Sadly, Cheers isn’t as good as you remember it being.
I began rewatching the 8os sitcom on a whim before the coronavirus lockdown began. I didn’t realize at the time I was giving myself a long-term distraction through a tough period. At 275 total episodes and at 3 episodes a night, that’s roughly 90 days’ worth of viewing.
I wish I could say it was all beer and skittles.
There’s a distinct line of demarcation in the show, and it has to do with the series’ female leads. After Shelley Long left at the end of season five, “Cheers” took a dramatic dip in quality. I’ve heard many people complain that Long’s Diane Chambers was “annoying”, but that misses the point. They designed her that way. They built her character — the actor, the director, and the writers — to be who she was. She counterbalanced Ted Danson’s more meat-and-potatoes Sam Malone. The inspiration was clear. Sam and Diane’s relationship was built on the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Whether or not you liked Diane, you had to admit the superstructure of the show was both deliberate and functional.
Nothing seems deliberate about the Rebecca Howe era of the program. While Kirstie Alley’s performance in “Cheers” wasn’t bad, it’s hard to pinpoint what her Rebecca was supposed to be about, or what she was supposed to do for the show. I found the character far more annoying than I ever found Diane — mostly because her gold digger persona was grating and, even in the show’s finale, she exhibited almost no growth. More importantly, she never worked well in opposition to Sam. This was a fumble as far I’m concerned since a machine only works when its parts work well together.
But, putting that design flaw aside, Sam Malone himself took a hit following Diane’s departure. During those first five seasons, Sam was (and is) one of my favorite situation comedy characters. He and Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce both had an enormous influence on me in my formative years. Pre-departure Sam is thick but not stupid. Post-departure Sam is stupid and, often, as disappointingly shallow as Rebecca Howe.
Every few years, the creative team at the helm of “Cheers” changed. Several of those writer/producers didn’t get Sam at all. The series’ most embarrassing moments involve ridiculous situations with Malone coupled with off-key performances by Danson. The series at its best has a lot of air in it. It’s not about plot so much as it’s about spending time at the bar with your friends. The show never benefited from a French Farce structure and seeing Malone and Danson commit the most egregious comedy sin again and again was disappointing.
(If you’re wondering: In my view, the most egregious comedy sin is seeing characters do things they would never do in real life because they’re saddled with pushing the plot at all costs. Usually, this involves keeping a secret long past where any rational human would keep it. Danson got that thankless task more than once.)
Of course there are high points in seasons six through eleven. In fact, the show really rallies in its last year. Probably because the producers knew they were in the home stretch and they knuckled down and did the best work they could. Also, the 90 minute finale still ranks amongst the best last episodes of all time.
Still, 275 episodes is a long haul. If you’re curious about “Cheers” — either because you’ve never seen it, or because you want to see whether it holds up — take my advice. Watch the Shelley Long years and then jump to the finale. You’ll miss some funny stuff, but it’ll be a more efficient use of your time. Because, in the end, “Cheers” wasn’t as good as you remember it being.