That Championship Season: Cheers, Season Five

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Earlier this year, New York magazine came up with something they called “The Showrunner Transcripts.” They sought out the driving creative forces behind over a dozen critically-adored current series and interviewed them about their influences, favorites and approaches to creating modern television. When asked to name the shows from the past that impressed them the most, the classic sitcom Cheers came up with striking regularity. Maybe it wasn’t so odd that current comedy writers would hold the series in exalted status, but even such unlikely figures as Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan make a point of doling out some praise for the program created by James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles. Cheers was so prevalent in the feature, in fact, that New York followed up a few months later, giving Parks and Recreation showrunner Michael Schur a chance to expound at length about the series in which widespread knowledge of one’s name was the reassuring promise delivered in the theme song.

It’s fairly remarkable that Cheers even had multiple seasons. It was a verified dud in its first year, playing to almost no one on a decrepit network (NBC, which just goes to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same). One week the show even finished dead last in the ratings. It had its fans at the network, though, and it wasn’t like they had a wealth of sensational material to deploy as a replacement anyway. They let the show persevere, and interest built in the suppressed attraction between Boston bar owner Sam Malone and diverted scholar and fledgling waitress Diane Chambers, essentially forging the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that has been a mainstay, sometimes tiresomely so, of episodic television ever since. On Cheers, it worked beautifully, though, thanks in large part to the timing and chemistry of Ted Danson and Shelley Long in the leading roles. It all built to a two part season finale in which producers decisively ignited the romance. It was, by their own admission, somewhat an act of desperation, a bid to get attention for their still under-loved show, but that first clinch and kiss was preceded by a sensational scene that exemplified everything that was great about the show in the sharpness of the writing, the pureness of the emotions and the heat of the performances. As a reward, the series scooped up five major Emmys for its inaugural season, including Outstanding Comedy Series and one for Long as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Success started to build from there.

Strong as the show was, it was also beset by creative problems that needed to be untangled, and, in that, the series actually found what made it special, even somewhat revolutionary. For one thing, the producers had to find a way to replace the dramatic tension that came of Sam and Diane’s original fractious, flirtatious relationship. Feeling that the characters had been brought together more quickly than would be ideal, they needed to find ways to keep rending them apart while still holding onto the possibility of a viable relationship, a bit of ongoing construction that, among other things, led to the introduction of Dr. Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, as a complicating factor when he got engaged to Diane during one of her separations from Sam. A sadder challenge came about when Nicholas Colasanto, who portrayed the sweet, simple “Coach” Ernie Pantuso, passed away before the start of the show’s fourth season. He was replaced with a character who was, at least initially, very similar, albeit a few decades younger: Woody Boyd, played by Woody Harrelson, who was just over twenty-four-years-old when he first walked on to the set as a member of the cast.

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These changes, while fortuitous and probably necessary, ran directly counter to the self-imposed stasis that was the default of television sitcoms. The goal was to get a strong ensemble and effectively lock them into place, building stories around the appearance of change but always making every effort to get everything back to the beginning or some reasonable semblance of it by the time the closing credits hit. Evolution needed to be no more than an illusion, in part because it was never certain just when individual audience members were going to tune in during the course of a series or a season. Obviously, they weren’t going to watch every last episode in proper sequential order. That would be crazy. Who would have such devotion to something as frivolous and disposable as TV?

For the creators of Cheers, necessity drove marvelous invention and the show broke free like few of its predecessors. In the fifth season, they were right in the midst of their procession of inspired changes. Woody Boyd had settled in as something more than a Coach clone, giving the writers a chance to construct the same sort of dumb guy jokes they’d used for the earlier character, but with a flavor of almost jubilant innocence that gave the gags a whole new freshness. Frasier Crane was an even better addition, a stuffed shirt who was gradually learning to be one of the guys. His progression from Sam’s rival to compatriot of the blue-collar barflies was one of the best examples of the show’s endless adaptability. Besides, without Frasier, there would be no Dr. Lilith Sternin, the fellow psychiatrist played with ingenious icy control by Bebe Neuwirth in one of the truly great television acting performances of the era. The character first appeared during the fourth season, but it was in the fifth that she escalated in prominence, entering into a romance with Frasier that eventually led to Neuwirth becoming a series regular.

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The newer characters revitalized the older ones, giving the creators new combinations to play with and a grander camaraderie to the de facto family unit they collectively represented. The inclusiveness of the bar was always a major part of the emotional terrain of the show. It prevented the audience from needed specific convincing that a blowhard like Cliff Clavin, played by John Ratzenberger, would continue to be welcome on his stool even as he authoritatively droned on with trivial misinformation. By the fifth season, this quality had fully settled into place, and the various changes the cast had gone through only served to further accentuate why these characters bonded so tightly. They’d moved together, shifted together and gotten all sorts of little reminders of the preciousness of their shared connection because they saw how easily it could all slip away. They’d also come to appreciate one another, no matter how barbed the exchanges. Sometimes trading insults is just another way of demonstrating the depth of shared knowledge of one another. And sometimes hurling ice cold potatoes across a Thanksgiving table is its own expression of love.

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Season five was also the culmination of the long-running Sam and Diane storyline. At a certain point, Shelley Long made it clear that she wouldn’t return for a sixth season, preferring to pursue a film career, a choice that proved so disastrous that she replaced Suzanne Somers as the primary Hollywood cautionary tale warning about the dangers of turning away from a hit sitcom. It may not have worked out for Long, but it provided a welcome jolt to the show. The producers didn’t impose some sort of sense of foreboding over the relationship, a looming certainty that it would come to an end, but it did free them up to allow for forward momentum that wasn’t worrisome in any way. There could be choices and consequences and no one needed to worry about how to reset everything at a later point.

The season began with a thwarted marriage proposal which made Sam defiantly decide (at least outwardly) that he no longer wanted anything to do with Diane, even though she openly pined for him now, lavishing him with lovebird attention because, as she saw it, he’d revealed his true heart. At the midpoint of the season, in the exceptional episode “Chambers vs. Malone,” Sam finally proposes again and Diane accepts, albeit somewhat under duress in a court of law. The remainder of the season plays out with the prospect and promise of wedded bliss between the two. Clearly, Long’s pending professional shift meant that there was no actual future for the relationship. With the need to preserve the status quo wholly eliminated, the writers were allowed greater latitude in how they evaluated the couple, sometimes even veering to an almost deconstructionist take on the lovelorn partnership that had been the spiritual center of the show from the beginning. That quality is at its most potent than in “Simon Says,” which ranks among the four or five best single episodes of the entire series.

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Frasier is visited by his old school chum Dr. Simon Finch-Royce, played, in a true casting coup, by John Cleese. He’s become one of the world’s most respected experts on marriage and romantic compatibility and he acquiesces to Diane’s request to evaluate her relationship with Sam, accepting a hefty fee from Frasier as an early wedding present for the couple. After spending a little time, he delivers the only reasonable verdict given the years of combat the writers have invented for the two and tells them that they have no business getting married, which only spurs Diane to keep pushing back at him. She’s relentless enough to bring Simon to brink of the sort of poisoned salt hostility Cleese once mastered as Basil Fawlty and he instead raves (or, more appropriately, rants) about their perfection together. They whole sequence is a reasonable facsimile of the five years of false starts, orchestrated setbacks and delayed gratification that characterized the characters’ relationship. And, of course, the prediction of eternal love is just as false.

After the season was complete, Long left and was replaced by Kirstie Alley as Rebecca Howe, a corporate businesswoman who’d started running the bar in Sam’s absence. Originally intended to be a sexpot that Sam fruitlessly pursued–just a differently calibrated stand-in for Long’s Diane–the character began to instead mirror Alley’s inherent goofiness, leading to a totally different set of possibilities. As before, the show evolved. Still, it never quite had the same ease again and it certainly didn’t develop another effortless year-long through line like it had in season five. Cheers struck a perfect balance in its fifth year, finding ways to jostle stories from complacency using newer characters. Simultaneously, the producers took advantage of the most well-established figures on the show to develop episodes that nicely benefited from the accumulated history, such as the romance between barmaid Carla Tortelli, played by Rhea Perlman, with hockey goalie Eddie LeBec, played by Jay Thomas. It’s a story that simply wouldn’t have worked as well earlier when it would have felt like a contrivance instead of the sort of bittersweet possibility that long dogged and shaped the character.

The show was built with notable confidence in the fifth season. Everyone clearly knew what they were doing by this point and hadn’t yet tired of the act of getting the show from the page to the stage. In fact, most of the season is imbued with a sense of perpetual rejuvenation. They’d survived previous tumult, so everyone had already been trained to view the departure of Long as opportunity rather than setback. In the meantime, they were going to get everything out of her and Diane Chambers that they could giving the character and the show’s central relationship the sort of clear ending that was often denied to shows, especially back then when the opportunity for a series to bow out on its own terms was incredibly rare. Cheers still had many years to go, and good years at that. And still they found a way to give season five a true ending that promised more new beginnings.

Previously…
An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five