This is the first post in 2011’s Surveillance Summer Watch series featuring Cheers and Hill Street Blues. For the next couple of months, I’ll be writing weekly reviews of episodes from each series’ first seasons, with Cheers on Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post.
Let me tell you a little something about myself: I am a fraud. See, I think that I hate traditional multi-camera sitcoms. Outside of How I Met Your Mother, which does not quite fit the standard bill based on its shooting practices, I do not watch any multi-camera comedies. And it took three seasons and a slew of goodwill before I decided to even try HIMYM. I think I dread the laugh-track. When someone says multi-camera sitcom, it is difficult not to think of something like Two and a Half Men. The first comedy series I dedicated myself to watching were Arrested Development and Scrubs.
But here the reality of it all is that like many children of the ‘90s, I was raised on ABC’s TGIF block and other comedies like Home Improvement and Saved By The Bell. When I did not care about form, I loved the multi-camera sitcom. It just so happens that the dearth of quality multi-camera comedies coincided with my more directed investment in television comedy, leaving me to believe that I like one thing and do not like another. I have recently had this suspicion about myself, but after watching the first two episodes of Cheers, it was confirmed: I like multi-camera comedies with laugh-tracks just fine – especially great ones.
Because of my age, Cheers is mostly a blank spot for me. Before taking on the first season for this summer viewing project, I had watched a grand total of three full episodes, I think. I have foggy memories of catching the last few seconds of episodes in syndication before various primetime or late night programs I deemed more important, but everything I previously knew about Cheers could be defined by its most obvious relevance in popular culture. Vague concepts like “Sam and Diane,” the “Everybody Knows Your Name” tag and theme and its connection to Fraiser (a series I have seen even less of) were basically all I knew of Cheers before watching the first few episodes sometime last week.
And to be honest, I did not really care to know. The multi-camera, the obnoxious and ubiquitous theme song, one of the most famous will-they-or-won’t-they relationships ever? No thanks.
But after Community creator and showrunner Dan Harmon kept mentioning how important the series was to him and it became available on Netflix, I knew I had to check it out. If the mastermind of my favorite comedy ever loves it, clearly a nobody like me should give it a chance, right?
Not surprisingly, Dan Harmon is correct. Two episodes into it, I have been proven an idiot twice over. Not only are the first two episodes of Cheers funny and compelling, but they do some nice things within the confines of the multi-camera sitcom form that I particularly enjoyed. The lesson is, as always, I am kind of a dolt.
In today’s television landscape, it is really easy to poke fun at the multi-camera sitcom and the laugh-track that comes along with it. The modern era is full of comedies that spend lots of time breaking down the conventions that series like Cheers do such a wonderful job of reinforcing. Community is truly one of the most innovative comedies of all-time and I love it. But I when I try to pitch it to the uninitiated, I always note that “it is not for everyone.” The thing is, I have never really experienced a television comedy that is for everyone. Despite its popularity, Seinfeld still feels niche-y to me and I guess the closest thing that would come close is Friends.
But without question, Cheers is that series. There is loads of value and cultural capital in liking something such as Community or Party Down, but the populist aesthetic and comfortability of Cheers is surprisingly seductive, just within these first two episodes. I might front as a television comedy snob, but when things make me laugh, I will admit it – and these first two episodes of Cheers made me laugh.
One of my biggest concerns with watching a comedy that began nearly 20 years ago is its shelf life. Comedies too often rely on popular culture references of the moment to make their points and punch up their jokes and I was at least partially worried that I would not understand some of the mentions and references from episodes that were made five years before I was even born.*
*These thoughts were probably also spurred on by this great A.V. Club piece on the datedness of television
However, the first two episodes of Cheers hold up pretty well. There are mentions to the latest New England Patriots front office blunder, an odd relic in a time before the Bob Kraft/Bill Belichick era, but honestly, that is about it. These initial episodes are nearly devoid of uber-specific cultural references, something I found impressive. Great comedies are more about the characters and their relationships than the jokes themselves and it appears that from the outsight, Cheers had aims to be a great comedy.
What I found most remarkable about these initial episodes is how well-defined each of the main characters is. Sam and Diane are clearly situated as the leads, but both the pilot episode and “Sam’s Women” make time for Coach, Carla, Norm and Cliff. Within moments of their initial introductions, it is easy (in a good way) to get a read on who these people are: Coach is supremely dense, but full of spirit; Carla is bitter and feisty; Norm is a fun-loving functioning alcoholic and Cliff provides offbeat commentary and trivia to the proceedings. I am fully certain that these roles will expand as the first season progresses, but there is something about the ease at which these actors and these characters bounce off one another. There is a sense of history with all of them even though we really only know that Coach and Sam have much of an extended past together.
Because the characters are so well sketched out here, the laughs flow fairly quickly and easily. Few of the jokes feel telegraphed or manufactured because almost all of them are character-based. Sure, Ted Danson’s Sam is a bit of a smart-ass in the opening scenes with Shelley Long’s Diane and her soon-to-be-not-fiancé Sumner, but even then, he is reacting honestly to what he sees as a pairing of pretentious goofs (his word). The weird stories Cliff shares, Norm hitting his beer mug on the table to get Diane’s attention at the other end, Carla’s manic energy – all of it feels natural and real. These are people who could exist in the real world. Related to that, I particularly enjoyed that the characters/actors are often laughing at one another as the scenes progress. It is a small and mostly unnoticeable element, but it makes all the difference.
Additionally, these two episodes introduce what I imagine are the series’ primary themes of community and communal bonds fairly well. Even though it is not hammered home, there is a sense that Cheers is a place where not only disparate people come together, but also where broken people come to get fixed. This is not a wholly original thematic concern, but it is still well-deployed here. Diane is the most obvious initial candidate for “fixing,” as she loses her fiancé and her job within a few hours, and even though she is not totally beat up about it in “Sam’s Women,” she still has something substantial to get over. Cheers appears to have “fixed” Sam as well, as it gave him something to hold onto in the time after he fell out of the MLB and sobered up. There’s also that nice runner in “Sam’s Women” about the customer looking for former customer Gus because he needs advice. It is almost as if Cheers is a healing place, no matter who works there. Again, these themes are not groundbreaking and were not so in 1983, but they work because they are so universal and relatable.
The comfortable rhythms and pacing of these opening episodes is so enjoyable. It never feels like the series is trying to do anything groundbreaking or especially controversial, but that is completely fine by me. There is this sense that we want television to want more for itself. Entertaining us is fine, but the quality dramas and dense comedies confound and compel us perhaps more than they entertain. Amid the countless recaps, reviews and morning afters, it seems like we have perhaps analyzed television to death in such a way that in good series, everything must mean something else or be part of a larger, more complicated picture. Being “simply entertaining” for a lot of people almost feels like a negative thing in today’s world. Simply entertaining is reserved for CBS comedies and procedurals. We (meaning those of us who spend too much time talking, tweeting and writing about television) want and expect more.
Case in point: I wrote a season wrap piece on Modern Family last week and was not too kind. I felt like the series quickly grew tired in season two and starting to feel like (gasp) a traditional mainstream sitcom. I outwardly admitted in that piece that I was probably judging Family too harshly because all it wants to be is a populist, mainstream traditional comedy, not unlike Cheers. Thinking about both series brought me to a few points/questions that I want to discuss here:
1.) Does Cheers only work because it is separated from this current era of great and different comedies, and thus I can hold it to a less stringent standard?
Honestly, I am not sure. As I said at the beginning of this post, I never thought I would like it, which suggests lowered expectations from the outset. Moreover, I know that I am trying to view the series in its own right without trying to compare to something like Community or Parks and Recreation, but at the same time, I plan on doing just that with later episodes and posts.
One thing I can answer for sure: Cheers certainly holds up against today’s multi-camera comedies. I have seen episodes of everything CBS has to offer, I watched multiple episodes of ABC’s Better With You. Cheers is, without a doubt, a better and funnier series than all of them. Watching these episodes of Cheers makes me further understand why the multi-camera sitcom is still relatively popular with audiences: They remember things like Cheers. But what I do not quite understand is why there are not any multi-camera comedies that are even as close to as good as Cheers, which is something I will certainly be exploring in later reviews and posts.
2.) Why are most recent broadcast comedy pilots terrible?
I do not get it. If you know me and the site, you know I have been harping on the fact that it is nearly impossible to make a judgment on comedies – especially broadcast comedies – until you have seen at least four or five episodes. Those calls for patience stem from the fact that most recent comedy pilots have not been particularly strong. There are some exceptions (Party Down most notably), but so many of even the “good” comedy series of recent memory started off poorly (The Office, Parks and Recreation) or began with lots of issues (Community and 30 Rock both stumbled at first).
The one major exception to that rule is surprise, Modern Family. The ABC comedy series’ first episode is really lovely and still one of my favorites the series has done to-date. And although it uses a specific kind of camera set-up that denotes “quality” in some sense of the word, Modern Family really just wants to be the 21st century version of Cheers. Not necessarily in plot content, but perhaps in the heights it tries to reach. Modern Family is not trying to deconstruct the sitcom form like Community or tap into the small town aesthetic like Parks and Recreation, I is just trying to make people laugh with character humor. I do not think it achieved those goals as much in season two and I still do not find it as nearly as funny as I did these episodes of Cheers, but the comparisons are moderately apt. Despite my issues with Family in its second season, I still love those characters and most of them were clearly defined from the jump, which makes it similar to Cheers in that way.
Of course, my problems with season two of Modern Family could quickly become my problems with Cheers. What starts as comfortability can transition into complacency, and what begins as an easily accessible and recognizable character trait can become stereotypically one-note. But things I expected to be annoyed with while watching Cheers (the Sam and Diane stuff and the multi-camera set-up, most notably) I actually loved. Cheers somehow successfully uses a number of beats and maneuvers that were they on a brand-new sitcom, we would immediately point to TV Tropes and sigh. These episodes are full of things I have seen countless times and disliked most of them, but it ultimately does not really matter. When the characters are this likable and the chemistry is this good, it is hard to have much to complain about, no matter how many characters are being used.
- James Burrows’ direction is as good as advertised, especially in the pilot episode. There is pleasant movement and depth to how he shoots the bar and its various spots. It looks especially great when compared to the flat, boxy multi-camera comedies of today.
- I don’t know how I existed in this world for 23 years without knowing that the characters all yelled “NORM!” when Norm walked into Cheers. I feel like a fool.
- Ted Danson is really, really good here. I’m most familiar with his recent television work (Damages, Bored to Death), but he is an effective and charismatic lead.
- “Sam’s Women” focuses a little too much on the unresolved sexual tension between Sam and Diane, but still pulls a few successful scenes out of it. I particularly liked their more serious and intense conversation where they called one another out.
- “That’s done.” “I certainly hope so.”
- “You’re a magnificent pagan beast.” “Thanks, what’s the message?”
- “BEER. With two e’s.”
- This series is a new and fluid process. I did not do a whole lot of plot summary here because it is not something I usually do with new series, but if you would prefer that I do, let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter.