“Power Play” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 9/29/1983)
In which fools break in…
Ryan McGee: Hey gang, time to saddle up to the bar for the second season of Cheers. While it’s only been a few weeks for us, time essentially hasn’t moved at all for the denizens of the bar. The second season starts right where we left off, with the tension between Sam and Diane finally boiling over into their first kiss. We all agreed that the two-part finale that capped the first season was brilliant. But how do its consequences fare?
It’s easy to think of the beginning of “Power Play” as redundant, but in the pre-DVR days, it was smart of the show to introduce those who heard about the show through its off-season accolades to Cheers through the climatic moment that closed out that first year. “Power Play” aired just four days after the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, a win that more than anything helped the show’s audience snowball throughout season two. There’s definitely a confidence about “Power Play” that suggests that the writers were getting a handle on these characters, while remaining curious about how far to push them. And I imagine the ways in which this episode pushes both Sam and Diane will draw some mixed opinions.
As mentioned at the outset, this season première continues seamlessly from the end of “Showdown,” with the last few seconds of the Sam/Diane fight leading to that kiss… and then silence. The possibilities are endless for this pair, even if those outside Sam’s office see nothing positive that came come out of this inevitable relationship. Certain characteristics familiar to first-season viewers are on display for newbies to witness as well: Sam’s horny-yet-harmless antics, Diane’s semi-snobbish pronouncements, and Carla’s sarcastic wit.
But there are small signs that things are different, as well. “Power Play” starts off as a reversal of traditional format: Rather than starting in the open area of the bar and eventually retreating into a private space, the action starts in the office and opens up to the “public” of the bar. This in turn leads to another, new private space: Diane’s insanely large apartment. (Waitresses made good coin in Boston in the early 1980s, apparently.) It’s here that the show is at its most theatrically staged: There’s an entire scene in Diane’s bedroom in which the pair are essentially offstage, heard but not seen as Sam takes in the horror show that is Diane’s stuffed-animal collection. The camera stays stubbornly fixed at the footlights, unable or unwilling to follow the proceedings.
Her menagerie comes complete with names such as Freddy Frogbottom, Mr. Buzzer, Gary Gorilla, and Mr. Jammers. Those latter two apparently do not get on at all, just as Sam does not get on with this seemingly infantile arrangement. He leaves the apartment in a huff, and the work done in the season-one finale seems all for naught. But then Carla, sensing Sam isn’t ready to throw himself back into the world of bachelorhood, suggests to him that all women secretly want men to rule them behind closed doors. What follows is some fairly complex gender politics that I can’t be sure were actually intended by the writers, but they plays out in fascinating ways. The ways in which Sam tries to brutishly overcome Diane’s hold over him, coupled with her psychological ploy of pretending to call the cops on him, play like a modern-day Taming Of The Shrew. But whom is being tamed? For most of the final act, it seems like Diane once again has broken Sam, turning him into a lapdog. But then she sits on his lap, stating that giving up a little control every once in a while might not be so awful.
Once Sam learns that the call to the police was fake, however, it’s out with any sense of equality between the pair. Whether or not he has to lay her hand beneath her foot or the other way around isn’t up for discussion as he tosses her stuffed animals onto the street below. We’re not in any territory akin his threat to “pop” her in “Showdown” (nor his light breaking-and-entering earlier in this episode), but there’s still an anger behind that action that fuels Sam and Diane’s best scenes. But I guess my question to the group is this: Is adding fuel to that fire best for the show over the long haul?
Meredith Blake: Was I the only one sitting at the edge of their seat as Diane opened the door to her apartment? There’s something so incredibly effective about the way Cheers has refrained from revealing too much about Sam or Diane (or, for that matter, any of the other characters). So when Diane brings Sam back to her palatial, beige-and-peach abode, it feels like a big step for us, not just for Sam.The whole episode is suffused with a level of intimacy we haven’t experienced before on Cheers. Sam might be horrified by Diane’s stuffed animals, but Sam’s behavior is pretty appalling, no matter how long Diane’s been holding out. Sam’s always been a bit of a cad but we’ve never really seen him in rampant horndog mode, and I can’t say I like it that much. I’ll probably take some heat for suggesting this, but I think Ted Danson’s performance might be part of the problem in this episode. He adopts some broad, Arthur Fonzarelli-esque mannerisms and generally overplays the sleazy thing by about 25 percent. It’s not entirely his fault, though, because some of Sam’s lines are pretty creepy (e.g. “Mr. Malone takes his pants off. He doesn’t put them back on ’til he finishes business.”) And tossing Mr. Jammers out the window? Simply unforgivable. So Ryan, to answer your question, I think this episode certainly brings the unhealthy dynamic between Diane and Sam to a whole new level. What I’m wondering is whether Sam’s really such a dog, or whether he’s just driven mad by the circumstances?
Noel Murray: Oh, I wouldn’t be so hard on Sam (or Danson). The character is clearly befuddled by how he’s supposed to handle seducing Diane, who doesn’t respond to any of his usual techniques. I loved Sam tossing out suggestions for where they could go to consummate their new relationship (“My… apartment?”) and then pretending that he’s just kidding when Diane shoots him down. Just the way Danson delivers the line “Who said we always had to be serious?” reveals a mild panic in Sam, who is excited about finally getting to have sex with Diane but seems a little worried about what a full-blown relationship with her is going to be like. And for Diane’s part, she’s looking for some assurance that she’s not going be another of the 400 (I mean four honeys) that Sam has bedded and then forgotten. I give the writers full credit for not shying away from the basic incompatibility of these two people, which will become a recurring theme throughout this season, all the way up to its remarkable, painful finale. One of the reasons I’m excited about revisiting this season of Cheers is that I’ve always appreciated the way the course of the Sam/Diane romance feels so unforced, as though the writers genuinely had no idea where this storyline was going to wind up. They keep all the possibilities open, and—as I recall—never ignore the more volatile aspects of their leads’ chemistry.
Donna Bowman: Wow, Shelley Long just gets stronger and stronger. As someone who didn’t watch this in its first run, and got to know Long through her misbegotten attempt at a movie career, I am in awe. When Diane acquiesces to Sam’s power play, agreeing to “get in the bedroom—woman!”, it’s an utterly mesmerizing take. You suspect that she’s not falling for it—there’s none of the sudden dropping of an attitude that we saw in “No Contest” when a tropical vacation is dangled in front of her—but it’s also just possible that Carla is right, that somewhere deep inside, this is what she’s looking for.
And count me among the people for whom Danson’s outsized Fonzarelli bit works like gangbusters. It’s a performance, after all; he’s playing to the bar and trying to psyche himself up at the same time. I love that. Who is Sam Malone, really? He’s willing to be almost anything for Diane, as long as she doesn’t insult him. As long as she gives him something like his due. In those moments when he’s trying to negotiate the Sam Malone image and the women he can’t get out of his head, Sam works so hard, at such cross purposes, and is willing to switch gears at the drop of a hat. I find that utterly endearing, in the way that bravado so often is.
Todd VanDerWerff: I think Cheers’ second season just might be its best, so I’m excited for us to deal with it, even as I don’t think “Power Play” is one of the season’s finest episodes. That said, I still like it a lot, and I like the way the episode’s final scene plays around with our expectations about relations between men and women in general and between Sam and Diane in particular. (The moment when Diane plops into his lap is splendidly discombobulating for both Sam and us.) I love the way the episode toys with our notions of what the show is and what it can be, and I love the way that its journey out of the bar and into Diane’s apartment is mirroring Sam and Diane’s new relationship in ways the audience feels on a weird, subconscious level. (I’m half convinced Dan Harmon’s insistence on never leaving Greendale in the first season of Community is an homage to this particular show.) My main complaint is that Diane’s stuffed animals never quite feel like something she’d take that seriously, but Shelley Long sells the hell out of it, so I’ll go along with it.
I’m also impressed by just how thoroughly the show dealt with resolving the cliffhanger. The temptation with a big cliffhanger is to either get it cleared up right away or stretch out the amount of time it takes to answer the question, “What happens next?” (The most famous cliffhanger of all time, from Cheers’ rough contemporary, Dallas, stretched out the answer to who shot J.R. for several episodes.) This is an episode that takes a whole half-hour to answer what happens next, and it does so in a way that’s both organic and layered, a way that presents this relationship in microcosm, so we can have the thrill of watching these two hook up while still seeing all of the pitfalls that lie in their way.
Phil Nugent: This episode shows a renewed sense of confidence—which is especially apparent on-screen in Long’s performance—that I think derives partly from the creators knowing who their hero and heroine were and what they meant to each other. For the whole first season, the show had been finding that out along with the rest of America, and now it’s clear that these two people were put on Earth for the express purpose of driving each other batshit. If making each other crazy is their shared art, Sam and Diane are its Nureyev and Fonteyn. I’d go so far with this as to use it to justify what might seem like bum notes in both performances. Sure, Sam is too much of a strutting lout at times, and Diane’s roll call of woodland play pals makes her seem like a simpering idiot, but it’s worth noting that neither of them behaves quite like this with anyone else. He’s trying to cover for the insecurities she brings out in him, she thinks that the “something special” between them means that she can show him the little girl inside her that nobody else gets to see, and it turns out that, like a lot of us, both of them have hidden sides to themselves that ought to be taken out to the country and made to dig their own graves. Naturally, this flusters the hell out of Sam, while Diane thinks that her ickiest qualities ought to be celebrated. (The one thing that doesn’t quite work for me is the scene of Sam throwing the toys out the window, but I laughed out loud when I realized that he was going to do it. If it doesn’t play when he does do it, I think it might be because Ted Danson had reservations about it, and you can see that when he tries to save the gag by making a production out of it. It would have played funnier if he’d just marched to the window and pitched ’em.)
Erik Adams: Phil, I too sense that confidence, carried from the writers’ room to the audience in the words of the barflies and that Alexander Pope quote Diane uses to relay the outcome of her conversation with Sam: We’re in no rush here. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how packed with jokes this episode is, the pacing of Sam-and-Diane’s back-and-forth and the riffs from the bar balancing the slow, steady followup to the “Showdown” cliffhanger. As such, I’m excited to see where that confidence, bolstered by a few pieces of Academy hardware (the Emmys also honored Long, James Burrows, and the Charles Brothers that year) and increased ratings, will take the series.
TV: Honestly, I’ve always been pissed at Sam for chucking those stuffed animals out the window. It might be silly, but they’re still his new girlfriend’s property. (Also, how will the animals survive in the cold, wet streets of Boston? Anthropomorphic tendencies ahoy!)
MB: Diane owns a rocking chair?!?
NM: Another nice detail to Diane’s apartment: She has a tiny, portable TV, which she puts away when guests come over, like a good intellectual. And I’m sure that decision to never let us inside her bedroom was partly practical, avoiding the delay of a new camera setup. But if so, the Cheers team turned a necessity into a virtue.
TV: I haven’t seen this episode in a couple of years, and I actually remembered it as featuring Diane’s bedroom as a separate set. That’s how convincing Danson and Long’s offscreen acting is.
PN: Evidence that this was a classy show that played to people who comported themselves accordingly: When Shelley Long comes out in her pink short nightie, the guys in the studio audience don’t break into wolf calls and hubba-hubba, the way they would they would if she was, say, Leather Tuscadero. (Speaking of both audience reaction and evidence that this wasn’t made yesterday, I loved the sound made by the woman who is clearly shocked to hear herself laughing at Norm’s bondage joke. Speaking here as the Ancient Mariner, I don’t remember 1983 as having been that much more innocent of an time, but maybe it was.)
NM: Say what you will about Sam’s sleaziness, but when Diane asks him to find a hotel in Boston he’s never had sex in, he doesn’t lie about it, which is something he easily could’ve done. Instead, the first one to tell a lie in this relationship is Diane, about calling the police. File that away for later, too.
PN: Hey, John Ratzenberger! Welcome to the opening credits!
“Little Sister Don’t Cha” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 10/13/1983)
In which little sister does what her big sister does—not that Cliff can tell…
RM: I have these major gaps in my Cheers memory. More like potholes, actually—not unlike the one Cliff accidentally falls into while driving the latest and greatest in postal-transportation technology. Going through this rewatch with all of you has been a way to fill in those sizable gaps in a rewarding fashion. And while I’ve enjoyed a lot of the episodes to date, I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a single scene as much as the one at the end of this hour, which essentially births the Norm/Cliff relationship as we collectively know it now.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we get to that scene, there’s a lot of busy plot work and a device that I will admit I wasn’t completely sold on. Because the second season starts off in the immediate aftermath of season one, Carla is still pregnant at the start of this episode. She hops down stairs in hopes of kick starting labor, but nothing works. Soon enough, however, her water breaks, she goes to the hospital, and she is replaced in the bar by her sister Annette Lozupone… who is also played by Rhea Perlman.
Seeing Perlman play the seemingly demure Annette is a hoot, but a hoot that is also distracting in a way that discomforted me. No one in the show seems to notice that she’s the spitting image of Carla, something that might have been the way to go to at least point out the elephant in the room. Then again, it’s possible the elephant is only there in hindsight, which means we just roll with the fact that half of the bar sexually desires someone who looks exactly like someone most sexually loathe. But rather than get into the psychosexual implications of what it would mean for the patrons to subliminally desire Carla, the show goes the opposite way and creates a contrivance that frankly doesn’t quite work.
Annette sleeps around with seemingly everyone, prompting Diane to call her “The Thing That Devoured Boston.” But all of this setup isn’t designed for Annette, or even for Carla. It’s a setup for Cliff, who falls head over heels for the first woman in ages to pay him any attention. When he reveals his desire to the gang to propose to her, a hush falls over his compatriots. But it also falls over the crowd as well. You can feel just how much everyone wants to protect him, even while unsure how to do so. When it becomes clear Annette doesn’t even so much as know his first name, Norm offers to fall upon the proverbial sword and tell Cliff the truth about his would-be fiancée.
And guys, I don’t know about you, but I watched that last scene in the pool room about five times. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. George Wendt and John Ratzenberger are note-perfect in this scene, working through an expertly written series of exchanges (script by Perlman’s real-life sister, Heide) that seek to cushion the blow before dropping the hammer. Norm’s hesitation is painful, each moment one he fears might be his last in friendship with Cliff. And the way he promises Cliff everything will be okay is Cheers in a nutshell: “No one’s going to laugh at you. Those people care about you and they know that you’re hurting. Anybody that laughs at you has to answer to me.” When the two men leave that room, they have changed. And in strengthening these two, Cheers went a long way towards strengthening the entire show.
Did anyone else have as strong a reaction to this one as I did?
NM: What, you mean our weekly seminar on the use of leitmotif in the Chanson du rouet? Yes, I enjoyed it very much. And you’re right, Ryan: most of the credit is due to Ratzenberger and Wendt. Especially Wendt, who never gets enough credit for his ability to deliver a deadpan one-liner like “I can’t even eat an open-faced sandwich” (Norm’s explanation for why he doesn’t want to look at Cliff’s wound) and then show genuine compassion as he plays the role of the worldly adviser to his nerdy buddy. But Ratzenberger has a tough assignment too, having to make Cliff look like a sucker but not a total idiot. These two actors (and characters) complement each other so well.
As for Annette, I was mainly distracted by the strange accent and facial contortions that Perlman was doing. But the character serves its purpose, in that this episode isn’t really about her, it’s about how she dupes poor Cliff. She’s not malevolent; more of a force of nature, trying to stay our courier from his appointed rounds.
DB: How interesting that an episode centered around a double-role gag turns out to be so much more. In addition to the great scene between Cliff and Norm, we get the afterglow of the Diane-Sam hookup, with the two of them making googly eyes at each other in the first act and serving up double entendres with every drink order. That’s interplay we’ve seen a thousand times. So how do these two make it so delightful? Diane living out her romantic dreams, Sam certain that his charms are irresistible but also aware that Diane’s going to get the better of it when it comes to bickering.
I too think it’s weird that nobody talks about the resemblance between Carla and her sister, and I find Perlman’s show of versatility a little ostentatious. But these are minor complaints when the payoff is hearing Norm admit, resignedly but emphatically, that the woman Cliff’s planning to propose to can’t even remember his name. “Wanna hug?” Norm offers after they pledge their friendship to each other. It’s just the medicine Cliff needs to regain his dignity, turning Norm down and getting him to profess that he didn’t really want to, anyway. The only thing that’s missing is Annette getting her comeuppance for being so cavalier with our barflies’ affections.
TV: I watched Cheers in reverse order, simply because of when I was born. By the time I was old enough to appreciate the show, it was entering its last couple of seasons, so I first knew the bar with Rebecca and Woody and Frasier and Lilith as constant presences. By that point, the show was much less of a show about hopeful losers gathering together at a watering hole to make something better of their lives and much more of a workplace farce (though quite possibly the funniest in TV history), and as befits a farce, the show’s characters were much more exaggerated versions of themselves. So when I found out years later that the show had a history, that there had been a Diane and a Coach at one time, it was surprising to me to go back and see the show figuring itself out, and the scene that closes this episode is one of those key moments. The Cliff and Norm we see here are the same guys we’d hang out with in season nine or 10, but they’re more muted, more human versions of those characters, and the series subtly sketches in a retconned backstory and a suggestion of a new relationship that might be just as important to the show as Sam and Diane are. It’s a skillful bit of writing, and it makes an already good episode even better.
PN: It’s not a bad episode, but what stands out for me is how strangely conceived it is. The goal posts keep moving. First, the show sends one of its regulars to the hospital (so that Rhea Perlman, who in real life had given birth seven months earlier, can stop wearing that flour sack under her costume). In the process, the show sets it up so that the regular can don a disguise and come back to play a different character, the sort of thing that TV shows used to do all the time just so that some lucky bastard writing for TV Guide could use the phrase “tour de force performance.” Then, after everyone discovers that Carla’s sister is promiscuous, it appears that the point of the story is whether our heroes should tell Carla what they’ve learned. Then, Cliff shows up after what’s meant to be a long absence, and he’s given such a “we’ve missed you!” welcome that for a second, my mind started to wander and I wondered if John Ratzenberger had taken a 10-minute leave of absence from the set to appear in a crowd scene in a big movie. Turns out the whole point of it all is to get to that big friendship-affirming number between Ratzenberger and Wendt in the back room, which, as we’ve discussed previously, is Cheers’ equivalent of the small, intimate room in a multistage theater building where everybody goes to put in their bids for an Obie. It’s a fine scene, well worth waiting for, and if it’ll never feel as revelatory as it must have when the episode first aired, it remains an important step in establishing that the clowns littered around the bar are flesh and blood characters capable of suffering and brave acts of loyalty. I especially admire the fact that it gets the job done without getting sticky, the way The Mary Tyler Moore Show, say, used to whenever Murray proudly opened a new wing in his midlife crisis. That said, my favorite thing in it may be Coach introducing his home movie, I always love it when we get a glimpse of Coach Ernie Pantusso, Renaissance Man.
MB: Those Luzopone’s sure do have some strong genes, huh? I actually wasn’t as bothered by Annette’s uncanny resemblance to Carla—and the gang’s failure to notice it—because I was kind of taken aback by how different Rhea Perlman looks without her trademark pile of frizz. I was a little disappointed that she, too, turns out to be a “loose” woman (a term I’m glad is nearly as antiquated as Diane’s portable TV) not because it means more slut-shaming but because it just feels like a missed opportunity somehow.
I’m surprised no one’s really talked about Coach’s home movie yet. I just adored this little comic interlude, a fun formal experiment that reminded me of Sam’s ill-fated beer commercial from last season. It’s maybe 90 seconds long, but it’s a gem, from the moment when Coach walks in on a dead guy (just as the priest is pulling a sheet over his body, of course) to seeing Carla’s kids on their “best behavior.” For a show that’s only just beginning to move into new physical spaces, Cheers is clearly taking risks where it can.
EA: It seems unnecessary in hindsight, but Coach’s journey into amateur cinematography had me laughing as well, Meredith. (Maybe because it combined the visual feel of Tom Schiller’s short films on Saturday Night Live with the ironic disconnect of those vacation slideshows Conan O’Brien used to do on Late Night. But I digress… ) Otherwise this is another largely hit-or-miss episode where the last six or seven minutes completely wash over the lumps. For me, what was so remarkable about Cliff and Norm’s conversation was its sense of dynamics. Up until this point, we’ve gotten to know these characters in the public spaces of Cheers (though Norm had his moment in the pool room in “Friends, Romans, And Accountants”) and it’s peculiar, though nice, to watch them in a scene where their every line isn’t a setup or a punchline. It’s a wonderful statement on friendship, and a strong argument for Ratzenberger’s move from featured player to regular.
TV: I wouldn’t put Rhea Perlman’s work here up there with some of the finest “breakout character plays other character for an episode” roles in TV history—like Andy Kaufman’s work on Taxi—but she’s a lot of fun as Annette. I like her playing around with creating a character who’s the opposite of Carla.
PN: Although the performance basically amounts to shuffling around demurely while wearing a wig and talking in a weird hushed voice, Rhea Perlman is fine as Annette. But then, when the end credits roll, she’s listed as one of the guest stars, as if she’d so fully created a new and distinctive character that her achievement had to be fully and properly recognized. That’s pushing it.
EA: I couldn’t move past the fact that it seemed like Perlman was engaged in an extended bit of Edith Ann cosplay.
DB: Man, showing somebody your home movies used to require a closet full of equipment and a trade-school certificate, didn’t it?
TV: It’s nice to see the show sending Sam and Diane to the background but still allowing us a few nice little moments between them. I particularly like the hopeful look on Coach’s face when Sam says, “We were gonna kiss.”
NM: Did everybody catch the name of the hospital where Carla had her baby? It’s the first (but not last) mention of TV’s own St. Eligius on Cheers. Also in this episode: the other Paul (played by Paul Krapence), still unnamed at this point in the series.
“In regards to the cold open, a lesser show would have had a cut away or timecard and then show the rest of the bar just as entranced with the opera as Diane, which is funny because they're dudes! Cheers however makes the joke even funnier by just keeping the characters true and it really works. The only shows on today I can think of that prioritize character over jokes that well is Parks & Rec and Community.”
“We just watched an episode from season 6 ("Paint Your Office"), where Sam in an attempt to get closer to Rebecca tells her about Derek after she tells him about her more successful / prettier siblings. He doesn't mention Derek by name, but the "perfect brother" description fits.”
Speaking of Derek, can’t we all just agree that invisible sitcom characters are awesome. Fireflame94 and hulk6785 say “Up with people (we can’t see)!,” while Pairesta thinks that kind of stuff should be left to theater.
Next week: Vera disappears, and Andy Andy returns.