The Impact Of Drama In ‘Cheers’

Cheers is a funny show. Not much of a statement, I know, especially considering it’s a sitcom after all. This is what Cheers leads with, funny characters, great joke writing, physical comedy, wordplay, etc. It’s all there and it makes a vastly satisfying sitcom which can riff joke upon joke that plays off both high and low brow sensibilities. This isn’t really what impresses me about Cheers though. Comedy writing is hard, sure, but within the realm of the sitcom it is beaten down into a formula on variations of jokes that can hit hard instantly, then fade away within a few seconds. No, what really impresses me about Cheers is the drama they are able to wring out of the comedy, and the dramatic stakes that are developed out of these comedic characters personalities that make this drama hit all the more harder. While Cheers puts on the face of a sitcom, it’s the dramatic moments that continue to amaze and convince me that there really is no other show like this.

Let’s skip formalities, Cheers is just simply an incredible, incredible show that has almost literally left me dumbfounded after multiple dramatic scenes in how I couldn’t believe the depth of how far they went inside this sitcom structure. Season one was great with Sam and Diane jawing back and forth, having fantastic arguments that strengthened both their characters and the power at which they command when they face off together in scenes. Season two brings everything to a whole new level with Sam and Diane finally together, while they slowly break apart and unravel towards the seasons end. This provided ripe material and endless scenes where Sam and Diane would battle it out. While season one built everything up between Sam and Diane with them locking horns through flirting, anger and sexuality, it broke it all down in season two with jealousy, betrayal, realizations, and more anger. As I stated before, the comedy builds all this up, making us like the characters, making them vulnerable and providing an outer shell that they hide behind in the comedic group atmosphere, which makes the drama hit that much harder.

In theory Cheers would make a great stage play. Well, the key word is “would”, because as great as the writing is, it’s the actors’ chemistry and commitment that makes it all work on another level and something I doubt could be equaled by any other set of actors. Cheers almost operates like little acts or vignettes, with scenes lasting sometimes upwards of 7-10 minutes long. We have the bar setting which gives us an area to play in, and since it’s all guided off dialogue and jokes, we hardly ever move and mostly remain constant in this one area. I bring up the idea of Cheers as a stage play with acts because that’s how the dramatic bits slot in a lot of the time. Many episodes are centered around the model where the first 18 or so minutes will have the main comedic storyline happening, centered around the bar, maybe Sam and Diane will bicker (scratch that, they WILL bicker), Norm and Cliff will drink and pontificate, Carla will crack wise, and Coach will forget something. Then the last 6 minutes or so will bring the entire house down. It’ll be nighttime, everybody’s out of the bar except for Sam and Diane. Usually the lights are dim, chairs over-turned, delivering a slightly ominous atmosphere. They face off, comedy peeks in and out of course, we’re still in a sitcom after all, but it just goes for it. Cheers goes for broke and it’s raw, emotional, heavy and something I’ve never seen before to this magnitude. Sure, I’ve seen drama in comedy and sitcoms before, but nothing like this. A current show like How I Met Your Mother might do this sporadically, but the scenes only last a minute or two, and it fails to capture much sustaining resonance. Cheers doesn’t care though, a six minute scene where Sam and Diane spar over what their relationship really means? Well, that’s their bread and butter.

Sam and Diane arguments aren’t the only “dramatic” type scenes that Cheers touches on, just the most prominent and the one based on the through line of the show. An early episode, “Little Sister, Don’t Cha” (S02, E02), showcases the resolve of the Norm and Cliff friendship and establishes a connection between the two that isn’t drawn upon much due to their general use as comedic centerpieces. Although individually they each have effective dramatic stakes in, “No Help Wanted” (S02, E14), with Sam begrudgingly hiring Norm as his accountant and, “Cliff’s Rocky Moment” (S02, E16), where Cliff faces off against a bully. In, “Battle Of The Exes” (S02, E13), Sam and Carla realize that their friendship may go deeper than they originally thought. All throughout season two there have been spotlight episodes for each character that fleshes them out on a dramatic level and gives them new or modified footing in regards to other characters. Whether a dynamic is strengthened, broken or gained, it’s something Cheers doesn’t forget, lingering over both comedic and dramatic aspects of a characters identity.

The weight of these previous episodes is felt but not to the degree with which, “Coach Buries A Grudge” (S02, E19), hammers down an unexpected ending for a sitcom. Coach learns that a recently deceased friend of his had made a pass at his wife, stirring up the normally even-tempered Coach. He plans a wake for the man at the bar, with several of the deceased man’s other friends joining in, who also discovered that the man made passes at their wives as well. In a fit of rage while speaking of the man, Coach grabs a prominent cardboard cutout of the man and he and the men rush out the door chanting that they are going to hang him. While they are filing out, Diane starts singing “Amazing Grace”, which causes the men to come back in and join Diane in song… then the just episode ends. Reading my description of the episode makes it seem a lot more serious than it actually was, but it was quite funny until the end, which is a great note to leave on. But, the ending really got to me and has stuck with me as it played against the norms of a lot of what sitcoms normally do. Being versed and conditioned in numerous different sitcoms, while I watched them sing “Amazing Grace”, I was just waiting for the punchline, wondering how they would spin this song into a joke. They never did and it was all the better for it. It’s hard to do it justice in text form but it really is a beautiful scene and a prime example of Cheers turning everything on its head and putting dramatic pathos in front of comedy. These are the types of scenes that stick with me from Cheers, not comedic ones, and there’s an utterly fantastic one in the season finale that I won’t even begin to spoil.

Generally speaking, I like dramatic shows more than comedic shows with it being much more easier for a dramatic show to be funny than a comedic show to be serious. Dramas cut the tension spryly or have a one-off character that provides a focal point for the humour, But mainly you’re focused on the seriousness of the show, it’s goals, characters and storylines in a way you’re usually not with comedy. Most of the time in a comedy you just want to laugh and have some interaction with fun and relatable characters. Most sitcoms will of course have a small piece of drama here and there, usually spurned forth by a romantic relationship of some kind. But, it’s always going for the joke, Cheers does too most of the time, but they spread the drama further and consistently that it connects you even deeper to the show (Hey! I’m doing that right now by writing about it!). A lot of the problem when most sitcoms try to get serious is that they haven’t earned the moment, it feels fake and there can be a severance of connection as the moment hasn’t been built up properly to gain effect. Cheers simmers the Sam and Diane disagreements or spats through the “comedic” storyline of the episode, even with just a quip back and forth, ratcheting the metaphorical belt tighter and tighter, until it breaks at the end of an episode or in one down the line. Cheers is quite possibly the perfect show for me, as it seems like it was expertly tuned to my liking. It’s mainly a comedy and as much as I might have been building up its dramatic tendencies, I still absolutely love the comedic bits, but the long dramatic scenes put me in awe and have me amazed at how expertly crafted and effective they are. Maybe I haven’t watched enough TV and shows to this magnitude have been done before within the sitcom model, but I haven’t seen it otherwise. What I do know is that there is nothing that holds a candle to what Cheers accomplished dramatically within the sitcom model in today’s TV market. I’ve pined for a show like this, and who knew that a show from the early 80s would have resonated with me both dramatic and comedically more than any other show I’ve seen. Not a small feat.