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Shelley Long and Ted Danson star in Cheers

A little ditty about Sam and Diane: Cheers gave TV its most riveting incompatible couple

Shelley Long and Ted Danson star in Cheers
Photo: Getty Images

On January 13, 1983, halfway through its first season, the low-rated but critically acclaimed NBC sitcom Cheers aired “Let Me Count The Ways” and changed television forever. Written by Heide Perlman and directed by James Burrow, the episode follows Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) when she’s struck by grief after learning that her childhood pet died. No one in the bar provides much sympathy, callously dismissing her emotions when they learn she’s mourning a cat instead of a person. After her crying spells begin to interfere with her work, Sam Malone (Ted Danson) brings her into his office to discuss the issue.

Sam demands Diane explain why she’s so upset, and after some cajoling, Diane tells him how her cat helped with her adolescent depression, even preventing her from committing suicide one particularly low evening. Sam, visibly moved by the story, embraces Diane as they both shed tears. The two linger in the sexual tension of the hold, but right before they’re about to consummate it, Diane stops and asks Sam what they’re doing. “We’re sharing our grief!” he insists.

The two then quickly transition into a fight. Diane accuses Sam of trying to exploit her vulnerability, and Sam alleges that Diane overthinks her way out of base desires. They eventually throw petty insults in each other’s direction—“You want to know what bugs me about you? The way you eat pretzels!” versus “The cologne you always wear is totally without nuance!”—and Diane pledges to leave the bar and never return. Just after she walks out the door, Sam calls her back and insistently expresses sympathy for her dead cat. Diane barks, “Thank you!” turns back to leave again, stops, turns to face Sam with a softer expression and thanks him again. Right when the two step toward each other for another embrace, they decide against it lest their attraction get the better of them yet again.

This sequence established the idea of “Sam & Diane,” a TV pairing whose dynamic was defined by a flirtatious-cum-combative energy, brought to life by two of the best comedic performers of their generation, who proved just how compelling a protracted opposites-attract mismatch could be for a television audience, and how much it would come to define and shape Cheers as a whole. The series would run different variations on the basic structure of that fight many times over the course of its first five seasons, all in service of that magical tone that whips back and forth like a pinball between conflict and desire.

But while the nature of the fictional couple might be unique, their onscreen history has an arc as old as time. What began as an exciting take on social opposites, capturing the precise ways in which physical attraction and emotional intelligence are often at odds, ultimately curdled into a repetitive, occasionally mean-spirited cycle, born out of the writers’ boredom with the material as well as creative differences with talent. A compelling hook that secured a massive loyal audience became a narrative anchor from which Cheers would attempt to distance itself after Long’s departure from the series. However, for a few glorious years, Sam & Diane was as riveting as anything the medium has ever produced. More impressive was that it was entirely predicated on the explosive chemistry, and physical vulnerability, between two young actors on the brink of national stardom.

Sam & Diane has clear precedent in the romantic pairings of ’30s and ’40s screwball comedies. Cheers creators Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows have cited Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s heightened, antagonistic energy as a loose inspiration, but it’s possible to see traces of the relationship in most of the madcap duos of the era. The series also provided its own spin on the litany of recurring themes and tropes within the genre. A strong-willed woman challenges and disrupts her male counterpart’s traditional masculinity. Their respective behaviors are rooted in their different class backgrounds. They primarily communicate in witty repartee and navigate farcical situations generated by convenient misunderstandings. Some of this is part and parcel with classic sitcom writing, but Cheers, especially in its early years, harkened back stylistically to a more bygone era of comedy.

Illustration for article titled A little ditty about Sam and Diane: Cheers gave TV its most riveting incompatible couple
Screenshot: Cheers

The difference is that Cheers started from a place of disharmony. The writers forged battle lines specifically on the grounds of intelligence and sex: an uninhibited, womanizing ex-pitcher versus a proper, pretentious graduate student. Sam’s professional identity, before he became a full-time bartender, was centered upon his body; Diane, the aspiring writer and permanent student, built hers on the strength of her mind. Sam rarely stops to consider his actions while Diane frequently overthinks herself into mental paralysis. Sam has few moral or ethical scruples, whereas Diane lives by strict codes. Sam’s life revolves around casual affairs, but Diane seeks long-term commitment. Sam frequently speaks monosyllabically, whereas Diane can hardly get through a sentence without citing Greek poetry. It’s crucial that these characters, as written, from the very beginning, are definitionally incompatible.

The performances, however, suggested the exact opposite. Whenever Danson and Long shared the frame, they exhibited a simpatico working relationship that was channeled primarily through their physicality—their bodily positions could suggest anything from guarded vulnerability to primal lust, the ways in which they would circle each other in conflicts, how fights or romantic declarations became literal grand gestures. Burrows, the series’ resident director, was an expert at character blocking, and he used every inch of the three primary Cheers sets to keep the action between Sam and Diane literally moving, quickening or slackening their speed when tensions would wax or wane. It’s crucial that there was always an object that literally or implicitly halved the room (the long bar, the pool table in the back room, Sam’s desk in his office) to keep enough space between the actors to emphasize their distance or to accentuate their intimacy when the barrier was crossed.

While Danson’s and Long’s physical movements were of an orchestral piece, their differing line deliveries reflected their work as soloists. Long deployed an affected speech that bordered on haughty but landed mostly in affectionately showy territory. (She would play to the back of the room, so to speak, which neatly contrasted with the casual address from the rest of the barflies.) Meanwhile, Danson relied upon his inborn effortless charm that allows him, to this day, to play off basically any actor alive. His job on Cheers was to welcome the audience into the show and be a cheerleader for everyone else on screen, but this geniality rarely showed its face in Danson’s scenes with Long. Unbridled passions in the directions of love or hate often developed into mania and childish antics. But their contrasting verbiage amplifies both their quieter, romantic scenes, the moments when they find common ground or express sweetness, and the caustic venom they all too frequently exchange.

The magic of Sam & Diane lies in this struggle between writing and performance, the ways that Danson and Long interpret their characters’ fundamental irreconcilability through the lens of overwhelming sexual attraction. This deliberate tension might be rendered slightly obvious and blunted when the characters are thrust into the same cycle for years, as television is wont to do, but the core idea still had purchase when it wasn’t exactly clear if Sam and Diane were doomed. Their mating dance of fighting instead of fucking (or both when they actually were fucking) was pitched perfectly between excitement and unease, which went a long way to ensuring that any time Danson and Long were on screen together it was a can’t-miss proposition.

In its first season, Cheers mostly developed Sam & Diane in the background while it built out the series’ setting and larger ensemble with their tension being deferred in favor of establishing the show’s rhythm. Still, the writers and producers quickly realized they had a golden ticket on their hands, and thus most episodes would dedicate at least one scene per episode where the two would verbally spar. The writers capitalized on Danson and Long’s chemistry as early as the second episode, “Sam’s Women,” when Diane insists that Sam’s pick-up strategy would never work on intelligent women, only for Sam to spin a convincing line about Diane’s eyes that stops her cold. A couple episodes later, in “Sam At Eleven,” Diane tries to cheer Sam up after he’s stood up by a local sportscaster for an on-camera interview that ends in a miscommunicated kiss.

Later in the season, however, the series foregrounded their romance more directly. In series highlight “Diane’s Perfect Date,” Diane arranges a blind date for Sam with one of her intellectual friends with the promise that Sam will do the same. Sam, believing that Diane has concocted a ruse in order to go out with him while saving face, doesn’t arrange a date for her. When Diane shows up with her friend in tow, an embarrassed Sam quickly pays a random patron in the back to go out with her without realizing he’s a mentally disturbed ex-con. At the date’s conclusion, Diane demands to know why Sam would set her up with such a person and Sam sheepishly reveals the truth. This culminates in Diane teasing Sam for his crush without ever giving up her own feelings toward him.

If there’s a single most famous Cheers scene, it’s when Sam and Diane officially get together in the first season finale, which initially scored low ratings but measurably improved on subsequent reruns due to considerable word of mouth. After dancing around each other’s feelings, simultaneously expressing and underplaying them depending on how they believe they’ll be received, the two finally have it out in Sam’s office, circling the room like wrestlers in a ring. It’s impressive how much neither Burrows nor Danson and Long telegraph the scene’s conclusion until the final seconds. Up until the very last minute, Sam and Diane are at each other’s throats for no other reason than they’re attracted to someone who makes them sick. Cheers even tips its hat in the direction of its audience by having the entire bar crowd the doorway outside Sam’s office, in a masterfully composed reveal, to listen in on their fight.

Cheers’ second and best season explored the idea of Sam and Diane as a couple, implicitly demonstrating that hooking up two characters doesn’t have to be a creative death knell when in the right hands. In fact, Sam & Diane, as a conceptual idea, came into its own when the Cheers writers honestly dealt with the reality of the situation. The first half of the season took a more lighthearted route, with episodes built around how shared romantic affection can overcome personality conflicts. The best episodes, however, feature the couple in conflict, attempting to parse out their issues, with the fate of their very relationship in peril.

In “Old Flames,” Diane confronts Sam’s promiscuity by demanding he relinquish his “little black book” filled with the contacts of his past lovers. When he refuses to do so, they briefly separate but get back together at the end of the episode after Sam declares his affection for Diane to his old skirt-chasing buddy. When the bar obtains an old fortune-telling machine in “Fortune And Men’s Weight,” Sam and Diane try to convince the rest of the patrons that the fulfilled predictions are merely coincidences, but when Diane’s fortune reads, “Deception in romance proves costly,” she becomes nervous and admits to Sam that she went out with a male classmate of hers behind his back. It was entirely platonic and only because he shares her interests, but nevertheless, Sam feels betrayed. The next episode, “Snow Job,” follows Sam’s weaselly attempts to go on a ski trip with his buddies where the stated goal is to bed as many women as possible; Diane thwarts them all but only really stops him from going when she promises she will pursue her own sexual conquest while he’s away. All of these situations spark foul arguments, but it’s key they never actually air out their fundamental differences. Instead, their true feelings are sublimated into childish taunts, casual subterfuge, and emotional blackmail.

That is, until the second season finale, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which represents Cheers peak, not least of which because it features one of the nastiest breakups ever aired on television. The complicated context for it is almost irrelevant—it involves Sam hiring an obnoxious artist, played by Christopher Lloyd, to paint a portrait of Diane, who he then fires, forbidding Diane from being his model, a directive which she naturally ignores—because, at that point, it could conceivably be anything. Sam and Diane are at each other’s throats, often literally, over just about everything. His womanizing and her effete behavior are so at odds that when the entire bar clears out to go play softball, they only need the slightest provocation to burn their union to the ground. (The full 10-minute sequence is still available on Netflix; most of it is linked below.)

From a bird’s-eye comedic standpoint, the humor of the scene lies not only in Sam dragging Diane to his level, where juvenile facial gestures have more weight than cutting insults, but also in how well she competes when she’s down there. While Sam’s taunts bring her back into the bar when she’s halfway out the door, it’s only after Diane calls him a fat braying ass that things take a turn to the physically violent. Episode writers Glen and Les Charles, as well as Burrows behind the camera, depict Sam and Diane’s slap fight and nose pinches like a Three Stooges routine, with all the cartoonish exaggeration implied. Danson and Long naturally undercut the severity of their shared assault by amplifying the broadness of the situation, especially when neither will let go of the other’s nose purely out of spite. It is funny, but it still stings when Sam responds to Diane’s slap across the face with one of his own, which the studio audience immediately recognizes. After it’s over, when Diane protests that Sam actually hit her, he responds, “Well, not hard!” Diane, appalled, pushes him to clarify. Danson’s face goes to a dark place and he sneers, “It means not as hard as I wanted to,” and the air, finally but only for a moment, gets sucked out of the room.

Illustration for article titled A little ditty about Sam and Diane: Cheers gave TV its most riveting incompatible couple
Screenshot: Cheers

Still, it’s a testament to Danson’s and Long’s performances that they’re able to render the aftermath as completely devastating. Burrows adds a key bit of blocking by placing Diane slightly higher than Sam—she’s at the top of the steps near the door, while Sam is at the level of the bar—to give her pronouncements the power they deserve, but everything else is from the actors. Their shared resignation toward every event that brought them to this point and their unwillingness to fight any longer lands harder than a body blow. A 20-second silence falls after Diane insists that it’s over between them if Sam doesn’t stop her now, interrupted only by Danson giving a fatalistic sigh—and you can almost hear the room, it’s so quiet. This being television, it’s not the last time Sam and Diane see each other, but everyone involved goes to great lengths to ensure that it feels that way, which, in the end, is most important.

Cheers, dramatically speaking, never really tops that breakup, both in the history of the series and of Sam & Diane. However, there are more than a handful of highlights that play off the characters’ shared, deferred love for the other in the remaining three seasons of Long’s tenure. The third season, particularly, deserves credit for both contriving a sensible reason for Diane to return to the bar—to assist Sam with his relapse into alcoholism—and for side-stepping the obvious love-triangle storylines with her new partner, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer). Part of that is because Grammer’s positive reception from the cast and audience made it difficult to cast him as a villain, but it’s also more creatively satisfying to explore their relationship in its post-breakup state. Sometimes it’s fairly frivolous, like when Sam teases Diane for yelling out his name when she’s in bed with Frasier in “I Call Your Name,” but other times it’s more revealing, as when Diane, in “A Ditch In Time,” lists the litany of careless offenses Sam committed when they were together, like how he sent her second-hand flowers for Valentine’s Day or when he couldn’t muster up the interest to give her a more personal Christmas gift than steak knives. The scene ends with Sam, visibly chastened, apologizing for his boorish behavior and claiming the good times they shared were some of the best in his life.

Later, the two romantically reconcile in “Cheerio Cheers,” right before Diane is about to leave for Europe with Frasier, but their brief passion falls apart when Sam’s frustrations and Diane’s conscience get the better of them. It’s an entirely believable situation: Diane, about to take a big step with a new partner, returns to the safety of her former love, while Sam, eager to send Diane off and out of the bar, can’t seem to quit her. It concludes on a downbeat note, but sans bitterness. Sam admits to her and himself that he can’t provide Diane with a lifetime of security like Frasier, only the promise of one day at a time, which is one of the more honest self-assessments in the show’s run. It’s one of the very last times the couple would ever be truly authentic.

During the last two seasons Long was on the show, Sam and Diane suffered considerably from a deadly combination of writer’s fatigue, ensemble shake-ups, and creative dissatisfaction. The series was going through fourth and fifth will-they/won’t-they cycles, which unsurprisingly brushed up against tedium. Following the death of actor Nicholas Colasanto, who played the sweet, old bartender Coach, Long was left without a strong ally in the ensemble. Long frequently played well off of Colasanto, and as a character, Coach was a fierce defender of Diane’s, which is a role that newcomer Woody Harrelson couldn’t quite fill, and it often left her comedically and dramatically isolated from the rest of the cast. On top of that, Long reportedly clashed with the writers and other cast members because of her perfectionist tendencies at run-throughs and rehearsals. In the series’ oral history published in 2012, assistant director Thomas Lofaro believed Long thought of herself as “the new Lucille Ball,” which alienated her from the rest of the cast. Long, rightfully so, claims she was merely part of creative discussions.

All of these artistic struggles bled onto the screen. Cheers’ worst, most sour moments are when the show turns particularly mean-spirited toward Diane, rendering her character a bookish killjoy who just can’t hang with the other, more immediately relatable members of the bar. It reeks of an old boys’ club mentality, one that dictated acceptable female behavior, that simply wasn’t present in the show’s earliest years. By this point, it was transparently evident that the cast simply didn’t enjoy working with Long and the writers had gotten sick of playing to her strengths. Diane entered as a fish out of water in the blue-collar milieu, seeking to gain acceptance from the group, and, unfortunately, she left the same way.

What’s worse was how this affected the Sam & Diane romance. The fifth season begins with Sam proposing to Diane, only for her to reject it because she believes he’s only doing it to forget his ex-lover, a decision Diane immediately regrets and one that sends Sam into a spiral of vindictive spite. The first half of the season follows Diane as she delusionally insists that Sam will marry her while Sam refuses to budge, as he considers his proposal to be “expired.” It barely matters that they do eventually get engaged because it’s precipitated by Diane pressing assault and battery charges after he tries to chase her down for rejecting his proposal a second time. In fact, the whole season is marred by a running gag in which Sam fantasizes about murdering Diane for the crime of putting him through so much emotional torment. It’s just broad enough not to be taken literally, but it’s still remarkably cruel at times, and combined with how the character was written at this stage, it often feels like plain old bullying.

Illustration for article titled A little ditty about Sam and Diane: Cheers gave TV its most riveting incompatible couple
Screenshot: Cheers

Cheers would survive Long’s departure by turning into more of a classical workplace comedy, spreading out the jokes and storylines to the rest of the supporting cast, but it’s a little disappointing just how far the show distanced itself from the Diane years. Some of that is due to overwhelming press speculation that the show simply wouldn’t survive without the character, which essentially forced the writers to craft a new identity for the show, but some of it was certainly more pointed than that. It’s not a problem that Long’s replacement, Kirstie Alley, played a character that was completely different from Diane. What’s frustrating was that meant that Rebecca Howe was a love-sick, gold-digging buffoon whose signature move is to burst into tears at the nearest sign of struggle. Her entire identity was crafted around her inability to be professional or land a rich husband. It’s not that this was never funny, or that Alley couldn’t carry an episode, or that Cheers wasn’t aware of how superficial this was, but it was obvious the series no longer wanted a character to challenge the masculine, hangout vibe it had carefully cultivated. Adding to the indignity, Cheers rarely missed an opportunity to take potshots at Diane when neither the character nor Long could defend herself, even when she obligatorily returned in the series finale.

In spite of all of this, it’s remarkable how effectively and immediately the series could return to the Sam & Diane well whenever it wanted to. Almost like a narrative reflex, the series could tap into the earnestness and the passions of their romance. Cheers could whip up a scene of mounting sexual tension, like when Diane sits on Sam’s lap to test his restraint in the fourth season’s “Don Juan Is Hell,” or heartfelt declarations of love like in “Fear Is My Co-Pilot,” when Sam and Diane believe they’re going to die in a plane crash, or even the cathartic moment when Diane realizes that Sam kept all her love letters even as he professes to have zero feelings for her in the fifth season’s “Everyone Imitates Art.”

Maybe, however, the best example lies in the final moments of the fifth season finale, “I Do, Adieu,” right before Diane walks out of Cheers for the penultimate time, when both Danson and Long muster up all the yearning and warmth for each other in service of a genuine sendoff. It’s important that the depicted imbalance lies not in behavioral differences but in situational awareness. Sam accepts that Diane likely won’t return to him in six months after she finishes her novel, but Diane insists she will and that they will marry upon her return. Danson projects such profound, resigned heartbreak, while Long evokes such believable faith that it’s hard not to get caught up in the drama of it all. In the end, their romance concluded in a refreshingly quotidian fashion. A woman walking out the door as a man watched her leave, with only memories left to fill the void.

Vikram Murthi is a freelance writer and critic currently based out of Brooklyn.