Noel Murray: I miss the two-parter.
The dominance of serialization on modern TV—extending to sitcoms—means that just about every show these days is a multi-part affair, and what’s missing is the “event” feel of sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Barney Miller when they’d spread a story over a special hourlong block, or over two weeks. (It used to be so rare to hear that “previously on” opener; now it’s common.) I have strong memories of the Cheers two-part season-one finale “Showdown,” and I know I’m not the only one. The series was languishing at the bottom of the ratings all through its first season, but because NBC was languishing too, and because Cheers was the kind of a critical hit that NBC was looking to nurture (à la the network’s previous success Hill Street Blues), the show got a second-season pick-up. And there was so much buzz about the big kiss that ends “Showdown” that viewership ticked up over the summer and into the second season.
“Showdown” still packs a wallop, I think. I just love the pace and structure of it: like a four act play, with each act pared to its essentials. (Well, almost. There are a couple of wonderfully superfluous interludes that I’ll nod appreciatively to in a moment.) In act one, Sam learns that his brother Derek is coming for a visit, and he explains to Diane that he’s always been jealous of his sibling, who’s rich, talented and charismatic. In act two, Derek arrives and charms the bar, then asks Diane to fly off with him in his private jet. Act three resumes about a week later, as we find out that Diane and Derek have become a hot item and that Sam’s been tomcatting around to compensate. And act four takes place almost entirely in Sam’s office, as Diane tells Sam that she’s leaving for good with Derek unless he drops the aloof adolescent act and shows her some genuine affection, and the two hiss and spit at each other before falling into each others arms just before the credits roll.
Both episodes contain a long Sam/Diane conversation, echoing the previous long Sam/Diane conversations we saw earlier in the season. The classic is the one that ends the season, which goes through so many changes, from Diane fantasizing about life with Derek while Sam coldly diminishes the reverie—Diane: “You’ll say I set a good table, and compliment me on how well I’ve kept my figure.” Sam: “Had to say something, you just fed me.”—to Sam yelling so loudly at Diane that it’s a little scary. But I also like the repartee that ends part one, with Sam muttering “please don’t go” under his breath and Diane muttering “I’d rather stay with you” under hers.
What struck me most on rewatching the two “Showdown”s is how open is it about everything. Diane lays it down to Coach: She’s leaving if Sam doesn’t stop flirting and proclaim himself. Sam lays it down to Carla: Diane is in his head and it’s changing what he values. Carla even raises an unspoken but kind of necessary question: Why hasn’t Sam ever made a play for her? (The kind answer: He was afraid she’d be too much woman for him. Carla: “You’re a wise man, Sam Malone.”) Every “t” is crossed and every “i” dotted in these two episodes, in ways that respect the situation and the characters. I also liked how the issue of Derek’s “perfection” is dealt with. In part one he’s teaching Coach how to speak Spanish so he can get a coaching job in Venezuela, and he gets the long-unemployed Norm a job. In part two, Coach gets the call that he didn’t the job, and Norm gets fired for taking a long lunch (and from a firm that cheats on its taxes, no less). The implication, intended or not, is that Diane choosing Sam over Derek doesn’t cost her as much as it may seem.
I could go on: Coach’s method of breaking bad news, Derek’s off-screen tap-dancing, the two old ladies who talk themselves up from hot tea to boilermakers… if Cheers had ended with these episodes, it would’ve gone out on a high.
Ryan McGee: The most striking aspect of this two-parter? That Cheers made the decision to never show Derek at all. He’s always in the middle of a crowd, or offscreen. We hear him, but never see him. That lets us maintain the illusion of his perfection, because we only ever hear about him through a third party. Showing something that’s supposedly the acme of its kind poses a risk: while it works for the horseracing on Luck, it certainly backfired when it came to the sketches in Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Keeping Derek hidden was an interesting move, one that speaks to the theatrical nature mentioned by Noel. It feels like a conceit of the stage, not the sitcom.
But that stage-like feel is pervasive throughout this two-parter, which wisely ramped down the overly plotted nature of the last two episodes in favorite of a more character-based approach. We’ve talked at length about the ways in which the denizens of the bar are a society unto themselves, one that affects the very feel of the location. Well, look how different the bar is when all attention is on Derek. Suddenly, Sam looks very small, like an overgrown kid in a sandbox. The bar hasn’t felt this cold since Norm threw that ill-advised toga party. There, the bar was filled with strangers. Here, our normal crowd is present, but almost atomically changed by Derek’s presence. For all intents and purposes, they are different people. Which makes this a different bar.
What a relief, then, to see nearly all of them at the door during the climatic Sam/Diane fight. It feels like our bar again, and despite all the ways in which people note that Diane’s presence has changed Sam, it’s changed everyone there as well. They are a sewing circle, but a devoted sewing circle. Whereas they might have once been content to merely watch Celtics games and pass the time in idle but inconsequential chatter, they now have more invested in each other as people with lives outside the bar. It might be only a small change, but it’s there all the same. The “will they/won’t they” storyline is fantastic. But it’s just one piece of the larger puzzle. Coach, Carla, Norm, and everyone else have been changed just as Sam has. And they are almost all as unwilling as Mayday Malone to admit it.
Phil Nugent: I agree that this whole episode is a thing of beauty, for the way it sums up everything that’s developed over the course of the first season, addresses the fans’ feelings about it, gradually raises the stakes, and ends in a way that isn’t a cheat and leaves you rabid to know what happens next. (It’s a great cliffhanger. The amazing thing is, I think the show may have topped it a year later, with the last line—“Wow!”—of the second-season finale. It’s another two-parter, guest starring Christopher Lloyd as a painter who, like most mercurial, temperamental geniuses, is named Phillip.) Like a number of other moments from the first season that stuck out for me, the last scene perfectly captures Sam and Diane’s attraction while getting its laughs from the fact that it’s a fundamentally unhealthy attraction, but no less sexy because of that. One thing that rewatching the first season has brought home for me is how much the show’s romantic appeal was most potent at those times when you could see one of them, usually Sam, feeling misunderstood and just aching for the other, but apparently unable to do anything about it—as here, in that scene of him looking up at the sound of a plane flying overhead, just when he was about to dive into Deborah Shelton’s cleavage.
Donna Bowman: Give it up for the writers, everybody! Writing! [Applause, applause.] Yes, we all know how perfectly these actors delivered their lines, and what great timing the directors and editors coaxed out of this ensemble, but oh boy, the writing in this two-partner knocked my socks off. That extended fantasy exchange between Diane and Sam on the subject of their future relationship as brother- and sister-in-law reached some serious creative heights. “We’d buy a spread somewhere and call it the Double D,” Diane begins, riffing believably on the idea of Derek and Diane Malone as if it had just occurred to her. And as if the fight-then-kiss plot weren’t delightful enough, the writers give everybody some bit of beautiful business, even one-off vignette characters like the two prim ladies who end up with boilermakers on order. “I used to have half a beer on a hot day,” one reminisces with artful specificity. Seriously, that “half a” kills me.
The gag of invisible Derek, always surrounded by such a gaggle of fans that he can’t be seen, is treated like a cherry on top rather than the raison d’être of the finale, the way some other shows might have milked it. When Norm emerges from the pool room and asks Sam with sudden seriousness, “Do you have any idea what kind of a gift I could get for Derek?”, it’s a howler that emerges equally from the way the episode is constructed, Norm’s down-to-earth character, and the goose it gives to Sam’s already frayed self-esteem. That’s where writing, performance, and a season’s worth of setup meet and produce something sublime.
Meredith Blake: It’s damn near impossible to isolate a favorite moment in this wonderfully rich pair of episodes. If forced, I’d say that it’s at the end of the first half, when Sam pretends not to care that Diane is going to Martha’s Vineyard with Derek—something we all know she is doing just to make Sam jealous. As Diane storms off, Sam mutters, “Please don’t go.” She turns back, but he refuses to say it to her face, and the pattern is repeated two more times. Sam’s entreaties are increasingly desperate: “Please stay here,” then, “If you do, I’ll die.” His inability to express himself is maddening, but it’s also quite touching. Diane, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of making her feelings known, but is simply too proud to give in. Instead, she mumbles “rather stay here,” no doubt hoping Sam will accidentally hear her. It’s a terrifically entertaining scene, but there’s some profound emotional truth underlying it all. Over the course of the season, we’ve drawn numerous comparisons between Cheers and the classic screwball comedies. But in “Showdown” Sam and Diane mostly remind me of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride And Prejudice. Groan all you want, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen could write a love/hate, head-butting romance better than anyone—except maybe the Cheers team.
Erik Adams: I don’t know about you guys, but I watched both of these episodes in one, 48-minute chunk—which gets me thinking that, at a later date or under the watch of a different TV executive, they could’ve been aired that way. For instance, if Jeff Zucker oversaw NBC’s Entertainment Division in 1983 rather than Brandon Tartikoff, “Showdown” would’ve debuted as one of the “supersized” episodes Zucker championed in the early 2000s. (Though I don’t think Zucker would’ve exhibited the same level of patience with Cheers’ low ratings as Tartikoff did.) There’s a part of me that wishes I could’ve had a week’s cushion between the two halves of “Showdown,” if only because shotgunning the two-parter makes the first 24 minutes feel like so much placesetting. That’s another quality to miss about the lost art of the two-parter—in their original context, neither “Showdown, Part 1” nor “Showdown, Part 2” feels more significant than the other. In that respect, I’m glad it’ll be a couple of weeks before we find out what comes after Diane’s “Don’t tell me you’re going to nibble on my ear… ”
Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve probably seen “Showdown” more than any other episode of Cheers, and I’d wager I have that closing conversation all but memorized after all these times of viewing it. Indeed, this is probably one of my favorite episodes of television ever made. I’m with Donna in being amazed by these episodes’ scripts, particularly the way the Charles brothers (and the other writers) build every little scene as a small step toward the final fight/make-out session, yet also build every scene as an entity unto itself. It’s just wonderful stuff, and I love how, yes, the whole thing feels like a wonderful play but also feels like a series of perfectly wrought scenes. And the construction extends to the filming itself! The commercial break that comes between Sam closing the door and Diane saying, “Goodbye, everyone!” in the second part is so jarring because I’ll bet anything everything there was filmed as one long scene, before having to be cut up for commercials. It’s a perfect capper to a great season, and it’s also a marvelous way of saying, “Well, here’s where we’re going next year. Can we top this?” Remarkably, Cheers could.
NM: Carla complains that everyone’s obsessing over Diane and no one asks about her. Cliff comforts her by saying, “We weren’t that interested in your life before she got here.” How much things will change: Cliff would never dare insult Carla that way later in the series.
PN: Anybody know if Derek was even whispered about again? The way he’s used here reminded me of those Rockford Files episodes featuring Tom Selleck as Lance White, the infuriatingly perfect private eye who was the apotheosis of all the romantic pulp-fiction cliches that James Garner was put on Earth to thumb his nose at. It figures that the only way you could improve on Selleck in a role like that would be to never let us see this paragon at all.
MB: Am I imagining things or was that opening vignette from “part two” also in another episode? What’s that all about?
EA: You’re not imagining anything, Meredith: That cold open is a line-for-line remake of a scene from the middle of “Coach’s Daughter.” It’s strange to see the show repeating itself like that, but the scene makes more sense as a context-free opener than a break in the action from Coach disapproving of a loutish Philip Charles MacKenzie.
TV: I sort of wonder if the scene wasn’t reshot for syndication, once they realized the episode wouldn’t air as a complete hour or something. It feels very last minute.
MB: The dialogue toward the end of this episode is hilariously old-fashioned, like something Jimmy Cagney might have said. (e.g. when Sam calls Diane “The stupidest, the phoniest fruitcake I ever met.”)
TV: If you’re not reading Robert David Sullivan’s “top 100 sitcom episodes of all time” series at his blog, you’re missing out. He recently talked about “Showdown, Part 2,” and I’m amused he drew the opposite conclusion of many of us when he said not showing Derek was a flaw in the episode.
I agree that “Pick a Con… ” is definitely more plot-heavy than usual, but when a sitcom likes this indulges in a plot-heavy episode like this every once in a while, I get the same satisfaction I get when viewing a plot-heavy drama that takes time off (like The Sopranos’ “College”). I’m glad they didn’t have a Harry’s Crazy Con every season, but this episode is fantastic for the way it subverts the show’s usual rhythms.
ApathyMonger kicked off the fake/accidental TV wedding roll call, though the most notable recent example missed the cut (probably because no one around here writes for Jay Leno): Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.
Next week: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here—well, you can, but there won’t be a new review; coverage of Cheers’ second season begins Feb. 16.