sam and diane

Warning – this post contains spoilers about Cheers season five.

Although I’m sure the pay and celebrity help make up for it, it must be hard work to write a sitcom for hundreds of episodes without it going to crap after a while. The first few seasons of Cheers were generally very good, often excellent, and had a winning formula; but nothing lasts forever. Either the show would end, or something would have to change. It seems like Shelley Long, the actress who played Diane Chambers, felt the same way, as she decided to leave at the end of season five. There are various explanations and theories about why she left – creative differences, ambition, worries that the show would become stale – but ultimately, a major change like that would have been necessary at some point.

So, Cheers’ fifth and sixth seasons are significant as the last to feature Diane, and the first without her. The relationship between Sam and Diane is, of course, the driving force of season five, and for the most part it’s handled well. The two constantly fight their feelings for one other; and although they can be alternately maddening (Diane) or sleazy and boorish (Sam), as with most good relationships they round the corners off each other, and make one another better and more likable people. That said, I felt there was a slight tendency to paint Diane as a more and more eccentric and unsympathetic version of herself, possibly in preparation for her exit. It’s not quite Vince McMahon turning Bret Hart heel before packing him off to WCW, but at times it has that sort of feel to it.

Most people watching today will know that Diane leaves and that, in the end, her and Sam don’t make it as a couple. Cheers was very popular during its run, and I wonder how people felt about this. For all her pretentiousness and fragility, Diane is a hugely endearing and sympathetic character, the sort of person who radiates a warmth and light which helps those around her live more fully and feel better about themselves and the world. I can only imagine it must have made a lot of people very sad to find out her story wouldn’t have a happy ending. The final episode of season five ends on a note of real pathos, showing what could have been between Sam and Diane, and it’s a beautiful sequence which surely ranks among the most poignant moments in television history: a painful but not unfitting end to one of TV’s greatest romances.

In a way, it would have been preferable for Cheers to finish at the end of season five, but with a happy ending instead of the one we got. However, that’s not the way these things work: Cheers was a lucrative property and there was much more money to be made. So, the show continued into a sixth season, albeit with a few changes. The main change was the arrival of Rebecca Howe (played by Kirstie Alley) as the new manager of Cheers. Not only has Diane left, but the show contrives a way for Sam to lose the bar, and he returns as a mere bartender. For some reason, Cheers has been bought by a large corporation, and Rebecca is employed as the manager. I wasn’t expecting it, but the season hits the ground running, and Rebecca is an immediately engaging and likeable character, different enough to Diane not to invite unfavourable comparisons. Initially, Rebecca comes across as a confident and assertive businesswoman, very much in the ’80s style, and she’s invested with personality and considerable sex appeal by the remarkable Kirstie Alley. Shelley Long was a bit before my time when I was growing up, but I do remember admiring Kirstie Alley, in particular her incredible voice (she even gives Kathleen Turner a run for her money). Against the odds, season six does everything right to get off to a good start.

Unfortunately, things start to go downhill rather quickly. With Diane gone, Sam regresses to sleazeball mode, and begins a campaign of weapons-grade sexual harassment against Rebecca which lasts throughout the season. Cheers is a show that, on the whole, has aged pretty well, but the incessant nature of Sam’s sexual overtures towards an obviously reluctant Rebecca are guaranteed to make most contemporary viewers uncomfortable. Rebecca’s characterization also tends to collapse over the course of the season, her initial self-confidence evaporating. This is in no small part due to professional sabotage by Sam, who is spiteful at having lost the bar and constantly being rejected. Finally, Rebecca is turned into an object of ridicule due to her comedic inability to convey her unrequited love for her own boss, Evan Drake, played by a moonlighting Tom Skerritt (of Alien and Top Gun fame). The cumulative effect is distasteful, and more than a bit misogynistic.

Season six is not helped by the fact it drags on far too long: 25 episodes is too much weight to bear for a season that lacks a single compelling, well-written arc. With the main cast failing to carry the load, the season relies heavily, but not enough, on Frasier and his partner Lilith. Frasier and Lilith have solid chemistry, are often hilarious, and their interactions go a long way towards redeeming things, but as secondary characters there is only so much they can contribute. Woody (Woody Harrelson) is entertaining and likable as ever, but receives little development. Instead, many of the episodes tend to focus on Norm and Cliff, but their screwball humour and “massive loser” schtick has worn thin by this stage. Carla’s character again sees no development and continues to stink out the show, and what’s worse is that two of her nightmarish teenage children start to make semi-regular appearances.

Cheers has eleven seasons in total, so I’m now just over halfway through the entire run. It’s starting to feel like the golden period is over, and I can only hope season seven shows some improvement against six. But with most of the major cast and storylines now in place, and with Diane gone, I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation.

Season five: 7/10

Season six: 6/10