Friday, 20 January 2012

11 things I love about Cheers

I powered through Cheers in just under a month, so in honour of the show’s eleven seasons, I thought I’d talk about eleven things I love about it.

1. Season one of Cheers is a perfect little bubble of sitcom mastery. It’s not the show’s best season (I’d say about a third of the episodes are either failed experiments or have aged poorly), but it’s definitely my favourite. I think the main reason for this is that the show never leaves the bar the whole season. Every single one of these twenty-two episodes takes place in only three sets: the main bar, the back pool room, and Sam’s office. By doing this, the producers could spend all their time developing both the characters and the setting they’re bound to. And the thing is, they never even had to do that. Cheers emerged fully-formed in its pilot, with every regular character appearing completely realized in their introductory scenes. There’s a certain audacity in the way the show takes its time introducing and developing all of its elements, and yet it’s endlessly watchable: it’s the purest, most focused season in the show’s run, and possibly the funniest. With little outside the bar distracting from the action, the show can just have the characters bounce off each other for entire episodes. And it’s all so well-done that if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t even notice that the camera never left the bar.

2. Part of the reason for the show’s watchability is its focus on the romance between Sam and Diane. Almost every sitcom these days has an irritating will-they/won’t-they romance tacked on to it, so it’s easy to forget that that type of plot had to actually start somewhere. The surprising thing about Cheers’ central romance is just how well it’s executed. The main reason for this, and something that sets Cheers’ romance apart from similar ones in modern shows, is that Cheers is completely devoted to it. Whole episodes are given over to Sam and Diane’s verbal sparring, and even unrelated ones will stop abruptly halfway through in favour of a long, emotional scene between the two. These scenes are always handled realistically and compellingly, and even though they’re the show’s main focus, they never wear out their welcome. Cheers explored every possible facet of Sam and Diane’s relationship, from attraction and romance, to betrayal and hatred, to unrequited love (from both sides). It was a novel idea at the time for a sitcom to be so concerned with romance, but it’s no wonder that’s commonplace today.

3. Even though the show was overtly focused on Sam and Diane, they weren’t the whole story. Over the first five seasons of the show, all the other characters were slowly developed so they could be major players later on. None of these were more entertaining than Coach, whose actor, Nicholas Colasanto, died at the end of the third season. Coach is probably my favourite character in the whole show, which is a little suspect considering his main personality trait was that he wasn’t very smart. But if it’s possible to be such a thing, Coach is a decidedly non-stereotypical dumb character: he was never given the respite other dumb characters get where they can accidentally say smart things on occasion (something Woody would do later on). In fact, Coach was so impossibly, unrealistically dumb that by all accounts the character shouldn’t have worked at all. But here’s what made him such a great character: he never thought he was smart. Someone like Cliff, who says stupid things but is convinced they’re a genius, can be funny, but can never be a truly great character. Coach knew he was dumb, and his friendly nature meant that he always deferred to others when it came to something he didn’t know. In the pilot alone, he eagerly changes his mind three times when he hears the other characters’ opinions on a piece of football news. It takes a certain amount of skill to write a dumb character like this, and there’s so much intelligence in the way Coach is written (including a lot of wordplay and surprisingly philosophical misunderstandings) that he’s easily one of the best examples of the type.

4. Of course, the other characters aren’t far behind. I said that each character was fully-formed even in the first episode, and while the way they’re written and performed is top notch, the reason for this (and the reason they were so easily able to last eleven years) is just how simple each character is. The more baggage a character carries with them, the more difficult it becomes to write for them over a long period of time. Just look at Community: each character had a long, complex backstory in the first episode that was slowly hacked away at until they all became simpler (and better-written) character types by the second season. Cheers started off with five main characters, and each one was immediately recognizable in their first appearance: the womanizing jock, the pompous academic, the acerbic waitress, the dumb bartender, and the lazy barfly. By the eleventh season, little of this has changed. Sitcoms live or die based on their characters, and to survive that long you need to keep things simple. Even if you’d never seen Mary Tyler Moore before, you could watch any episode and immediately grasp who these people are and what their relationships to each other are like. The same goes for Cheers. It mined endless amounts of humour from characters who were basically archetypes, and though they developed over time, they never lost what made them them.

5. The show’s only real character shakeup occurred when Diane left after season five. It was written into the show because of behind-the-scenes events, but it turned out to be a necessary departure, as Diane’s romance with Sam was already beginning to have run its course by then. In honour of it, I’d like to talk a bit about my favourite actor on the show, Shelley Long. In her hands, a character who was written to be pretentious and unsympathetic turned into one of Cheers’ most compelling. I think that Long understood her character more deeply than anyone else in the cast (behind-the-scenes reports indicate that the two were maybe more similar than they should’ve been), and that depth makes you sympathize with Diane the most frequently. You truly believe she’s falling for this hulking jock against every fibre of her being. Above all, the thing that surprised me most about Long’s performance is just how adept a comic actor she is. There’s a scene in “Sam’s Women,” the second episode of season one, where Diane is teasing Sam by laughing at him whenever his back is turned. While watching him trying to catch her in the act, Long turns her million-dollar smile off and on like a lightswitch, and it’s one of those silly visual gags you wouldn’t think Long would have a flair for. I really wish she’d get back into television, because I’d love to see more of her ample sitcom talents.

6. When Diane left, Cheers responded in a surprising way. Instead of replacing her with a similar character to fill the void, as they did with Woody for Coach, the producers used Diane’s departure as an opportunity to cleave Cheers into two different series. It was impossible to repeat the romance aspect for another few years, so Cheers basically turned into a standard workplace comedy. The supporting characters became more important and the plots gradually got sillier, but the main change the show made between the two seasons was in Sam. He shifted from a romantic lead into an ensemble character just with a few minor tweaks to his personality. It’s actually a little impressive just how little they had to change about him to completely change the show’s tone. They mostly just emphasized three things that were already true about him: his stupidity (originally he was just uncultured), his womanizing (this was handled more realistically initially), and his vanity (which was occasionally mentioned early on, but really took off in season six). By slightly changing the tone of the character, the entire show became different: sillier and more ensemble-based, but just as hilarious.

7. Season seven is one of the sillier seasons of the show, but the quality of the writing is as impressive as ever. In its first few seasons, Cheers trafficked in a somewhat old-fashioned joke writing style, where writers were confident that if they deliberately set up situations over the course of an episode, viewers would wait patiently for their payoffs. It’s what makes the show so watchable even when there aren’t that many punchlines flying around. The show, especially in the early seasons, could have less jokes than a sitcom today, but it eagerly traded in that aspect in favour of a few big belly laughs. By the seventh season, this quality was reigned in a bit, but still showed its face in a few of that season’s more farcical episodes, like “Send in the Crane,” which sets up an extremely dumb joke early on, outright says what the punchline will be at the midpoint, has all the characters realize what’s going on by the end of the episode, then goes ahead with the joke anyway, pulling it off perfectly. Cheers was patient in developing its writing style in its first few seasons, and they earned the confidence and audacity that would characterize it during its later ones.

8. One of my favourite things a sitcom can do is use its seasonal structure to its advantage, and while Cheers never fully achieved that, it did spend some amount of effort in making sure it had distinct seasons. If you watch an episode without knowing when it’s from, you can usually figure it out by watching for clues. Sam and Diane’s relationship went through so many iterations that it’s easy to situate yourself based on that, but even in the Rebecca years, the show used story arcs and character hierarchies to tell you where you were. Even though it mostly dealt in standalone episodes, the show shuffled characters around enough to almost anticipate the long-term storytelling common in sitcoms today. Sam sold and regained the bar, Rebecca fell in and out of love with various suitors, and Frasier and Lilith’s relationship progressed and eventually dissolved. It’s a great show of faith in long-term watchers at a time when most sitcoms tied up every thread at the end of each episode, and it makes the payoffs in the last season that much bigger.

9. One of the most obvious things about the show when you first watch it is just how well it’s directed. James Burrows, who directed almost every episode, makes sure the camera is always moving, following characters around the bar and reacting to their actions. Extras in the background are always chatting or laughing, and a dynamic atmosphere is maintained throughout. At first, this style seemed a bit showy, but eventually I realized that it actually serves as a way to deepen the show’s setting. This started in season one’s “Sam at Eleven,” where a single shot brings you from the back pool room out through the hallway and into the main bar to close the episode. Until that point, I didn’t even realize that the sets were actually physically connected. In season six’s “Home Is the Sailor,” the camera once even faces the opposite direction and reveals an actual fourth wall at the front of the bar. By season nine, in the name of making the setting feel real, the show actually began to film scenes outside the actual Boston bar that the show used for its establishing shots. This started just in the cold opens, but by season eleven an episode’s action might actually progress outside onto the street, even though the sets were at other ends of the country. When you see so much of the bar, it begins to feel more and more like a real place. It’s this attention to the show’s visual aspect, something usually absent from sitcoms, that really sets Cheers apart.

10. Though she’d been appearing occasionally since season four, Lilith only became a starring castmember for the tenth season, and while that season was far too silly and cartoonish, her constant presence kept it from going off the rails completely. After Coach died, she was the character I most enjoyed seeing onscreen. And just like everyone else, she was so simple. Almost all the humour that came from her was based on the idea that it’s funny when an especially serious person acts silly. But Lilith never rang false. She was such an inspired creation, a pre-spinoff attempt to give Frasier a foil that’s like him, but more extreme (the same thing he once was to Diane). In the later seasons, she turned into one of the show’s funniest characters, giving these big ridiculous punchlines that would turn out seeming almost undersold because of her subdued nature. And in season ten, when she became a regular, she began to get whole episodes devoted to her, instead of just to her relationship with Frasier. Bebe Neuwirth always played the character perfectly, and when she finally got to deliver the “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” announcement in that season, it made me happier than ever.

11. While seasons nine and ten saw the show turning into a slapsticky mess, season eleven made sure Cheers stuck the landing. Even in its first episode, the show seemed more grounded and emotional than it had been for a few years. While it had its share of silly episodes, the season went a long way toward humanizing Sam again, and making characters like Rebecca and Carla sympathetic after a few seasons of them barely acting like people. A few of the show’s minor characters were given proper sendoffs, especially Lilith, whose separation with Frasier turned into one of the more affecting storylines on the show, even though it involved an eco-pod and a crazy man with a gun. It all culminated in the great finale, which wasn’t perfect, but was a wholly satisfying ending for the show. Every main character got a chance to shine, even Diane, who maybe wasn’t completely herself, but who was a welcome presence regardless. I had begun to sour slightly on the show in its later seasons, but the finale left me with only a feeling of warmth for the whole series. And the best thing about it: it barely left the bar. Cheers emerged fully-formed, yes, but that didn’t stop it from growing and changing in all its years on the air. It's easily one of the very best sitcoms I’ve ever seen, and that’s the result of its producers painstakingly making sure every decision made for the show was the right one.