Before the Friends sextet and the ER staff of Chicago County General Hospital ruled NBC’s Must-See TV line-up, Thursday nights belonged to the gang at a Boston pub named Cheers. When the long-running series premiered in September of 1982, it raised the bar for television situation comedies. The most popular sitcoms of the late 1970s — Three’s Company, Laverne and Shirley, and The Love Boat — were formulaic and sophomoric, filled with sexual innuendos, tired physical gags, and unoriginal plots. With its witty dialogue, talented ensemble, and a premise reminiscent of 1930s screwball comedies, Cheers was a welcome change of pace. Twenty years later, the show’s Emmy-winning freshman season, recently released on DVD by Paramount, is still fresh and very funny.
In the series pilot, graduate student Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) is abandoned by her fiancée at Cheers, where she meets the bar’s owner, ex-red Sox pitcher Sam Malone (Ted Danson). Sam feels sorry for (and is attracted to) Diane, so he offers her a waitressing job. Realizing her Masters Degree in poetry leaves her unemployable, she accepts the job. While it’s a bit of a stretch to believe someone as educated and cultured as Diane would accept Sam’s offer, the situation sets up the show’s comic center: the tumultuous love-hate relationship between Diane and Sam, reminiscent of the screwball comedy couples of the 1930s.
Sam and Diane are part of one, big happy dysfunctional family who work and drink at Cheers. The writers use the setting to their advantage by building a storyline around a guest patron of the week, such as the man who claims to be a spy, the clergyman looking for one last fling before taking a vow of chastity, and the cardshark who is taking bartender Ernie “Coach” Pantuso (Nicholas Colasanto) for a ride. At times, these situations seem forced, as the customers have no connection to the series regulars; it’s as if the writers asked themselves, “Who can we have come into the bar this week?” However, some of the funniest episodes of the first season involve a visit from one of the regulars’ old friends or family members, such as Diane’s blueblood mother (Glynis Johns), and Coach’s daughter (Allyce Beasley), who is about the marry the most obnoxious man on the planet.
The definite highlight of Season One is “Boys in the Bar,” in which Sam hosts a book party for his old teammate and fellow party animal, Tom Kenderson (Alan Autry). What Sam doesn’t know is that Tom is gay and has come out of the closet in his new tell-all book. Diane sets him straight and Sam quickly comes to terms with the fact the guy with whom he used to pee off balconies is gay. However, his regular customers, led by Norm (George Wendt), are afraid that Sam’s public support of his friend will turn Cheers into a gay bar, so they decide to get rid of anyone in the bar whom they suspect is gay. The episode deals with homophobia with intelligence and humor, and its message, particularly back in 1983 when Reagan was in office and AIDS hysteria was on the rise, could not have been more timely.
Such episodes underline that the show’s basic premise is the “stranger” in the bar, namely Diane. Playing a fish out of water among the bar’s beer-and-pretzel crowd, Long is brilliant in the role. Her expert comic timing aside, she bravely gives us so many reasons not to like the self-righteous, judgmental, snobby Diane, particularly when she starts tossing around literary references and French phrases.
Still, we do love her, because she’s vulnerable, has a good heart, and tries to hold her own when up against her tart-tongued co-worker, Carla (Rhea Perlman). Using names like “Pencil Neck,” Carla enjoys taunting Diana and then watching her slowly unravel. Another funny episode entitled “Truce or Consequences,” involves Carla and Diane’s attempt to bury the hatchet by hanging out after closing time. They get tipsy and Carla tells Diane in confidence that Sam is actually the father of one of her children. Carla knows Diane will never be able not to keep this secret (which is a lie) and so she (and the audience) enjoy watching Diane make a complete fool of herself trying not to tell.
Diane may not be in Carla’s league when it comes to playing practical jokes and making snide comments, but there’s no question she has Sam’s number. She resists his charm and smooth talk, which, of course, makes her all the more attractive to a ladies’ man like Sam. They are complete opposites who are hot for one another yet refuse to admit it. Diane doesn’t want a “dumb jock” like Sam, but a man who is refined and worldly. And, as Diane reminds him, intelligence is not high on his list of criteria when it comes to women. That doesn’t stop him from trying to impress her by pretending he took his date to the symphony (Diane later discovers she is actually his ex-wife and the concert program Sam shows her is two years old).
Like Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, or Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Sam and Diane’s sexual tension is channeled through their verbal sparring. The 22 episodes in this season include some of their funniest verbal exchanges and knock-down-drag-out fights (a montage of same is included among the DVD’s special features). Season One culminates with the long-awaited passionate kiss that marked the beginning of their tumultuous, on-again, off-again relationship that would continue for four more seasons. Hopefully, Cheers fans will not have to wait too long for Paramount Home Video to release Season Two.