The Good: Some decent writing, Moments of performance
The Bad: The characters quickly become predictable, even in the first season, Mediocre plots
The Basics: In the first season of Cheers, Sam Malone’s bar is invaded by the overeducated Diane Chambers, who turns his life around.
When I had just met the woman who would become my wife, I was big into Frasier (reviewed here!) and she was big into Friends (reviewed here!). I picked up the complete series of both of those television series’ and the irony of it is that she loathed the idea of Frasier, hated the first two episodes and then became a bigger fan of it than I am! She has gotten more mileage out of the boxed sets than I have! Given that she has made it through the boxed sets a full five times, I figured it was time we started on Cheers.
Beginning with Cheers Season 1, we are finding our journey through the show that spawned her favorite series much less impressive than the hype surrounding it might indicate. In its first season, Cheers rapidly becomes formulaic and familiar in a way that makes it possible to start calling some of the jokes, which is not a great or audacious start to a show. Moreover, some of the characters begin to feel right away like “types” as opposed to individuals and vibrant, realistic, characters motivated by something internal (as opposed to something outside – i.e. the writers and their writing).
When Diane Chambers enters the small Boston bar, Cheers, it is with Sumner Sloane, an English professor for whom she is a teaching assistant. But, when he leaves her for his ex-wife and bartender Sam Malone offers her a job (and she suddenly discovers that her photographic memory can come in handy as a waitress), she decides to stay and work as a barmaid until something better comes along. Despite Diane being upset by the bimbos Sam dates and Carla assaulting a Yankees fan, Sam tries to make a move on her when she expresses sympathy toward him being abandoned – mid-interview – by an old friend.
The daily life of the denizens of the bar continues with Coach being victimized by a flimflam artist and Carla getting impregnated by her ex-husband and attempting to pin the baby on a software genius. Diane enters a Boston Barmaid contest to try to speak out against it and the whole bar falls for Sam’s good-looking, rich brother. As their time together progresses, Sam must decide how important Diane actually is to him.
Cheers, in its first season, is remarkably average. The show is fun in moments, but it quickly establishes a rhythm that is more familiar than fresh. Given that humor hinges on surprise, that the first season does quickly tread toward obvious jokes timed for sitcom appeal, as opposed to a fresh back and forth between the characters, Cheers seems especially contrived.
In its first season, Cheers is usually about the conflict between Sam and Diane or one of the other characters getting into a jam of some sort – like Norm throwing a toga party for his officemates and only he shows up in costume – that the others must work together (usually with Sam and Diane disagreeing on the method) to get out of. The laugh track – provided inconsistently in the first season by a “live, studio audience” – is intrusive and obvious, though it does tend to accent the best jokes the show has to offer.
The first season of Cheers has episodes that tend to find Sam in the bar when someone Diane enters, they exchange quips and Coach makes a comment that reveals him to be an idiot. Norm enters the bar, everyone calls out “Norm!” except Diane, who politely says “Norman” when everyone else is done shouting. Coach asks Norm something beer-related, Norm makes a quip and takes a seat at the bar. Carla arrives, late, exchanges unpleasant remarks with Diane, and then a non-regular enters the bar to create the conflict for the episode.
In its first season, the primary characters of Cheers are:
Sam Malone – A former pitcher for the Boston Red Socks, who had to give it up because of his alcoholism, he bought a bar when he was a drunk and kept it “for sentimental reasons.” He offers Diane a job, even though she irritates him and does not quite fit in. He is a womanizer, who dates bimbos, until Diane challenges him to do better,
Diane Chambers – A teaching assistant who is left by her professor, she starts working at Cheers even though she is over-educated and pedantic. She has had numerous majors and it very educated. She trades barbs with Carla, despite Sam trying to get them to be friendly and, while she often disagrees with the macho Sam, she does her best to look out for his interests,
Carla – Left by her husband with their four children, she is perennially late. She is violent and short-tempered. She gets pregnant mid-season and attempts to pawn the kid off on the recurring software genius,
Coach – Dimwitted and easily swayed by the opinions of others, he was Sam’s coach and Sam keeps an eye on him by letting him work at Cheers. He’s spent the last six years working on reading a single book. When he was a baseball player, he frequently got hit by baseballs. He works with Harry to stop another grifter who has moved into the area and took him for several thousand dollars,
Cliff Clavin – The post officer who is a know-it-all about virtually every subject under the sun,
And Norm – the barfly who is an accountant and has a wife, Vera, whom we never see. Constantly hanging out at Cheers, he is a man’s man, a man of few words, and an accountant. Fired midseason, he struggles to find a job through most of the season.
What Cheers does have, even in its first season, is a decent cast. While the characters might be “types,” the cast portrays them very well. Nicholas Colasanto is perfect as the aimless fool Coach and Rhea Perlman plays Carla as completely, consistently, angry in a way that makes her distinctive (and surprising to see in any role where she plays “nice!”
But in the first season, Cheers hinges on the performances of Ted Danson and Shelley Long (Sam and Diane). Here, Cheers runs into a slight problem for its first season. While the “will they or won’t they” (hook up) question dominates the first season, the problem with the performances is that Shelley Long very consistently plays Diane both as a “type” and an individual and Ted Danson’s Sam develops as a person disproportionately fast. So, while the rest of the types sit around remaining constant, Danson progresses Sam incredibly fast from a character whom viewers are told has been a longstanding womanizer. The show does not present a compelling reason for why Diane would be different, why she would be the one know-it-all who would get under his skin and make him change so fast. In other words, Danson humanizes his macho character too quickly, in an unrealistic fashion, in the first season of Cheers.
Is the first season of Cheers bad? Not at all. But, it is painfully average and overly familiar to anyone who has ever seen a television sitcom. While it reached a status as a “classic,” it is hard to see in the first season how it survived long enough to get there.
For other works with John Ratzenberger, please visit my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
The Empire Strikes Back
For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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