By Donald Liebenson/David Horiuchi
The definition of comfort television is this: You want to go where you
know everybody's name. And you're always glad you came. Long one of DVD's
most wanted, Cheers is at last open for business in this
four-disc set that contains all 22 episodes of the first, and best,
season of one of the defining series of the Awesome80s.
Cheers inherited the mantle from Taxi
as television's best ensemble-driven workplace comedy. It can be
instructive to return to a long-running series' more humble beginnings.
While Cheers got drunk on farce in its later seasons, it began life
as a much more grounded human comedy.
In these inaugural episodes, the action does not stray from the Boston
bar owned by Sam Malone, a washed-up baseball player three years sober.
The straws that stir the drink are the lineup of MVPs: Nick Colasanto as
addled Coach; Rhea Perlman, the Thelma Ritter of her generation, as surly
and fertile waitress Carla; George Wendt as quintessential barfly Norm;
and John Ratzenberger as Cliff, the bar know-it-all ready with
"little-known facts" (and blessedly far from the pathetic
blowhard his character would evolve into).
Spiking this concoction is the palpable chemistry between Ted Danson's
Sam and Shelley Long's Diane Chambers, fledgling waitress and
self-described "student of life." The battle lines are drawn in
the episode "Sam's Women": He's the "dim ex-baseball
player" and she, "the post graduate." But, as Carla so
indelicately puts it, they can't "put their glands on hold." In
the first blush of lust, they were primetime's most potent mismatched
couple until Moonlighting's
David and Maddie bantered entendres.
Here are little remembered facts: Sam was initially "an astute
judge of human character." Guest stars Fred Dryer ("Sam at
Eleven") and Julia Duffy ("Any Friend of Diane's") were
among those considered for the roles of Sam and Diane. A pre-"Night
Court" Harry Anderson stole his scenes in his recurring role as
flim-flam man Harry ("Pick a Con...Any Con").
Then, of course, there are the consistently brilliant episodes from Cheers'
sophomore year. Despite its low-rated debut in 1982, the ensemble farce
set in a Boston bar confidently returned with several strong story arcs,
including the turbulent, screwball romance between intellectual poseur
Diane Chambers and affable primitive Sam Malone, romantic conflicts for
the sexually voracious and deeply cynical barmaid Carla, and marital
separation for beloved barfly Norm (George Wendt). With John Ratzenberger
signing on as a full-time cast member (playing pompous jive-slinger and
postman Cliff Claven), and those opaque one-liners by the clueless Coach
(Nicholas Colasanto), Cheers was firing on all cylinders.
Episode highlights include "They Call Me Mayday," in which
talk-show personality Dick Cavett, playing himself, convinces Sam the
public would be interested in the former major league pitcher's
autobiography--a notion that throws the unpublished, would-be novelist
Diane into disbelief. Also wonderful is "Where There's a Will,"
guest-starring George Gaynes as a rich, dying man who leaves the gang
$100,000 on a paper napkin will. "No Help Wanted" finds Sam's
friendship with down-on-his-luck accountant Norm strained when the latter
has a go at the bar's books, while the great "Coach Buries a
Grudge" features the addled, elder statesman of Cheers
delivering a memorable eulogy for a friend after discovering the dead man
had an affair with his wife.
3 of Cheers enriched television history in a lot of ways, most
notably by introducing Kelsey Grammer as psychiatrist Frasier Crane while
also bidding an off-screen farewell to Nicholas Colasanto, the actor who
played Coach. (Colasanto died near the end of the season, and while
Coach's character was kept alive via outtakes for remaining episodes, he
essentially disappeared from Cheers before the commencement of year
Grammer's beloved character, who remained on NBC for 20 unbroken years
(including the long-running Frasier),
is ushered into the Cheers family when he meets barmaid Diane
Chambers (Shelley Long) in a very funny, Emmy-nominated episode suggesting
the neurotic course of their future romance. Meanwhile, Sam (Ted Danson),
having fallen off the wagon due to his own tempestuous love affair with
Diane, has to endure Frasier's questions about how to be intimate with the
brainy babe. Elsewhere in Cheers' sardonic community, Cliff (John
Ratzenberger), in a sweet but barbed episode, meets a woman (Bernadette
Birkett) at a costume party and is afraid of re-introducing himself later.
Norm (George Wendt) becomes aware of his mortality and decides to move to
Bora Bora, and Sam (in another Emmy-nominated show) has to explain how he
got shot in his posterior. Other good things: "The Heart Is a Lonely
Snipe Hunter," in which the men of Cheers cruelly initiate
Frasier in the manly art of snipe-hunting, and "Bar Bet,"
starring Jacqueline Bisset as a woman Sam must marry before a certain date
or lose the bar forever.
For its fourth
season, Cheers served up a new bartender. Following the death
of Nicholas Colasanto, who had played Coach, the season premiere
introduced Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), the Indiana hick who certainly
didn't raise the bar's collective IQ but had his own brand of endearing
That episode, "Birth, Death, Love and Rice," also explained
what happened at the end of season 3 when Sam (Ted Danson) chased Diane
(Shelley Long) and Frasier (Kesley Grammer) to Italy in hopes of
preventing their marriage. The end result is that Diane returns to work at
the bar and resumes her sexually charged flirtation with Sam, and Frasier
becomes a brooding presence always looking for a way to win her back.
Jennifer Tilly guest-stars as one of Sam's ex-girlfriends who actually
hits it off with the petulant psychiatrist, but stealing the show in the
same episode ("Second Time Around") was Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe
Neuwirth), in what was supposed to be a five-minute one-shot role. The
impossibly buttoned-up Sternin was such a perfect match for Frasier that
she later became a regular cast member and won two Emmys.
In other memorable episodes, Andy Andy (Derek McGrath) returns to
terrorize Diane ("Diane's Nightmare"), the gang tries to turn
the tables on Gary's Old Town Tavern in a bowling match ("From Beer
to Eternity"), and Frasier sets up a night at the opera ("Diane
Chambers Day"). In the three-part season finale ("Strange
Bedfellows"), Sam begins dating a politician (Kate Mulgrew, later of Star
Trek: Voyager) running for reelection. Diane decides to work for her
opponent before taking a more drastic step, leading to Sam's memorable
telephone call that served as a cliffhanger leading to season 5.
Even as it bid goodbye to one of its core characters, Cheers
enjoyed a fifth
season of high hilarity that still holds up decades later. The
cliffhanger at the end of the fourth
season began a season-long courting dance between Sam (Ted Danson) and
Diane (Shelley Long) in which both want to get married--but never at the
same time. They argue, they see a pre-nuptial counselor (an Emmy-winning
John Cleese), and then one has to make a final decision. But Sam and Diane
weren't the only ones exploring relationships.
Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) once again meets Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe
Neuwirth) and, with the help of Diane, are soon cozily coinhabiting. Woody
(Woody Harrelson) gets a visit from his ex-girlfriend (Amanda Wyss), and
meets Coach's niece (Cady McClain). Carla (Rhea Perlman) seems finally rid
of the sleazy Nick (Dan Hedaya, who was spun off into a thankfully
short-lived series called The Tortellis) only to meet a Bruins
goalie named Eddie LeBec (Jay Thomas). Then again, there were some
non-relationship events, such as Diane's trying out for the Boston Ballet
and the gang's classic Thanksgiving dinner at Carla's house (in which we
finally get to see Norm's wife, Vera, sort of). But more than anything,
the fifth season belonged to Sam and Diane. Their relationship ends in
touching flash-forward and a wish to "have a good life." If only
the departing actor's subsequent career had been so good.
Share Your Memories!
Do you have a favorite episode of Cheers? What do you remember about the series? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)
Your Memories Shared!
"When the show first started, it was with Sam, the ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher and owner of the bar Cheers and Diane (Shelly Long), his overeducated waitress/girlfriend. The often-pregnant Carla played the other sarcastic waitress and waited on the likes of mailman and know-it-all Cliff Claven and Norm, who's long-suffering wife is never seen in the show. Coach was Sam's assistant in the early years until the actor who played Coach died, Woody Harrelson joined as Sam's assistant. That and Kirstie Alley taking over the bar kinda with Shelly Long leaving ruined the show for me, but I know others preferred the post-Long years and it was more popular after she left."
"There are two types of Cheers fans: Those who preferred Coach and Shelly Long and those who preferred Woody and Kirstie Alley. Count me in the former. I'm glad to see those episodes are about to come out on DVD. Back to Shelly - what was she thinking!"
"I met Rhea Perlman and she was understandably not all that proud of the rather 2 dimensional Carla of the later years. Here the character is wise-cracking, but with more depth and Perlman's considerable talents have room to shine. Also, Coach is a a great character, expertly realised, and more. One episode has the scene with Coach and his daughter Lisa, who is "not comfortable with her beauty," that is arguably the most moving, and genuinely so, scene ever in a TV series. And the sexual tension between Sam and Diane is about as good as it gets. I marvel that this season's shows were the lowest rated program on TV -- it is simply great comedy, suberbly written, and well performed by a strong cast that is consistently "on." How extremely fortunate that NBC stuck with the show!"
"I love the episode where Rebecca turns Sam's pool room into a tea room. then Sam takes one look at it and says I hate it! I hate it! I hate it ish! Then he asks what is that on the floor Rebecca says it's a throw rug so Sam picks it up and throws it. CLASSIC"
"My favorite episode included the part where Norm called home to Vera (never seen in the show) and sounds like he leaves her a message: "I'm at the bar and I'll be home soon." (click) When asked if he got the answering machine, he replies, "no, that was Vera." I still laugh at hearing that, being married I would never attempt a 'message' like that!"
"When it comes to the "Diane and Coach vs. Woody and Rebecca" debate I have one thing to say: Rebecca ruined the show. After coach died I think that woody was a fien repacement, and coach will always have a warm place in my heart, as well as woody. Rebecca was annoying, and I do not enjoy the episodes that feature her in a large role. Diane and Sam, doenst get better. [Editor's note: I suppose this is my cue to weigh in - as if anyone cares. I never liked the show's dynamics once Ms. Long left (Woody was just a little too stupid (nearly Gilligan-like) for me and Rebecca wasn't nearly as likeable as Diane), but it's also true that it didn't become a #1 show until she left.]"
"My favorite episodes are the ones that center around Cliff Claven, the mailman. To me he was the funniest character on the show. But I am glad that the TVLand channel continues to play reruns of all Cheers episodes. "