Former pro baseball player Sam “Mayday” Malone (Ted Danson) enjoys a playboy lifestyle as the proprietor of the neighborhood hangout, assisted by his befuddled bartender, Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), and his surly waitress, Carla (Rhea Perlman). Cheers also has Norm (George Wendt) and Cliff (John Ratzenberger)-two of the funniest barflies you’ll ever encounter.
And completing the show’s ensemble cast is Shelley Long as Diane Chambers, a teaching assistant who suddenly finds herself jilted, jobless-and hired as Sam’s newest waitress! A hearty round of laughs is served up in each episode of TV’s classic comedy hit…Cheers!
Cheers: Season 1 8.0
eyelights: its cast. its character dynamics. its mixture of high and lowbrow humour. its setting. its infectious theme.
eyesores: Sam and Diane’s romantic entanglements.
“Gentlemen, start your taps.”
‘Cheers’ is probably my all-time favourite sitcom. Though some shows have had stronger seasons (ex: the BBC’s first season of ‘The Office’) than ‘Cheers’ ever had, it was consistently funny and even its weakest year was very funny and enjoyable.
For me, it’s a combination of its character dynamics and stellar dialogues. When the writers were “on”, as they frequently were, the scripts were sharp, mixing highbrow and lowbrow humour equally, and injecting thought-provoking commentary.
It’s the only reason to explain that I belove it so, given that I’m a life-long teetotaler who can’t stand the smell of alcohol (especially beer!) and the noisiness of pubs and bars. That I’m such a fan would be counterintuitive at first glance.
But, whenever I put ‘Cheers’ on, no matter how low I feel, it inevitably puts a smile on my face.
And its infectious theme song sticks to my lips.
This first season, which was broadcast in 1982-1983, hits the ground running with all of its main characters in place and their dynamics already well-defined. While they would be fleshed out as the series developed, they are already recognizable here.
- Sam Malone: A former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Sam is the owner and bartender of Cheers. He’s a bit of a simpleton who spends most of his time thinking about bedding women; his reputation as a hound is legendary. But he has another weakness: alcohol. He’s a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t touched a drink in five years – even though he works in a bar.
Ted Danson is phenomenal in the part, balancing Sam’s pride with genuine heart; Sam is actually a really good guy and he means well; he’s just a little too simple to always know what the right to do is. Danson manages to bring self-awareness and intelligence to a part that could have been vacuous and goofy. Plus he perfectly embodies Sam with all of his 6’2″ frame.
- Diane Chambers: A pretentious and snooty intellectual, she’s a second-wave feminist who abhors all that Sam represents. But she needs a job desperately and winds up waiting tables there anyway. Grandiloquent and opinionated, she always condescendingly tries to correct and cultivate, which is not at all welcomed in the confines of Cheers.
Shelley Long is unbelievable as Diane. Though I used to find the character grating when I was a teenager, I’ve a newfound appreciation for Long’s performance: she made of Diane not just a joke but a relatable, flawed person; as annoying as she can be, she is the ethical and moral fiber of the group. Long is as subtle as Danson is; they’re a perfect pair.
- Ernie Pantusso: Cheers’ second bartender, Ernie (or “Coach” as he’s known, having been Sam’s coach and friend during his major league years) is the heart of the show. He’s completely clueless, so out of his league (!) in most conversations that he himself admits to his confusion. But he’s so endearing and unselfish that his failings are easily forgiven.
Nicholas Colasanto is stunningly good in the part, bringing good nature and warmth to Coach. You’d think it would be simplicity itself but instead of making of Coach a buffoon, he transforms him into that loveable, docile uncle who’s forgotten where he’s put many of his marbles. It can be a sort of one-note joke, but he makes Coach three-dimensional.
- Carla Tortelli: Carla is Sam’s primary waitress. A feisty little woman, she’s a survivor who’s clawed her way through life, always barely holding on. She’s mean, she’s sarcastic, she’s unsophisticated, but she’s terribly funny, peppering the dialogues with commentary or making inappropriate suggestions.
Rhea Perlman is really funny in the part, and is so funny, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Carla. It’s all in her delivery, but there’s also something to be said about the contrast between her physical appearance and Carla’s personality; you’d never imagine such a rough and tough character in her.
- Norm Peterson: A barfly, Norm is an overweight accountant who perpetually spends his evenings at Cheers downing beers like they’re water. He’s more of a side character, but he’s a staple of the show, what with his running gag of entering the bar and responding to greetings with sardonic one-liners.
George Wendt is terrific in the part, though it demands little more than sitting at the bar and soberly shooting the $#1t. From time to time, he’s given greater opportunities and he’s always excellent at all of them. He looks and feels perfect as Norm, as though he were born to play this character.
- Cliff Clavin: Clavin is a proud mail carrier who spends an inordinate amount of time at Cheers. A wannabe know-it-all, he has a theory about just about everything, and will confidently muse about things he clearly knows nothing about, to hilarious effect.
In the early stages of the show, Cliff is merely a background character whom Norm consults from time to time, but his wacky theories were so funny that he was integrated into the main cast, eventually riffing off of the others and finding his place.
John Ratzenberger is so good as this blowhard that he propelled him into the main cast; that’s saying something. He’s arrogant, but you see a vulnerability below the surface; Ratzenberger makes it clear that Cliff is actually hiding behind is trivial boasts.
The whole of season one is surprisingly solid, with its weakest episode being merely average.
Here are my favourites:
Episode 1: Give Me a Ring Sometime: This is the pilot, in which Diane walks into Cheers with her married lover, her university professor, who is planning to elope with her. But, after leaving to run a quick errand, he never returns. At first Diane is uptight and won’t mingle with the others but, devastated by her loss and with nowhere to go, she accept a job at Cheers. It’s really an amazing pilot and first glance at the characters, who are all introduced in turn.
Episode 9: Coach Returns to Action: Coach falls for his neighbour, Nina, a much younger woman; his nervousness and idiocy mix well. Meanwhile, the pipes are frozen in the men’s bathroom, and the men are forced to line up to go to Melville’s upstairs while Carla tries to fix the bathroom. It’s a super sweet and funny episode as Coach gets a bit more spotlight. And I liked that Diane questioned concerns about the age gap, something that I myself consider irrelevant.
Episode 10: Endless Slumper: A Boston Red Sox walks into Cheers looking to get advice from Sam on beating his slump. Diane recommends meditation but, through miscommunication he thinks she’s offering sex as a remedy. Oops. Eventually, Sam tells him about his lucky bottle cap and the guy asks to borrow it long enough to snap his streak. Sam lends it, but then his own luck runs out. We eventually discover that he used the bottle cap to keep himself sober all these years. This one’s both hilarious and it showed us Sam’s vulnerability and strength. Nice.
Episode 16: The Boys in the Bar: This is probably the strongest episode of the lot, with Sam’s former colleague and best friend doing a book launch at Cheers. What Sam doesn’t know (because he failed to read the book) is that Tom came out of the closet in his autobiography. Now Sam has to contend with his own feelings about homosexuality, confront the concerns of the patrons who fear the bar will become a “gay Mecca”. Given that this was the early ’80s, it’s an incredibly progressive piece, discussing acceptance and stereotypes. And it’s funny, too. Cheers at its best.
Episode 19: Pick a Con… Any Con: Coach discovers that his friend George, has been cheating when they played cards, conning him out of eight grand. So the gang plans a poker night with Harry, the con man, to get back at George – but using a conman to get a conman has its risks. It’s actually a simplistic, but ultimately satisfying episode, for some reason.
The following were notable, if not memorable:
Episode 5: Coach’s Daughter: Lisa, Coach’s daughter comes in to introduce her fiancé to her father. The guy is a blowhard and a jerk and Coach can’t stand him. So the gang tries to help him cope with the situation. Here Carla and Diane truly begin their rivalry, though there had been tension before. It’s both a funny and moving episode, thanks to a sensitive performance by Colasanto.
Episode 6: Any Friend of Diane’s: Diane’s university friend, Rebecca, also a stuffy intellectual, just broke up with her fiancé and wants to live it up. She wants to feel fiery passion and is looking for a disposable date. Enter Sam. There’s a nice bit when he and Diane eventually pretend to be an item in order to let Rebecca down easy – and proceed to insult each other. Naturally.
Episode 11: One for the Book: A WWI vet comes into Cheers for this deca-annual gathering of his former troops and is ready for their usual frolics. But, as the night wears on, it becomes clear that he’s the last of his group left alive. Meanwhile, a young man comes in for his first drink before entering a monastery, which shakes his faith, and Sam becomes obsessed with finding himself in Diane’s book of memorable quotes. It’s a great mix of bits; it’s both funny and touching, paying respect to veterans and discussing mortality at once.
Episode 13: Now Pitching, Sam Malone: A Russian hockey player’s female agent takes a liking to Sam and decides to offer him a contract for commercial work. Sam is interested but he becomes worried that their heated affair puts his side-career in jeopardy. I loved how overt their flirtations were and enjoyed her speech to Diane about why she uses men, being an older woman. It really puts things in perspective and it gives women’s sexuality the spotlight. we also find Sam and Diane getting warmer, closer.
Episode 20: Someone Single, Someone Blue: Diane’s mom comes to visit, telling her daughter that her father had demanded in his will that she be married by tomorrow or else her mother loses her inheritance (“I’ll either be rich or dead; the choice is yours”, she tells her!). Under pressure, Diane tries to convince Sam to marry temporarily. Naturally, it all devolves and her mom calls it off. But there are some touching moments as Sam considers his options and as the mom’s stuffy chauffeur steps up to the plate.
Episode 22: Showdown, Part 2: Derek, Sam’s ultra-accomplished brother has whisked Diane away while Sam is dating again – and his dates are H-O-T. But when Derek asks Diane to move to Paris with him, she has doubts and confronts Sam. He brushes her off. She leaves. And returns. He brushes her off. She leaves. And returns. etcetera. When she finally gets him to face the truth about their relationship, they get into a confrontation: “How do you think it feels to be attracted to someone who makes you sick?”, Sam rages. Ha!
My least favourite episode was:
Episode 17: Diane’s Perfect Date: Diane returns from a date with a truly annoying character. Sam takes it upon himself to set her up with someone better, and she decides to do the same for him. But he thinks she’s setting him up with her, so he does the same and ends up with the rug pulled from under him. This one could have been excellent but it was a bit childish and vacuous. Still it’s pretty good – it’s just that the bar has been set really high with the rest of the season.
Seriously, it’s the only one I was disappointed with; every episode (even that one) has at least one or two super laughs, ones where I laugh hard and can’t stop for a really long time. And I can’t say that this happens with most television shows.
The character dynamics in ‘Cheers’ are brilliant, though Cliff is slightly misused here; he’s better in moderation. The cast is terrific, the performances are superb across the board, the dialogues are witty and there’s excellent social commentary.
The fact is, for a sitcom, it has surprising depth. Thanks in large part to Diane, the characters discuss more significant issues, providing audiences with various perspectives. But it always takes the high road, all the while shooting zippy zingers.
‘Cheers’ is a fabulous sitcom.
Amazingly, the first season was nearly its last; the show’s initial rating weren’t stellar and it almost got cancelled. However, it won 5 of 13 Emmy awards that year and continued garner nods for the rest of its run, culminating in a record 111 Emmys.
Not bad for a show about a bunch of people hanging around a bar.
Dates of viewings: April 26-May 2, 2017