The eighth season of Cheers features the third of the “Bar Wars” episodes. Like dueling college fraternities, the Cheers gang battles Gary the Olde Towne Tavern owner in a series of juvenile pranks. Sam (Ted Danson) remembers the year Gary filled the Cheers stairwell with potatoes and nearly crushed poor Woody (Woody Harrelson), seated on the bottom step tying his shoe. “It’s lucky you were there to dig me out,” Woody says. “I’d hate to be the second member of my family to be buried alive under potatoes.”
This is a classic Woody one-liner. While it doesn’t further a plot, it reaffirms his earnest oddness. Like barflies Norm (George Wendt) and Cliff (John Ratzenberger), he serves mostly as background for the series, distracting from the arcing storylines. This season, such distraction is particularly welcome, as the love triangle concerning Sam, Rebecca (Kirstie Alley), and her new rich boyfriend, Robin (Roger Rees), is so disappointing.
Sam and Rebecca don’t muster the sort of sparks he shared with Diane (Shelley Long). Again, he’s the playboy with a heart, while Rebecca dreams of marrying rich. The more Rebecca whines that Robin doesn’t spend enough time with her, and the more Sam tries to make her believe he loves her, even as he’s bed-hopping all over the place, the less we care about either of them.
Sam’s interest in Rebecca is intermittent. In “Sam and the Professor”, it’s off, because he’s tempted by Rebecca’s former teacher and idol, Alice Volkman (Alexis Smith). When they end up in bed together, Rebecca is upset at both parties — Sam for refusing to say no to any willing woman, and Alice for her lack of judgment. Now Rebecca has to rethink her longstanding hero worship. The fact that she appears to have no affection for Sam might affect your reaction when he tells her in a later episode that he’s “better” for her than Robin. In fact, both Sam and Robin are unable to commit when it comes to women and sex.
While Sam is plainly shallow and selfish, Rebecca is just dimensionless. She suffers from “low self-esteem”, so that even when Robin cheats on her, she stays with him. Robin tells her he is seeing another woman; she stays with him. Robin buys the other woman a house, tells Rebecca she is in competition with this other woman for his affections, and implicates her in an insider trading scam; still Rebecca stays with him. The repetition is tedious and worse, unfunny.
When Sam finally confronts Rebecca to profess his love, we can’t imagine why. She never gives us a reason to think he might. Even after psychiatrist Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) offers her some free advice (specifically, she’s “grabbing at straws”), she can’t see beyond her obsession with Robin, or more to the point, with a slice of the prominence pie with Robin.
We’re not the only ones who find it hard to care whether Rebecca ever gets on with her life. In “Cry Hard”, she complains that a message on her answering machine from Robin must mean he’s about to break up with her. Woody observes that if the message was left from Concorde airplane, then Robin should have arrived in Boston before Rebecca received the message (speed of sound and all that). Woody, Cliff, and Norm proceed to debate Einstein’s theories and airwave speed. “I’m in pain!”, Rebecca squeals over their chatter. They ignore her and continue their discussion, which is, thankfully, quite hilarious.
After eight seasons, the first five also featuring a “will they or won’t they” arc, such straight-up comedy is welcome. We’ve already endured highs and lows, at least those that can take place in a bar. Still, the show turns to contrived “drama”, including the off-screen death of Carla’s (Rhea Perlman) husband Eddie (played in previous seasons by Jay Thomas). Only problem is, Carla’s suffering, like Rebecca’s, is used for laughs: first, she learns Eddie was a polygamist, then, that left her with a hefty life insurance policy. For a few episodes, she plays grieving or greedy widow, or simply pours the drinks and makes her patented bitchy comments.
Carla’s dead husband, along with Sam and Rebecca’s tryst and a new baby for Frasier and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), typify the show’s wrongheaded efforts to seem revitalized. In some cases, it just doesn’t work. It’s hard to believe Frasier’s excitement over his newborn son when he still spends night after night with his drinking buddies. To expand on such plots, the show would need to step outside the bar. But then it wouldn’t be Cheers, would it?