Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
On March 31, 1983, NBC aired “Showdown, Part 2,” the finale of Cheers’ first season, and the episode that may have saved the show. All season long, Cheers had hovered at or near the bottom the Nielsen ratings, signaling that the Taxi/Mary Tyler Moore-style workplace comedy might be a dead animal in the era of Three’s Company and Joanie Loves Chachi. But director/co-creator James Burrows felt that he and his partners Glen and Les Charles had something special in Cheers’ central relationship, between womanizing ex-jock bar-owner Sam Malone and prissy intellectual barmaid Diane Chambers. From the start, star Ted Danson hit all the right notes with Sam, bridging the gap between sensitive-guy ’70s TV stars like Judd Hirsch and Hal Linden and more macho ’80s types like Tom Selleck. Danson could play dim or savvy—and find the continuity between the two—and he wasn’t afraid to look silly or jerky. And as Diane, Shelley Long could come off as petulant, pretentious, and snobby, yet still be adorable and good-hearted enough that viewers could buy Sam’s attraction to her as more than just physical.
Cheers was never a high-concept show; the Charles brothers and Burrows figured that since bars attract all different sorts of people, a TV show set in a bar would contain endless story possibilities. With Sam and Diane, Cheers found the perfect distillation both of that idea and a fine representation of its Boston setting. Where else would a proudly blue-collar guy and a grad student interact on nearly equal footing? According to Ken Levine, who wrote for Cheers with his partner David Isaacs, Burrows told the writers early on that, “Our money is Sam and Diane. Every episode needs to have something about those two, even if the story is about something else.”
Levine also says that the writers realized at some point during first season that they couldn’t string along the Sam/Diane “Will they or won’t they?” forever. Hence “Showdown,” a two-parter in which Sam’s smarter, richer, more accomplished brother Derek arrives and nearly steals Diane away, before Sam declares his affections for her at last, and in his own begrudging fashion. The big coming-together scene between the two of them is a screwball classic, with Sam feigning indifference as Diane describes what her life with Derek will be like, until she pressures him into admitting that he doesn’t want her to leave. They bicker about whether they could ever spend a happy minute together without over-thinking every gesture and offhand remark, and when the argument reaches its peak, Sam asks, “Are you as turned on as I am?” and Diane answers, “More!” Then they kiss, finally. The night of the taping, Levine says that they got a huge reaction from the studio audience. He turned to Isaacs and said, “It’ll never be any bigger than this.”
That scene—and that kiss—gave Cheers some much-needed buzz. The ratings improved over summer repeats, and then Cheers won four major Emmys that fall, for Outstanding Writing, Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Lead Actress, and Outstanding Comedy Series. At the time, NBC had been in a Nielsen slump, so the network was already inclined to stick with shows like Cheers and Hill Street Blues that were critically acclaimed and had a devoted fan base. The vote of confidence in Cheers paid off. The sitcom performed solidly in its second season, and then in season three, after NBC added The Cosby Show to the Thursday night lineup, Cheers became a perennial Top 10 hit, staying popular all the way through its 11th and final season in 1992-93.
Yet when it came to Sam and Diane, Levine was more or less correct: As a great romance, the story did peak with “Showdown, Part Two.” Had the show ended after one season, the couple would’ve lived happily ever after, at least in the minds of the fans. Instead, they broke up at the end of the second season, then got back together in the fifth season, just before Long left to pursue a movie career. Long returned for the series finale six years later, and it looked as though Diane and Sam were going to wind up together. Instead, Sam changed his mind at the last minute, and returned to the bar, single but happy. That ending felt right. It was apparent even in “Showdown” that there was no way that these two crazy kids could last. The rest of their story played out inevitably—and entertainingly.
I’ve always been fascinated by Sam and Diane both as a narrative and a pop-culture phenomenon. I had watched Taxi on ABC for years, so when Taxi moved to NBC in ’82, I followed, and watched its time-slot partner Cheers too, right from the beginning. I was 11 years old when Cheers debuted, and about to hit puberty, so I was captivated by this very adult relationship, largely held together by sexual attraction. When Cheers ended, I was 22, and had a couple of (sort of) adult relationships of my own under my belt. I’d also seen dozens of post-Cheers sitcoms and non-sitcoms alike try to create their own Sam and Diane magic. The “Will they or won’t they?” plot quickly became a television cliché. But none of these relationships—not even my real-world ones, I daresay—had the resonance of Cheers’ on-again-off-again Sam and Diane. To this day when I watch a Cheers rerun from the first five seasons, I can pinpoint where I am in the series by the relationship status of the two leads. Is Diane with Frasier Crane? Season three. Are Sam and Diane engaged? Season five. I know these arcs as well as some people know every acre of Middle Earth or Westeros.
Cheers’ second season may be its most challenging, given that nearly the entire arc of the season is about giving the fans what they thought they wanted, then illustrating why most romantic comedies choose to fade out and roll credits after the couple share their first kiss. As it turns out, making the decision to pair off doesn’t resolve Sam and Diane’s fundamental differences. There are major gaps between their values and their goals in life, and even in their ways of being passive-aggressive with each other. The first half of Cheers’ second season deals a lot with how other people look askance at the relationship, and shows Sam and Diane struggling to co-exist as a couple without losing their own strong identities. But there’s not enough “give” in either of them, and in the second half of the season, Sam’s immaturity and Diane’s tendency to overanalyze begin to tear them apart, piece by piece.
“Fortune And Men’s Weight,” which aired on February 2, 1984, is a prime example of the state of Sam and Diane toward the end of season two, and of Cheers’ ability to pluck ideas and gags effortlessly out of the air. Directed by Burrows and written by Heide Perlman (sister of Rhea Perlman, who plays surly, frequently pregnant barmaid Carla Tortelli), “Fortune And Men’s Weight” gets its name from the coin-operated antique scale that Cheers bartender Ernie “Coach” Pantusso bought without Sam’s permission. When the delivery men drop off the box, Coach is sure they’ve made a mistake—“Why would I buy a crate?”—but then he remembers the salesman, a persuasive, angry guy who looked like one of our most famous presidents but acted like one of the world’s most famous dictators.
Bar regulars Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin help out with opening the crate, though Norm, who’s about to go on a blind date, hesitates because he “doesn’t want to get pits.” (When he doffs his jacket, Norm’s already drenched in sweat, and Cliff reassures him that “We’ll stop you before your shoes get squishy.”) Cliff, meanwhile, gets bonked hard on the head by one side of the crate, and spends the rest of the episode in a concussed fog.
Both Cliff and Norm take a turn on the scale for their trouble. Cliff’s fortune says that he’ll “talk to bigwigs,” which doesn’t seem to jibe at first with his injury, though the superstitious Carla disagrees. “Who’s the biggest wig of all?” she asks. “Sinatra!” some wag shouts. So Carla answers herself: It’s God, whom Cliff will be talking to in person if he doesn’t go to the doctor. Norm’s fortune predicts that his “most troublesome problem will soon be solved,” which baffles Norm, who jokes that he’s overweight, unemployed, and separated from his wife, and yet his biggest problem is that he’s never been happier.
But when Norm goes on his date that night, he’s surprised to find that he’s been set up with Vera, his wife. The two spend a lovely night reconnecting, and then as Norm tell his buddies the next day, “We kinda made love.” (Sam says you can’t “kinda” make love, but Norm insists, “You don’t know Vera.”) Norm’s so happy that he shouts, “I’d like to set up the whole bar!” After everyone whoops, he adds, “But since that’s financially impossible, I’ll settle for buying my buddy Cliff here a drink.” All of this spooks Carla, who begins giving the scale the evil eye, to ward off spirits. Diane’s appalled that everyone in the bar seems to believe that this machine really has supernatural powers, but Carla wants Diane to acknowledge that there are things that happen in this world that “eggheads” can’t explain.
Then Diane is caught up short when she reads her own fortune: “Deception in romance proves costly.” Sam’s convinced that this proves Diane is right, because everyone knows how she feels about honesty. (“Yeah, she likes it,” Coach says.) Except that Diane did deceive Sam. When Sam refused to go with her to a snooty campus art show, she went with another student. She also invited the young man back to her apartment for coffee. (“Instant?” a seething Sam asks. “Or did you grind the beans?”) She kissed the boy too, but “way up on the cheek… very dry.”
The entire last six minutes of “Fortune And Men’s Weight”—a quarter of the episode—takes place in real time, as Diane confesses to Sam about her date, and admits that she had a wonderful time talking with a man at her intellectual level. Sam’s anger abates, and he casually suggests that since they don’t fulfill each other’s needs, maybe they should call it quits, and no hard feelings. That makes Diane mad, and she says she wants out of the relationship. From there it becomes a matter of one-upmanship, with Sam and Diane both claiming first dibs on the break-up. Diane even goes so far as to pretend she’s frightened, in order to get Sam to back off so she can turn it back around and officially be the dumper, not the dumpee. The episode ends on a surprisingly ambiguous note, as Sam pounds his fist against the antique scale and then reads the fortune that pops out—a fortune that Diane thinks will tell them whether to stay together or not. The verdict? “Machine empty. Order more fortunes today.”
The next Cheers episode, “Snow Job,” begins with Sam and Diane still together, though the plot once again deals with how they lie to each other. The actual break-up doesn’t happen until the season finale, which aired a couple of months later. The writers may have followed Burrows’ advice, but Cheers was never strictly serialized. The core appeal of the show was always going to be the bar itself—the place “where everybody knows your name”—and the opportunity to hang out with some funny, colorful people for 22 minutes each week. That took precedence over long-form storytelling. The characters had mini-stories that progressed, but the show cared more about how they reacted to any given situation.
As the director as well as the co-creator, Burrows played a large part in developing that comfortable space. What I’ve always liked about Cheers is that even though Burrows encouraged his cast to deliver their lines with zip and punch—like actors, in other words—he also allowed them to respond to each other naturally, and he looked for camera angles and blocking that would catch those responses. The cast doesn’t just wait around for their turn to deliver quips. They move around the set, and make drinks (or drink drinks), and when someone says something funny, the others smile a little, or roll their eyes. The world of Cheers isn’t just Norm walking in and answering Coach’s questions with jokes. (“How does a beer sound, Norm?” “I dunno Coach, I usually finish ’em before they get a word in.”) It’s also how Norm—or Cliff, or Coach, or anyone—thrives in relation to the people around them.
I’m an avid reader of “By Ken Levine,” the blog written by the former Cheers writer (who’s also worked on dozens of other sitcoms over the years as a writer and director, in addition to working as a disc jockey and baseball announcer). Levine has a very approachable online presence, and has always been generous with his insights into how television works, so I contacted him via Twitter to see if he’d want to talk to me about this Cheers episode. Only after I’d gotten him on the phone did I realize that while Levine and David Isaacs worked on the show’s first season, and on the third through 11th seasons, they actually weren’t around for season two, when “Fortune And Men’s Weight” aired. Nevertheless, Levine filled me in on the origins of Sam and Diane, telling me the story about Burrows’ insistence that the couple be the center of the show, and telling me about the high of taping “Showdown.”
When I asked how much the writers talked through the arc of the Sam and Diane relationship, Levine said, “Well, we weren’t Lost. We didn’t have it all mapped out on big board or anything.” Instead, he says, they went episode-by-episode and idea-by-idea, always thinking about what made sense for the characters. “That was the genius of the Charles brothers,” Levine said. “They developed such amazing characters, you could do almost anything with them.”
That emphasis on character first is what made the Sam and Diane relationship—as well as its demise—so plausible. This past summer, TV scholar Cory Barker watched and wrote about Cheers’ first season for his blog TV Surveillance, and aptly described how the show’s writers defined Sam and Diane first and foremost as individuals, then showed how their proximity to each other had an effect:
Looking at Sam and Diane separately helps make enjoying them together easier, I think. She’s still a pretentious wannabe do-gooder who doesn’t have the social skills to make it happen. And he’s still a jock strap. But they’re both changing, probably because of the other’s presence, and it’s been really great to watch them mature and develop, albeit slowly (this is a sitcom, after all). Additionally, it seems much more believable that the two of them would hook up now. Not only because of the passing of time and the basic ways people grow closer over it, but because of how the two of them have grown up. They were sort of obvious polar opposites in the pilot episode, but they’ve both moved closer to the proverbial middle now.
I can see that even in the show’s second season, when the couple moves apart again. One of my favorite Cheers episodes is the two-part season two finale, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” in which Diane sits for a famous artist’s portrait over Sam’s objections, and he threatens to smash the painting to bits without even looking at it. After she walks out on him—for real this time—Sam finally opens the wrapper around the painting and says, “Wow.” Diane’s gone, but her influence in his life remains. End of season.
The big Sam and Diane scenes on Cheers are like carefully constructed little playlets: just two characters in a room, hammering away at each other, changing position by the minute. By the conclusion of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” they’re clearly too exhausted to go on. But in “Fortune And Men’s Weight,” there’s still some spunk left, though it’s obvious they’ve crossed a line. Even the small details, like the way Sam doesn’t immediately remember what Diane’s fortune said, shows how out-of-step they’ve become. And then there’s the way Sam behaves like some cocky high-school athlete, pretending he doesn’t care that they’re breaking up. Diane follows suit with her own immaturity, showing how Sam has influenced her.
That’s the trade-off for creating such multi-dimensional characters. Burrows and the Charles brothers put Sam and Diane together because that pairing had to happen. Then they broke them apart because that had to happen, too. It was painful, but it made sense. And in the decades that Cheers has been running in repeats, the story has repeated, over and over, with Sam and Diane inching closer, then inching apart, circling each other like planets locked in orbit. Because of the way shows air in syndication, the day after the last scene of the finale airs—with Sam waving off a customer and saying, “Sorry, we’re closed”—the show’s debut comes on, and Sam and Diane meet again. Well, maybe this time….
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Ally McBeal, “It’s My Party”