“One For The Book”/“The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One” S1 / E11-12
- B Community Grade
“One For The Book” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 12/9/1982)
In which Diane picks a good night to start taking notes.
Meredith Blake: There’s a reason so many jokes are set in bars: You never know who’s going to walk in the door at any moment. Compared to other sitcoms, Cheers has something of an advantage, creatively speaking. The writers can invent characters out of whole cloth, only to have them disappear after a single week, without straining credulity—because, hey, Cheers is a bar after all. Most of the time, the patrons at Cheers are strictly ornamental; sometimes, they provide brief, colorful cameos; other times, as with Nina in “Coach Returns To Action” or Eddy in “The Tortelli Tort,” they function as the catalyst for developments between the key cast. But in “One For The Book,” we have a somewhat unique scenario: an episode that revolves almost entirely around two strangers.
First up is Buzz (veteran character actor Ian Wolfe), a World War I veteran who arrives at the bar for an annual gathering with his fellow doughboys. As the hours pass by and it becomes obvious that he’s the last one in the troop who’s still around, the Cheers gang tries to soften the blow. They’ve all worn one uniform or another—heck, even Diane was a Brownie—so they’re suitable replacements. Of course, they aren’t, but it’s a sweet gesture. What struck me the most was how absurd and anachronistic it seemed that anyone from World War I—or, for that matter, a player piano—might have been found in a bar in the 1980s, a period I remember vividly. But then I remember that Cheers premièred nearly 30 years ago, and suddenly, I feel a little like Buzz. Hey, how’d I get so old?
The second stranger is Kevin (Boyd Bodwell), an awkward young man out for a night of fun before entering a monastery. Talk turns to Kevin’s vow of celibacy, and, lubricated by a few sips of whiskey, he explains that he never had much of a chance with the ladies anyway. “I’m shy, serious-minded; the search goes on for my chin,” he says, in what may be the line of the night. Diane tells Kevin he’d make a great catch, but the kind-hearted gesture backfires, and Kevin’s soon re-thinking his decision to become a monk. But once he miraculously “heals” the bar’s long-broken player piano, Kevin is once again certain that he’s destined for a higher calling; little does he know that Coach had the piano fixed a few weeks ago. It’s the second episode in as many weeks to deal with quasi-mystical themes, and while the outcome might have seemed quite cynical, Coach is able to see some magic in it. “Why did I decide to have it fixed all of a sudden?” he wonders. He’s got a point.
Throughout the episode, Diane continually jots down the bits of rich, colorful dialogue she overhears at the bar—“snippets of Americana,” as she likes to call them—in her notebook. As is often the case with Diane, her enthusiasm verges on condescension. Sam tries to say something that will impress Diane, but the pressure stifles his natural wit. He keeps dropping lame aphorisms like “truth comes in a glass,” but Diane remains unimpressed. Insulted, Sam confronts Diane. “What does a stuffed shirt know about blue-collar poetry?” he asks.
The question finally earns him coveted a spot in Diane’s notebook, but it also works as a self-conscious commentary on this episode, which is, in the end, about the remarkable stories that can be found in any of the thousands of humble little “fleshpots” like Cheers. In this way, Diane works as a kind of proxy for the show’s writers, documenting all the wonderful human experience before her and filing it away for creative inspiration.
What did you guys think? Were you charmed by this episode’s “blue collar poetry?”
Noel Murray: I was, Meredith. I wasn’t too sure about this episode at first—and I could’ve done without yet another scene of Diane getting sexually assaulted, however innocuously—but I came to appreciate the plotlessness. It’s just people hanging out, swapping stories and punchlines, while philosophizing about God. It was almost like notes for a Cheers rather than a fully realized 24 minutes of TV. I recall that Taxi did a similar episode about a monk, but theirs was about a man on a break from his calling, allowed to indulge himself for a few days before he had to go back. It’s a more poignant story, and more structured. “One For The Book” is very different, and as much as I like that Taxi episode, I liked that this one was so rooted in its setting and its characters. Any sitcom could’ve done that Taxi plot; only Cheers could’ve done “One For The Book.”
I also agree that “the search goes on for my chin” is the line of the episode (with “Lafayette, we are here!” a close second). But I also liked Sam’s many attempts to coin a phrase for Diane’s book. Anyone got a favorite? I dibs, “I don’t think they’ll ever make a pack big enough to carry the loneliness of a soldier.”
Donna Bowman: I couldn’t have been more charmed by “One For The Book,” and it’s all in the interactions between the guest stars and the regulars. Any series’ bread and butter is a setting in which new characters can float in and out naturally—hospital, police station, Western boom town, starship exploring strange new worlds—and the interest is not just in meeting those people but seeing how the people we know deal with them. The whole bar feels for the plight of Buzz and his missing battalion, and the whole bar wants to dissuade Kevin from giving up his vocation based on one night of debauchery. There’s something meta in the way nobody wants these new friends to change. Buzz shouldn’t regard his one-person reunion as the end of an era; he should just keep coming to the bar. Kevin isn’t allowed to change his mind about being a monk. That’s the nature of television, too—make sure nothing really changes so that the series can go on indefinitely. Within the episode it comes across as a kindly act, but there’s something presumptuous about it, too, especially in the case of Kevin. How can any of our regulars be so sure that he really ought to check in at the monastery the next day?
Ryan McGee: One of Norm’s lines near the end epitomizes so much of what makes Cheers such a warm show. “This would make a great bar story,” he says. “Too bad we’re all here.” In other words, there’s a insular nature to this bar that is reflected all great shows, whether they be dramatic or comedic. The denizens of Cheers protect their own, and Norm’s lament is actually a high form of praise. It would be easy to mock either one of these strangers if you only heard about what they did, rather than live through them. Norm gets in jibes on both men, but ultimately does so in a familial sense rather than an antagonistic one. If he ever heard someone mock Buzz or Kevin, Norm would defend that man vociferously.
I think this also helps inform Sam’s desire to be in Diane’s book. It’s not simply about feeling smart enough to be in it, although that’s certainly part of it. But being denied a place in the book is akin to be denied a place in the bar, leaving him on the outside looking in. He owns the bar, but he’s also part of it. It’s burned into his DNA, just as it’s burned into the DNA of all who inhabit it. And it’s that shared DNA that makes these people family.
Phil Nugent: This is another one that I like best for its bits and pieces and the way they form a plotless, just-the-gang-hangin’-out-in-the-bar-with-some-weird-drop-ins vibe that Cheers shot for less often then you might expect. I love the cold open, with Coach humming to himself and switching jackets to perform different tasks that he needs help keeping track of, and not the least of the reasons I love it is that, in the moment, he could be a cartoon sheepdog directed by Chuck Jones. In a similar vein, I like the way that Sam’s sudden need to make it into Diane’s quote book seems to mirror Diane’s sudden desire, a few episode back, to be recognized and applauded as the official “Cheers caricaturist.” (“But why am I riding a lizard?”) The characters sometimes talk about Cheers as a magical place, usually because they’re talking about it as a place where romance develops, but as a sitcom hangout, its special magic is a group dynamic that makes people feel that odd whims that just occurred to them are life goals that they’d journey to Mordor to make good on.
Erik Adams: It’s fairly early for Cheers to start commenting on itself, but Diane’s lines about “blue-collar poetry” and “snippets of Americana” are such sly statements of purpose for the series, I’ll let them slide. I’m a little more mixed in my reaction to the episode than the rest of you; the conclusion of Buzz’s story was obvious from the start, but I did enjoy the various beats it took to arrive at that conclusion—especially the execution of the “Lafayette, we are here!” gag, a fine offscreen joke akin to Diane’s closed-door exchange with Rick Walker last week. (It’s a bit icky that Diane has been the object of so much luring attention lately, but those developments do help Sam look less wolf-like.)
Speaking of “Endless Slumper”: In her only turn as a credited writer on Cheers, Katherine Green picks up the farcical thread of that episode for Diane and Kevin’s brilliant “bambo/bimbo” conversation. It’s the type of joke that makes me, like Phil, appreciate “One For The Book” as the sum of its parts, and I’m disappointed we won’t get to see Green’s personal approach to a semi-plotless Cheers again.
Todd VanDerWerff: I wouldn’t call this one a perfect episode, by any means, but I do think it exemplifies some of what Cheers was able to do that set it apart from other sitcoms that came before it and even many that followed. Noel points out Taxi as an obvious influence on the show, and I’d agree with that, but that show often had to work very hard to pull the guest stars into stories with the main cast, for obvious reasons. (The best way that show found to do such a thing was to… shift some of its storylines to a bar.) Here, because everybody’s in the same place realistically and by design, it becomes much easier to do a story where some person who’s very important for one week (or in this case, two people) wanders in, then wanders off at the end, as Meredith points out.
When I was a kid, I got very excited by sitcom settings (because I was a nerdy kid, but bear with me). I now think that’s because some settings are just inherently more fascinating than others. Yes, the family living room is a good setting, but the workplace sitcoms that work tend to be set in worlds where the regulars can cross paths with all sorts of wackadoos. (I’m always intrigued that this seems to be particularly true of the world of radio, which has produced two great TV sitcoms, and then I turn on the radio.) I’ve always been sort of surprised that nobody landed on a version of Cheers set in a restaurant, which would seem to be a natural to me, but as I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. We go to this bar (or any bar) to hang out with friends, and we can become regulars. And, yeah, I’ve got a few local cafes where the staff knows my name, but I don’t know that I’ve once seen the same people there. (I suspect this is also the reason no one’s been able to crack the “Barney Miller in a hospital” code so many sitcom writers have taken a shot at.) This seems as good a question as any to throw out to comments, actually: What makes a good workplace sitcom setting? Why are there some (like restaurants and hospitals, though I’m sure you can throw in your own) that just never seem to work?
- PN: Ian Wolfe, who really was a veteran of World War I, was a year older than his 85-year-old character when he played Buzz, and he lived another 10 years and worked another eight. Wolfe, who broke into movies recreating his Broadway role in the film version of The Barretts Of Wimpole Street, had a career in film and TV that went on for almost 65 years, and to the best of my knowledge, he always looked pretty much like he does here.
- PN: Do I detect a trace of modern sitcom meta-consciousness in the scene where the regulars are trying to cheer up Buzz, who assumes that all his war buddies must have died off without his knowing it because nobody else showed up at his reunion? Sam tries to lift his spirits by telling him they all probably just forgot, and there’s enough of a beat to give everyone in the audience a chance to think, “I know where you’re trying to go with that, Sam, but Jesus!” before Norm chimes in: “Maybe they never liked you!”
- MB: Coach delivered my second-favorite line of the episode, when he asked Buzz about World War I: “Is that the one with Clark Gable or Gary Cooper?”
- TV: While I rattled on about my childhood excitement over sitcom settings, I should point out that I was just as excited by which cities had sitcoms set in them. To me, a city was only great if it had at least three major professional sports teams and a semi-successful sitcom. Minneapolis was great from the ’70s on. Seattle only became great when Frasier happened. And so on. (Like I said, I was a weird kid.)
“The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 12/16/1982)
In which there is a spy… er, great poet… er, eccentric millionaire in our midst.
MB: With “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One,” we get another guest-star-oriented hang-out episode, but for me at least, this was a less successful installment of Cheers than “One For The Books.” It all begins when “Eric Finch,” a strange Englishman enters the bar and begins to chat up Carla, telling her he’s a secret agent. Carla is charmed, but Diane is wary of the suave stranger. Against Sam’s wishes, she points out the many errors and inconsistencies in his tall tales. Sure enough, Eric admits he’s not a spy, but rather a boring, lonely failure. “Sometimes late at night at a friendly bar, I sometimes make someone believe that I’m interesting. You’re much too smart for me. You don’t need illusions,” he tells Diane.
It’s what happens next that rubs me the wrong way. Suddenly Cheers cues the sad clarinet music, and Diane is apologizing profusely to everyone at the bar for the way she treated Eric. Say what? Diane is the one who’s supposed to feel bad? Isn’t it creepy that Eric—or whatever his name is—was lying to Carla, with the express purpose of getting her into bed? Sam doesn’t think so, neither does the rest of the Cheers gang, and so the second half of the episode is all about making Diane pay for being such a shrew. Eric returns to the bar with yet another story to tell, this time that he’s a poet. Of course, it turns out he’s dazzled her with lines of verse borrowed from Rossetti, which proves to be a double embarrassment for Diane: Not only did she fall for his act, but she failed to recognize a poem that even Coach knows by heart. Maybe I’m taking this all a bit too seriously, but I don’t know why the smart, assertive woman has to be taken down a notch, at least not in this instance. Correcting someone’s use of prepositions is one thing, but exposing a pathological liar? I’m with Diane on this one. (For the record, I was also put off by the secret-millionaire third-act twist.)
Unnecessary Diane-bashing aside, there was still plenty to like in “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One.” The episode has only one real storyline, told almost in real time, which in itself is a pretty remarkable feat of television writing. Then there’s the requisite but wonderful flirtation between Sam and Diane that punctuates the episode. But for me, the highlight of “The Shy Who Came In For A Cold One” has to be Cliff’s dubious claim that “if a pig had thumbs and a leg, he could be trained to do manual labor” and the ensuing discussion of animal intelligence. It’s the kind of absurd banter that Cheers does so well.
So, was I the only one who wasn’t crazy about this one? And am I overreacting to the Diane-shaming, or did it strike you as unnecessarily harsh, too? (P.S. What’s the deal with “Jack,” the guy lingering at the corner of the frame throughout “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One?” IMDB tells me he was in nine episodes of Cheers. Were the writers trying out a new character who just never gelled?)
RM: Here’s why it rubbed me in the slightly wrong way: The theme song for the show claims that this bar is a place where everyone knows your name. Not only that, but these people know each other in a way that’s fundamentally deeper than those outside of the bar. Norm will never in a million years be closer to Vera than he is to Cliff, even at this nascent stage of the game. So to spend an episode with someone who violates that trust is a bit unnerving. So “Eric Finch” put me on guard from the moment he arrived, since he was taking the inherent charity of those in the bar and using it against them. Imagine if we learned in the last episode that Buzz was actually just a flasher that dressed up in uniform to show women his “privates?” Good Lord.
As for “Jack,” I think at this point in the game it’s easy to look at Cliff as the character who will eventually break out from the secondary tier to the main level. But I think you’re right, Meredith: They tried him out like they tried out several people in at-the-bar roles, until they settled upon a core cast that offered them the biggest laughs and most narrative flexibility. I kind of wish they had continually added second- and third-tier members to the bar to give it more authenticity, but I understand why it was whittled down in the manner it was.
PN: For me, this one never gets off the ground, and I’m ready to pin most of the blame for that on Ellis Rabb, who plays the mystery man. Rabb was a distinguished, well-known figure in the New York theater, as both an actor and a director, but he had no movie or TV career to speak of, and from his work here, it’s easy to guess why: Like other acclaimed theatrical hams who couldn’t adapt their stage styles for the camera, he comes across as all actor, more intent on flaunting his practiced gestures and velvet diction than in using them as tools to create a character. So any chance that he’d come across as intriguing before he’s exposed as a serial liar, or that his fantasy role-playing would come to seem like a touching disorder in a sad but sweet man instead of the game-playing of an unfeeling, smug bastard, goes out the window as soon as opens his increasingly irritating mouth. I’m not sure this script would have played anyway, but this performance is a cannonball dropped through the bottom of a lifeboat. (There is a punchline: According to multiple sources, Kelsey Grammer, who had worked with Rabb in the theater, would later claim to have used him as the model for Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons’ affected, two-bit carny geek with Shakespearean aspirations.)
DB: You’re all right that this is a strange one. I’m a sucker for a theatrical man of mystery, and I enjoyed Rabb’s performance, but I think this is a refugee from a different sitcom. When “Finch” owns up to his pretense, he gets the sympathy of everyone in the bar instantly, but out in the audience, I’m still mad at him for his self-aggrandizement, which toys with the regulars and makes them look like gullible fools. It’s a practical joke that’s played for sobs instead of for laughs, but like almost all practical jokes, it makes me fume. What’s funny about being duped? Throw in the multiple reversals—“Oh, Finch isn’t a spy but he’s a great poet!” “Oh, Finch is neither, and his name isn’t Finch, but it was all some bizarre test, and he’s going to make Sam a millionaire!”—and nothing about this felt real, even by sitcom standards. It’s less like a Cheers episode and more like some late-season, what-the-hell dada experiment on Family Matters. Meredith is right: Diane shouldn’t apologize for showing this guy up. No matter who he really is, he’s a jerk.
NM: Is it left to me to defend “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One?” Maybe it’s because this is one of the first-season episodes that most left an impression on me the first time I watched it—right up there with “Coach’s Daughter”—but I felt just as fondly toward it this week as I did nearly 30 years ago. I get what you all are saying, but I find Sam’s insistence that people are allowed to shoot off their mouths in his bar to be entirely reasonable, and consistent with what will happen in future episodes. For example, there’s one coming up a few seasons from now where a patron challenges Cliff on his constant string of malarkey, which advances the idea that Cliff is allowed to be Cliff at Cheers, within reason. So long as Finch is being entertaining and not malicious, why not let him lie his head off? The only false note to me is that Carla and the others would get so upset when they found out he was lying.
Plus there’s a wonderful Sam-and-Diane moment at the end of this episode, as Sam looks her straight in the eye and says, “I think I’m falling in love with you.” Because it’s under the cover of a gag, he can say what’s probably on his mind for real. At least that’s the way Ted Danson plays it—all sincere.
Also, I like the way that Diane says “pretty small pommes de terre.” That alone bumps the episode up a couple of notches.
EA: My obvious disdain toward Rabb’s character for bringing a temporary stink to the name “Eric” (thank God he used the incorrect spelling) aside, I think everyone who didn’t enjoy this episode can agree he’s the weak link in this episode. It has a lot to do with trust, as Ryan so rightly put it, but it also has to do with the way Finch/The Deranged Millionaire draws so much attention away from the core cast. He’s the driving force of “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One,” sure, but whenever Rabb’s on screen, the action (and occasionally James Burrows’ camera) focuses so tightly on him. He’s not a stranger around whom the employees and patrons can rally—he’s a source of friction, a member of an invasive species who threatens to destroy the ecosystem of the series by offering to buy Sam out of Cheers. There’s been enough wool pulled over enough eyes that we know someone will step in and prevent this from happening—considering how much the episode dumps on her, I’m glad it’s Diane.
TV: I’m with Noel in feeling more charitable toward this one. Rabb’s hammy, no doubt, but he wasn’t a show-killer here for me, and I actually enjoyed the final twist, even if it seemed out of some lesser sitcom. It’s worth remembering that at this point in the show’s run, everybody involved was still experimenting with what would and wouldn’t work, and though the plot doesn’t seem as organic to the setting as some of the others, I still found myself enjoying the way the characters ribbed each other about falling for the old guy’s lies. There’s something fun about such a high-concept premise sneaking into such a low-concept show, and while I wouldn’t have wanted the show to follow this direction (and I’m glad it didn’t), as a one-off experiment, it’s pretty fun. Also, my enjoyment of the episode might just be my Sam/Diane shipper heart speaking, since I really do love that scene where he tells her he loves her. It’s fun and sprightly, and, since this is the season’s midpoint, it really does feel like a kind of breakthrough couched in a “lie.” He knows it’s true; she wants it to be true, but there it goes, cast off as a joke. Good writing and great performances.
- NM: Has anyone else noticed that at this point in the series, Cliff’s “fascinating facts” are mostly legit? And that people don’t seem to mind his know-it-all-ing? Even though I know it’s not so, I like to think that there’s a character arc of sorts there: that Cliff was a quiet Cheers patron who one day spoke up with some interesting piece of trivia which impressed everyone, and so he kept on spouting what he knew until he ran out of actual trivia and started desperately making stuff up.
- TV: Of course I’m the one to point this out: I love how this is the Christmas episode, but it’s never once called attention to. In some ways, this is a better way for TV shows (which can devolve into treacle at this time of year) to deal with the holiday. Put the decorations up in the background, have a few characters say, “Merry Christmas!” and otherwise go about your business.
- MB: I love that Diane’s literary buddy is in the middle of a meeting with John Updike when she calls. I kept wondering whether a mainstream sitcom would drop this sort of reference nowadays, but I tend to think not. 30 Rock might actually build a whole episode around something like this (I can imagine Jack Donaghy palling around with Salman Rushdie) but I’m not so sure that show qualifies as “mainstream” in the same way as Cheers.
Every week, we’ll go back and pick out some of our favorite comments from the week before from those of you who picked up on stuff we missed, offered interesting counterpoints, or just said something that made us laugh.
Following much debate about whether Sam’s curving mug trick was real or fake, ccradio stepped up with a link to this de-mystifying blog entry from Ken Levine. The key quote: “Physics—a comedy writer’s best friend.”
The Sea Captain offered additional thoughts on the theatrical quality of scenes like the one that concludes “Endless Slumper”: “These intimate scenes, like the one between Sam and Diane in 'Endless Slumper,' or the one between Carla and Diane in a previous episode, abruptly yank you out of a sitcom and drop you into a play. I ascribe a lot of that sensation to how the show capitalizes on the changed dynamic and mood of the bar, a normally public and noisy place, after it closes. The background is so dark, the atmosphere muted, and as Todd observed, the audience becomes so hushed that it’s downright palpable. We’re so few episodes into the first season and already the writers have established such unique vibes surrounding the limited settings they’re dealing with, whether the bar proper (open or closed), the back room, or Sam’s office. Even the door feels like a portal. There’s a feeling of potential every time the camera goes to it, with the tease of the window showing the stairs leading down.”
For the sports fans, Camaxtli gave insight into the urgency with which the Cheers crew followed the Boston Red Sox: “One reason the games were more life-and-death in the 80s […] was that there wasn’t any cable, there wasn’t ESPN, there wasn’t re-playing the highlights. So if you lived in the area I did, you watched channel 6 or listened to WEEI and that was it. No DVR, you know? That is something I have noticed has change over the years. I live in NYC now, and the fact that the Yanks have their own TV station on basic cable means you don’t have to figure out where to listen to the game anymore.”
Elsewhere, Small Wonder put aside the robot talk to elaborate on the extended baseball metaphor of “Coach Returns To Action”: “‘Coach Returns to Action’ is one big baseball metaphor. As a player, I think Coach was probably some two-bit bench infielder, never getting a lot of playing time, but when he did, he’d get hit by pitches and scrape along. As a coach, he’s perfect: knows the game, loves his players, would do anything to help them. So when Sam slides in on Nina, he peters back because, well, that’s the way it’s always been. That Coach reaches into his old baseball ball of tricks to refocus Nina’s attention is just a beautiful capper. Whomever said that the baseball stuff is much deeper in this series than it leads on, well, that’s absolutely true.”
Finally, because there is always room for dissenting opinions in a bar setting, mthompson25 kicked off a debate about the pros and cons of “dated” TV: “In fact, I would suggest that being dated is, in a way, a good thing. What’s bad is a show so generic and bland that you don’t get a sense of the characters as particular people in a particular time and place. Good shows and good characters often end up being ‘timeless’ by being very much ‘of their time’.
Next week: The bar is closed for the holidays, but we’ll return to ring in the new year on Jan. 5, 2012, as Sam receives a brush with fame, Diane mourns her cat, and Cliff throws his support for the upcoming presidential election behind one Yelnick McWawa.