Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the American Idol series finale, we’re revisiting our favorite television episodes featuring a talent competition.
Howard Cosell once said the ultimate victory in competition comes from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done your best, and gotten the most out of what you had to give. The gang at Cheers would call that horseshit. The point of a competition, in their eyes, is to win. Otherwise, you’ve a loser, and where’s the fun in that? “Face it: You’re a bunch of losers,” proclaims confidence man Harry The Hat (recurring guest star Harry Anderson), during the final season of Cheers, in the episode “Bar Wars VII: The Naked Prey.” To Harry, that’s the charm of Cheers: “If it weren’t for you guys, how would we know who the winners are?”
The winners, for almost every season of the show, were the guys at Gary’s Olde Town Tavern. Starting in season four and continuing on through season 11, the rival Boston pub was the perfect nemesis for our booze-swilling protagonists, as Sam, Carla, Woody, Norm, Cliff, and the rest of the gang lost time and again to the opposing bar and its smirking owner, Gary (Robert Desiderio, who alternated the role with Joel Polis). What began as a sports-based competition quickly spun out into a series of escalating pranks, as the show returned at least once or twice a year to Cheers’ ongoing struggle against its adversary. Most times, Gary would turn out to be one step ahead, turning the tables on Sam and company whenever they thought success was in hand. The rare exceptions involved everything from the Cheers gang pranking themselves to head off worse retaliation, to everyone teaming up with Gary to prank Sam, to the final “Bar Wars” installment, which finally gave the Cheers gang the kind of win they’d been hoping for all along.
“Bar Wars VII: The Naked Prey” begins as yet another competition between Cheers and Gary’s—to see who makes the most sales on St. Patrick’s Day—but ends in glorious destruction. Sam is convinced this is the year they’ll finally beat Gary in sales (his response to the fact Gary has won the past 10 years running? “Lucky 11”), and so makes a bet above and beyond the usual hundred and fifty bucks. After the inevitable loss, ensured by Gary and his guys building a concrete brick wall around Cheers’ bar, Sam and the boys head over to Gary’s Olde Town Tavern, where they fulfill the terms of the bet: An a cappella rendition of “Getting To Know You,” performed completely nude. But in the last moments of the episode, Cheers wins an unexpected ultimate victory, orchestrated by Harry The Hat, of all people.
Aiding the competition episodes’ effervescent fun with is how the struggle against Gary’s brings out the best in everyone. As opposed to the usual Cheers episode, where good-natured sniping at one another is about as rough as things get, here, the gang’s all on the same side in a fierce battle. And they become the ultimate versions of themselves: Woody gets even Woody-er, Norm is his Norm-iest, and Cliff is accepted by all as one of the fellas. Despite repeated losses, the camaraderie is heartwarming, and gets to the root of the series’ appeal. Sending off the show in its final season with a triumphant win against the gang’s erstwhile villain doesn’t just close the door on a breezily inspired running plot thread: It gives our little group of losers a win. And winning looks awful good on them—because it’s a win for the audience, too.
Availability: “Bar Wars VII: The Naked Prey” is available for streaming on Hulu.