A Cheers family Thanksgiving ends in a big mess

A Cheers family Thanksgiving ends in a big mess

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This month: Thanksgiving.

Cheers, “Thanksgiving Orphans” (season five, episode nine; originally aired 11/27/1986)

In which a bunch of pathetic dropouts come together for the holidays…

Erik Adams: What does the Cheers gang have to be thankful for? They’re all failures in one respect or another: Sam drank himself out of a baseball career, Diane’s on a never-ending graduate-school track, and Carla’s husband left her for another woman and a Las Vegas—set spin-off. The show was never shy about its characters’ shortcomings and vulnerabilities, and season five’s “Thanksgiving Orphans” plays off of those qualities marvelously. Frasier frames it nicely in the opening act: “I guess it’s the seasonal happiness of others that tends to throw a glaring light on our own interpersonal relationships. But gee, of course, that’s no problem for me—I’m alone.” The solution, which leads to one of Cheers’ finest half-hours and some of the finest work in the history of the multi-camera sitcom is for the gang to spend the holiday alone, together.

I prefer episodes of Cheers that restrict the main action to the bar, but “Thanksgiving Orphans” gets a pass, because it ports the bar over to the Tortelli house. In a smart riff on the principals’ sad-sack tendencies, they spend most of their Thanksgiving behaving as they would back at Cheers by sitting around, shooting the shit, watching sports, and ragging on one another. It’s as if the writers want us to re-evaluate our notion of how close these people actually are to one another. Maybe it’s because they already spend so much time together; maybe they’d rather relax on their day off. Either way, “Thanksgiving Orphans” challenges the impression that the Cheers crew is TV’s quintessential surrogate family. That is, until the first yam is flung.

There’s a beautiful catharsis in the sloppy centerpiece of “Thanksgiving Orphans.” It’s the inevitable release of the passive-aggressive tension that builds up over the course of Norm’s marathon turkey session, but it’s also a way for the characters to blow off the steam that accumulates in their everyday life. For one reason or another, these people were elbowed out of the Norman Rockwell version of the holiday, so they go all Jackson Pollock on its iconography, flinging the fixings and splattering Diane’s pilgrim getup. It’s that moment that proves the group’s familial bond—particularly when Diane steps in to quash the revolt. It’s a first for the house Carla moved into just a few episodes prior: Someone else acting as the harried mother figure to a bunch of rambunctious kids.

The thing about an ensemble on a long-running show like Cheers is that it winds up representing two surrogate families: The one composed of the characters and the one composed of the actors playing those characters. The joy of the “Thanksgiving Orphans” food fight is broadcast by the honest enthusiasm of the cast, an opportunity to cut loose rarely afforded by a grounded, low-concept series like Cheers. At some point, we’ve all wanted to ditch the niceties and get real with the members of our family. That’s a fantasy the stars of Cheers were allowed to live out, making for a few minutes of utterly joyful television.

I’ve had a reverence for this episode ever since I read about it in an old TV Guide countdown of TV’s best episodes. As such, I’m curious to hear if any of you have serious criticisms to lob its way. Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to some friendly food-fighting-with-words among our own little surrogate family. I put it to the Roundtable: What parts of “Thanksgiving Orphans” are you thankful for?

Molly Eichel: Unfortunately, Erik, I will not be the one to hurl the first pea. I too prefer the bar-only episodes, but by moving the location to La Casa Tortelli, it actually makes this episode feel more pure. There are no distractions: no dates for Sam, no supposed regulars who are heard from once and then never seen again, or other one-off characters who duck in for a quick drink and end up acting as a catalyst for that evening’s plot. “Thanksgiving Orphans” is just the core crew. It’s the cast working in the most primal way. At this point in Cheers’ run these characters and actors were such well-oiled machines that the food fight loses some of its potential wackiness, even if it’s Carla’s only recourse to throw a carrot at Norm. The fight highlights the great physicality of Cheers, one of the secret weapons that made the show great. The food fight is an obvious example, but there are other more subtle moments, like the war of the TV set, and Frasier’s facial expressions when he’s overruled as king of the sightline.   

The concluding food fight is the episode’s big set piece, but it’s the devolution the characters experience throughout the episode that interests me, especially because they work in a decidedly adult milieu where the only children ever mentioned are Carla’s unseen kids. These are people that hang out at a bar all the time, but this is one of the few episodes where it’s implied that they’re all drunk together (save Sam, although he sips that water as if it’s something stiffer). Visually, the Tortelli living room is scattered with toys, already placing the cast in an overgrown playpen. Their childishness continues to grow as the episode continues, from Woody being thankful for his ability to touch his tongue to his nose (I love that there needs to be considerable stretching involved for this to happen, only augmented by Sam’s plate-tongue push-ups, sans stretching) to Frasier’s insistence that the little popup thing be called a thermometer (“Can we all please say ‘THERMOMETER’?” All together: “THERMOMETER!”). I like the image you bring up of Diane as mom, Erik. Her entrance to the dinner says it all: “…waiting for some duddy old aunt to show up and spoil all your fun.” Cue Diane: “Gobble, gobble!” The rest of the characters are clearly sitting at the kids’ table throughout, but by the end, Diane gets her place there, too. 

That leads to my favorite part of the episode: Vera’s arrival. After years of listening to Norm portray Vera as the source of most of his problems (save for the second season when they separate), the audience finally gets to meet her. It’s one of those little rewards to longtime viewers that has been copied on shows like Frasier (in homage), Will & Grace, and Just Shoot Me. Diane—who has tried to be the most mature, traditional one of them all—obscuring Vera’s face plays like an invitation from writers to viewers to join the dinner. The same thing could be said about the nod to the dear, departed Coach. You out there watching are just as much a part of the family, even though you can’t lob any mashed potatoes yourself.

Ryan McGee: I covered this ground once or twice when we did our initial Roundtable run through Cheers, but I appreciate the melancholy that bubbles up to the surface from time to time in this show. To pivot off Molly’s acute observation about the playthings already spread across Carla’s house, the characters in this show really are the Misfit Toys of Boston. They look and feel like the other humans in the city, but there’s something slightly off about each that pushes them into one another’s orbits. Cheers shines when it acknowledges their separation from the outside world, while also celebrating the way they prop each other up.

It’s a semi-hackneyed observation, like Frasier’s in-episode assertion to Woody that “family” need not be bonded by blood. That’s an implication embedded in nearly all television in all genres. (Community and The Walking Dead are two current shows that couldn’t be more different, yet still examine this notion.) For me, what separates the wheat from the chaff is how well a show sells the deep love among a makeshift family that is often masked by sarcasm, belittlement, or outright anger. If we don’t believe the denizens of the bar actually find comfort in one another, an episode like this wouldn’t work. 

But we do, and we know because of a single word: “Coach.” I’ll admit that I’ve seen this episode three or four times, but forgot Sam’s invocation of the late barkeep. That moment hit me like a truck this time around. It lands so effectively not just because of the two seasons we’ve analyzed here on the site, but also because I’m about 15 years older now than the last time I watched this episode. I’m a different viewer, which essentially makes “Thanksgiving Orphans” a different episode. It’s not just that almost everyone in that room had a personal connection to Coach. It’s that deep down they have that connection with one another, though they sometimes have to wipe away the withering remarks and the cranberry sauce to see it. But it’s there all the same. Phil, did you buy into the festivities, or was this episode just a pie in the face for you?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: A big part of what made Cheers the most distinctive long-running network sitcom of the ’80s was how deftly it combined verbal wit and high comedy—such as Frasier’s neuroses-projecting pre-titles riff on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”—and low comedy. Food fights and pie throwing are about as low as it gets. What fuses it all is that even the food fight is a naturally rising extension of the characters’ personalities. It’s an explosion that’s at odds with the show’s trademark light touch, which is especially evident in that mention of Coach. A scene that is affecting in part because Ted Danson plays it as a throwaway moment, looking as if the thought really did just occur to him. (It’s easy to imagine how another kind of show would have staged that scene, with Danson, his face in close-up, pausing and choking up as he gets the name out, and then a montage of close-ups of every other face in the room trying not to tear up before they all chime in.)

The great thing about relocating the action to Carla’s house (and kudos to the set design that makes those interiors look and feel like a place we’ve all been trapped in at some holiday get-together) where there’s no polite means of escape and no handy beer tap, is that it seals those personalities together. If you want to get all Frasier-like and over-think it, some episodes of Cheers could pass for the sitcom version of The Iceman Cometh. This one, in keeping with the way some of us grew up thinking about the holidays, is the show’s No Exit. As Ryan says, Cheers partakes of the sitcom cliché that the people we hang out with are the family we chose. With the exception of Community, there might not be another sitcom so attuned to the fact that the family we choose can irritate us just as much as the family we were born into. I’ve never seen anything on The Waltons or Parenthood that felt as true to my experience of family as the way the guys keep jerking that TV back and forth in this episode.

EA: I’m glad you singled out the set design, Phil, because the scenes in Carla’s living room are the most evocative part of the episode for me. In my case, they feel more like the bookending hours of a college party than any sort of holiday gathering gone to seed, but they hit a distinctive note of time grinding to a halt. One football game bleeds into another (and then bleeds into vintage WWF action), while the guests ooze off the aging furniture onto the well-trod area rug. There’s a squalid, day-drunk haze above the proceedings, one that drags the show back to Thanksgiving with a hint of tryptophan hangover. It overlaps some with The Bob Newhart Show episode that Todd’s group considered last week (and it ought to, considering both episodes were directed by James Burrows), but it lacks “Over The River And Through The Woods”’ pickled and squirrelly nature, which is appropriate, because as Ryan notes above, Cheers isn’t always a happy drunk.

And so there has to be that food fight, this incredible explosion of energy, sight, and sound that drags Diane’s polite, stately vision of the holiday down into the muck. (Which, if we’re going to be totally honest about the holiday’s eel-serving origins, is where it belongs.) Which brings me back around to the look and feel of Carla’s living room: “Thanksgiving Orphans” gives off this bizarrely tactile sensation that’s crucial for a show that convincingly sold a Hollywood soundstage as a popular Boston watering hole for 11 seasons. The straw man in my “Cheers should never leave the bar” argument is season eight’s “Sam Ahoy,” in which Sam, Carla, and Norm are nearly killed in an exploding yacht that has all the markings of “TV nautical.” Cheers thrives on the authentic, and part of why “Thanksgiving Orphans” endures is because you can see the fruit in the Jell-O and you can count the lumps in the potatoes—even when Sam pulls some off the wall for Frasier. Someone went to great lengths to make this a holiday we’d recognize.

What about you, Molly: Is your opinion of “Thanksgiving Orphans” informed by the fact that you can practically reach up and take a scoop of Diane’s “saucy” cranberry ensemble?

ME: I totally understand what you mean, Erik. “Thanksgiving Orphans” to me is exactly how some families want to act at Thanksgiving, but are stopped by the tenants of civilized society. But these characters get to do it. Thanksgiving is the perfect celebration for the tone of this episode, because it has all the trappings of a holiday like Christmas without any religious connection. There’s unity, togetherness, and thankfulness, sans the propriety associated with the detached religion of sitcom Christmas. So the characters get to push past what non-TV families do in real life—namely assault their family with trimmings—but, as Phil notes, “Thanksgiving Orphans” still feels grounded, because the way the food fight was achieved feels like a natural extension of familial tension. 

To go back to the idea of place, one of the reasons those tensions feel so natural is because Carla’s house and the bar have similar qualities. Out of multi-camera necessity, the show stays within the confines of the living room and the dining room. But, in a way, it feels like the two pieces of Cheers: the bar itself, where most of the action takes place, and the stage right seats where new customers tend to sit. The characters don’t move between sets. When they’re there, they stay there, giving “Thanksgiving Orphans” that same bottle-episode feel even though it’s outside the show’s primary location. Carla’s house is a different setting for a themed episode, but it feels similar to the closed-off bar in that sense. 

That bottled-in feeling is part of the reason the tensions feels so natural. There’s no place for these characters to go. They can’t retreat home or go into Sam’s office, because they’re guests in Carla’s house, so they’re forced to sit at the table, waiting and drinking. Holiday episodes are great for this sort of wheezed-in aggression. There are many examples of episodes that end with their own food fights. Ryan, is “Thanksgiving Orphans” the mack-daddy of all of those episodes?

RM: I think implicit in both your arguments about space is that not only are the characters stuck in those static sets, but so is the in-studio audience. So if “Thanksgiving Orphans” is a representation of familial situations playing out the way they often do in your heads, it’s simultaneously playing out before the eyes of those just off camera. Tension exists on both sides, making the explosive laughter that starts once the food goes flying all the more understandable. It’s Catharsis 101, born not from a relationship between TV viewer and screen, but human beings sharing the same oxygen.

The relationship between the multi-cam comedy and its in-studio audience is a primal one. Cheers announces the audience’s presence at the start of every episode, making the symbiotic relationship a point of pride, and even as we watch from home, one-step removed from that intimate relationship, we can still feel that human element at play. The lengthy time spent in each set doesn’t just build up the comedy within its three walls, it also establishes a relationship between the audience and that location. We understand its basic architecture, the places certain characters congregate, and how upsetting that standard affects those players. Cheers is a place where everybody knows your name—but they also know where Norm always sits. There’s order, or at least the illusion of order, in such consistency. “Thanksgiving Orphans” removes the scales from our eyes, and shows just how scary change can be. But it leaves its characters lovable, albeit covered in gravy. Phil, any final thoughts on this holiday classic?

PDN: Ryan, I’m at a loss for words. I think I may be choking up a little. But I remain thankful—for Shelley Long’s ability to pull off that Hester Prynne ensemble (in a comical way and otherwise), for Danson’s extraordinary grace as a performer, for Burrows’ mastery of the under-appreciated art of sitcom traffic management, and for the human-cartoon aplomb of Woody Harrelson, George Wendt, and John Ratzenberger. I am grateful for TV as good as Cheers, and for people as smart as you to talk about it with. I am grateful for our commenters, especially the ones who wish not to instruct me on the perceived defects of my prose and taste, while also beating me with leaded pool cues—though those that have are also children of God. And I am very, very grateful that Diane never got to hang out with William Styron at her professor’s dinner party. By my calculations, he would have been deep into the suicidal depression he later described in Darkness Visible, and I’m not certain she would have been the right person to pull him out of it. And now, with Thanksgiving but a week away, I suggest that we all take a lesson from Norm and get those turkeys in the oven. Or, if you’re like me, put in that call to Popeye’s for the deep-fried takeout special. 

Next week: Birds hit the ground like bags of wet cement as Sonia Saraiya’s group takes a look at WKRP In Cincinnati’s “Turkeys Away!” After that, the Roundtable takes a holiday of its own—but we’ll be back in 2014 with a new theme: “Your favorite episode of all time.”