“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” — Why Season 1 Of ‘Cheers’ Works So Well

    Cheers has always been high up in my pantheon of great T.V. (alongside shows such as Lost and Homicide: Life On The Streets, among others) that I’ve always wanted to watch but were unable to for a variety of reasons including length and let’s face it, watching other shows. After finally giving in, I mainlined the first season of Cheers in about a day and a half. It didn’t disappoint.

For the uninitiated, Cheers concerns the everyday lives of people working at or just drinking at the Cheers bar in Boston. Sam (Ted Danson) the owner has a witticism filled back and forth “Will they/won’t they” with Diane (Shelley Long) the newly hired waitress. Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) is the dimwitted, but lovable older man who tends bar. Carla (Rhea Perlman) is a wisecracking, single mother waitress and Norm’s (George Wendt) the guy who’s, well, just always there drinking.

The greatest thing about Cheers is that whatever you expect or demand from a sitcom, Cheers has it in spades. Do you like hangout sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother or Seinfeld (Sorry, I’m going to use more current sitcom examples in comparison as it’s what I’m unfortunately most versed in)? Cheers has got that. Do you like a more relationship driven, “Will they/won’t they” plot like The Office (UK mainly, but also early season of the U.S.version)? Cheers has got that. Do you like sitcoms with great characters, dynamics and chemistry like Cougar Town or Happy Endings? Of Course, Cheers has also got that. Cheers is able to combine these elements in every episode they produce, whether it’s the straight up comedic bits that take precedent or the Sam/Diane relationship.

One of the most famous and unique bits about Cheers is that it takes place solely in a bar over it’s 22 episodes of season one. World building for most shows is expanding locations, people and ideas that make us believe this place really exists and creates an interconnectedness that allows us to be immersed in a fully formed world. Cheers world building includes slowly showing us the backroom, the bathroom, and Sam’s office as new locations that seem brightly new, even within this contained space. Perhaps the greatest feature of the Cheers set, besides I guess the bar itself, is the door leading into the building. We’re given windows leading up to the door, giving us a few seconds to mull over who this character entering the bar is and how he/she will interact with the characters. There’s a very stagy quality to character arrivals, it is a sitcom after all, but this gives precedence to these new characters and allows them to feel part of the world of Cheers, even if only for an episode. A bar might just be the perfect place for a sitcom as it’s a naturally gathering point that sees many different kinds of personalities pop in and out.

The thing that sets apart Cheers for me is that it does both comedy and drama so well, in a medium of sitcoms where drama can be extremely hard to do, Cheers manages to avoid doing anything ham-fisted or cheaply. The through line of the series with the Sam/Diane relationship is done extremely well where it either has episodes that develop larger building blocks in their eventual joining as a couple, or smaller parts of episodes where they share a quick glance, or some kind of witty banter. Like a lot of stereotypical “flirting”, a lot of the Sam/Diane plot consists of them making fun of each other in their differences, Sam being a ex-baseball/jock, while Diane the uptight, “educated” one. A lot of Cheers is also built from a lot of dark and shady pasts too, with Sam being a former alcoholic as his sobriety gets tested everyday he’s in the bar. In one of the standout episodes of the season, just before the halfway point, “Endless Slumper”, Sam gives his good luck bottle cap (from his last beer he ever drank) to a fellow baseball player, and finds himself tempted to dive back into the bottle. Diane sticks around after hours to make sure this doesn’t happen. The lingering tension and energy between the two helps strengthen each individually as characters, but also develops their bond as people together, not only romantically but on a more deeper human level.

     Cheers never shortchanges any of it’s characters, they all get a moment in the spotlight, whether it be Norm’s job woes, Carla’s pregnancy or with Coach’s daughter. As the season progresses, the creators Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows seem to figure out each characters niche a little more and slot them in these positions that develop their character, as well as the chemistry of the bar. Carla maintains a slightly larger role in the beginning of the season, but as it progresses, she adopts a more laid back role where she’ll pop in just to crack a few wise comments (usually in Diane’s direction), which falls perfectly into Rhea Perlman’s wheelhouse. On the flip-side, Cliff (John Ratzenberger) the mailman at the outset of the series looks to be a character on the exact fringes of the barflies, only to pop in a line or two either at the expense or set up of a joke or some exposition. As the season moves on he develops a larger (albeit still supporting) role which sees him spouting off his facts or engaging other bar staff or Norm. Obviously his rapport with the characters and unique direction allowed him to slide into a more stronger role which seems completely natural now.

     Cheers for me does exactly what I’ve always wanted a sitcom to do, deliver comedically and dramatically, without either side feeling cheap or detrimental to the other. It’s really remarkable how well the dramatic bits work, and perhaps the greatest part is that they don’t feel like they’re standing out too much, as they’re able to transgress nicely into them. Some of the darker elements of the personalities of each character maintains this subtle uneasiness and allows the transition to feel genuine. Cheers works because it doesn’t skimp or skip out on the dramatic beats that are sure to reach these characters, but it embraces them and makes everybody the better for them, whether the repercussions are felt immediately or 10 episodes down the line. Oh, and it’s damn funny.

On to season two…

Essential episodes: “Give Me A Ring Sometime” (S01, E01), “Endless Slumper” (S01, E10), “Diane’s Perfect Date” (S01, E17), “Showdown” (S01, E21-E22).