By Roger Cormier
There’s really no reason why I shouldn’t already be tired of Sam and Diane after two seasons of Cheers. A fair share of episodes revolve around one character or the other, or is an examination directly on their relationship, and the rest of the stories typically need to be dissected by the two, because Sam and Diane are the most sensible characters on the show, and their opinions therefore carry the most weight to the audience. But thus far, the two kids who just can’t seem to get it together haven’t lost their intrigue.
Season two’s center was Sam and Diane’s romantic relationship, beginning with their first night together in the season premiere, “Power Play,” and culminating in the two-part finale, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with an act-long verbal and Three Stoogesian fight and break-up. The plotting of the rise and fall of the lovebirds wasn’t perfect, documenting a relationship over 22 episodes that had a definitive blissful beginning, a delineated apex with Sam’s declaration of love, a clear downward spiral when Sam began to miss his old bachelorhood days, and a slapping, nose-pinching ending. In other words, it’s how we’ve come to know how relationships that do not ultimately last tend to play out on television (usually without the violence).
The most contemporary example of this is season two of How I Met Your Mother, still widely believed to be its best work. After a first season of Ted and Robin taking turns liking one another at the wrong time, the show opened its sophomore year with the two beginning their relationship, and ending with their amicable break-up. Sound familiar? It was also at the midpoint of the season when an episode focused on a character who was not accustomed to long-term relationships comically struggled with saying the three words “I love you.” With the advantage of 20years of hindsight, HIMYM actually dealt with it in a funnier, less broad manner, having Robin substitute Those Three Words with “falafel,” whereas Sam simply couldn’t physically finish the phrase (not to mention the assumed-gender-role switcheroo). Ted and Robin were fond of one another, but the two fundamentally saw the world differently; more specifically, as the Sam of the two, Robin could not change the fact that she still considered herself young and capable of achieving a bigger celebrity profile, and that Ted seemed at times one-dimensionally obsessed with the idea of marriage.
What has made Sam and Diane entertaining to watch and worthy of emotional investment is how equal the two really are, without ever truly realizing it. For all of the times that the two openly complain about how little they have in common, they’re both clearly upset that their mutual attraction doesn’t make sense on paper. They both possess biting senses of humor. Sam is probably just as intelligent as Diane; Diane is just far more educated. They are both stubborn. That was the problem. Also, Sam couldn’t change overnight, or in six months with Diane. It isn’t as if the producers of Cheers knew then that the show would last for 11 years, but they knew that it would be dishonest if Sam Malone continued to participate in a monogamous relationship. He’s still emotionally adolescent, openly admitting in the finale that he likes the idea of “millions” of women fantasizing about him. Diane Chambers isn’t completely mature herself—she did still have a bunch of stuffed animals sharing a bed with her in “Power Play” before Sam defenestrated them. She’s still essentially a 1983 version of a hipster, secretly possessing and watching a tiny black and white television and fond of singing Dylan alone while drunk on wine. Without hitting us over the head with it, we know that it’s a “right person, wrong time” situation.
A romance that just might very well stand the test of time is of Norm and Cliff. The two were firmly established as best friends in this batch of episodes. It almost made Cliff Clavin a likable fellow. For whatever reason, I haven’t yet warmed to the postal worker, even though he gets Norman “Moonglow” Peterson’s and the rest of the bar’s seal of approval. Attempts to humanize him bordered on the too ridiculous, like in “Cliff’s Rocky Moment,” when he faked a knowledge of karate to not look like a coward, resulting in Diane having to drive him to the hospital. A fellow U.S. Mail employee claiming that his supervisor is known to admonish employees by yelling at them to stop being a “pain in the Clavin” makes Cliff pathetic and depressing, not a misunderstood know-it-all who sometimes is caught by Diane as a phony.
It’s all forgiven whenever he’s around Norm, humorously failing miserably at handling two women flirting with them at the bar, or trying to look cool by making prank calls using a joke that minutes earlier they had dismissed as dumb. The second episode of the season cemented the relationship when Norm volunteered to be the one to tell Cliff that the woman (Rhea Perlman, playing Carla’s sister) he had “fallen for” and wanted to marry didn’t even know his name. Norm insisted that anyone who laughed at Cliff for looking foolish would have to answer to him, a touching moment that permeates the DNA of your standard Judd Apatow movie.
Poor Norm though doesn’t have it all together himself. The man finally found some employment (thanks to Sam) and got back together with his wife Vera (who I understand we will never see throughout the series), but multiple episodes dealt with Norm’s struggle with being perceived by the rest of the bar as one of the boys. He openly weeped on Sam’s couch in “No Help Wanted” moments after getting into a shouting match with Mr. Malone in front of everybody. He revealed to Sam in “Norman’s Conquest,” after chickening out of committing adultery, that he actually, sincerely, loves the wife he constantly makes fun of. Of course, when he tries to go back to the bar and proudly defend Vera he is immediately shot down and reverts back to his old, crowd-pleasing routines about the old wench.
Public persona is important on Cheers, as well as preserving your flimsy masculinity. When Cliff was in serious danger of being shamed out of ever returning to the bar, Norm did nothing because he would have also been perceived as an outcast, a non-act reciprocated when Cliff joined in on the hazing of Norm by some male denizens about not sleeping with the client.
Season two didn’t exclusively dabble in stakes-free, brightly colored story, but it didn’t venture into the really dark, controversial territories it did in its first year either. Cheers still was fine with sometimes portraying the characters as all too human. Coach’s anger at a dead friend turning out to have been nothing like the saint he had thought he was was tough to watch in a good, entertaining way, and a story that began as kind of wonderful (“Where There’s a Will”) that turned rotten needed the characters to act like greedy jerks to move the story along.
As far as changes and explorations, we finally left the bar. When the premiere ventured to Diane’s apartment, I felt like Sam, since we were both in alien territory for the very first time. Of course, the living room in Diane’s apartment was actually the only new set built for the new season, but after a year of never leaving Cheers it was a newsworthy, sensory overloading event. Also, some episodes had the modern day structure of an A story and what can be considered a B story instead of a brief series of related gags. “They Called Me Mayday” was an episode that concluded simply because the show ran out of time—we are just left to assume that Sam and Diane’s memoir proposal about Sam’s playing days never materialized.
An older friend of mine and I talked about Cheers (at a bar of all places), where he recounted how he would be able to pick up television frequencies on his car radio sometimes and listen to repeats of the show. He found himself able to follow and thoroughly enjoy the episodes without any of the visuals. I have heard and read similar stories about how the show was written like theater, and now I believe it. I care about all of these characters, even Carla and Coach who I barely write about (so far), and the awkward, at times snide as hell Cliff, because they are all nuanced and real, and unknowingly very funny. A lot of that goes to the dialogue. But it would be silly to not sing the praises of the visual sketch work Cheers can also master. One of my favorite moments from the season was in “Coachie Makes Three” when gradually every main character had to run out to catch the previous one because of Coach’s continued clarifications on who he actually was referring to. Except for Norm of course; he walked, beer in hand, towards the door. Only men like Ted Mosby would leave a beer behind.