Season four marks a return to form for Cheers, after an uneven third season. We witness the arrival of Woody Boyd, played by a youthful and blonde-haired Woody Harrelson, who replaces Coach as Sam’s bartender. Otherwise the main cast remains the same, and the storylines are largely similar too, although there are a few more ambitious multi-episode arcs which take us out of the bar as we see the characters a bit more involved in life outside the bar. But the eponymous bar, and the relations and sense of community it generates, continue to be the heart that drives the show’s action.
I have been a Woody Harrelson fan for many years. He’s a bald badass with effortless charm and charisma, and the right age to act as an unthreatening role model. But while I was always aware of his involvement in Cheers I’d never really seen any episodes that I could recall. So his appearance as a major character was very welcome, and I personally think Woody replacing Coach heralds a big improvement in the show’s quality. Woody plays a similar role to Coach, being a rather nice-but-dim barman who arrives in Cheers from rural Indiana where he had been Coach’s penpal. (They literally sent each other pens in the mail.) His involvement at first is mainly confined to the same kind of one-liners as Coach, often based around the same kind of misunderstandings, but it works better both because it fits with Woody’s “fresh off the farm” persona, and also because Harrelson’s acting and delivery is more in keeping with the generally modern feel of the show, without the kind of overacting Nicholas Colasanto was prone to.
As in season three, Carla’s character remains one of the weaker parts of the show. Although the other characters don’t necessarily show sophisticated development, they do at least display some variation over time, but Carla is always the same sneering cynic, motivated mainly by hostility to Diane – even after that character is put through the wringer on more than one occasion. I don’t have a major problem with this in theory, but in practice it starts to grate when you have such a high episode count. The episodes that centre around Carla are generally the weakest, but fortunately there aren’t that many.
Frasier is a major secondary character in season four and definitely one of the high points of the series, though he feels underused. That of course would eventually change, and I’m looking forward to watching Frasier (the series) again, this time with a better knowledge of the character’s history and backstory. Norm and Cliff are pretty much ever-present in this season, which is fine, and Cliff in particular sees to become more and more eccentric and deluded. Carla’s best moments generally consist of barbs directed at him.
As ever, Sam and Diane are the main characters, and I was pleased that the writers seem to find a way to keep Sam’s character in a sort of balance where he’s a dick but still likable enough never to fully lose the audience’s sympathy, which was a regular problem in seasons two and three. That said, the central dynamic around which the stories weave is starting to wear a little thin. I’m not sure exactly when things change, but I can certainly see there will eventually be a need to freshen things up.
Sometimes you really need some reliable TV to provide a comforting diversion and, as this show’s famous intro says, help you forget about your worries and troubles. Just as a friendly bar can provide, for a while, a haven of fellow feeling for people who are lonely or lost, so the best TV shows can help distract and console you when your mind needs a break. Most of the time, Cheers is just such a show. It’s fourth season is a welcome return to form that I wasn’t fully expecting, but for which I was very grateful.