“Coach Returns To Action”
In which Coach has a crush on his new, younger neighbor.
Noel Murray: Cheers had far more years with Woody behind the bar than it did with Coach, and even in seasons two and three, Coach spends a lot more time puttering around amusingly in the background than he does driving the A-story. So it’s a bit surprising—to me at least—that only nine episodes into the first season, we’re already getting our second Coach episode. (And one of my favorite Coach episodes, “Pick A Con… Any Con,” still lurks in the wings.) But hey, I’m not complaining. Last week I wrote about the lovely little detail in “Truce Or Consequences” that Coach knows the names and ages of Carla’s kids, and this week we see how far out of his way he goes to help his new neighbor, Nina (played by Murphy Cross). Coach can be a tricky character. He’s exaggeratedly dim, sometimes beyond the point of believability, as when he worries that he has malaria when he’s actually just been walking through freezing weather with no coat. But Coach is such a decent guy—and Nicholas Colasanto’s performance is so wonderfully low-key—that he’s a delight to be around.
Of course in “Coach Returns To Action,” it helps that credited writer Earl Pomerantz contrasts Coach with Sam, who comes off as sleazy in his womanizing nature as he did in “Any Friend Of Diane’s.” Granted, when Sam begins hitting on Nina, he has no idea that Coach has been thinking of asking her out. Still, it’s clear that Nina’s not interested, and his continuing to fire passes at her—largely so he won’t disappoint Cliff and Norm—doesn’t reflect so well on him. (This isn’t meant as a critique of Pomerantz or the episode, by the way. I like that Cheers is willing to make Sam kind of a creep at times.)
There was one moment in “Coach Returns To Action” that kind of threw me out of the episode: when Sam times a sliding mug of beer to arrive right when Norm does, and the studio audience applauds. Very un-Cheers-like, that kind of obtrusive interjection from the crowd; and it seems to rattle the actors for a split-second. That said, this was the first week that Cliff really gets to be Cliff, from the way he offers an explanation for how you can drink ice-cold beer on a freezing day (it safely matches your body temperature, he claims) to the way he admits that he can’t fix Cheers’ bathroom plumbing because he’s “strictly theory.” I don’t know about you guys, but having Cliff so fully involved in the action made this episode feel like a proper Cheers. It’s like we’ve been living in a nice house for a month and we’ve just now discovered that there’s a whole room we didn’t know about.
But ultimately this is Coach’s showcase, and even more than “Coach’s Daughter” four episodes back, “Coach Returns To Action” affirms who this character is and why he’s so easy to like. It’s in the way he can tell Diane his last effective pick-up line—“How would like a pair of nylons, fraulein?”—and not realize how funny that is. And it’s in the way he’s willing to hurl himself down a flight of steps to spend an evening with this girl he likes. If Sam said he really wanted to smell Nina’s neck, Diane would think he was gross. Coach says it, and he’s adorable.
He is adorable, right? What do you all think about how Coach can get away with open desire in a way that Sam couldn’t?
Ryan McGee: So much of the contrast develops from intent. Sam can talk all he wants about romantic trips up to Maine, but we know at this point it’s all a ruse to get [Insert Female’s Name Here] into bed. It’s unclear how much Coach even thinks about that step during his pursuit of Nina, almost as if he has an Ozzie-and-Harriet conception of coupledom. (Then again, his last moment on the outside steps suggests that the fall down the stairs may have awoken his libido as well.)
What struck me most about the Coach storyline was the way Cheers built upon the Carla/Diane foundation recently established in “Truce Or Consequences.” Sure, Carla has added Diane’s number to the graffiti in the men’s bathroom. But she backs up Diane’ instantly in helping Coach achieve the courage needed to ask Nina out. Atop that camaraderie, there’s no hint that either woman is lying when they state Ernie’s appeal. Both women love Coach unconditionally, and just as there’s no hint of malice in Coach’s bones, there’s no hint of condescension in the way these two women steel him up. They need Coach to be their moral rock in the way Norm and Cliff need to live vicariously through Sam’s sexual conquests. The way that one person’s actions/emotions feeds into the overall DNA of the room is striking, and striking to be coalescing this well this soon.
Donna Bowman: Well, some of what makes Coach’s desire adorable rather than creepy isn’t due to the character. It’s because old people are presumed to be asexual, so their romances are innocent, like puppy love. I’m not endorsing this view; it’s part of our cultural atmosphere. But the writers and actors play right into it, with their encouragement of Coach’s suit and disparagement of Sam’s. So I have to admit that I was a little unnerved by the whole affair. When Diane tells Coach to “go get her,” she means it in a non-sexual way, but what with the predatory air to Sam’s attempt to “get her,” I find it hard to take it that way.
And I think that’s why my favorite part of this episode was Nina’s spunky refusal to be anyone’s prize. How many times over the course of this series are we going to see someone sit on the near end of the bar reading or whatever, having the other characters talk him or her over, as if he or she were a side of beef at the butcher’s? Those discussions often center on hunting strategy and end with the pursuer marching across the room with some can’t-miss methodology in tow. I know that the show, like all sitcoms, will occasionally subvert this paradigm, and Nina is a case in point. But often the quarry is not allowed to have a say; she submits to the recurring character to give us all a moment of victory. In my cut of this episode, Coach doesn’t fall down the stairs and get the girl; he offers to help her unpack and comes back with her to the bar before a dinner date at Melville’s a few episodes later.
Phil Nugent: What I like best about this episode is that I feel as if the bar has come into its own as a character, with its own personality and atmosphere, and that the actors who make up the repertory company here have fully settled into their roles like clockwork. It feels as if everybody knows what their function should be in a given sort of story, and as if the characters who don’t have any particular, natural role to play in the story at hand know how to vamp when the spotlight is on them and somebody else is setting up something that will pay off later. Some of my favorite things in the episode are little throwaway lines that maybe aren’t especially funny but that are reassuring because they feel so right coming from the person delivering them, such as when Coach explains that Lux “used to be the soap of the stars.” And it’s also part of why the aspects of the main story about Coach torching for a much younger woman and having his confidence torpedoed just by Sam’s having a passing interest in her don’t bother me that much. The main story is just one more thing that’s happening, which may not feel any more important, or as important, as half a dozen others things that flirt with your attention in the course of 20-something minutes.
Meredith Blake: There’s so much to like in this episode that it’s difficult to isolate a single moment. But what really struck me about “Coach Returns To Action” is the how the show has been able to open up the space of the bar without actually leaving its confines. We’ve talked a little about people we never see on Cheers—namely, Vera—but I’m just as fascinated by the spaces that are kept off-limits. This week we catch our first glimpse of the (surprisingly seedy) men’s bathroom, and it’s weirdly thrilling; on a show like Cheers, where you’re looking at the same simple set 75 percent of the time, the off-screen space is almost as enticing as what’s onscreen (as a kid I always longed to see back hallway between the kitchen and the living room on Family Ties). Despite its limited scope, Cheers doesn’t feel visually static or claustrophobic. As Todd has pointed out, a lot of that has to do with the extras, who always appear to be enjoying themselves in a bar (except in “Friends, Romans, Accountants,” where they just looked like zombies). This time around they line up to use the bathroom at Melville’s—another intriguing off-screen space we have yet to see. At some point, though, the audience is going to need something new to look at, and I’m wondering just how long Cheers will go before we finally leave the bar. I like to imagine the decision was an aesthetic one, though I’m guessing it had more to do with the vagaries of the show’s budget.
Keith Phipps: There was so much good business in this episode beyond the delightful A-plot that, as Noel suggests, it felt like the show was opening itself up to new possibilities: Carla’s hapless plumbing attempt, the rotating coat and tie needed to dine at Melville’s, the tour guide, the pretentious schoolgirl, and Cliff, whose ascendance is especially welcome (and whose accent gives the show local character beyond the Boston Red Sox paraphernalia.) But “Coach Returns To Action” is smart to keep its focus on the main story, which tells a lot about who Coach is, how he fits into the bar, and casts his relationship with Sam in a new light (one that doesn’t make Sam look so great). I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t the first time Coach has gotten out of the way of an on-the-prowl Sam and that however deep his affection for Coach goes, Sam doesn’t like this upsetting of the natural order. I’m not sure there’s a rich mythology to be teased out of Cheers but I love both the little glimpses of past history and the way the show turns Cheers into a rich, bustling place where things happen. Who needs another set when there’s so much going on at the bar?
Erik Adams: Yet for all the new possibilities opened up by “Coach Returns To The Action,” the episode also sneaks in some stealthy exposition for viewers just sampling Cheers for the first time. Coach’s line “Now that’s Norm—that’s not Norm’s jacket” could be for the benefit of Nina as well as these newcomers—however, it kind of took me out of the moment. (That might be because Colasanto’s reading of his introductory notes is weirdly reminiscent of Gordon showing Sally around on the first episode of Sesame Street.) Nonetheless, I’d recommend the episode as a entry point for the series, or a decent half-hour to sample if you never knew Woody had a predecessor behind the bar. Colasanto’s a goddamn teddy bear in this episode, and it’s no wonder Diane and Carla come so quickly to Coach’s aid. And while the character’s dimwittedness can be far-fetched at times, it’s easier to swallow if you consider how many times he’s fallen down the stairs in the search for female companionship.
Todd VanDerWerff: I absolutely loved Murphy Cross as Nina here. She was fun and a little bit prickly and feisty, and I’m sad she never had a bigger career. (A quick scan on IMDB reveals she was a consummate sitcom guest star, who was one of the leads in a short-lived show called Phyl And Mikhy. She also apparently had her own quirky sense of song, all of which makes her sort of a proto-Kate Micucci, I guess.) And I agree with Donna that she’s got agency of her own here, something going on in her head other than just how she can be used as a part of the plot. She’s apparently still working every so often, so here’s hoping someone casts her as the mom or something and gives her the career she deserved in 1982. (As I’m looking, I see that she was in some Taxi episodes as well.)
I’m also trying to think of sitcoms that left the set as little as Cheers did, since we’re all talking about it now. Barney Miller springs readily to mind, of course. There were whole seasons of that show that didn’t once leave the squad room. And Taxi, which the Charles brothers worked on, made a point to emphasize the garage more often than not. But it really does seem like this is an effective way to get viewers to bond with a workplace sitcom that’s just gone away. Granted, unless your central setting is a place people will keep coming, like a bar or a police station, there’s not really a graceful way to generate conflict. (I hate to imagine how The Office would keep bringing people to Dunder Mifflin if it suddenly did a season without leaving the titular space.) But there’s something so pure about never leaving the bar that I wish more shows would experiment with it.
- RM: In this day and age, every single piece of graffiti would be itemized on a show wiki before it aired on the West Coast. My personal favorite? “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar,” which means there’s a Kurt Weill fan somewhere in the bar. (That, or he just likes The Doors. But I wouldn’t put it past this show to have it reference the original, especially give Coach’s “fraulein” reference.)
- EA: Ryan, how did you know that’s exactly what I was doing when the scene changed to the bathroom? Here’s a couple other examples that caught my eye: “God save The Kinks” (Does this mean The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is on the jukebox?) and “Get into sports, dummy!” Ten bucks says the latter is another example of Carla’s handiwork. (Speaking of which: Is she fixing the pipes back there, or changing an oil filter? Like Cliff, I work only in theoreticals, but is there really that much black gunk involved in plumbing repair?)
- MB: I’m betting the graffiti also includes a few inside jokes for the cast/crew.
- MB: Nina might be a cold-hearted ageist, but man, I love her outfit. They just don’t make jeans like those anymore.
- MB: It’s always funny when Diane runs in to someone more highbrow than she is. This time around, that person is a precocious Catholic schoolgirl staging a perfomance of 12 Angry Men (Romeo And Juliet isn’t “meaty” enough for her).
- TV: This episode aired on Thanksgiving night, 1982! I can vaguely remember NBC airing new episodes of its sitcoms in the mid-’90s on Thanksgiving night, but this is a practice that’s mostly gone away nowadays. Perhaps NBC was hoping people pinned to their chairs in food comas would tune in, hence the added exposition.
In which a bottlecap means more to Sam than he lets on.
NM: As a sports fan who’s spent more nights than I’d care to admit modifying my behavior to try to affect the outcome of a game—changing my shirt or my seat on the couch, and once sitting cross-legged on the floor chanting “power” over and over while jingling my car-keys in my right hand—I can respect the totemic power of Sam’s lucky bottlecap in “Endless Slumper.” And when Sam loans that bottlecap to struggling Red Sox reliever Rick Walker (played by a ridiculously young Christopher McDonald), I can totally buy that he’d suddenly become accident-prone, and lose his ability to curve a mug of beer around the corner of the bar. It’s funny though; “Endless Slumper” is one of the early Cheers episodes I remember most vividly, probably because of the triumphant moment at the end when Sam overcomes his anxiety and successfully curves a mug rather than drinking from it. And yet that moment—which makes the studio audience burst into applause—now seems so un-Cheers-like.
But that’s okay, because it’s still as cool a scene as it was when I was 12. And there’s plenty about this episode that is Cheers-like. Coming right on the heels of a big Coach showcase, it was great to see a couple more classic Coach moments: Coach singing his own “hold music” into the phone, and Coach sincerely telling Norm that joining a health club will add years to his life, even though Norm only joined for the snack bar. “Endless Slumper” also introduces what will be a recurring bit of shtick: Diane’s facial tic, which she claims to have beaten through meditation, though somehow it keeps popping up (and will for the remainder of the character’s time on the show).
The tic is a fine bit of physical comedy from Shelley Long, and Ted Danson too gets to show off his (in my opinion underrated) skills as a physical comedian in this episode, when he carries a coffee pot by its glass bowl and then plunges his scalded hands into ice. The Cheers writers and cast excel at farce, and “Endless Slumper” has an almost Three’s Company-level farcical setpiece when Diane starts talking about meditation and Rick thinks she’s talking about sex. (“Sam, Rick here is after something and I can show him where it is!”)
But what’s ultimately most significant about this episode is the way it continues to clear a logical path to a Sam and Diane relationship. Just before Sam learns that Rick has lost his bottlecap, he explains to Diane that this was the cap from his last bottle of booze, which he’s clung to through some rough nights of near-relapse. And when Diane realizes that Sam may be about to fall off the wagon, she offers to stay with him, to help him make it through. His honesty and her compassion… that’s a pretty strong foundation for the future.
I do have to ask, though: Did anyone else notice some unusually ragged edges to this episode? Awkward ADR, mismatched edits and the like? It was almost as if the first cut ran way too long and the Cheers team had a hard time fitting everything into their 25-minute slot.
PN: That moment at the end when Sam slides the beer away from him is one of my all-time favorite Cheers moments, capping one of my all-time favorite Cheers scenes. The slide—and the little celebration Sam throws for himself, where he steps back from the abyss and regains his self-assurance in a quick physical adjustment that looks like his body taking a reality check—would come in handy if you ever needed to pick 15 seconds out of Danson’s whole career to establish what a superb actor he is. But the real reason I love it so much, and the reason that I think of it as very Cheers-y—at least, very early, Sam-and-Diane Cheers-y—is how romantic it is. In a way, the whole episode is building up to that moment at the end of the day when everybody else has gone and Diane can’t leave, because she thinks that Sam might be in trouble. Danson and Long have had a lot of little moments by now where we could see them silently observing each other in a way that told you they were taking note of what they found amusing and admirable and irritating about each other, but this is the deepest the show has gone up to now in having one of them risk showing how much they care about each other. The recurrence of Diane’s tic is the punchline, but for me, the capper is Sam apologizing to Diane for having made her worry when he said “I’m going to make myself feel good” and poured himself a cold one. He sounds a little surprised, as if he either really didn’t know that she cared that much, or else he didn’t care enough about himself to guess than anyone else could.
DB: To me, the notable feature of “Endless Slumper” is the vulnerability it establishes for Sam. We know he’s a recovering alcoholic, but he’s been cool about it so far, downplaying the road that got him to this point. But that scene with Diane after hours, when he rails about how hard it was and points out that it won’t be any better tomorrow because he’ll still have to come back to work in a bar, is a brand new side of the character, and one that doesn’t come in a “very special episode” but simply—and effectively—as an unexpected pause of anxiety in the regular course of business.
I was wowed by the big double-entendre scene with Ray, too, because it doesn’t reverse-engineer all the laugh lines, but lets some of Diane’s dialogue stand as partial non sequiturs. (Asked whether they should take the activity outside, Diane demurs: “I like to take my shoes off when I do it.”) That same scene is a great example of another thing I’ve come to love about Cheers—the cuts to other characters laughing at the jokes. The show doesn’t pretend that the characters aren’t performing for each other or enjoying each other’s company; the bar’s a stage and all the denizens strut their appointed hour upon it… and make their best attempts to upstage each other, and engage in fleet improv, and sit back and enjoy the show. Those cuts to Sam laughing at Diane, or to Norm chuckling into his beer, remind me of the pleasure I get when How I Met Your Mother cuts to Barney’s almost-out-of-character grin at something Ted says in his douchey earnestness. It’s something that rarely happens in family sitcoms or workplace comedies where the characters are too busy having their premise-mandated personal dramas to pay attention to each other. It brings the characters into our role as audience. It makes them our kin.
RM: What’s great about the episode’s take on Sam’s sobriety is how non-showy it is. A few years after the debut of “Endless Slumper”, networks would air a “very special episode” on a nearly weekly basis, and already shows like Diff’rent Strokes were delving into some pretty heavy-handed treatment with darker material. Here, Sam’s addiction gradually rises to the surface, almost inverse to the way the foam rises in the glasses of beer he pours for Cliff. This episode (and the series as a whole) never shy away from Sam’s relationship to booze, but it’s just one facet of the show at any given time. It’s given temporary prominence tonight, but it’s just part of the show shining a spotlight on different characters throughout its early run.
Two things really date this episode for me. Firstly, $6/hour earns Carla a punch in the face from a prospective tutor for her kids? I wouldn’t punch any of you for anything less than $10, friends. Secondly, the way Carla hangs on every pitch is a very pre-2004 way to be a Red Sox fan. Two World Series titles have a way of making the team’s games seem less life-and-death than they used to be. Still, seeing Carla time her run to Coach’s car so she doesn’t miss a single pitch evokes romantic notions of a time when the team’s troubles bonded us as region. For everything about Cheers that is timeless, it’s still of a time all the same.
EA: Noel knocks it out of the park (Too facile? What about “Puts the grounder between Bill Buckner’s legs?” “Serves up a beachball to Bucky Dent?”) by calling that last moment with Sam “triumphant.” “Endless Slumper” is all about sustaining a winning streak, but the biggest victory here isn’t notched by that wiry, bright-eyed farmboy claiming to be the future Tappy Tibbons, but rather Sam. Sam Simon’s script shows its smarts in its double entendres and the levelheaded way it treats Sam’s alcoholism, but it also very smartly draws a parallel between Rick making it to the 21st inning and Sam resisting the temptation to belt that beer—and the fact that neither needed the bottlecap to achieve this. (I think my enthusiasm for the episode’s writing made me completely miss any of the gaffs Noel mentioned above.) I recall, in my baseball-obsessed youth, always being disappointed that Cheers was a TV show covered in Red Sox logos that never seemed to be about baseball. Now I can see that when the show deals with Sam and Coach’s old profession, it does so on a much more metaphorical level. Kids always seem to miss out on that stuff.
MB: Ryan, you’re absolutely right about the “non-showy” aspect of Sam’s sobriety. There were a few minutes there I was worried we would, in fact, have a “very special episode” on our hands, particularly when Sam explained to Diane the origins of the bottle cap. They sit face-to-face, framed in tight close-ups, against the black void of the empty bar—all the visual cues indicated a “serious conversation” was underway (just ask Charlie Rose). But the beer-curving gag was a brilliant way to keep the episode from being too mawkish or heavy-handed, while also signaling Sam’s triumph over his addiction. And, oh yeah, it was funny. Noel, I see why you think the beer-curve is very un-Cheers-like, and I agree, it is pretty cartoonish. But in another way, it’s also very characteristic of the show so far, a moment that’s extremely funny and deeply heartfelt all at once. What I was most impressed with in “Endless Slumper” is how it skirted so many sitcom cliches without ever crossing the line. In particular, I’m thinking of the sex/meditation double-entendre bit, which worked because it was over and done with in about 2.5 minutes; that’s the kind of wacky mix-up that would fuel an entire episode of Modern Family these days. To borrow a slogan from the ’80s, Cheers really knows when to say when.
TV: I’m kind of blown away by this episode. In fact, it might be my favorite we’ve looked at so far. One of the reasons that I keep harping on the idea of the multi-camera sitcom making a comeback is that I think there’s a very particular kind of moment the multi-camera sitcom can capture that no other form of sitcom can, and it’s present in spades here: silence. Specifically, the silence of a studio audience, waiting to hear what’s going to happen next, not laughing or coughing or anything, so they won’t step on the lines. That long, essentially dramatic scene between Sam and Diane that we’ve all singled out is one that works primarily because the episode’s “soundtrack,” essentially, drops out entirely, leaving us wondering when it might come back. The applause for the trick with the mug becomes the musical fanfare that would accompany the moment in a single-camera sitcom, but it doesn’t feel as forced. It feels like a human reaction because it is one. The multi-camera format, for all of its limitations, really increases intimacy in moments like this. It makes us feel like we’re there, because, as an offshoot of the just off-camera audience, we are there. Single-camera sitcoms just can’t do this kind of moment because there’s not really a way to do it. You’ve always gotta ladle on the music or something similar to try to achieve the same sort of emotion. Pity today’s multi-cameras don’t reach for something as meaningful and ambitious as this.
EA: The lack of a soundtrack was also something I noted in the Sam-Diane scene—though I’ve been paying particular attention to the backgrounds of scenes during this project because I love, love, love the smooth-rockin’ instrumentals that play under the establishing shots and opening credits at the beginning of every episode. Dear Internet: Is there anywhere I can find Craig Safan’s Cheers scores out there? Especially the staccato, lightly funky number that opens “Endless Slumper?”
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.
zeppomarxist touched off a discussion of how Cheers and Community used their My Dinner With Andre references differently (and how pop culture references other pop culture in general), noting “Diane never finishes the title of the film, which means the joke depends entirely on the audience being able to mentally complete it for themselves. The movie was only a year or so old, so that makes some amount of sense.
The Community episode, on the other hand, depends on the audience not recognizing what Abed’s doing until he reveals that it’s a reference to an obscure 30-year-old film that most people haven’t heard of.”
There was much discussion as to what TV series touched off the “unseen character” trope, and drdrake traced the convention all the way back to pre-television days: “Actually, the oft-referenced but never-seen character goes way back - Gracie Allen was always telling utterly insane stories about her family, usually to a very bemused George Burns, starting back in radio. In the Fifties DECEMBER BRIDE sitcom, the recently-deceased [sic] and much-loved Harry Morgan played the dyspeptic next door neighbor Pete, who was always complaining about his never-seen wife Gladys and her also never-seen mother.”
Next week: Diane keeps tabs on the customers—who may have a spy in their midst in the second episode.