season finale, Sam’s seemingly perfect handsome brother, who can sing beautifully, tap dance, and owns a lear jet, is at least never seen, so viewers can project what they believe the embodiment of envy looks like.
The absurdly affluent guests really messed around with the tone of the show, and to me I will just have to see if the invitation for some broader material will be welcome. I wonder if it was an intended comedic reaction to the popular prime time soap operas that were popular in 1982-1983 like Dallas or Falcon Crest, or seeping influence from the then recently cancelled soap opera parody Soap.
There were intended dark edges on Cheers’ street-level windows, but those were welcome. It isn’t to imply that verisimilitude is paramount to making great comedy, but considering the show’s strengths of rich dialogue, it seems important that it calls attention to the inherit sadness of frequenting a bar. Norm always had a new snappy comeback for Coach whenever he was asked what it was he will have, but it would soon follow with comments about his ongoing unemployment and disparaging comments about his never seen wife Vera. He had lost his accounting job because he stopped his boss from essentially raping Diane in the pool room, in an early episode that not only featured a near rape but the comedic challenge of making an episode about the world’s most boring party funny. In an episode that leaned too much into Norman Leer didacticism than Norman Leer comedy, “The Boys In the Bar” featured a Norm Peterson leading a group of what Diane accurately called “sniveling bigots” to attempt to get three men that they assumed to be homosexual to leave the bar, out of fear that Cheers would turn into a gay establishment. It was definitely Cheers’ version of a “very special episode”, but not in a pejorative sense, unlike some other sitcoms trying to teach lessons throughout the 1980s, and like some episodes of Roseanne in the late 80s and early 90s.
Norm’s actions throughout season one were timelessly human in its variability, like when moments after yelling at Diane to do her job moments after her cat died he was the first to offer some comforting words, before the Celtics game interrupted again. The writers were not afraid to make Sam look bad either, his pathetic cad tendencies embarrassingly broadcast to the entire bar (to the horror of Norm and Cliff, because they idolize Sam, in both a cute and very sad way) in “Coach Returns to Action”, when he does not know when to give up on a woman who refuses all of his sad advances. Sam Malone is a retired Red Sox relief pitcher three years sober who unfortunately runs a bar that he also bartends (the circumstances of which that came into fruition are explained satisfactorily enough in the Emmy winning pilot episode), and in the Sam Simon penned “Endless Slumper”, losing a bottle cap that he claimed kept him sober led to a very tense moment in front of Diane in which he poured a beer for himself and demanded silence before ultimately sliding it away to audience applause. Modern day comedies aren’t as worried about giving their characters flaws as they used to be, no doubt partially from seeing Sam’s occasional struggles with sobriety, which I understand comes up again in the series.
I loved that Cheers employed some running gags appreciated best when viewing every episode, which is of course something that every comedy that is critically liked does now, like Sam and that beer slide, or comments about his strong cologne that “lacks nuance.” Diane’s recurring facial tic is silly, but it is firmly consistent with Diane’s character after one season of a couple of moments witnessing it. The characters weren’t in stasis, but there wasn’t an overbearing amount of plot to potentially smother all of the character building jokes. Cliff Clavin’s ascent from a man with one line to a character featured in every episode, established as a know-it-all mail carrier was fun to watch, even though I find his character a bit more off-putting than the creatives probably intended so far, as was the evolving directorial choices of James Burrows, who directed every episode in season one. In early episodes, Burrows employed a lower than usual angle when shooting characters like Norm walking across the front of the bar that he probably correctly decided was too showy and never used again. Burrows directed a lion’s share of the episodes of Taxi, but I think there was still some attempted experimentation from the director when he allowed for Harry Anderson to speak through an overhead lamp in one particular climatic moment.
How did I get this far without writing about Sam and Diane? It is obvious from even the pilot that the two are going to get together, and even more so when in the very next episode, Sam was already completely thrown off by Diane and found questioning his basic philosophies on dating and how he chooses his paramours. Most episodes concluded with a scene with just the two of them, which towards the end of the season led to the rest of the bar openly wondering when they would ever get it together. It somehow never got annoying because of how different and hot and full of angst some of those conversations were, most notably similar to Nick Miller and Jess Day on New Girl. Ross and Rachel from Friends were different too, but their anger stemmed from poor timing, but like Sam and Diane, Nick and Jess sometimes seem like they want to kill each other, because they ultimately (as of now) are against each others’ basic life philosophies (no big deal). The fight that led to their first kiss that ended the season (and remember, it was a possibility to the writers that it could have ended the series) was almost scary. Some of Ted Danson’s yelling was frighteningly loud, at one point admitting that he had thoughts on “poping” Diane, which gave Diane’s reply that he would find himself unable to walk if he tried it a vociferous and relieved laugh from the audience. I know what happens with those two, but how their dynamic is going to cause trouble should be interesting anyway.
Season one of Community never left the home campus, on purpose. Even though it was *just* a Community college, that still provided the show multiple locations and built-in situations and conflicts, but the idea was basically the same. Community creator Dan Harmon said that his feeling was that a season one set exclusively at Greendale Community would lead to season two’s writing to feel like a sprinter taking off ankle weights. I’m curious to see how fast Sam, Diane, Coach, Norm, Cliff, and last but not least Carla (I’ll get to her and that sudden pregnancy reveal next time), now properly built with finely crated precision, can do some damage and make some funny in the outside world.