Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “No Contest,” “Pick a Con…Any Con” and “Someone Single, Someone Blue”

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.

Sorry for the delay here, folks. This one might also be a little short. Ah the joys of manual labor.

I’ve talked about a lot of different things in regards to Cheers season one. Its portrayal of the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, its ability to create funny character moments, its exploration of the Sitcom Healing Center idea, etc. Part of that is my desire to not have this reviews seem repetitive in any regard, but I also think Cheers warrants that kind of diverse attention as well. Today, I want to continue that trend by looking at another angle spurred on by this week’s slate of episodes. I’ve talked about the isolated nature of Cheers and how the camera never actually leaves the bar in this first season. But these three episodes do a nice job of bringing outside forces to Cheers and forcing the characters to interact with those forces. The series has done this previously in season one (old teammates of Sam’s, Diane’s friend, the gay couple, etc.), but the outside forces feel particularly integral to “No Contest,” “Pick a Con…Any Con” and “Someone Single, Someone Blue.”

Interestingly, all three of these episodes are kind of gimmicky. The outside forces I referenced come into Cheers and turn the bar into a barmaid competition, a high-stakes poker game and a wedding. When I look at the sentence I just wrote, it doesn’t entirely feel like the character-based humor I’ve come to expect from Cheers over this first season. And for the most part, that is probably true. These aren’t the best episodes Cheers has to offer. However, the series still manages to balance the gimmicky-ness of these premises with the typical brand of Cheers humor by integrating the characters into these stories relatively well. Diane is a competitor in the barmaid competition, most of the characters (including the returning con man Harry) take part or watch the poker game and the wedding is for Sam and Diane. So yeah, these are gimmicks, but at least they don’t require overwhelming special guest-stars or much extension of the typical nature of a Cheers episode.

Although I’ve argued that Cheers serves as a great example of the Sitcom Healing Center where characters of all kinds can come for a pick-me-up, these episodes explore what happens when destructive forces enter into the “safe zone” and perhaps screw things up. It appears that the frequent patrons and employees of Cheers can argue, fight and bicker all they want, but when external forces make their way inside the bar’s walls, more problematic things end up happening. One of Sam’s old buddies almost caused him to fall off the wagon while another created a temporary homophobic panic. Diane’s friend, Coach’s daughter and others have caused lesser, but substantial problems as well.

The stakes aren’t shockingly high here, but they are still present. If Diane screws up in the barmaid pageant in “No Contest,” Cheers looks like a screw-up. Sam (and Harry) have to defend Coach’s honor in “Pick a Con…Any Con” not only because it’s right to protect a friend who has been hustled, but because Sam doesn’t want that kind of business going on in his bar. And although it is heavy on the Sam-Diane relationship, the appearance of Diane’s mother in “Someone Single, Someone Blue” puts personal pressure on the two of them to combat their feelings and what that could mean for their working relationship. This is a traditional comedy so things are wrapped up handily — Diane does make a fool of herself, but wins the pageant anyway, Sam, Coach and Harry stop the con artist and Sam and Diane don’t actually marry, but her mom ends up with money anyway — but I did enjoy how these episodes explored what happens when the people of Cheers (especially Sam) feel threatened or something of that ilk. Sam isn’t going to let Coach get taken for a ride and he’s just as willing to prevent the financial destruction of Diane’s mother. He’s just a damn good guy.

These episodes do a nice job of showing the audience how Cheers is something of a multi-purpose space. The bar location not only allows for characters to get somewhat drunk and say inappropriate things that lead to obvious conflict — like Norm’s anti-gay tirade last week — but it also permits other kinds of premises fairly easily. Of course a barmaid competition would take place in a bar, same goes for the high-stakes poker game. And sure, it’s not entirely believable that Cheers is the location for a wedding, but the rapid development of said wedding makes it more believable. The series’ location makes these kind of gimmicks easier to swallow.

And much like my discussion of Cheers‘ handling of “issues” last week, I have to commend the series on being able to make certain these more overt gimmicks still flow from the characters. The barmaid competition is basically one giant excuse to again hammer home the fact that Diane is mostly insufferable, completely lacking in self-awareness and not entirely socially adept. It is certainly the best of these three episodes and features one of Shelley Long’s best performances of the season. She’s wonderful here. The poker game stems directly from Coach’s lack of perception and is also powered by Sam’s desire to do the right thing for his friends and the bar. And finally, the wedding in “Someone Single” is basically a combination of the previous few sentences, albeit with some tinkering. We learn more about Diane’s past and get a better clue as to why she might be the way she is (she appears to have had a better relationship with her deceased father) and we also get another instance of Sam Malone doing the right thing. He’s just a good guy.

So again, these feel a bit more gimmicky and premise-heavy than I would like from Cheers. But at this point, the series has already figured out how to take obvious premises and make them feel less obvious. These three episodes are still very funny and feature a number of good character beats. I prefer other episodes to these, but I can’t really complain too much.

Other thoughts:

  • Sam and Diane update: Whatever my feelings are about the relationship itself, I have to hand it to the Cheers writing staff for progressing the pair on a consistent basis. After their outward admission of feelings in “Diane’s Perfect Date,” they are definitely more flirty and transparent with their feelings. Sam comes on to her very strongly at least four or five times across these three episodes. And by “comes on to her very strongly” I mean he asks her to have sex with him. I like that they aren’t shying away from their feelings, it hints at progression without totally going there.
  • Some great Cliff lines in these episodes. He complains that his back is hurting because the new Sears catalog was just released and laments about his lack of love life because his job is too dangerous for a woman to have to sit home and worry about him. Cliff is the best.
  • Harry Anderson is just lovely as Harry “The Hat.” I hope he continues to recur.
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