Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “The Tortelli Tort,” “Sam at Eleven” and “Coach’s Daughter”

This is the newest 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 and for all the SSW pieces, visit this page.

The response to the first Cheers post was overwhelmingly positive, so I just wanted to say thank you for that! Keep the comments and tweets coming. Today, we dive into the next three episodes of Cheers’ first season: “The Tortelli Tort,” “Sam at Eleven” and “Coach’s Daughter.”

Typically, the first half-dozen episodes of television comedies are reserved for something of a feel-out process. This is at least the case in the modern era of comedy that I am used to. I talked last time about the problems with comedy pilots, but unlike great dramas that tend to have wonderful pilots and then stumble around for a few episodes, the improvement in a comedy is often very visible with each new episode. Of course, this is not always the case, especially when networks decide to air things out of order or simply a series takes much, much longer to figure itself out, but it has been my recent experience.

I say all this as a preface for my thoughts on episodes three, four and five of Cheers because I am pretty sure I preferred the pilot – and even the second episode, really – to these three.* These three efforts are far from bad and they are still generally enjoyable, but there are more things present here that I don’t like, things that are perhaps reflective of the kind of show Cheers was always going to be. Nevertheless, the primary issue I have with these episodes is still relatively minor, so why don’t I go ahead and get it out of the way now before getting into the meat of things, shall we?

*I made the comparison last week between Cheers and Modern Family and it seems like that continues here. I loved the MF pilot and was underwhelmed by the handful of subsequent episodes. The big “issue” I have with these Cheers episodes is also something that is reflected in Family. Maybe I should just start titling these posts, “Cheers and Modern Family are the same show.”

Last time, I worked through some of my personal problems with the traditional multi-camera format/live studio audience and came down on the positive side. But that doesn’t mean I’m a full convert or something, as one of my biggest issues with traditional comedy made an appearance in these episodes: broad, physical humor.

Now obviously, physical comedy is something that is not only found in the multi-camera format – this season of Modern Family went to that well about 12 times too many – but I cannot help but equate the two in my mind. One of the first things I think of when I recall “multi-camera sitcom” in my mind is Jon Cryer doing some awful bit of overwrought physical comedy on Two and a Half Men. Physical comedy in and of itself isn’t terrible, it just sometimes feels forced with the live studio audience because there is that pause where the actors have to get their bearings after the bit takes place and wherein the audience is supposed to be laughing. The audience usually overreacts to broad acts of physicality and their laughter becomes even more obnoxious, which spikes up my overall “hatred” of the format to begin with.

In each of these three episodes, there is a substantial bit of physical comedy and they all reach different levels of success. In “The Tortelli Tort,” Carla leaps onto the back of a large male Yankees fan and beats his head into the bar; In “Sam at Eleven,” Diane tosses Sam onto the pool table; and in “Coach’s Daughter,” the whole bar reacts to a customer’s confession that his scientific research job might make him sick. I guess you could say that there are four kinds of physical comedy:

1.) Funny bits with a character focus
2.) Not-so-funny bits with a character focus
3.) Funny bits with no real character focus, but are funny nonetheless
4.) Not-so-funny bits with no real character focus

The three instances from these episodes fit three different categories. Carla’s attacking of the obnoxious Yankees fan is definitely #2. Her anger over the Red Sox’s poor play, dedication to Boston sports and general feistiness means that she would believably jump on the back of a man who is antagonizing her and the rest of the bar. The moment tells us a little something about her (she’s willing to go to great lengths to protect her teams, her bar and her friends) and reinforces the main things we already now (she has a temper), but it’s all too obvious and over-the-top for my liking.

I’d argue that Diane tossing Sam onto the pool table is mostly a scene representative of #4. The scene tries to develop both of the characters’ pasts, particularly Diane’s derailed cheerleading background. However, it’s a loose thread to hold onto if you’re working towards the end-goal of having her throw Sam onto a pool table.

Finally, the bar-wide rapid cleansing of everything the medical researching customer touched is definitely a fine example of #3. Having nearly every person in the bar quickly wipe, spray and clean everything the guy touched, including Cliff’s sprint to the pay phone, was surprisingly fun. You could make an argument that the character being “developed” is the bar itself and I’d probably buy that. But this temporary fit of mass hysteria doesn’t tell us anything about the regular human cast.

As you might imagine, I can live with #2s, so Carla’s bit of rage is fine, I guess. And obviously #3s are lovely as well, but only in moderation. Don’t get me started on #4s. Perhaps I am putting too much thought into these things, but after the first few episodes didn’t focus too much on the obvious things I dislike about this kind of mainstream, populist comedy, those flash-points started creeping into episodes three through five. It might be something I have to live with over the course of the season, but I’m really hoping that is not the case. Cheers is an intelligently-written comedy that derives so much of its comedy from the interactions between the characters, pratfalls and hip-tosses onto pool tables take away from that.

The physical comedy was my biggest problem with these episodes, and like I said, they weren’t completely problematic in their own right, just possibly troubling for the future. Another story element dominant in these episodes is slightly problematic, but worth discussing in a more neutral context I think: Sam and Diane.

Sam and Diane were not the first will-they-or-won’t-they couple on American television, but they sort of feel like it. So much of what has defined television’s romantic relationships over the past two decades appears to have stemmed from the interactions between these two crazy kids, even if they weren’t the first or the best. From my perspective, it seems like television series rely on this trope far too often these days and for the past few years, I’ve been holding a grudge against Sam and Diane for this. They are one of, if not the, first couple that gets mentioned anytime the discussion of will-they-or-won’t-they relationships comes up and even by these three episodes alone, I can see why.

Even though each of these episodes has an individual focus in mind – a quick look at the episode titles will tell you as much – each of them is fairly heavy on the Sam and Diane of it all. Diane is a wonderful foil for Sam and he for her, but by the time she was throwing him onto a pool table in “Sam at Eleven,” it felt like maybe Cheers was forcing it. That is of course an interesting reaction coming from a massive fan of Community.

If you are familiar with that series, you know that it had the exact same problems with Jeff and Britta and as friend of the blog Les Chappell pointed out in a comment on my first Cheers post, the two duos are especially similar in type and chemistry. Jeff and Britta are more cynical and sarcastic, but the similarities are there. Community notably turned the audience’s annoyance with the will-they-or-won’t-they into a story within the series’ world, which reflective of the current era of television comedy that is responding to the years of the Sam and Diane and Ross and Rachel’s of the world. In an interview with Jace Lacob, Harmon had this to say about his approach to romantic relationships:

“In my world, people don’t pine after each other secretly for years and then end the story by kissing for the first time, and then keep kissing forever. In my world, love is sloppy.”

“It’s like fire. It burns you, it heats you, it cooks your food, it protects you from wolves, it can take your kid’s face off… It’s power. It’s storytelling to hook two people up. It can’t be taken lightly at all.”

As problematic and annoying as the will-they-or-won’t-they relationships can be, Harmon intelligently touches on their sometimes intoxicating appealing when done properly. In the first two episodes, I was really convinced that my Sam and Diane hatred was misguided. Their chemistry was natural, comfortable and generally funny. In these three episodes, the chemistry is still there, but it feels like the series is accentuating their relationship a bit too much.

“Sam at Eleven” is noticeably heavy with Sam and Diane scenes and although “Coach’s Daughter” is about well, Coach and his daughter, that story is supported by dueling assertions from Sam and Diane. I understand the need to continue to reinforce certain character beats and bonds, but it felt like Cliff, Norm and Carla (outside of “her” episode) were sidelined so that Sam and Diane could continue to antagonize and flirt with one another. Again, let me emphasize that I think Ted Danson and Shelley Long are very good and I really enjoyed their conversation in “Sam at Eleven” before Diane threw him onto the pool table. Nothing changed between the actors, the series itself just seemed to highlight them more here than it needed to. Cheers writer Ken Levine made an insightful statement on his wonderful blog about these kinds of romantic entanglements that I wanted to share with you:

“I think it’s much harder to sustain sexual chemistry now because couples in real life hook up much sooner. It just isn’t real for a TV couple to be playing cat and mouse with each other for two full seasons, or even one. They start to act like grown ups still in Junior High.”

He is absolutely correct, and this feels like one of those instances where the passage of time is just not on the series’ side. I’ve lived through Ross and Rachel, Dawson and Joey, Jack and Kate, Jim and Pam and Bones and Brennan, so it’s difficult for me to have patience with this kind of storytelling. I am going to do my best as I move through this first season and if I continue to rag on Sam and Diane, please let me know.

Despite the problematic focus on Sam and Diane, these episodes do have moments of world-expansion that suggest Cheers isn’t only about one unresolved sexual tension relationship. Carla and Coach both get their own episodes of sorts that add some fine shading and information about their backgrounds. Coach is clearly the more appealing and sympathetic character, but I found the story about Carla’s anger issues to be fairly well-executed (aside from the bit of physicality that I already discussed). Although the series has yet to go outside of the walls of Cheers (and I know it doesn’t at all throughout S1), it intelligently uses the characters themselves to deepen the world and give life to this version of Boston. Carla’s dedication to Boston sports teams helps in that regard while providing the character something to hold onto aside from her anger issues. I like that the series embraces its city and makes it an important part of story on a regular basis.

Similarly, Carla’s issues with the loud Yankee fan are indicative of the series’ larger interest in using Cheers as a safe place where these people can just be. The Yankee fan is an outsider and an intruder into this world and although Carla mishandles her reaction to the New Yorker’s comments, the bar’s overall support for her points out how integral loyalty is to this world. She’s overly loyal to Sam and in turn, he and the rest of the bar have her back as well.

This kind of storytelling is found in all three episodes, really. Each of these episodes features an “outsider” coming into Cheers and disrupting the overall equilibrium. In one, it’s a loud and obnoxious Yankee fan, in another, it’s a local newscaster and in yet another, it’s the fiancé of Coach’s daughter. These outsiders don’t understand the quirks and relationships between the people in Cheers and the bar sort of has to band together to prevent the foreigners from screwing things up. This of course reinforces the bonds between the regular customers and furthers the identity of the bar itself.

The whole bar supports Sam in his decision to do the interview and is there to support him when it goes south. They are similarly there for Coach when he has to deal with his daughter’s terrible fiancé, going as far as clapping the asshole out of the bar once Coach’s daughter stands up to him. Yet again, there’s a real sense that these people care about one another past the general niceties and formalities that come with hanging out in a bar with them. It’s cliché to call them a family, but it is readily obvious that Cheers is going for that kind of thematic connection. And even though the series does so with a completely straight face (unlike Community’s fractured, postmodern approach), it still works for me. If the chemistry and the connections are believable, I don’t have a problem with that brand of obvious storytelling.

Off that point, I am still surprised at how emotional and “serious” the series gets. Although these people sarcastically tear one another down from time to time, when it is time for a serious conversation, Cheers doesn’t back away from it. Sam firmly explains to Carla that she needs to keep her anger under control, he and Diane have another heated argument in “Sam at Eleven” and the weight given to Coach’s conversations with his daughter is similarly well-done.*

*I haven’t done enough reading on this to find out, but Coach is most certainly my favorite character thus far. I’m interested to see if that’s a typical reaction (I think it is) or not.

It never feels like these characters are simply sarcastic joke machines; their emotions and problems really matter. And again, even though I would probably find that kind of straight-faced and earnest storytelling too saccharine in today’s comedies – again Modern Family comes to mind – Cheers finds a way to make it work. I think it is because there is no preaching or attempts to wrap things up in a tight bow. Carla’s rage issues aren’t fixed and Sam will forever be adjusting to life after baseball.

I’m still very high on Cheers, even if the surprise sheen has worn off a little bit with these episodes. The series has settled into a rhythm very early on, which can be good and bad moving forward. I’m certainly excited to see which way Cheers falls.

Other thoughts:

  • As some sort of quasi-ranking of these three episodes, I liked “Coach’s Daughter” the best of the three, with “The Tortelli Tort” coming in second place.
  • I really liked the way the end of “Sam at Eleven” panned from Sam and Diane in the back room to the main part of the bar, wonderful and kind of innovative direction there.
  • Harry Anderson playing the magician/thief/hustler in that episode was fun.
  • “Wanna talk about major poets from New England as opposed to New York? Want to talk about Nobel prize winners in medicine?” “NO.”
  • “Think of my kids. If I didn’t have this job, I’d have to stay home with them.”
  • “The fact of the matter is, you’re an ex jockstrap.”
  • “This is the…what? 1980s?”
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2 thoughts on “Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “The Tortelli Tort,” “Sam at Eleven” and “Coach’s Daughter”

  1. Another great summary. I think I wound up watching these episodes all with the first two (and maybe one or two others) in one burst, so it’s all kind of pushed together. Interesting to look at them as an entity together. The physical comedy was an interesting aspect to mention – I didn’t even pick up it as a recurring part of the episodes until you brought it up, but it’s certainly there.

    What stood out to me was, as you pointed out, how serious and even dark the points of the episodes get. Sam and Carla could very well lose their livelihoods as a result of Carla’s actions against the Yankees fan, Sam is very clearly burned by an old friend in clear view of everyone, and Coach’s daughter is brutally honest about her prospects at finding a husband. I don’t know why, but for some reason I see all sitcoms made in previous decades as being relatively short on serious themes (possibly being dismissive of anyone who watched television pre-“Arrested Development”) so to see “Cheers” treat the world of these characters so seriously gave the show a lot of weight when I’d previously dismissed it as a lightweight sitcom about a bar.

    To pull an analogy out of left field. when Sam’s telling the story about his games it reminds me of when Henry performs Roman’s script in “Party Down” – you see just how good he was and how engaged he was, and it reminds you how hard it has to take him that he can never fully go back to that world. There’s a raw impact to how relaxed and excited Sam gets as the story goes along, and invested Diane and everyone else is getting in the story, and then the rug just gets yanked out from them once McEnroe shows up in town.

    I think my problem with Sam and Diane isn’t that it’s a grating relationship – as you stated above, Danson and Long are very good and make their scenes engaging – but that it’s so clearly the center of the show’s action. It’s a variation on the “Parks and Recreation” concern a lot of people have phrased this season – the show spends so much time on Ben and Leslie, or April and Andy, or Chris and Ann, that it pushes the other plotlines of small government and the wackiness of these peoples’ lives to the background. Particularly in “Sam at Eleven,” where it ends with the two talking in the back room, but it feels like every episode in some way has to revolve around the burgeoning connection between these two or their flirtations.

    And you’re absolutely right: Coach is my favorite as well. That randomness to what he says is just charming every time, as is the paternal affection he has for everyone in that place.

    I watched these a couple weeks ago, so some specific details have faded, but I’ll see about rewatching the next couple before the next one. Really enjoying having someone else on this journey over the summer.

    1. And as I said last week, I just can’t help myself. Every time the show builds tension between the two, Shirley’s voice plays in the back of my head: “Ooh, you’re just like Sam and Diane! I *hated* Sam and Diane.” I don’t hate them either, but it’s very obvious why many people did.

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