“Friends, Romans, and Accountants” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 11/11/1982)
In which Norm throws an ill-fated work party.
Ryan McGee: We’ve already seen some episodes that flesh out denizens of the bar that aren’t Sam or Diane. In this episode, Norm gets the spotlight. Normally content to be a quiet member of his accounting firm, he volunteers to plan his company’s party in the hopes of butt-kissing his way to a promotion. But his plan backfires in spectacularly awkward ways: he’s the only one to arrive in costume to a toga party, he hires a horrific band as entertainment, and essentially asks Diane to be his boss’ concubine for the night. All of this in a bar replaced by its normal patrons and replaced with a hundred eerily silent accountants.
All of this leads to an interesting question: To what extent is a situation comedy required to make its audience actually laugh? That seems like a silly question, but “Coach’s Daughter” has already shown Cheers’ push into pure pathos. Here, things aren’t as cut and dry. We get some moments at the end where Norm goes from pushover into a man who defends Diana once his boss Sawyer gets too physical with her in the pool room. But there’s an almost funereal atmosphere at work from the moment the party starts, and it suffuses everything that follows.
At one point, Diane tries to get the party started by playing Charades. Her first round consists of her trying to make the silent masses guess My Dinner With Andre. Since we’re conducting this Cheers review at The A.V. Club, we’d be remiss not to think of another show that referenced this film: Community. Now, comparing Diane’s invocation of Andre with Abed’s doesn’t yield a great deal of similarity. But I am struck by how much both programs eschew easy laughs in favor of more dramatic material. My memories of Norm are uniformly filled with him as a joyous character, but there’s a sadness to him in this episode that
- is hard to miss, and
- slightly reorients my understanding of his character from my perspective growing up.
Still, that melancholy gets pushed aside when Norm gets confronted by the image of his boss groping Diane in the back room. To date, the pool room has represented sanctuary, but here it’s something slightly more sinister. (Just look at the way everyone clears out once Sawyer takes Diane back with him. It’s really creepy, and intentionally so.) One could say that Norm did the only possible thing in wrestling Sawyer off of her, but his actions also show just how much Diane is now part of the bar’s familial structure at this point. Diane is someone he didn’t know mere weeks before. But now he’s willing to lose his job in defending her rather than continue in his meek, pathetic manner. It’s a moment certainly worth celebrating in the way his now ex-co-workers do in the episode’s final moments.
What about you guys? Am I overanalyzing the somber nature of this episode? Did Norm need this episode in order to transform into the character he would later become, or is this quality persistent throughout the show’s run?
Noel Murray: I don’t know about “somber” Ryan, but I did find the tone of this episode a little off for the Cheers I know and love. The attempted date-rape of Diane and Norm sacrificing his job for his friend were both a little too Saved By The Bell-y for my taste—or at least they were in the way they were staged, with everything happening in about a minute of screen time. There were other odd things about this episode, too: the little freeze-frame as Norm shouts “Hallelujah!,” the way the bar looks when it’s full of Norm’s silent co-workers, and the fake-y music on the soundtrack when the terrible band Norm hired tries to get a Limbo going. That last bit of weirdness can be attributed to the vicissitudes of music rights; and the first bit was an acceptable stylistic touch of the times, to transition to a commercial or to the credits. As for the strange feel of a crowded Cheers, I’ll chalk that up to the gap between writing “the bar is packed with silent people” in a script versus how such a thing plays on the set. But the Diane-mauling? And Norm saving her? And Norm becoming a hero for manhandling the boss? All too funky for me.
That said, credited screenwriters Ken Levine and David Isaacs get off some good gags in their second official Cheers script. I liked Coach’s response when he hears that one of Norm’s colleagues is naming off area codes. (“If this guy knows Laramie, Wyoming, I’ll croak.”) And I do think the depiction of Norm as a simpering sycophant at work is consistent with what we’ve seen before and what we’ll see later in the series. I always liked those layers of Norm: the deadpan, aloof jokester when he’s holding down his favorite barstool, but a more desperate man when he’s out in the real world (and, as we’ll learn eventually, a sentimental one when it comes to the wife that he mocks in front of his friends).
I also always find TV’s evolving attitudes toward sexual assault fascinating. In this case, I doubt that a sitcom today could have a scene like the one between Diane, Norm, and Norm’s boss in the poolroom, because who would believe that Norm could be fired for what happened there?
Phil Nugent: It’s a very strange episode, one that feels tone-deaf in a lot of ways. I don’t want to say that the sight of Norm basically pimping Diane out to his asshole boss with the bad Kennedy hair is up there with that Friedman brothers comic strip where Andy Taylor, Barney Fife, and the rest of the gang from The Andy Griffith Show string up a black man who had the misfortune to stop at Goober’s gas station, but it’s definitely a case of a comic situation that the writers didn’t think through. (Which may be why, when they realized what they’d gotten into, they ran every red light trying to get out of it.) And bad parties were already a sitcom staple, but usually some elaborate reason for the party not taking off was provided, and here, the idea just seems to be that a party full of accountants is a dull affair by definition. (But if that’s the case, how would any of these boring-ass people even know they're at a bad party?)
Also, what’s the deal with Diane having to explain the concept of a toga party to Norm and his enraptured bar mates? Animal House came out four years earlier, and Diane is the only person in that bar who might plausibly not have seen it. Also also, whoever had the bright idea of dressing George Wendt in a bed sheet without having him shave his back and shoulder was seriously failing to anticipate the development of big-screen, high-definition TV.
Keith Phipps: Am I the only one who thought the unwanted groping wasn’t on its way to turning into a full-on sexual assault? Not that I’m pro-unwanted groping, mind you, but to me that made the episode a little less heavy than it did for everyone else. Noel, though I think I liked this episode better than you and the others, I agree that the end does feel a little rushed and unnatural. And I’ll add that it traffics in easier jokes than Cheers usually relies on. Long before Community, My Dinner With Andre served as a stock pretentious film reference. (Usually by people who hadn’t seen the movie, which is as approachable and funny as a film about two guys eating dinner can be.) And the “accountants are boring” jokes were probably a little tired even when this first aired. But I like Norm becoming a hero. I’m not sure his character grows tremendously over the course of Cheers, nor would I really want him to. But here he rescues a small moment of triumph from the jaws of defeat and I’m a sucker for that.
Donna Bowman: I’m starting to look forward to these episodes as much for the cold opens as for episodes proper. In this one, the cymbal player for the local symphony wanders down to Cheers during a performance, counting the beats of his instrument’s lengthy rest as he orders his beer. Actually, he doesn’t so much order it as Sam sees him and tells him his usual will be right up—yet another instance of the lived-in, “everybody knows your name” character of this place, and of the way bartenders earn their place in American culture by being considerate enough to remember your order and get it for you when it would screw up your timekeeping to have to say it. Then Diane loudly counts out the cymbalist’s change, irreparably damaging his internal count and sending him back to the orchestral stage with barely a sip of his beer, no longer able to relax in the knowledge that his cue was safely two pages away. A perfect little playlet that speaks to the comedy’s situation but also to all the miniature dramas that can happen there in and around the episodic storylines.
Erik Adams: Maybe this episode feels a bit off because of what it does to the bar: Suddenly, it’s the place where no one has a name, just a blank expression and an accessory to symbolize that they’re a bland accountant. The sanctity of the pool room is violated, Norm’s wearing a bed sheet—we’ve wandered into a strange, parallel universe version of Cheers, one which must be defended against menacing interlopers like Norm’s boss. (Or maybe it’s Norm’s personal variation on the “going to school in only your underwear” nightmare.) In hindsight, we know “Friends, Romans, And Accountants” is an anomaly because of how it disrupts the ecosystem of the bar, but I imagine Levine and Isaacs saw it as something of an experiment, a way to test out how the show’s characters would react to the change in their natural environment. Those characters are strong enough that they’re able to carry on in ordinary fashion—Sam and Diane get in some entertaining digs at one another, Carla pops in and out to lob jokes, and Coach is his typically flustered self—but the episode is worse for it. At least we get several new shades to Norm, and a better understanding of what he hides behind his wisecracks and swiftly emptied mugs. If my boss was as pigheaded as Mr. Sawyer, I’d make a daily retreat to a below-ground watering hole, too.
Meredith Blake: I’m with most of my colleagues/barmates on “Friends, Romans, And Accountants,” which I thought was a bizarre misfire—easily my least favorite of the episodes we’ve watched so far. One of the nice things about Cheers—especially compared to today’s frenetic, aside-filled, hyper self-conscious sitcoms—is its decidedly laid-back tone. It’s easy, comfortable, and never really tries too hard for laughs. But somehow this episode took this tendency to an unfortunate extreme. Despite its operatic plot twists, “Friends, Romans, And Accountants” felt lifeless and inert. For whatever reason, it just never really got off the ground. The lack of energy probably has a lot to do with the gaggle of eerily silent accountants have temporarily taken over the bar—a sight gag which, as Noel pointed out, probably worked better on the page than it does on the small screen. But we can’t blame them for everything. There’s a somewhat inexplicable “off-ness” to the whole episode, which culminates in a weirdly disorienting parting shot of the Boston skyline; I almost expected another scene to follow, but then those familiar yellow credits appear and I just found myself scratching my head. Chalk it up to early-series growing pains, I guess.
Todd VanDerWerff: I’m with you folks in finding this episode very, very odd. Part of that, weirdly, stems from the direction, which is impeccable as always but makes one problematic decision here that leads to a cascade of them. James Burrows is always so good about filling the frames with activity, about situating the characters in the midst of a situation that definitely seems to be taking place at a real bar somewhere, with people having conversations on the phone or laughing at jokes in the background. There’s always something going on in the frame, something that keeps the show feeling lively. It’s a marked contrast to most other multi-camera sitcoms, where the background players are rarely doing much of anything, to avoid drawing focus. (Think, or perhaps don’t, of how 2 Broke Girls’ diner seems filled with people who just sit there waiting to be yelled at.) Multi-camera sitcoms have always been a medium of the close-up and the two-shot, but Burrows’ direction here strives to break out of those confines, and even when he can’t, he’s filling the edges of the frame with interesting tidbits. But during the accountant party, the backgrounds of the frames are filled with people standing stock still. It’s an interesting choice to show how dead the party is, but it’s one that makes the party seem too dead, and it takes the episode with it. Suddenly, the characters are in the middle of a wax museum, and it seems as if they’ll be unable to escape. It drags the energy right down, making me realize just how much Cheers always relied on those background players to help keep the energy up when the main storyline was chugging along at a less manic pace.
- EA: Did anyone else notice that George Wendt appears to mouth “What the fuck?” as he’s lifted into the air by the extras?
- EA: If there’s another parallel to a contemporary sitcom we can draw to “Friends, Romans, And Accountants,” it’s that the employees of Sawyer And Associates come from the same line of dimwitted, personality-less corporate drones as the Bluth Company employees on Arrested Development. Compare and contrast the way Sawyer’s staff mindlessly shuffles out of the pool room with the herd-like actions of the Bluth stooges who end up stranded on Catalina Island in AD’s “Staff Infection.”
- TV: I realize that we’ve already heard Norm refer to Vera and not seen her, but the mention of Vera in this episode made me wonder: Back in the early ’80s, how long did it take viewers to cotton to the idea that they were never going to see this woman? Certainly there had been unseen characters before, like Carlton the doorman on Rhoda, but Cheers was the show that really made it break through as a sitcom trope in a big way.
“Truce and Consequences” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 11/18/1982)
In which Diane and Carla attempt to find common ground and instead leap into an open grave.
RM: Now that’s more like it. Whereas “Friends, Romans, and Accountants” seemed to temporarily strip Cheers of its strengths, the second episode in a row written by Ken Levin and David Isaacs is a stronger, more tonally consistent episode. It takes a stock sit-com trope (two opposites colliding) and bypasses most of the stereotypical ways such scenarios often play out. Sure, “Truce and Consequences” hits familiar signposts along the way, but speeds past them at a refreshing speed on the way to an expected destination.
After weeks of Diane and Carla butting heads on an almost nightly basis, Sam demands that the two work out their issues lest personnel changes take place. This is the second episode in the first eight in which Carla’s tenure at the bar is threatened, but here the source of tension lies with her fellow employee rather than a blowhard Yankees fan. The pair stay late at the bar in order to hash things out, during which Carla makes a family drink called “Leap Into An Open Grave.” The seemingly lethal drink goes right to their heads, after which Carla confesses to Diane that Sam is the father of her youngest child, Gino.
Now, it’s all a ruse, a way for Carla to stick it to her co-worker, but also as a way to test loyalty as a potential friend. Knowing these characters as we do know, it’s easy to see through the ruse even as it’s happening. But there’s no way for anyone in the studio audience to know this until Carla admits it to Sam. While the bar is an intimate setting for its patrons, it’s still a vast space for a two-person scene. Having a lot of the ancillary lights off during the Diane/Carla chat gives the proceedings both an intimacy as well as a hint of actual drama. Couple that with the show’s tendencies to go serious when necessary, and there was no reason to think in the moment that Carla wasn’t telling the truth to Diane in this moment.
Luckily, this episode doesn’t draw this mystery out for more than a few minutes, nor does it let Diane labor under the delusion much more than that. All of the expected twists and turns unfold in a way that feels more genuine that the arbitrary obstacles other shows might employ to maintain the dissonance between truth and lie. All of this leads to the first genuine connection between the two women, as Diane’s anger over Carla’s lie dissipates as soon as she sees Gino’s picture. She joins Sam and Carla in fierce laughter, laughter compounded by seeing the even uglier father of the poor kid. The tension between the pair isn’t solved (thank God), but the connection between them is stronger. This makes sense. After all, the people in that bar are family. And since when do we always like everyone in our family?
EA: Call me gullible…
All: “You’re gullible!”
EA: …but Carla totally had me going with her story about Gino. Like Ryan said, there’s no reason not to, as long as we’re ignoring the fact that Carla’s exterior isn’t one that’s so easily penetrated—even when a substance as caustic as the “Leap Into An Open Grave” is involved. The lie and its fallout make for the second extra-sitcom-y conceit in two episodes, but unlike Norm’s unfortunate situation in “Friends, Romans, Accountants,” it thankfully isn’t left to linger for the whole episode. Instead, it’s quickly discarded in order for Cheers to do what Cheers does best: The character- and relationship-driven humor of that final scene in Sam’s office. This follows some great character notes from Coach earlier in the episode (where he helps Diane figure out Carla’s ruse by not figuring it out), and as such I really love that we’re not shown the photo of Gino or his father—doing so would wring all the scene’s laughs from further inventions of the script. Instead, Isaacs and Levine remove their cleverness from the scene for a couple of minutes allowing the exuberance generated between Shelley Long, Rhea Perlman, and Ted Danson (an energy so infectious it seeps through the door and temporarily ensnares Nicholas Colasanto, too) take the episode home. “Truce And Consequences” requires some storytelling to get going, but its funniest moment features almost no dialogue.
NM: Yeah, this episode was much funnier and more natural, and it also keys on what will be Diane’s most endearing and annoying trait over the next four-plus years: her well-meaning need to over-analyze every deep moment she shares with her friends and colleagues. As soon as she and Carla start bonding, Diane relishes the “easy give-and-take between two working gals” and asks her to “benefit from my depth,” which is simultaneously sweet and condescending. There are plenty of other on-point character-moments in “Truce And Consequences,” too, such as Carla counting to herself while blending the Open Graves, and Sam somewhat desperately begging Diane not to wreck the bar during her night with Carla. (“I have no life insurance… just this place.”) And I don’t know which Coach moment I loved more: the soft thump of his head banging against the bar, or the fact that he knows the names of all of Carla’s kids, and how old they are. All this, plus a funny Cliff moment when Diane just happens to rant right next to him. Fine world-building, all.
DB: Let us now praise Shelley Long. She got a bad rap in the years right after Cheers for overestimating her bankability, but I’m so glad to be right back at the moment when she was drawing raves for her comic performances on the small screen, and deservedly so. What she does so well is exemplified by her tête-à-tête with Carla, when she professes sisterhood and offers friendship to her mortal enemy. Long plays it with an amazing touch; she commits fully to Diane’s superiority, but as a performance, it’s already an acknowledgment that Diane’s comeuppance will be thorough and richly deserved. Yet there is a human side to Diane’s roller-coaster days at Cheers that keep her from being a bitch; she takes her fish-out-of-water ribbings with good humor, or tries, and has a core of anxiety about fitting in with these funny, amiable people in the bar. She wants to be one of them by being a character like they are, but her character is premised on her not being one of them. Long simultaneously throws herself into the mix while Diane makes an unsuccessful attempt to stay above it all, and the exuberance that Erik mentions is the result. Just look at the way she blurts out the secret about Gino, as if it wasn’t really by accident; having a secret is incompatible with being part of the gang, so she doesn’t really want to hold it over their heads. No, Diane really wants to be one of the gang, with the escape hatch of being able to claim she’s not when it’s convenient. And that, more than the romance with Sam, is the dynamic that sustains the show.
TV: What I was most impressed by with this episode is how ably the show moves into the next stage of building out its core universe. The first episode established who everybody was and where they hung out and worked. The next episodes took us through the characters, one by one, giving each of them a nice showcase to let us know who they were, while saving a little space in every episode for some Sam and Diane flirtation. And now we’re working through the various permutations of the characters’ relationships. We got a little taste of what a Norm and Diane story might look like in the last episode, but that was much more of a showcase for Norm solo. This one, however, is driven as much by Carla as it is by Diane, and it’s driven by the idea that these two will never, ever be the best of friends but will always have each others’ backs. The most popular sitcoms have always been about families, and the workplace sitcoms that have broken through that trend have been the ones to believably convince viewers that, hey, these people are just like a family. I can’t think of a better moment in that regard than the final moment of this episode, as Ryan already expressed fairly eloquently. They can work together. They can have good times together. But they don’t have to necessarily always like each other. It’s an interesting way of taking us through the relationships in this show, and it once again shows off just how thoroughly the Charles brothers and their writers had thought through (or stumbled upon) the best way to introduce these people and this bar.
KP: Donna, that’s a really fine assessment of Diane. I like Cheers’ later seasons, but there’s no denying that mission drift set in after Diane left. Much of the humor came from her outsider status but, even if you didn’t identify most with her character, Diane was something of an audience surrogate, too. Cheers had long-established traditions and long-running relationships before she walked in the door, and much of this first season at least is powered by discovering those along with her.
Here’s one thread we haven’t talked about: How much of Carla’s paternity story a bit of wish fulfillment on her part? I don’t remember it ever being explicitly stated, but there’s evidence of Carla having a longstanding crush on Sam throughout the show, if I recall correctly. Something to look for as we press on.
PN: If, like me, you liked this episode a lot more than the previous one, the comparison is interesting, especially since both scripts came from the same writing team. I think that, with “Friends, Romans, And Accountants”, Ken Levine and David Isaacs went down some blind paths and got into some booby-trapped areas that the cast wasn’t able to get them out of. “Truce And Consequences” is really risky, and maybe because they knew they were taking a risk, it looks as if the situations were better thought and more skillfully brought off. I don’t remember whether (the first time I saw this episode way back God knows when) I bought Carla’s lie when I heard it, but seeing it again, I was aware of the show letting it hang in the air just long enough before bringing Sam on so that Carla could explain what was really going on. And I admired her line about how Diane swore to never reveal what she knows, so if he can just wait, “she’ll tell you tomorrow.” It gets a laugh, but it also clears the air by establishing that Carla knows Diane well enough that she didn’t tell her about Sam and little Gino with the idea that she’d be carrying that in her breast to the end of her days, or even more than 24 hours.
The second half, which is the funniest part of the show, also shows, as Donna said, how much game Shelley Long brought to this show when it needed her the most. For her tortured silence before she wises up to be funny, she had to strike just the right note of self-righteous martyrdom so that she’d be funny without seeming dislikable, and she hit it out of the park. We’ve been commenting all along about how Long brightens up her corner of the bar, but there are stretches of this episode that she practically carries on her back through enemy fire.
MB: Donna: hear, hear! I confess that it’s taken me a while to warm to Diane, even though I probably have more in common with her than with Carla (except that, by a weird coincidence, I also have a 7-year-old son named Gino). As Todd mentioned, this episode marks Diane’s acceptance into the Cheers family. So it makes perfect sense, in a way, that this is the first time that I found myself liking Diane. And not just tolerating her haughtiness and grandiloquence, but actually finding it endearing. During her showdown with Carla, it dawned on me that that Diane’s intellectual posturing is basically just a way to channel her inner cornball. And what’s so great about Long’s performance is that she’s able to be pretentious and wildly sentimental at the same time (e.g. when she calls Carla “You plucky little soldier, you”), to in fact make it seem like these two traits are intertwined. On television, it’s typically the opposite—intellectual characters are depicted as cold and unfeeling—but not our Diane. I’m always impressed by actors who are able to crack up convincingly—to me it seems more difficult, somehow more involuntary than crying—and the moment when Long bursts into laughter at the sight of “Sam’s son” is, for me, the highlight of the episode.
- TV: Watching this episode made me think about ways that sitcoms could use what TV writers call “mythology,” the idea of a deep backstory that predates the show that not all of the characters necessarily know about. I was trying to think of a show that, perhaps, had a revelation on the level of the Gino story that turned out to be true and coming up short. Anybody got anything down in comments?
- MB: I’m really eager to spend more time with Cliff. Every time he appears on screen, I long for him to share a “little known fact.” Fingers crossed we get some more Cliff time soon.
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.
First of all, let us just say that the Norm Peterson and Sam Malone gimmick commenters that open every comments section never fail to make us laugh. Keep it up, guys.
Critic Jaime Weinman had this to say about the show in its first season and “Coach’s Daughter” more specifically: “Earl Pomerantz (who wrote ‘Sam’s Women’ and tons of episodes for other shows by this group) once said on his blog that he advised the creators to concentrate less on Sam and Diane and more on the people who come into the bar. And, he added, that he was wrong. But you can see the show go back and forth on this through the first season, whether to be a Barney Miller type show where the stories walk in through the door, or what it mostly became, a show where the stories come from the regulars being shut up in one room together. A thing about ‘Coach’s Daughter’ I noticed again was how long it takes the story to start. Coach’s realization that his daughter's boyfriend is a creep doesn’t occur until the end of the first act. A lot of sitcoms seemed to be structured this way, where the first act is gradual buildup and most of the weight of the story is in Act 2. (‘Chuckles Bites The Dust’ (from the Mary Tyler Moore Show) is a classic example.) It feels like a throwback to the three-act stage plays that these sitcoms derive from, which often spend most of the first act laying the groundwork, introducing the characters, and don't drop much of a story bomb until it’s almost time for the first intermission. I kind of like it, but it does create an imbalance where the key scenes are almost always after the first act curtain.”
And Baked Bean Teeth talks about which era of the show was funniest (mild spoilers for those who aren't watching ahead or haven’t seen the show before): “You MUST keep it going. Trust me, I have seen every episode of the show numerous times. There are less long term ‘arcs’ and dramatic moments in the later seasons but nothing compares to Season 7 through 10 as far as just being downright FUNNY. The early episodes are sort of corny at times and downright sweet at other times while the later episodes will just make you laugh your ass off. The later Diane years in Season 4 and 5 had many clunkers and the show just seemed to get re-charged after Rebecca was introduced. The last real ‘arc’ I could remember is the Robin Colcord-Rebecca storyline which dominated Season 8. Season 8 hit home run after home run and may be the purely funniest season of the show ever. In fact, you could put many episodes of Season 8 through 10 up against the funniest episodes of Seinfeld. The last few seasons of the show really was the first ‘show about nothing’ and they really started doing the three plot an episode thing with the story lines occasionally connecting at the end.”
Remember: Talk about the show in comments and you, too, may earn the glory of being copy-pasted into a TV Club article!
Next week: Coach and Sam compete for the same woman, and Sam hits a string of bad luck.