By Roger Cormier
It was getting very near the end for Cheers, and even if everyone involved didn’t know that it was reaching its conclusion at the time, season ten provided some key moments in the series and for its characters.
A show that long ago for better or worse introduced the soap opera to the sitcom format would not have much of a choice but to let most of their characters grow, provided their names aren’t Norm Peterson or Clifford C. Clavin, and it was time for Woodrow Tiberius Boyd to get married. Woody had developed since his humble beginnings as Coach’s pen pal way back when in season four, gaining some intelligence and the capability of anger (in the 200th episode special, Ted Danson admitted that he noticed that Woody had gotten a little meaner, to which Harrelson in character responded with, “Shut up, Sam.”) He also swept rich Mr. Gaines’ daughter Kelly Kelly Kelly off of her feet, fell in love, and in the slap-sticky season finale got hitched. With the exception of the first act, all of the two-part episode “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” took place in the Gaines’ kitchen, where virtually everything seemed to go wrong. Weddings on television of course have to have complications, and that had been the case before 1992, so Cheers doubled down on the insanity to make it the most perilous wedding day of all-time, tossing several spinning plates in the air and expertly tap dancing as they all crashed around them. There will be several weddings in the future, but “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” with its vicious attack dogs, Carla’s misadventures in the dumb-waiter, the jealous German husband attacking Sam with a sword, and a priest’s death cover-up is probably the golden cake frosting standard of comedy wedding episodes.
What I will miss the most about Woody will be his stories about Hanover, Indiana. This season alone we learned even more information about the warped Mayberry and its citizens. Unsurprisingly it is considered to be the UFO capital of the world. Uncle Orlo was caught with a cream separating machine in a hotel room, but because it occurred during the early ‘60s it was a scandal. Uncle Elroy left his leg on the bus, so off-camera he asked Woody if there was a plunger around so he can dance. Any strange town you can think of sprouted into being after Cheers, or at least towards the end of the show’s run: fellow Indiana towns Pawnee and Eerie; Twin Peaks, Washington; Wellsville, New York; Cicely, Alaska; Chatswin, with SCTV’s Melonville possibly serving as the initial seed of inspiration.
Frasier Crane and Lilith Sternin celebrated a five-year wedding anniversary. Kelsey Grammer somehow never won an Emmy during his time on Cheers, but fortunately Bebe Neuwirth was twice awarded with a best supporting actress statue late in the show’s run for her excellent work. The “learn one new thing every episode” edict that The Office creator Greg Daniels gave to his employees that I mentioned last week seemed to be in play during this season in particular with Lilith – who in a funny twist ends up being the only person in the bar to enjoy Cliff’s sense of humor. We also learned something a little too big about Frasier, namely that he was once married to a woman who became a famous child’s entertainer, played by Emma Thompson.Naturally, the marriage was brief and meant little to Frasier, but meant a lot to Nannette, aka Nanny G. This is a case of the show knowing better but wanting to come up with a new conflict between the married couple. That particular method of fact building came off as lazy and something Cheers should be above attempting. A great episode from season ten titled “Rat Girl,” where Lilith puts Frasier in the doghouse for daring to discard of Lilith’s beloved dead mouse Whitey after finding it in her purse, which will lead me to sarcastically guess that anything given unjustified importance in the near future is the CEO of General Motors for months to come, proves that exes don’t need to pop up out of nowhere. In fact, Frasier’s cynicism and sarcasm kept the door open for the Jerry Seinfelds and Al Bundys to show their faces and make their comments, and was no doubt a big influence subconsciously for the character of Chandler Bing, whose popularity in turn led to thousands of imitations all over the 90s sneering television landscape.
An equally alarming and strange Frasier and Lilith related moment played out as the coda to an episode when Sam’s sperm count results got confused with Frasier’s will. “Many years later,” a much older Lilith and grown up Frederick are told of Mr. Malone’s health status from the past instead of the recently deceased’s intended possession allotment. It provoked a funny punchline (“That damn bar”) from the older Lilith that perfectly captured the character’s overall outlook on the tavern and its inhabitants, but really was another example of the writers not caring about continuity and writing themselves into a corner if they, say, divorced the couple and Frasier was spun off for eleven years, meeting other women. How I Met Your Mother subverted this nicely in the episode when Marshall and Lily took turns writing different “death folders,” but I would say the carelessness did more harm than good for comedies that ignored continuity for one late season joke.
Unsurprisingly, the Sam and Rebecca having a baby storyline sputtered and crashed halfway through. Surprisingly, Sam significantly matured anyway. Ted Danson had expressed concern towards the end of the show’s run that it was strange and sad if Sam had kept chasing women into his mid 40s, which in turn led to the character keeping busy trying to get Rebecca pregnant, mostly in the background, for twelve episodes, and only finding his way into bed with a woman he picked up from the bar once the rest of the way. Henri, Kelly’s slimy French friend, perfectly symbolized Sam’s lothario glory days, and showcased its ugliness when he tried to trick Kelly into believing he needed a green card marriage to stay in the country. It was played for laughs without bringing everybody down with its inherent message, thankfully. And the same went for the end of the deal with Rebecca. When the two both imagined a future that would not be satisfactory with the current scenario, they mutually backed out. Sam’s dream was depressing, with his hypothetical son disappearing in front of his eyes during a game of catch, like the world’s saddest version of Field of Dreams and Back to the Future. Unlike “Dark Imaginings,” the season four episode that dared to end with Sam looking out of a hospital room window in actual deep thought about his mortality, “Go Make” opted to conclude with a joke, which felt just as appropriate. The same mix of comedy and drama occurred in the B story of “Heeeeere’s…Cliffy!”, when Sam and Woody spent the night on the roof of Cheers talking about life, which naturally led to him admitting that Diane was the love of his life, but if they ever got married he probably would have ended up in the electric chair. It was funny, depressing, scary, and refreshingly honest.
The impressive thing is that you always root for Sam, because ultimately he’s everybody’s close if not best friend, which made “Bar Wars V: The Final Judgment” so strange, when essentially Cheers and the rest of the city of Boston was out to prank him, going so far as to fake a man’s death, funeral, and burial. It made it borderline cathartic when “Bar Wars VI: This Time It’s For Real” (this was the only season to feature two bar wars) had Sam getting his revenge on his friends and ditching them in the middle of the nowhere. Considering that Archie Bunker was only a hero to the very people who were being mocked without realizing it, Sam Malone on his worst days was one of the first antiheroes on television, and possibly the first in a comedy. Rebecca Howe is a different story – once Kirstie Alley proved to be great at playing emotionally fragile, her character became someone who Glen and Les Charles, the creators of Cheers, once admitted was one step away from the loony bin. Once she stopped trying to have a baby with Sam, Rebecca no longer had much relevance in the show, a thought parroted repeatedly by the likes of Carla. Without a rich man to be under the spell of, and although technically she was the manager of Cheers and paid for 80 percent of the back room the year before, her character seemed lost and only defined by her poor decision-making. She even didn’t realize that guest star Harvey Fierstein, playing an old flame of hers, was gay in “Rebecca’s Lover…Not”
Next week we say goodbye, twenty years later.