By Roger Cormier
After finishing season six of Cheers I had a lot of questions, but I managed to narrow it down to a key two. The first is, What the hell happened to Cheers? The second is, Was it Rebecca Howe’s fault?
Simply put, this was unequivocally the broadest, most reliant on physical humor season of Cheers so far. There was a big fight between mascots. Frasier wore a paper bag over his head. Cliff got a monkey in a painter’s outfit to get revenge on Norm. Norm carried a rich man across a lawn, with the whole bar watching, on a wide grass yard. Sam’s insane story about getting into a car accident thanks to a crazy parade turned out to be true. Cliff – albeit off-camera – tried to run down an airplane while throwing cans of food. Sam, Norm, Cliff, and Frasier sang “Duke of Earl” in sunglasses. Those actions weren’t in itself bad or even unfunny; in fact, when John Ratzenberger launched into his falsetto in the aforementioned singing performance I legitimately laughed. But after five years of writing and performing a very smart, restrained, “you can listen to it on the radio” comedy, where a huge food fight was cathartic, Cheers changed into a more traditional, not as interesting sitcom where a silly string fight would break out because they wanted to deface a picture. It’s as if Diane was a part of the writer’s room, and when she had left it was time to get all of the childish, kind of hack stuff out of their system. It was jarring to witness such a change.
If you think I just sounded like a joyless bastard, you should have seen Rebecca Howe’s character during her first bunch of episodes. Kirstie Alley’s character, a woman running the bar after Sam had sold it to a corporation to buy a boat that would eventually crash, was purposely made to play an uptight, no nonsense authority figure for Sam, Woody, and Carla to clash with (mostly Sam and Carla.) Rebecca’s gradual transformation into someone who can smile, and someone who can grow accustomed to whining to the point of cracking her voice in front of her employees over Evan Drake, the boss she desperately loves, was a natural progression for anyone developing friendships (I would mention Britta Perry here but I touched on this last week) and really nice to see. She would never give in to Sam’s embarrassing advances or ever truly lose the upper hand to any of her sneaky underlings, so there was always a little dignity there, no matter how absurd her school girl crush would become. Her interactions with the entire bar as she began to understand the lay of the land were always fun and interesting – her telling Norm that she believed that Cliff was an expert on the subject of “being a weenie” after only six episodes was a favorite. By the finale, Rebecca admitted to Sam that he was her best friend. She’s a part of the group now, but she also wasn’t suddenly someone who would yell at Norm for not doing anything with his life like Diane once did.
Both Carla and Frasier got themselves married. Early in the year in a two-part episode, Carla married Eddie, despite all of the bad luck the superstitious two had acquired. Carla gave birth to twins not soon after, her seventh and eighth child (she started Cheers with five. Or was it four?), and would find out that she was going to become a grandmother, thanks to her amorous oldest son Anthony and his willing wife Annie. As suspected, the departure of Diane did not take anything away from the character, although the added presence of Anthony Tortelli must have come about to give Carla someone she can really talk down to on a semi-regular basis. As for Frasier, his relationship with Lilith was given more airtime than Carla and Eddie’s, but possibly because there had already been a wedding episode, his wedding occurred off-camera, between episodes. Instead there was a funnier bachelor party episode, but now knowing that the show Frasier turned out to be a big success, it must be odd that nobody had ever seen the Frasier/Lilith ceremony. It wasn’t as if the show wasn’t allowing itself to participate in the fine art of promotional stunts, having Robert Urich and Wade Boggs guest star even though they were one of the highest rated shows on television and before season six the only two guest stars they ever had that I can even remember were Dick Cavett and Tip O’Neill. Broadcast networks love to promote marriages, so much so that the great NBC series Newsradio once mocked the executives of the network and their obsession with the practice by having station manager Jimmy James try to convince Lisa to get married as a radio stunt. The restraint Cheers showed by not airing two different weddings in one season, or simply letting Frasier marry Lilith the following year, is admirable, but because Lilith was better known and more entertaining than Eddie, it was still an odd choice to witness Carla’s ceremony over Dr. Crane’s.
Without Diane, Sam seemed to really flounder, all the more so because he never truly realized he was slipping. I don’t believe Mr. Malone had been successful with any woman throughout season six, despite trying, over and over and over again. His repeated failed attempts at finally getting into Rebecca’s pants got sadder and sadder as time went on because of his insistence on not recognizing that Rebecca can see through all of his tricks (even Diane would on occasion get fooled, only later to get revenge.) He was just too desperate to score, going so far as to pretend to be a dancer to get a date with one of Frasier’s patients. In “The Big Kiss-Off,” Sam’s age and Woody’s ascent towards becoming “The Man” at the bar was a big part of the episode’s conversation, but Sam’s mortality wasn’t examined as well as it was the last time Sam tried and failed to compete with Woody and ended up staring out of a hospital window, contemplating where his bachelor status has led him. It is a comedy after all, so Rebecca and Carla tricking the two men to kiss each other was fun enough, but the big difference to how the two episodes that shared a similar premise ended just couldn’t really be ignored – I loved the surprise of witnessing such a depressing and thoughtful conclusion to a sitcom that aired in the 1980s.
Will Sam continue this way for the remaining couple of seasons, under the assumption from the audience that he has sworn off intimacy indefinitely after what happened with Diane (who by the way was apparently trying to write for television, if Woody in the season premiere is to be believed)? It would not be dissimilar to that playboy Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother, who as the later years of the show go on grows more and more pathetic, the excitement of him finding a girlfriend disappearing more and more each time it became clear that he was becoming his own problem and secretly enjoyed being single sometimes. His hang up on Robin, seven seasons after they terminated their relationship, has also annoyed much of America. Whether intentional or not, Sam’s pain isn’t spoken about, and I wonder now if HIMYM would have been better off simply keeping Ted’s hang up of Robin in the background instead of the foreground, giving the audience a little more credit. And for what it’s worth, Sam’s incredibly embarrassing week as a sports newscaster that included rapping and ventriloquism kind of reminded me Ted Mosby’s unbelievably pretentious and misguided college DJ character Doctor X.
There is some great comedy possible from a series that has surpassed the one hundred episode mark. When Woody was randomly throwing in the Chinese word for doorknob (Moncho) into conversations to remember it, Frasier of course recognized the word. Woody was impressed that Dr. Crane understood him. “Well it’s about time” was Frasier’s reply, a hilarious punchline three years in the making. Jack Benny’s iconic “Your Money or Your Life” sketch aired on his radio show seventeen years after Benny got his start perfecting his cheap persona to make that joke timeless.
As the TV seasons go by, it’s really important that your characters are well-defined, because the plots are going to start getting old and familiar, and if they aren’t they are in grave danger of getting too silly and disrupting the show’s universe. No matter how ridiculous Cheers got, it was always about the great characters playing off each other. Cliff actually moved out of his mother’s house into his own condo, but he will always be a big weenie. Woody showed some backbone this year, but he will always be a simple farm boy. The inherit cores of the main characters are so firmly entrenched that there must be a million possible jokes that could work just from them sitting around talking about nothing. Even if Sam starts to really go off the rails and starts to be best pals with a tiny, green floating alien, at least everyone else will be there at the ready to say in their own funny ways why it is ridiculous. But I really hope they never get to a Great Gazoo stage.