By Roger Cormier
The departure of Diane didn’t end Cheers or apparently diminish its quality, but when Shelley Long decided to leave after this fifth season to spend more time with her family and work on movies there was a lot of justified worry from basically all of America. Sam and Diane was the engine that drove the show, the focus of the main plots of the more memorable episodes, and managing to barge into any B stories in the episodes that let any of the other characters enjoy the spotlight for the week. I would have been worried and possibly angry at Long too, if I wasn’t from the future and therefore a genius.
Cast members leaving shows before the show left the airwaves wasn’t anything new in 1987, but probably not so much for one of the highest rated shows on television. Looking back on the fifth season, it’s obvious that the writers consciously decided to cement Sam’s status as the more likable and relatable of the two, making the Lothario a hopeless romantic and an innocent victim. Sort of innocent: he had a daydream about walking down death row for strangling Diane to death (something Frasier readily admitted to doing too.) Sam had done this right after Diane had said no to his marriage proposal for a third time after insisting that he ask again, making the thought not out of the realm of possibility.
The Sam and Diane bickering and petty game shtick lasted for the first third of the year, the turning point coming in the clever “Everyone Imitates Art” episode when Sam used an old love letter of Diane’s to get his name into a literary magazine that Diane had repeatedly been rejected from appearing in. The realization from Diane, and everyone, that Sam had kept all of her letters from their relationship put him in a more humanizing light. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was married before the series began (albeit as part of his reckless drinking days), you would think that dating Diane in season two was his first real relationship. At exactly the halfway point of the season, Diane finally accepted Sam’s wedding proposal in “Chambers vs. Malone”, after Diane agreed to drop charges of assault and battery (she actually, legitimately slipped while Sam chased her off-camera after she pointed out to him that there is no death penalty in Massachusetts.) The odd courtroom setting for the proposal of The Great TV Romance reminded me of Parks and Recreation and Leslie and Ben’s proposal, which wasn’t in a courtroom but did involve Pawnee’s court stenographer.
As it has done from the beginning, Cheers continued to add to the evidence piles for those in favor of and against the pairing. “One Last Fling” was about Diane agreeing to give Sam a final twenty-four hours to go crazy and fool around with any woman he can get his hands on, but ultimately he just spent a sleepless night watching Diane’s house to see if she was taking advantage of the deal (while Diane was watching Sam unsuccessfully monitor her.) In a great and Emmy award-winning guest spot by John Cleese as a world-renowned marriage counselor in “Simon Says”, Cleese insists that the two are “an accident waiting to get married” before eventually letting loose in a Python-era fit of delirious, sarcastic rage just to be left alone. (Cleese did not win an Emmy when he appeared on Whitney as a “couples therapist.”)
When it was time for the actual wedding, Sumner, Diane’s old lover and professor from back in the pilot arrived to drop the bombshell that he had sent an old manuscript of one of Diane’s unfinished novels to a publisher who sounded interested. The two got as far as saying “I do” to one another at an impromptu yet official ceremony at the bar before Sam insisted to Diane that they couldn’t go through with it. In any other year, it would be really because Sam didn’t want to be tied down, but “I Do, Adieu” featured a daydream of Sam’s set long into the future where the two are happily married living a nice, boring life together. Even then though, Sam needed to ask Diane if she regretted not taking time off to spend time on her literary dreams. She insisted she did not, but in real life it took a non-literal push from him to convince her that she had to try to finish the book, just like how he followed his heart to become a relief pitcher. Amazingly, the Charles brothers’ script of the season finale made Diane and Shelley Long’s departure understandable and not just a dumb plot contrivance by using the characters’ well sketched out backstories against them. After the two lovers said goodbye, Diane insisting just for six months, Sam knowing forever, the season concluded with a wordless scene set from Sam’s earlier daydream from the future, of octogenarian Sam and old lady Diane slow dancing in their house. It was an earned, hokey moment that gives me the feels just typing about it, and something I can’t imagine any decent contemporary comedy doing, either because it would clash with their mockumentary format, or because it would be too superficially cheesy to pull off without seeming insincere and satirical. Friends sort of pulled it off as the closing credits rolled to their sixth season finale, which was simply Chandler and Monica slow dancing to Eric Clapton after the two became engaged. But that was reality, and not an implied fantasy of a heartbroken human being, or sure, maybe an alternate reality.
If it wasn’t for those two crazy kids, the season’s MVP would have certainly been Dr. Frasier Crane. This was the first season where Kelsey Grammer appeared in virtually all of the episodes, and the first to find himself in a steady relationship. Lilith had appeared for about a minute the previous year as a woman who ditched Frasier while he went to use the bathroom at the end of an unpleasant first date, but she was brought back as a professional foil of Crane’s in “Abnormal Psychology”. It was an example of Cheers possessing a selective long memory: some paramours do appear as they would in real life in later episodes, while others completely disappear. Fortunately they remembered Lilith, whose subtle and deadpan demeanor perfectly opposes Frasier’s increasingly passionate behavior. It’s a credit to Grammer’s acting and the show’s writing that the character doesn’t come across as simply someone who has developed broader comedic instincts over the years into a caricature. Arguably Britta Perry from Community is similar – in season one she employed a detached, liberal, cooler and smarter than thou facade that eventually eroded into her arguably true, silly nature, which happens when you become comfortable with a group of friends (although they usually treat her like she’s Diane.) Lilith only appeared twice, but the second time had the two already cohabitating. In between, Frasier found ways to make Cheers a more fun place, most notably at his seemingly angry facial responses to all of Woody’s misunderstandings. While everybody else just look baffled before shrugging their shoulders and letting it go, Dr. Crane looks like he was just insulted. This made the running gag of one episode where Woody kept beating an agitated Frasier at chess all the more enjoyable (loosely borrowed in an episode of Frasier over a decade later when his father continually beat him to his increasing bafflement and frustration.)
This isn’t to say that Cliff, Carla, and Norm don’t get any time to grow, or to fight to remain in stasis. We got to meet Cliff’s mother in season five, when he finally invites her to the bar just so she can meet a rich old man who frequents Cheers so she can potentially get his money. This works, but of course the man died and insisted that all of his life savings be given away to the less fortunate (Cliff’s response did not make him come across as a nice person.) A touching moment to conclude that episode was undercut by Esther adding to the sentiment that Cliff is the one thing she is most proud of in life with a “gee, imagine that” to herself. We also found out this year that he took her mother Esther to prom, to come in last in any competition involving the bar patrons makes you “The Clavin”, and it was implied that he is a virgin. “Dog Bites Cliff” found Mr. Clavin waiting in a hotel bed for an attractive woman to come out of the bathroom, a moment in time he wanted to share with Sam over the phone for some last second advice. It could be read that he had never been with someone who attractive before (she was using him so he wouldn’t successfully sue her for a large sum of money, of course), or that he had never been with anyone before and was asking for the closest thing to a father figure for help. Cliff can be as naive as Woody sometimes, but he possesses enough intelligence to purposefully mock Carla or Tom, the lawyer who kept failing his bar exam until this year, so he’s kind of difficult to root for.
Carla first met Eddie the Boston Bruins goalie in a two-part episode that felt like a throwback to season one in its stretching of one simple story extended much longer than thought possible. Jay Thomas would later come back to the show, something I suspect everybody knew because he was mentioned in a later episode, even though the Texas born actor’s occasional “eh”’s to remind you he was playing a Canadian were very strange. The two had excellent chemistry, more so than I thought Carla and her strange ex-husband Nick Tortelli ever did. (Nick made his yearly visit, causing a little trouble but ultimately keeping the bar and the series where he left it. The Tortellis spinoff launched right after his episode and signed off by May, which of course was an outcome obvious to us smart people living in the 21st century.) A big part of Carla’s personality was to insult Diane, which paid off with her funny denials of Sam and Diane’s announcement of engagement and her oscillating feelings of happiness and depression during the on again off again wedding (she wore black.) Since the character also mocks everybody else at the bar, only with less bite to them (except for Cliff), she wont lose herself because of Long’s exit.
I will be curious to see what happens to Norm without Diane though. There seems to be at least one episode every season that finds Norm thinking about his predictable, boring existence, attempting to change it, but ultimately making a strangely impassioned plea to the Gods and anyone that will listen that all he wants to be is a benchwarmer. Diane has always been the one to give him those pushes and to try to shake him. In “Dance, Diane, Dance”, she mostly let Norm get away with saying that he taught himself not to have dreams, but in “Norm’s First Hurrah,” she pushed him to try to impress his bosses at his new job. Diane actually *yelled* at Norm to try, and to stop sitting around his entire life. Because the writers needed an ending, it ended with Norm arguing that the world needs benchwarmers, otherwise there would be cold benches, and you can tell that George Wendt had trouble finding the right tone of voice to match those strange and kind of horrifying words. Without Diane around, is Norm going to continue to not question his existence despite his intelligence? Who will throw a pie at Vera at Thanksgiving so we would continue to never see her face (in a classic “Thanksgiving Orphans” episode that was very weird because everyone at the bar was together, not at the bar)? Who will keep that Sam Malone in check? Who will screw up the drink orders because she was talking about some stupid nonsense dressed up in flowery language? You might know, but I don’t. Now I feel like the NBC executive from the ’80s who green lit The Tortellis before going home to play his new Pong game. Not living in the future sucks.