Cheers was a hugely successful comedy, running for eleven seasons and 270 episodes between 1982 and 1993. Cheers began with a very simple formula, as a situation comedy set in the titular bar in downtown Boston. Cheers revolves around retired pro baseball pitcher and bar owner Sam Malone, and a cast of characters comprising bar staff and barflies. The first season is set entirely in the bar, and each episode begins with an announcement that it was filmed in front of a live audience. Later seasons include other scenarios as well, moving the action into the homes of some of the characters, and by the end of the third season we even have scenes taking place outside of Boston.
The physical location of the show in a single bar, filmed entirely in front of a live audience, gives the first season of Cheers a wonderful energy and at times it feels almost like watching theatre. The actors sometimes laugh and break down under the comedy of their own lines, and there’s an obvious chemistry at work on set that adds a spark to the show. In particular, there is excellent chemistry between Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and the new barmaid, haughty graduate student Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), which gives the first season real magic. For a comedy filmed well over 30 years ago, the first season is still enormously entertaining, partly because the main storyline (the will they/won’t they dynamic between Sam and Diane) is so timeless. Sometimes the episodes have a theme which belies the show’s age, such as when Sam is pressured by his regulars to exclude some gay customers from the bar. But Sam generally ends up doing the right thing, often under the direct or indirect influence of Diane.
One of the things that makes the first season of Cheers feel so special is that it is a profoundly democratic comedy. At their best, pubs and bars are leveling public spaces where people from different walks of life come together to share their problems or have a laugh over a couple of drinks. Cheers’ iconic intro sequence captures that perfectly, conveying the social importance of bars to community spirit and social bonding. This is carried through to the writing, and over the course of the first season Diane comes to relax and lose some of her superior attitude, while Sam and, to a lesser extent, some of the other denizens of the bar see their moral and cultural level rise ever so slightly. In the first season, Cheers also demonstrates a mature capacity to create rounded characters, generally avoiding the easy option of painting people as caricatures or lazily vilifying them. Sam’s alcoholism is also introduced and handled sensitively, at least at first.
The first season of Cheers received critical acclaim, but it wasn’t a ratings hit. It was only with the second season that ratings started to pick up and it slowly became the commercial success it’s now known as. The writing of the second season takes a bit of a turn for the worse, in large measure due to the decision to make Sam play a shitheel role for a number of episodes. This may be important for storyline reasons, but it’s hard as a viewer to see a character you’ve come to like behaving reprehensibly episode after episode. That said, season two is still pretty good, largely for the same reasons as the first, and continues to be very funny for the most part.
Season three sees the introduction of psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), a breakout character who was to star in the frighteningly successful spin-off that bore his name. Frasier is a very welcome introduction to the show, and most of season three’s best moments revolve around Frasier in some way. Unfortunately, the general level of season three is notably inferior to the first two seasons, and the beginning of season three in particular contains some very disappointing episodes. One of the major problems with season three is Sam’s bartender “Coach”, a retired baseball trainer. Coach is supposed to subscribe to the trope of the dimwit with a heart of gold, but the character shows a proneness to selfish and manipulative behaviour which is very unappealing and at times difficult to watch. Coach was fine as a background character but during seasons two and three he takes too much of the spotlight, and his overacting and lame and one-dimensional jokes wear thin very fast.
The actor who played Coach, Nicholas Colasanto, became seriously ill during the filming of season three, and it’s obvious that he loses weight and looks more and more unhealthy as the season progresses. I know that Colasanto was admired by his co-stars and that many people are fond of the Coach character, so I should emphasize that the criticisms I have of Coach as a character stem from the script, and can’t be attributed to the actor’s health problems. To a lesser extent, I noticed the same phenomenon (overacting; repetitive and tiresome one-dimensional jokes) with the character of Carla, the other barmaid at Cheers. Carla’s obsessive and unrelenting dislike of Diane wears thin, and I really hope that her character sees some development or progression in coming seasons, as I’ve grown fed up of her character by the end of season three.
You can get all eleven seasons of Cheers for twenty or thirty pounds in the UK. 270 episodes is a lot to get through, but it’s pretty low-effort fare which lends itself well to regular viewing. Fingers crossed we can stick it out, because Cheers has the potential to keep T. and I entertained for a long time to come. I’m hopeful that the arrival of new character Woody (another breakout role, this time for Woody Harrelson) will see season four come close to the heights of season one. If not, we might just have to move on to Frasier itself. But the first season of Cheers is easy to recommend to anyone, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the price of admission.
Season 1 – 10/10
Season 2 – 8/10
Season 3 – 7/10