“Sumner’s Return” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 11/3/1983)
In which Sam reads 4 ounces a day…
Donna Bowman: Sumner. The very name sums up the choice this episode poses for Diane and her still-young relationship with Sam. Can our Diane ever be really happy with a non-intellectual? Doesn’t she belong with her own kind? One year after her literature professor left her in a Boston bar to go back to his wife, Sumner turns up claiming to want Diane’s forgiveness. But we’ve seen enough sitcoms to know that he hasn’t changed his colors. His invitation for Diane to go to dinner with him, Barbara, and a plus one is exactly the ploy to recapture her affections that Sam says it is.
Not that Sam makes things any easier for Diane by getting all riled up about the contrast between Sumner and himself. He complains that their dinner conversation excluded him, and when Sumner protests that they asked his opinion, he suggests that either he didn’t have one, or he had one “and didn’t want to waste it on you!” He’s unshaven and loopy from staying up for several nights straight trying to finish War And Peace, which Cliff suggested Sam discuss at dinner so as to compare better with his literature-proficient rival. And that’s the key to Diane’s choice. “You read War And Peace,” she explains to Sam after sending Sumner packing. “So did he,” Sam protests. “You did it for me,” she states simply.
Nearly everything I love about Cheers is present in this crackerjack half hour. There’s Sam trying to hide his anxiety while Sumner and Diane are sequestered in his office—“I’m not worried,” he bluffs as he twirls nonchalantly away from the door. There’s Norm using his bar tab as a makeshift timepiece (“How many beers have I had, Cliff?” “Eleven.” “8:05”). And there’s Sumner, who gets all the choice prevarications in this script. “Dare I think this thought?!” he exclaims while pretending he’s just conceived of taking Diane to dinner. “We’ll be poorer for her absence but richer when the check comes,” he jokes when his wife can’t make it. “I taught a Tolstoy seminar for six years and vowed never to discuss it again,” he huffs when Sam mentions War And Peace.
A callback to Cheers’ precipitating incident makes perfect sense as the second season begins. What makes it special is the importance of both Sam and Diane confronting the problem of their different worlds. Any number of blowhards could have forced Diane’s hand and made the point. The fact that it’s Sumner, though, means that Diane is reminded once again of her own weaknesses. Who knew from Michael McGuire’s brief series premiere performance that Sumner was so ripe for a reprise? And while this highbrow-lowbrow theme never gets old to me with Diane and Sam at the ends of the continuum, is it getting stale for the rest of you?
Phil Dyess-Nugent: If I had to pick one episode that makes it seem convincing that Sam and Diane might actually be plausible candidates for a long-term relationship, this would probably be the one. The funny thing is how completely it feels like Ted Danson’s episode—and not just because Sumner is such an unrelieved tool. Danson really sells the idea that somebody who is heroically unsuited for the task would go on a reading bender and plow through War And Peace in five days if he thought that was the best way he could prove himself worthy of his girlfriend. And though it may be a coincidence, the fact that my favorite moments are the physical comedy (and that the most memorable verbal jokes are Coach’s absurdist riffs) makes the episode feel tilted in favor of Sam’s side of the big-brain/jock cultural divide. The sight of Sam looking like an unshaven, broken wreck after his long nights with a three-pound paperback is a great sight gag, and so is the moment when he enters Cheers far enough behind the chattering Diane and Sumner for the swinging door of his own bar to conk him in the forehead. That would be hard to top as either a piece of timing or as a metaphor for feeling shut out of the group you want to dominate, or at least join.
Ryan McGee: While you both rightly focus on the way Sam and Diane have changed in the year since we last saw Sumner, I couldn’t help but notice the way that others in the bar have changed as well. At the outset of this season, many seemed appalled and/or disgusted to see the pair canoodling/fighting/canoodling again. But now, while people like Norm still mock their PDA (in the form of the rather adorable squirt gun fight at the outset of the episode), there’s a sense of slight envy underneath it all as well. Listen to the way Cliff chides Sam about how well Sumner and Diane get along after their dinner date. He’s not trying to drive a wedge between Sam and Diane. Quite the opposite. Just as Sam is smarter than Sumner gives him credit for, there’s a little bit of wisdom in Cliff’s reverse psychology as well.
Atop all that is Ted Danson’s most physical performance to date. From the aforementioned squirt gun fight, to way he leaps over the bar upon worming his way into the dinner date, through his slapstick performance selling Sam’s exhaustion, everything is comedy gold. His over-the-top horror at learning there’s a movie of War And Peace that he could have watched instead of reading the book only solidifies how animated he is in this episode. So much of Danson’s performance revolves around either lackadaisical charm or coiled anger, so to see this flavor added to his overall palette is refreshing indeed.
Erik Adams: “Sumner’s Return” is my favorite episode of season two so far, and it’s all the richer the way it tiptoes toward the edge of being too heavy-handed and too broad without tipping over either cliff. (Like Ryan, I couldn’t help but notice the outsized proportion of Danson’s reaction to the episode’s punchline, which I choose to read as the release of all the pressure that builds under Sam’s dome throughout the episode.) In terms of maintaining the freshness of Sam and Diane’s “lovers from different worlds” dynamic, “Sumner’s Return” is wise to keep the events of the dinner with Sumner offscreen. After all, we learn everything we need to know about those events through Sam’s dazed state and a few lines of dialogue. That frees up the space for the “What’s cooking at Melville’s?” vignette between Cliff, Norm, and Coach, a fun snapshot of life at Cheers that puts the regulars’ end of the intellectual spectrum on display. They might not know that War And Peace is entirely played-out in academic circles, but Norm’s nose can identify fine seafood—and Coach’s tongue knows an expired Cheeto when it tastes one.
Todd VanDerWerff: I’ll join the chorus in proclaiming this the best of the young season so far. Sam and Diane’s squirt gun fight is one of those moments that often turns up in “best TV moments” clips packages because it’s so much fun (and it has that great kicker of a joke at the end), and every character gets at least one big joke or moment to shine, even Sumner, whose utter pomposity is given much greater comic space here than it was in the pilot (where he was a much slighter presence than he is here). (I’m also left with the disquieting notion that the Cheers character I’m most like just might be Sumner. No! Never! Frasier is on the way!) I’m once again reminded of the way Cheers uses onscreen and offscreen space better than nearly any sitcom, as well. (I’d only put Barney Miller, NewsRadio, and Taxi at its level.) The show gets so much mileage out of our imaginings of what’s happening just offscreen that it increases the comedy when, say, Sumner and Diane come back chatting in French.
RM: The next time I grow a beard, I’m going to take a page from Sam and tell my wife I needed a new place to scratch.
TVD: Sam may be kicking himself for missing the movie, but the 1956 adaptation of War And Peace, famously forces itself to leave a lot on the cutting room floor (and is still over three hours long), while the 1965 adaptation is both in Russian and one of the longest films ever made. Still probably shorter than reading the novel, but he’s not setting himself up for success.
“Affairs Of The Heart” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 11/10/1983)
In which a heart gets in the way of love…
DB: Now when it comes to Carla’s love life, I’m still not completely on board. “Affairs Of The Heart” has a disjointed feeling, as if there’s not enough story and the ensemble is vamping to fill time. Hank, Carla’s admirer, is a sweet character, and the climactic scene in Diane’s apartment is well-staged. But getting there involves a couple of acts worth of fits and starts.
Maybe my Carla problem isn’t really with Carla at all. I’ve come to appreciate her weirdly contradictory self image as a man-eater who can’t get a man. Convinced that anyone who likes her is fatally flawed in some fashion, she resists Diane’s urgings to give Hank a shot. Only after Sam basically impugns her manhood by calling her chicken does Carla decide to go all the way with Hank, demanding Diane’s keys since Hank is between apartments and Carla’s kids are in the way at her place. But Coach lets slip that Hank does have a flaw—a heart problem that could kill him if he gets too worked up—and Sam and Diane race to save Carla from sexing Hank to death.
No, maybe my problem is with self-satisfied meddling Diane. I know it’s part of her character to be a busybody. Hey, as a busybody myself, I can relate. But the Diane/Carla dynamic is so farcical and extreme that I can’t quite buy Diane exerting herself on Carla’s behalf and being so thrilled at her success. It’s almost worth it for the moment in Diane’s apartment where she and Sam are both listening at the bedroom door when Carla and Hank arrive. “Isn’t it funny—I thought Carla would be the type to make noise,” Diane muses. “Hello?!” Carla protests from behind them, and Sam mutters, “Hang on, they just started.” Shortly thereafter, Sam makes a joke about Hank’s condition—“At least you wouldn’t have to feed him breakfast!”—and while he’s busy being very satisfied with his own wit, Hank gives him an approving nod.
That sense that there is something shared among men, or among women, is mostly missing in this storyline. Diane and Sam are on the same page about what Carla needs, Carla has to beat up Sam before she can admit she has feelings, and when she’s looking for flaws in Hank she concludes successively that he is married, “gay as a goose,” and “hooker bait.” The one other moment where we get a sense of relationships not quite running in parallel is when Sam asks why Diane doesn’t take the phone off the hook during their intimate moments, and Diane whines, “I might miss an important call!” How does the Cheers version of the battle (or partnership) of the sexes work for you, and does Carla complicate the picture in a good way?
PDN: A couple of weeks ago, in discussing the episode in which Cliff fell for Carla’s sister, we were talking about how some of the characters, such as Cliff and Norm, were allowed to deepen over the years while remaining within the bounds of their supporting-clown status. I’m not sure that Carla ever transcends hers, and she definitely hasn’t by this stage. Which is fine, but this episode strikes me as confused and half-assed, as if it wanted to indulge in some emotional string-pulling on her behalf while holding onto the option of having her still just be the wisecracking comic personification of motiveless meanness. For me, the show just dies when Sam lures her back to his office to analyze her intimacy issues, and lines like “Tell her to look over at the next pillow and count the dead people” aren’t enough to get its heart started again.
It doesn’t help that Hank isn’t really a character. He’s just a well-behaved man-shaped object with an inexplicable, all-consuming crush on Carla. He toughens up just enough for a little flirtatious sparring when he has to prove he’s worthy of her, but then he goes right back to being the ultimate nice guy who laughs at jokes made at his expense and, having survived his roll in the hay, politely agrees that he should have thought about what it would have done to Carla if he’d flatlined on her. Whereupon he takes his leave, never to return, thank God. The episode might have at least been funnier if, instead of being Mr. Right, he’d been a disgusting-repulsive Nick Tortelli type with a heart problem—a slavering wolfman who’s barred from doing the only thing that Carla would want to have him around for. Instead, the unspoken idea seems to be that an intelligent, soft-spoken, sweet man might want to be with Carla, but there’s no way—she’d literally kill the poor guy.
RM: I liked Hank. Why? Because he’s entirely free of histrionics. While the main players fly off in different directions, he stays determined yet grounded. I think his character centers an episode that shows some traits of later Cheers seasons, in which more cartoonish elements crept in. (Todd’s done a great job explaining these in past reviews, so I won’t step on his turf in this regard.) Is Hank three-dimensional? Absolutely not. But I did believe that he was willing to risk his life for a chance with Carla. Even if he’d been given a Tarantino-length monologue to explain his reasons, I’m not sure it would have helped. The heart sometimes wants what the heart wants, even if that desire might literally destroy it.
In some ways, this is almost the inverse of what we’ve come to expect. Instead of having flamboyant characters infiltrate the ranks of our quirky-yet-relatable regulars, this episode flips things around to give the outsider a chance to act as gravity lest others fly off into the ether. It’s not the type of format I’d like to see repeated very often, but it’s fine every once in a while as a way to change things up.
TV: Not an all-timer, but I think I liked it more than most of you. It was probably that final scene that sealed the deal for me, and it struck me that these characters really do operate like a family or ensemble at this point, much more than they did in season one. In the last episode, Carla (who hates Diane) is ready to slug Sumner as soon as he walks in the bar, and here, Diane tries to help her friend-who’d-never-admit-Diane-was-her-friend to find something like love. Hank’s not a fully developed character, but he’s not a cartoon either, and that makes the final scene work as well.
It’s interesting that the show seemed to rely a lot on those emotional closers at this point in its run. They’re almost always well-done, even when the rest of the show doesn’t work as well, and they’re an interesting part of the Cheers formula that lasted throughout the show’s run. (The last episode ever filmed—but not the last one ever aired—concludes with a weird parody of these scenes, where Sam reveals his biggest secret to Carla.) I think one of the things multi-camera sitcoms miss today that’s largely migrated to single-camera shows is that idea that you can have a scene that isn’t necessarily all laughs, that contains some real emotional stakes. It’s one of the reasons I’ll watch even less-funny episodes of this show or, say, How I Met Your Mother—but when’s the last time you really felt anything for someone on, say, The Big Bang Theory? They’re airless joke machines, and that’s hard to warm up to.
EA: I’ve warmed up to Carla since “The Tortelli Tort,” due in part to some fantastic Heide Perlman scripts from the first season. This Perlman-penned episode is less of a knockout, but it’s admirable for its attempts at giving the character what Sam (by way of either Diane or his marathon run through Tolstoy) terms “vulnerability.” Of course, Cheers is still most comfortable portraying Carla as a woman who’s unafraid to take a bite out of her employer, but I’ll take character development wherever I can get it.
To me, the “battle of the sexes” aspect of “Affairs Of The Heart” is the episode’s most muddled, because it’s not really a “battle of the sexes” episode—it’s a Carla vs. Diane episode. The men just get in the way of the amusing conflict that still exists between the two co-workers—though it’s funny, in hindsight, that the couples are mixed-up in the episode’s meatiest male-female exchanges. It’s this conflict that underlines the episode’s final laugh (Diane mentioning her diary, which Carla then pulls out of her purse) and its message that, no matter how close you’ve grown to a person, it’s best not to meddle in their affairs. Though it’s a middling effort as a standalone entry in the Cheers catalogue, “Affairs Of The Heart” is a neat passage in the continuing story of Diane and Carla.
NM: I like how when Carla seeks refuge in Sam’s office, Sam doesn’t even credibly pretend to be doing any real work back there while he hovers and waits for her to open up to him. It’s a nice way of showing genuine affection for her, letting her know that not only is he there for her, he’s not going to leave until she talks.
RM: I had to pause the episode for a minute to wonder how on earth the Boston Bruins scored 28 goals against the Edmonton Oilers, only to realize Carla went to see the New England Patriots score that many points against the Houston Oilers. More than almost anything at this point in the show’s run, the sports references date this show something fierce.
EA: I was thrown for the same loop, Ryan—a harder scenario to process considering that the 1983-84 season was the beginning of the Edmonton Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier-Grant Fuhr dynasty.
TV: Carla was still largely the show’s breakout character at this point, and Rhea Perlman was having an Emmy-winning season. It would be interesting to see which tapes she submitted, as I think she’s very good at what she’s asked to do, which can often be pretty one-note.
“Although Sam and Diane’s banter in the office is definitely the highlight of ‘Personal Business,’ my favorite smaller exchange in the episode is between Diane and Cliff, when Cliff claims that Diane’s Voltaire quote ‘because of the idiomatic peculiarities, can't really be translated into English.’ It highlights the ridiculousness of both characters- only Cliff would try to act knowledgeable about something he obviously doesn’t understand, and only Diane would drop Voltaire’s second most-famous quote in the original French to make it sound more highbrow.
But it also brings up a dynamic between the two that’s just under the surface in the early episodes, and later disappears- Cliff likes to think of himself as the bar’s resident expert, and is somewhat threatened by Diane'’s actual expertise in several subjects. It’s one character relationship I wish the show had explored a bit more, if only because it would have allowed for more scenes where Cliff saves face by complaining about Diane ‘taking some liberties with the derogatory tense.’”
“I have to wonder if Severn Darden was brought on by Shelley Long or George Wendt’s request (Second City Chicago alums represent, y'all!). Ditto Miriam Flynn in season 3.”
“‘ . . . Cheers is a lot closer to the era of Mad Men than it is to the present day.’
What?! No way! >Does the math<
“It won’t be long before the ‘present day’ in Back To The Future is closer to 1955 than it is to the actual present.”
Next week: Sam and Diane’s relationship is threatened (again?) and Coach goes back to the dugout.