Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “Coach Returns to Action,” “Endless Slumper” and “One for the Book”

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 Cheerson Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post and for all the SSW pieces,visit this page.

People like to talk about how on Community, Greendale serves as this healing center of sorts. All the characters have come from disparate, damaged backgrounds and there’s a sense that they’ve finally found a place to call home, if you will. This isn’t an original sitcom conceit, but Community does it better than anyone right now. However, watching Cheers has changed my perspective, not only on how Community handles the proverbial “healing,” but also how it’s done in a more traditional sense.

We know that Dan Harmon loves Cheers and when I watched the first few episodes of the series, I saw the obvious similarities. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, Harmon’s Community toys with the assumptions about Sitcom Healing Centers (or SHCs, if you’re an acronym person). Although there is a sense that someone like Jeff is becoming a better person because he’s hanging out with the misfit study group, making amends with Fat Neil, helping Chang, etc., that’s not really the whole story. The characters on Community are much more overtly damaged and dysfunctional than those on Cheers, which allows Greendale to be a SHC, but not necessarily do much fixing. The Greendale study body might have banded together to take on City College in the finale, but that won’t really change anything for them. They still go to Greendale and Dean Pelton is still their dean.

Perhaps more importantly, we haven’t seen much improvement from the lead characters in the study group. Troy and Abed have fallen further down the rabbit hole of their relationship, Shirley made a fairly grave mistake (albeit one during a zombie outbreak), Britta and Jeff still suck and Pierce raised all sorts of hell and then said goodbye. Annie seems like the only character who made personal strides in S2 and that might have to do with her place as the youngest in the group. She’s not entirely a lost cause yet. No one in the study group improved their lives like Fat Neil did. In fact, looking at it that way, we could say that while Greendale might look like a traditional SHC, the study group is completely toxic to the school’s ability to make things right. There were a number of hints this season that Jeff, Britta and company aren’t actually cool at all, they’re mostly terrible and kind of hated. When StarBurns is glad you were gone for a day or two, this is a problem.

Thus, it seems obvious that Harmon is trying to stretch the confines of the SHC conceit as far as he can with Community. He’s asking questions like “What happens when the lead characters kind of suck, but not dramatically so?” and “How dysfunctional and broken is too dysfunctional and too broken?” Or at least I think he is, because he’s seen Cheers.

Cheers is all about the SHC. The bar is a traditional setting that allows for all sorts of social experimentation. We can follow the flawed lead characters and track their rehabilitation and we can also watch outside forces come in to either challenge or reaffirm the bar’s place as a SHC. A lot of this stems from the fact that the series takes place in only one setting, which means even the most frivolous of sitcom story resolutions can be read as furthering the series’ SHC-agendas. Every episode of Cheers is a bottle episode, every conversation a chance to become a slightly better person.

But on Cheers, there is no backwards sub-SHC like the study room on Community and there are similarly fewer obvious flaws in Sam, Diane, Norm, Carla, Coach and Cliff. They all have issues, but in the more traditional “sitcom flaw” kind of way. Cheers was popular because people could easily relate to Sam and company and want to hang out with them. As much as the internet TVitterati loves Troy and Abed, I’m not really sure they’d want to share a meal with the two of them. I know I could personally get over Britta’s neurosis to have dinner with her, but that’s neither here nor there, obviously.

But I don’t mean this as a slight to Cheers. Dan Harmon has the benefit of time and postmodern context to make his purposefully broken SHC. Even for a populist multi-camera sitcom from the ’80s, Cheers does a wonderful job of exploring its SHC-ness and this week’s episodes are especially reflective of that kind thematic interest. Coach and Sam get their moments of improvement in “Coach Returns to Action” and “Endless Slumper,” respectively, while the whole bar helps a few outsiders find some peace in “One for the Book.” Clearly, Coach and Sam don’t reach self-actualization or something (sup, Maslow?) at the end of these episodes, but there is a sense that without the bar and its patrons, neither one of them could have overcome their very-different hang-ups. However, Cheers isn’t afraid to make the journey to temporary success a bumpy one, especially when it comes to crowd-sourcing some advice from the likes of Diane, Norm, Cliff and Carla.

Exploring Coach’s love life in “Returns to Action” just makes me smile. He could have easily been this dolt, asexual character, but presenting the possibility of him hooking up with a woman — a much younger one at that — this early in the series sets the stage for all sorts of fun story possibilities. But of course, Coach is older and is kind of a dolt. Charming the ladies isn’t necessarily his strong suit. And although Diane and Carla are kind of terrible at giving pep talks in the men’s restroom, Coach eventually figures it out after a few misses: Fall down the stairs. Playing the injured sympathy card is always, always a good choice. I’ve been mixed on the series’ use of broad physical humor, but Coach can do no wrong in my eyes and the gag worked because it was a purposeful fall. In this case, Cheers LITERALLY helped Coach get the girl. Without those stairs, what would he have done?

“Endless Slumper” is a fascinating episode and probably my favorite the series has done to this point. It starts with a story about the Cheers folk helping an outside person right the ship and then takes a substantial turn in the second half to become this surprisingly heavy story about Sam’s alcoholism and temptation. Sam offers a slumping relief pitcher Rick Walker his lucky bottle cap and it turns Walker into a stud while Sam’s life starts spiraling slowly out of control. He’s screwing up work, can’t really focus, etc.

Finally, it’s revealed that the lucky bottle cap was actually from the last beer Sam ever drank and without it, he’s very, very close to tipping one back. The scene with Sam preparing the beer while Diane watches on in terror is my favorite non-comedy moment thus far, just a wonderfully intense performance from Ted Danson. Of course in the end, Sam pulls it together and lets the bar help him out. He makes the nifty 90-degree angle beer pass and it’s all good. This is a bit of a simplistic solution to a possible relapse, but the visual pay-off with the beer pass almost makes up for it.

I didn’t love “One for the Book,” but if there’s an episode that accentuates the SHC themes, it’s this one. The entire episode is built around the main characters helping out a few disgruntled patrons. “Helping out” happens to involve a number of awkward moments, Diane being somewhat sexually assaulted and some slight lying, but in the end, they help a questioning soon-to-be man of the cloth and an old war vet that everything is going to be OK. We’ll presumably never know if their lives are OK once they walk through the doors of Cheers and into the dangerous world outside, but there’s a sense that they will. This place just happens to have that kind of impact on people.

Other thoughts:

  • For a second there, I thought Sam was really going to take a drink at the end of “Endless Slumper.” That would have been very special episode-y, but with Cheers being a populist sitcom of the ’80s, I wasn’t going to put it past them. Bravo for not going there.
  • The vitriol towards Rick Walker for sucking terribly in “Slumper” was wonderful as well. I loved how the whole bar booed him when he walked in, that really added to the personality of the bar.
  • The running plot in “Book” about Diane’s book of inspirational and interesting quotes was mostly boring and little more than an excuse for Sam and Diane action. I have no problem with more of them, but it has to be well-developed and this was not.
  • I need more Cliff. He’s had very little to do. I imagine that changes at some point in the series’ entire run, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later.
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