“Now Pitching, Sam Malone”
In which Sam is used for his body, beer-selling ability.
Donna Bowman: My favorite part of this sorta creepy episode (strange how so many of the episodes have had a creep factor, isn’t it? I blame changing sexual mores) is, without a doubt, the commercial. Sam once again succumbs to the lure of fame by signing up with Agent Cougar—I mean Lana Marshall, to do local TV advertisements. The one we see is for Fields beer, and features former Red Sox right-handed starting pitcher Luis Tiant (as himself), trying and failing to get through the Fields slogan in his thick Cuban accent. A manager steps in and calls for a reliever, and there’s Sam “Mayday” Malone at the bar, ready to pitch: “You don’t feel full with Fields, you just feel fine!”
Sam thinks he’s good at the commercial game, and he is. All the charisma that Ted Danson brings to Sam Malone is turned on full force in the spot—the smile, the relaxed manner, the confidence. But off camera, Sam is as agitated as we’ve seen him. The conflict between his status as client and lover is making him feel powerless. But right after Diane has stiffened his resolve to break off the sex with Lana, the cagey woman tells him that national brands have taken notice and want him for a spot with the Osmonds (“The whole family? Even little Jimmy?” Sam says with wondering reverence). At that point, we see Sam’s lust to get back in the spotlight in its rawest form. He almost doesn’t give Lana the bad news that their relationship should be all business, and when he does, he hopes that Lana’s professionalism means he’ll still get the national commercial. Alas, Lana reveals that pitchmen like Sam (and like Tibor Svetkovic, the Czech defector and hockey star that she drags into the bar in the first act) are a dime a dozen.
What strikes me as creepy about “Now Pitching, Sam Malone” is all due to Lana (played by Barbara Babcock, best known as Grace on Hill Street Blues). First off, although she’s clearly a woman and not a girl, I wasn’t sure whether she was intended to be an older woman until she and Diane have that conversation about dealing with fading youth. Her indeterminate age (after all, TV has people play 10-15 years away from their actual ages in either direction, all the time) contributed to my confusion about why Sam is so upset about their relationship. It’s a Sunset Boulevard situation, apparently, but that aspect of it—not just the kept man, but the kept younger man—was vague until the final act. And secondly, her cookie-cutter sexual-predator act has a real ’70s vibe. I’m just not sure it plays these days. Would we be so upset about her directness these days, or would we be so sensitive to her mingling business and pleasure that the older-woman thing would barely register? It’s the combination, I think, that fogs my enjoyment of this episode; my reaction is more knitted-brow and less belly-laugh.
And that’s too bad, because the background is full of wonderful character moments, from Coach asking to be introduced to Gene Tierney to Carla asking if athletes are better “between the old Wamsuttas” than ordinary men. Did Lana work for you? Or did it matter?
Ryan McGee: I will confess I was rather indifferent to the Sam/Lana storyline. Given what we know about the eventual romantic paths this show takes, it’s hard to see any interlopers as anything but temporary comic fodder. But reading what you said about Lana’s undetermined age crystallizes my issue with it: This isn’t Cheers: Cougar Town until the final moments, and even then, it came out of left field. Sam’s problem with Lana was never about age but about power: He felt like a kept man for most of the episode, used by her in ways that could have been interesting to play had the show tried to engage them as such. We don’t see how she treats Sam in ways that merits his discomfort. We simply hear about them, which makes her essentially a cipher that gets to moralize to Diane in her final moments.
What I’ll take away from this episode, more than anything, is the sense of accumulated weight that Diane’s presence has had on Sam, Coach, and the entire bar. Here’s an episode that really capitalizes on the events of the series to date as both isolated but also part of an overall tapestry. When Coach barges into Sam’s office as the pair talk over Sam’s latest issue, he does so partially because the bar is crowded with customers. But he also senses that his former player is starting to change into someone he doesn’t recognize, thanks to Diane’s influence. Diane’s careful approach versus Coach’s (literal) ass-kicking approach is both a contrast in styles but also ways to delineate the ways in which Sam needs guidance in his life. Coach’s approach used to work in a black-and-white world, but with Diane’s insertion of morality and honor into his life, Sam needs a new approach. Coach still has a place in Sam’s life, but it’s a place that’s newly carved out thanks to Diane. Listen to the way that the bar all sings, “Sam’s in trouble with Ms. Chambers.” Everyone there recognizes her role in his life. Whether or not they see it as permanent is unknown, but they certainly detect it.
Phil Nugent: I didn’t have quite the same reaction as Donna to the Barbara Babcock character; Babcock is sane and very desirable, a far cry from Norma Desmond, and a case could be made that the point of her little speech about how growing older makes it harder for a single woman to reel in hunks is to get under Diane’s skin and give her something to worry about. (“She’s good,” Diane mutters, after she’s finally left.) The episode does strike me as a missed opportunity, though. Sam’s talk about “morality and integrity” actually seems like a cover for his being uncomfortable about being in a relationship where the balance of power is so heavily on the woman’s side, and that’s a juicy situation with a lot of comic possibilities that you know are going to go unexplored when he has his angry blowup at the bar and retreats to the back room. The best thing about the episode are the moment towards the end when Coach suddenly asserts himself and starts ordering people around; it’s nice to finally get a taste of what his style was like and to see why anyone would still call him “Coach.”
Meredith Blake: I am incredibly ambivalent about “Now Pitching, Sam Malone.” Like Donna, I was initially unsure whether Lana was supposed to be an older woman or simply a more powerful one (also, maybe it was the commercial, or maybe it was the red hair, but she reminded me of Bobbie Barrett on Mad Men), but the real problem is how dated the whole episode feels. At first, it’s good, nostalgic fun to hear the gang talking about Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential bid, defecting Eastern-bloc athletes, and the Concorde. But then Lana waltzes into the bar, Sam basically whores himself out to her, and I was reminded that nostalgia has its limits, especially when it comes to sexual politics.
Or does it? The “creepy” thing about the episode is that Sam isn’t merely having a little fun in the sack in exchange for a career boost, he’s allowing himself to be used. It’s rare to see men, especially on TV, admit to being exploited sexually, and I’m honestly torn about this. On the one hand, it’s commendable that Sam is portrayed in such a vulnerable light, and that Cheers is willing to entertain the notion that even men like Sam aren’t always “DTF.” Then again, if he’s simply grossed out about sleeping with a middle-aged woman, that’s hardly progressive, either. In the end, it seems like the writers themselves were torn about the Lana and Sam affair. I think Lana’s right to tell Diane “Don’t judge me until the bloom is off your rose, honey,” but her lecture also feels very tacked on—a last-minute burst of half-hearted feminism.
Noel Murray: I think you’ve nailed it, Meredith. It’s creepy because the episode makes Lana out to be more repellent than the actress herself seems to be. She’s an attractive, charismatic woman, and Sam is a guy with loose morals. What’s the hang-up here? (I will say though that the look on Sam’s face “the morning after” implies that maybe the problem isn’t that Lana is aggressive but that she’s into some really disturbing shit, sexually. At least that’s how I’d like to read it. Makes more sense.)
I have a couple of other nitpicks about “Now Pitching, Sam Malone,” though. For one thing, the time-frame is all messed up; Sam goes from meeting Lana to being in a commercial to ending his pitchman career in under 10 minutes of screen-time (more or less). For another, at this point in the series the writers don’t seem to have a firm handle on how dumb Sam is supposed to be. To me, Sam Malone is a guy of medium intelligence, who never bothered to apply himself in school because he had the jock thing going for him, but who has picked up a few insights about how the world works just from living. (I mean, the dude runs a successful bar, which takes some degree of smarts.) I find it more plausible when the writers play Sam’s dumbness as justified by the circumstances: either because he finds the idea of doing something “intellectual” to be do tedious that he doesn’t bother to pay attention to it, or because he’s just so horny he can’t think straight.
Erik Adams: I was onboard with “Now Pitching, Sam Malone” until the final act, which pushed me into “torn” territory alongside Meredith. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see the power-struggle subtext of Sam’s relationship with Lana—David Isaacs and Ken Levine sell the “Sam’s growing a conscience” line just fine without it. But it’s in that exchange between Lana and Diane that my taste for the episode began to turn, as the character whose been addressed several time as “Dragon Lady” (even once to her face [nervous tug on collar]) goes quasi-Maleficent and smacks her jaws a few times at Diane. There’s a hint there that Isaacs and Levine are attempting to cast Lana in a more sympathetic light, but she just ends up coming off as a negative caricature of a powerful woman who’s let that power turn her into a monster. And there’s a lot of stomach-churning stuff in that interpretation—good thing Coach is given the chance to show how authority gained through experience can be put to positive, humorous ends. Too bad he can’t additionally keep the episode from playing a pretty good guest star for a shrew.
Todd VanDerWerff: I wasn’t much of a fan of this one at all, for reasons many of you have already pointed out. So I’ll pivot to the fact that one of the reasons Cheers originally got on the air was because of weird ads with former pro athletes (especially the ones Bob Uecker did for Miller Lite). NBC was high on working with the Charles brothers and James Burrows, but they wouldn’t have been as high as they were if not for the idea of a show set in a bar. The beer ads at that time were so popular that NBC hoped it could spin interest in them into interest in a new TV show on the third-place network. It didn’t quite work like that—especially since those origins are mostly vestigial organs left over on what Cheers eventually became—but I like to look at the commercial aspects of this episode as a nice homage to the show’s initial origins.
- RM: The beer commercial where Sam pitch-hits for Luis Tiant is as rich a little time capsule about the chatter about Ted Kennedy’s presidential chances. It’s perfectly in keeping with an era in advertising when, as Babcock says, lesser-known athletes like Uecker were considered folksy and approachable and beer commercials tended to be gatherings of macho icons like Mickey Spillane and Dave Madden hanging out with sports figures and spoofing their own images. It’s a fine example of how to parody something that was meant to be self-mocking to start with.
- MB: There are lots of “TMI” moments in this episode, but the revelation that Carla’s partners never take their pants off in bed is probably the grossest (and the saddest).
- TV: Noel and I did a Crosstalk about dated TV last year that really applies here. It’s rare for Cheers to dabble this much in references that were contemporary when it was made, but this is a veritable 1983 festival. And did people really think Ted Kennedy might come back and take the White House in ’83, after he deep-sixed Jimmy Carter’s chances at re-election in 1980? (Some might say Carter had already done a fine job of that himself, but I digress.) Remember: At the time this episode was made, Ronald Reagan was massively unpopular, and Democrats thought 1984 would be a breeze. But it’s hard to get a bead on who Ted Kennedy was at the time. Pariah? Legend? Or both? Probably the latter, as was always the case with him.
“Let Me Count the Ways”
In which Sam and Diane perfect the art of fight-flirting.
DB: From the problematic to the triumphantly wonderful, am I right? That last scene with Sam and Diane belongs in a time capsule explaining why their rocky romance is an enduring cultural touchstone. It’s a thing of beauty, from Diane explaining why the death of her cat Elizabeth Barrett Browning has affected her so, to Sam succumbing to her nearness, to their ensuing argument and almost-making-up.
What gets us there is almost as good, although I find the device of Marshall, the coke-bottle-glasses MIT-cybernetics-prof/sweaty-palmed nerd completely offputting. (Everybody may know his name in Cheers, but couldn’t they allow him to be a full human being? Seriously, I was furious at Carla for her flirtatious teasing, even though Mark King plays Marshall as half-knowing it’s a gag and not really minding too much. According to IMDB we’re going to see Marshall again later this season, something I won’t be looking forward to.) Marshall gives Sam and Coach an iron-clad lock that the Celtics won’t win that night because of high radiation in the Van Allen Belt, and the two conspire to bet against the hometown team, then have to sweat out a close contest without letting the cheering bar know that they’re in the enemy camp. This leads to some great visual comedy with Sam and Coach in the middle of a crowd of fans trying to turn their instinctive reactions into expressions of the unanimous mood.
But the single-minded focus of the Cheers crowd on the game means no one is taking Diane’s bad news seriously. It stings the most for us, the viewers, when Norm treats her like a waitress instead of a friend, demanding a refill on his beer. And it’s the most affecting when one of Diane’s other customers, flustered by her weeping, insists that his whiskey straight is perfect even though he ordered it on the rocks (“See? I’m drinking it! Mmm, good!”) and presses a big tip into her hands. When Carla tries the same trick, walking up to a table and starting to bawl unprovoked, it seems to work too—right before the cut to Sam’s office, we see the man reaching into his pocket for his wallet.
Let’s just focus on that last scene, though, because it’s such a ballet of comic acting. “We were sharing our grief!” Sam half-insists, half-essays when Diane asks why he tried to kiss her. Diane accuses him of being unable to relate to women without sexualizing them, and Sam accuses her of overanalyzing every moment (in a pitch-perfect parody, he whines about what the meaning of every passing moment might be). “And another thing … the way you eat pretzels! Three bites!” he continues. “The cologne you wear is totally without nuance!” she rips back. Then when Sam, still angry, lets Diane know that he’s genuinely sorry about the cat (and who wouldn’t be, after Diane’s story about how thinking of Elizabeth’s welfare stopped her from a suicide attempt after her parents broke up, and how she felt guilty imagining that the cat wondered where her mistress was during her last dying moments?), they take a step toward each other before pivoting on separate dimes and returning to their uneasy antagonism. Just stunning—and hilarious to boot.
Does this scene rise above its episode for you, or did you think the rest of “Let Me Count The Ways” was a worthy build-up? (And without inviting it, I will nevertheless brace for the possible contrarian opinion that the closing scene is by-the-numbers will-they-or-won’t-they, if there’s anyone philistine enough to suggest it.)
PN: I really love this whole episode a lot. It’s one of those episodes that I keep finding myself saying represent the series at its best, for the way that it mostly seems like an almost random series of events unraveling in the barroom setting, and it’s elevated by the way everything takes shape in that final encounter between Sam and Diane. There’s something perfectly Cheers-y in the way that Sam—who is clearly moved by Diane’s story about her cat and has no ulterior motives for comforting her—responds to the chance to make his move, and the way that Diane—who just as clearly feels the way he does when they’re in each other’s arms—has to think her way out of succumbing to the moment. At the same time, you could see their communication block being summed up by the exchange when Diane, the would-be cerebralist, talks about how she’s been using body language all night to try to signal her fragile emotional state, and Sam, the supposed cretin who claims to not know how to express himself verbally, responds with the line, “Why don’t you just use words?”
RM: The last scene definitely saves this episode, which until then felt like a series of moments that had staggered (and occasionally unsuccessful) resolutions. The setup with the MIT professor unlocking a celestial-based version of Moneyball didn’t really pay off, since Sam and Coach don’t really pay for their betting sin in a meaningful way. They both win the bet and ostensibly keep the loyalty of their patrons, even though Cliff and company see them dancing for joy outside the establishment. But all of that is a sideshow compared to that final scene, set inside Sam’s office, in which the already familiar rhythms of a Sam/Diane fight get turned on a dime once Sam starts crying. We’ve talked a lot in these collective reviews about the ways in which Cheers plays up the silence in its studio audience. Here, we have a moment of silence not derived from a moment of pathos but rather a moment of “Holy crap, we’re about to see these two finally get together!” I’m not sure that moment happens without Diane breaking down one of Sam’s emotional barriers beforehand, nor if we felt Sam hugged her as a way to get her into bed. It speaks to the organic way in which this scene in particular, and these characters as whole, have been written to this point in the series’ run.
NM: Donna, I think you’re going to be surprised by Marshall’s return later this season, and it may make you reconsider your opinion of both the character and of Carla’s teasing. I’ll say no more about it than that. I will add though that while I’m not sure the character fully works in this episode, I still enjoyed his appearance, both because I remember what’s coming up, and because I find the nerd fetish of the early ’80s to be a fascinating pop-culture phenomenon.
And yes, the last scene between Diane and Sam is amazing. It’s a dry run for many, many Sam/Diane arguments-that-turn-into-love-scenes to come, and I dig that it hinges on a couple of unexpected turns. Diane’s seemingly self-absorbed mourning becomes more understandable once she explains what that damn cat means to her, and Sam’s genuine sympathy softens what had previously seemed to be borderline cruel indifference. I just love the dynamic between those two characters: both decent-but-stubborn. I’m really looking forward to watching their relationship play out yet again, for what’ll be something like the 10th time for me. It’s the TV version of revisiting the classics.
EA: I’m less bothered by the seemingly disconnected nature of the first two acts of “Let Me Count The Ways,” because
- This is Cheers we’re talking about—when is an episode ever more than a series of seemingly disconnected scenes?
- Those scenes are necessary for getting Diane to the point where Sam realizes he has to step up and speak with Diane privately.
And there is some really wonderful stuff in those scenes. I actually found a good deal of sweetness in the condolences Norm pays to Diane, and the way he tries to be a compassionate friend while fighting his interest in the basketball game is a masterful comedic balancing act from George Wendt. There’s also some superb Coach moments in the conversation he and Diane have about his grandpa’s dog. (“Did you ever lose a pet?” “Like an animal?” “I never had a pet, Diane, but my grandfather had a dog that I loved very much.” “Oh, what did you call him?” “Grandpa.”) Maybe it’s just the impact of that final scene that makes what comes before it appear inessential. But doesn’t the fact that they’re building to something so fantastic reflect kindly on these sequences?
TV: I’m with those who love this one, particularly when compared to the very dated episode before. The final scene, of course, is a stunner, and a basic template that the Cheers writers, Ted Danson, Shelley Long, and James Burrows would absolutely make flawless over the course of the next few seasons. It’s a surprise to see its first basic iteration here, well before the two get together (though I suppose one could argue that there’s a less confrontational version of this scene in the episode immediately prior… still, the basic build of “emotional moment, near-kiss, anger, emotional moment, romance or not” gets its first tryout here). It’s also worth noting that this is the first episode of the show ever written by Heide Perlman, Rhea Perlman’s younger sister, who would be a vital part of the show’s writers room in its first five seasons. (She returned to write the final episode ever filmed—though not the episode that aired as the series finale—in which Sam reveals a devastating secret he’s been keeping to Carla.) Perlman always wrote particularly well for Carla and Diane, and the latter is easy to notice here, as she gives Diane’s grief several shades—self-absorption, genuine sadness, and a glimpse of who Diane was just before she stumbled into Cheers. It’s a masterfully written role, and Long rises to the occasion, giving one of her best performances in the series. (Danson is good, too, of course.) It’s easy to forget just how many comedy heavy-hitters were in the Cheers writers room in both incarnations of the show (and it’s amazing how little overlap there is between those who worked on the first five seasons and those who worked on the last six, perhaps accounting for how the show splits into roughly two completely separate sitcoms), but Perlman hasn’t been as roundly acclaimed as some. She was one of the best writers the show ever had, and I’m hopeful her name will become better known in time.
MB: “Let Me Count The Ways” totally worked for me, and I had no problem with the disconnect between the first two-thirds of the episode and Sam and Diane’s close encounter. The way I see it, Sam and Coach’s unholy bet against the Celtics was a basically just a comic red herring that led us to the real story: Sam and Diane’s budding attraction to one another. I’m not sure I have anything articulate to say about that wonderful scene. My response to it can be summed up thusly: “Swoon.” I am a huge fan of the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, and I still hold out hope that the cinematic rom-com will make a comeback one of these years, but in some ways I think a TV show is a better (by which I mean more protracted and tortuous) medium for this kind of will-they-won’t-they storyline. (Then again, maybe not—in a movie, you don’t have to deal with the tricky aftermath.)
Speaking of old movies, that exchange with Coach and Diane was also terrific. I think one of the reasons Coach’s stupidity works so well is that it’s written so cleverly—it’s the kind of clever wordplay you might find in a Marx Bros. movie. One last thing: I love how this episode humanizes Diane, whose bookishness, we discover, is partially the result of a lonely, painful childhood. Diane irked me at first, but I am increasingly charmed by her mixture of unabashed sentimentality (weeping over the death of a cat) and pretension (the cat’s name is Elizabeth Barrett Browning).
- EA: I wish more contemporary sports merchandise resembled the Celtics shirt Jack wears in “Let Me Count The Ways.” A striking logo and a bold color—it’s about as “elegant” as T-shirt design gets.
- MB: How weird was that exterior shot of Jack approaching 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.
Leave The Bronx spotted a literary Easter egg that was hidden less obviously than the Browning-referencing title of this week’s second episode: “It should be noted that at the beginning of ‘The Spy Who Came In For a Cold One,’ Diane is reading Plato’s Republic, which revolves around the idea of a ’noble lie’—we see Sam later defend the concept of a kind of noble lie when it comes to bar patrons, and Diane is at first totally unable to understand the concept.”
Spaceman Stiff gave an excellent reassessment of the hated ‘Eric Finch’: “Hmmm. I think the point the show is trying to make with the spy episode is well made. The lyrics to the theme song aren’t just that people know your name, it is that they are always glad to see you too, i.e. no judgment. Diane’s reaction was over-the-top. Also, I didn’t think he was actually trying to sleep with Carla, he was just telling stories. With the knowledge that he was an eccentric millionaire, it makes it seem a little more mean-hearted (like he was ‘slumming’ with the commoners) but looking at it going forward Sam and the rest have a good point. If somebody wants to come into a bar and tell tall tales, they don’t want to be called on them all the time, and if the bar is a place where people are accepting of others, even with their odd aspects and peccadilloes, then you don’t want somebody like Diane calling out harmless eccentrics.”
“We’ve yet to have a good newspaper-based sitcom. There’s pluses and minuses to that idea.
Pluses: Easy way to bring in guest stars and recurring characters (as sources, interview subjects, etc.); relatively untapped location; opportunities for topical humor
Moot point: What sitcom would have a cast of characters large enough to handle all of the sections/responsbilities of a newspaper? Easily erased with comedic license—they’re shortstaffed and adapted by becoming hyper-skilled. Or, of course, it’s a small-town paper, and much of the humor comes from the quirky locals.
Minuses: Not all the interviews/story work could be done at the newspaper—would you rather have characters always on the phone, or always visiting new sets? Either way, it could be distracting (and take away from the importance of the newsroom set). If you keep things tied to the newsroom, you could end up with characters talking about their stories, which could work if the cast plays off each other well, but it could also feel like you’re robbing your audience of the visual part of the joke.”
Evan Waters makes a disturbing realization based on Todd’s theory that all truly great cities have at least three professional sports teams and are the setting for a notable sitcom: “So THIS is why Kansas City founders in mediocrity.
I’m not even being snarky, I think this explains a lot.”
Next week: There’s a new bundle of Tortelli joy on the way, and everyone squirms their way through a visit from early ’80s attitudes toward homosexuality [collective nervous tugs on collars].