Diane’s departure didn’t signal the end of Cheers or a drop in its quality.
However, when Shelley Long decided to leave after the fifth season to spend more time with her family and pursue a career in movies, there was ample concern from the majority of the American audience.
Sam and Diane constituted the driving force of the show, the focal point of the most memorable episodes, and they even made their presence felt in the subplots of episodes that allowed other characters to take the spotlight for the week.
I might have shared those concerns and perhaps even felt some frustration with Long had I not possessed knowledge from the future, making me a genius.
By 1987, it was not unusual for cast members to leave shows before their conclusion, but this was a rare occurrence for one of the highest-rated television shows.
Reflecting on the fifth season, it’s evident that the writers consciously chose to establish Sam as the more likable and relatable character, portraying him as a hopeless romantic and an innocent victim.
Well, mostly innocent – he did have a daydream about being on death row for strangling Diane to death (an act that Frasier readily admitted to as well).
Sam entertained this dark thought right after Diane rejected his marriage proposal for the third time, despite insisting that he ask again, making such thoughts not entirely implausible.
The bickering and petty games between Sam and Diane persisted through the first third of the season.
The turning point occurred in the clever “Everyone Imitates Art” episode when Sam used an old love letter from Diane to get his name published in a literary magazine from which Diane had been repeatedly rejected.
The realization by Diane, and everyone else, that Sam had preserved all her letters from their relationship cast him in a more humane light.
If it weren’t for the fact that he was married before the series began (although it was during his reckless drinking days), one might assume that dating Diane in season two was his first genuine relationship.
At the exact midpoint of the season, Diane finally accepted Sam’s wedding proposal in “Chambers vs. Malone,” after Diane agreed to drop charges of assault and battery (due to an actual slip she took while Sam chased her off-camera, following her reminder that there was no death penalty in Massachusetts).
The unconventional courtroom setting for The Great TV Romance’s proposal brought to mind Parks and Recreation and Leslie and Ben’s proposal, which wasn’t in a courtroom but did involve Pawnee’s court stenographer.
As it had been doing from the start, Cheers continued to provide evidence both for and against the Sam and Diane pairing.
In “One Last Fling,” Diane agrees to give Sam a final twenty-four hours to engage in frivolous antics and spend time with any woman he pleases.
However, he spent a sleepless night watching Diane’s house to see if she was taking advantage of the deal, while Diane was equally unsuccessful in monitoring Sam’s activities.
A notable guest appearance by John Cleese in “Simon Says,” portraying a world-renowned marriage counselor, featured his assertion that the two were “an accident waiting to get married,” culminating in a fit of delirious, sarcastic rage reminiscent of the Python era, just to be left alone.
(Cleese did not win an Emmy when he appeared on Whitney as a “couples therapist.”)
When the actual wedding day arrived, Sumner, Diane’s former lover and professor from the pilot episode, dropped a bombshell.
He revealed that he had sent an old manuscript of one of Diane’s unfinished novels to an interested publisher.
Sam and Diane proceeded to say “I do” in an impromptu yet official bar ceremony. However, Sam insisted to Diane that they couldn’t go through with it.
In any other year, it might have been because Sam didn’t want to be tied down, but in “I Do, Adieu,” Sam had a daydream set in the distant future where they were happily married and leading a quiet, ordinary life.
Despite this vision, Sam still needed to ask Diane if she regretted not taking time off to pursue her literary dreams.
She claimed she didn’t, but in reality, it took a figurative push from him to convince her to finish her book, just as he had followed his heart to become a relief pitcher.
Astonishingly, the Charles brothers’ script for the season finale made Diane and Shelley Long’s departure comprehensible, avoiding the pitfall of resorting to a contrived plot device by leveraging the well-established backstories of the characters.
After bidding their farewells, with Diane insisting on just six months and Sam knowing it was forever, the season concluded with a wordless scene from Sam’s earlier daydream of the future, featuring octogenarian Sam and an elderly Diane slow dancing in their house.
It was a poignant moment that still stirs emotions as I type about it, and something I can’t imagine any decent contemporary comedy achieving.
This might be due to it clashing with the mockumentary format of some shows or because it might seem superficially cheesy without sincerity or satire.
“Friends” managed to pull off a similar scene in its sixth season finale, with Chandler and Monica slow dancing to Eric Clapton as the closing credits rolled after their engagement.
However, that was a scene grounded in reality, not an implied fantasy from a heartbroken individual, or perhaps even an alternate reality.
Without the enduring romance between Sam and Diane, the season’s MVP would undoubtedly have been Dr. Frasier Crane.
This season marked Kelsey Grammer’s presence in nearly all episodes and his character’s first steady relationship.
Lilith had briefly appeared the previous year as a woman who abruptly left Frasier during an unpleasant first date while he was using the bathroom.
However, she was reintroduced as a professional counterpart to Crane in “Abnormal Psychology.”
Cheers demonstrated selective continuity, with some paramours reappearing as they would in real life in later episodes, while others vanished completely.
Fortunately, Lilith was retained, and her subtle and deadpan demeanor provided the perfect contrast to Frasier’s increasingly passionate behavior.
Grammer’s acting and the show’s writing prevented Lilith from coming across as a character whose comedic traits had become caricatured over the years.
Britta Perry from “Community” follows a similar trajectory.
In season one, she displayed a detached, liberal, smarter-than-thou facade that gradually eroded into her arguably true, quirky nature as she became more comfortable with her group of friends (although they often treated her like Diane).
Lilith made only two appearances, but the second time showed her and Frasier already living together.
In the interim, Frasier found ways to make Cheers a more entertaining place, particularly with his facial expressions of apparent irritation at Woody’s frequent misunderstandings.
While everyone else looked baffled before shrugging it off, Dr. Crane appeared genuinely affronted.
This made a running gag in one episode, where Woody continually beat a frustrated Frasier at chess, all the more enjoyable.
This motif was loosely reused in an episode of “Frasier” over a decade later when his father repeatedly defeated him, to his increasing bafflement and frustration.
This doesn’t mean that Cliff, Carla, and Norm don’t have their opportunities for growth or struggles to remain in their familiar states.
In season five, we had a chance to meet Cliff’s mother when he invited her to the bar with the intention of introducing her to a wealthy elderly patron in the hopes of securing an inheritance.
This plan succeeded, but the elderly man, upon his death, bequeathed his entire savings to charity, which didn’t paint Cliff in the best light.
An emotional moment in that episode was tinged with irony as Esther, Cliff’s mother, added that Cliff is the thing she’s most proud of in life, punctuated with a self-reflective “gee, imagine that.”
This season also revealed that Cliff had taken his mother, Esther, to prom, which made him “The Clavin” when it came to coming in last in any competition involving the bar patrons.
Additionally, it was implied that Cliff might be a virgin.
In the episode “Dog Bites Cliff,” we saw Mr. Clavin waiting in a hotel bed for an attractive woman to emerge from the bathroom.
This moment led him to seek last-minute advice from Sam over the phone.
This scene could be interpreted as Cliff’s lack of prior experience with someone that attractive or the fact that he had never been with anyone before, seeking guidance from Sam, who was like a father figure to him.
Cliff sometimes exhibits naivety akin to Woody, but he’s also intelligent enough to mock Carla or Tom, the lawyer who repeatedly failed his bar exam until this season, making him a character that’s somewhat challenging to root for.
Carla’s character met Eddie, the Boston Bruins goalie, in a two-part episode that harked back to the first season in its extension of a seemingly simple story.
Jay Thomas later returned to the show, a fact that was probably known to everyone as he was mentioned in a later episode, although his occasional “eh” to remind the audience that he was playing a Canadian was rather peculiar.
Carla and Eddie had great chemistry, surpassing what Carla had with her eccentric ex-husband, Nick Tortelli.
Nick made his annual visit, causing some trouble but ultimately leaving the bar and the series as he found it.
The “Tortellis” spinoff premiered shortly after his episode and ended by May, an outcome that was evident to us smart folks living in the 21st century.
Carla’s character is known for insulting Diane, which provided comedic moments, including her humorous denials of Sam and Diane’s engagement and her mixed feelings of happiness and sadness during their on-again, off-again wedding (she wore black).
Since Carla mocks everyone at the bar, albeit with less bite than she does with Cliff, her character remains intact after Diane’s departure.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Norm without Diane.
Every season seems to feature at least one episode where Norm contemplates his predictable and dull existence, attempts to change it, but ultimately passionately pleads with the heavens and anyone who will listen that all he wants to be is a benchwarmer.
Diane has always been the one to provide that push and try to shake him from his complacency.
In “Dance, Diane, Dance,” she mostly let Norm express that he had taught himself not to have dreams.
However, in “Norm’s First Hurrah,” she pushes him to make an effort to impress his new bosses at his job.
Diane even yelled at Norm, urging him to try and not waste his life sitting around.
As the episode concluded, Norm argued that the world needs benchwarmers to prevent cold benches.
It was an odd and somewhat unsettling moment, and George Wendt, who played Norm, struggled to find the right tone of voice to deliver those strange words.
Without Diane, will Norm continue to avoid questioning his existence, despite his intelligence?
Who will throw a pie at Vera during Thanksgiving to keep her face hidden (as in the classic “Thanksgiving Orphans” episode where everyone at the bar was together instead of at the bar)?
Also, who will keep Sam Malone in check? Who will mix up drink orders while chatting about some trivial nonsense dressed up in flowery language?
Some might know, but I certainly don’t.
Now I feel like the NBC executive from the ’80s who approved “The Tortellis” before going home to play his new Pong game. Living in the past isn’t all that great.
You Might Like To Read: The Cheers Legacy: An Introduction