Somewhere along the line, someone decided that people weren’t interesting. At least not on their own. That’s why just about every television comedy, from I Love Lucy straight through Three’s Company, needed a hook. As much as each of these shows might have worked to flesh out their characters earnestly, there was always that presence of the “The husband runs a nightclub, and the wife always wants to be in the show — wacky high jinks ensues,” and “The guy has to pretend he’s gay in order to live in an apartment with two girls — crazy misunderstandings ensue.”
For decades, all of the best and most successful shows on television operated under this mentality: “A man and a woman get married, but they already have three kids each — wholesome life lessons ensue,” (The Brady Bunch), “It’s a family in Queens, and the whole thing is a vehicle to attack contemporary prejudices — sociopolitical commentary ensues,” (All in the Family), and “A woman moves to Minneapolis and gets a job as a producer at a harebrained television studio, despite almost no experience — ‘having it all’ ensues,” (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Nobody seemed to think that a show that was simply about people could work. And then… Cheers came along.
And at first, it didn’t look like the now-classic bar-set sitcom would last. Cheers premiered on NBC on September 30, 1982 — making the show 30 years old as of Sunday. Cheers boasted a first season that finished dead last in the ratings. Maybe at the time, viewers were looking for more than just day-to-day human interactions, patient character development, and an honest illustration of interpersonal relationships. But they’d come around soon enough. Three seasons later, Cheers would breach the ratings’ Top 10 for the first time, and remain there straight through its final year on air in 1993.
More than this, it’d spawn the most successful spin-off series in sitcom history (Frasier), and earn the favor of just about every credible force in comedic television. In May of 2011, New York magazine approached a handful of contemporary showrunners with questions about their favorite programs, and their own inspirations for getting into television. Writers/creators Dan Harmon (Community), Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live), Craig Thomas (The Late Show with David Letterman and How I Met Your Mother), Bill Lawrence (Spin City, Scrubs, and Cougar Town) each sang the praises of Cheers, with Thomas spelling out the show’s mastery with precision: “It had an intriguing darkness in its DNA,” he told New York. “A washed-up relief pitcher and ex-alcoholic (who owns a bar!) surrounded by people who drink all day. And yet we understood and cared about them all.“
And that’s the real home run of Cheers, and the reason it managed a rare 11-season ride as one of America’s favorite series. Cheers was a show about people like television hadn’t really seen them before: people who were inherently sad, and because of this, inherently funny. People whose lives existed beyond the 22-minute stories we’d see week by week — from the grand consistencies of Sam’s and Diane’s irrefutably self-destructive characters to blink-and-you’ll miss-‘em tidbits like Coach’s repeated offhand mentions of an old flame named Rosie McGonagall, it was clear that Cheers wasn’t working to build these people solely for their time on screen. Everything going on in their homes, in their pasts, in their heads, that was all there. It’s what made these characters so much more than so many of their sitcom predecessors.
It might seem funny to attribute such superlatives regarding the richness of a fictional universe to a show that rarely traveled beyond the limits of a single stage. Nine-and-a-half out of 10 Cheers episodes took place entirely within the titular tavern: Sam behind the bar, Carla serving drinks, Norm cemented atop his stage-left stool. From this lack of variety in setting and stage direction came room for something else: the construction of these people and their relationships. The lack of introduction to the main characters’ homes and workplaces allowed for a much greater amount of time availed to finding out who they were. We didn’t need to spend time with Cliff on his mail route, to watch Frasier offering therapy to a patient, or even, in the entire run of the series, to ever see Norm’s wife (save for one noteworthy pie-covered instance) to have a vivid idea of these people’s lives outside the bar. We learned enough about them through simple conversation, the same way you learn about your own friends’ lives, jobs, families, and purposefully decaying psyches.
But of course, just as important to these people as their very occupations and families were their lives inside of Cheers. And it didn’t take elaborate, event-driven plots to illustrate these characters’ significances in one another’s lives. Most of the time, viewers were treated to entire episodes — at the very least, entire B-stories — consisting solely of conversation. Carla chiding Diane, Frasier disagreeing with Woody, Norm and Cliff babbling on about any inane piece of subject matter. Full episodes were built around these back-and-forths; they weren’t filler, they were the meat. The way these people interacted with one another is what the show was about, not a vehicle to establish some other presence or plotline.
A terrific example of the show’s early understanding of its purpose was the Season 1 episode “Truce or Consequences.” Diane and Carla, two very dissimilar people whose differences always stood in the way of any semblance of camaraderie, stayed late after work and got drunk together. The entire episode was about these two people who, very simply, didn’t get along. This was the conflict. Not because they needed to band together to accomplish some external goal, but simply because how you feel about the people in your life is important on its own.
Cheers knew what it was about from the get go, and never forgot. This is why it succeeded at a task with which so many shows have faced difficulty: new cast members. Two separate instances forced Cheers to bring on new actors to replace old. First, when Coach portrayer Nicholas Colasanto passed away, Cheers brought in Woody Harrelson to fill the void left by Coach’s childlike spirit with Boston newcomer Woody Boyd. Second, when Shelley Long left the series, the show hired Kirstie Alley as Rebecca Howe, a new female lead. Superficially, Woody and Rebecca could be called Coach and Diane 2.0, but they were very much their own characters.
The show had this terrific appreciation of how full and authentic every one of its characters needed to be. When Coach was written off the show, they needed a new “slow” character. But Coach and Woody were incredibly different in their internal makeups and in their roles on the show. With Sam Malone as the epicenter of Cheers, Coach represented a tie to the ex-ballplayer’s former glory days, as well as his former hell as a tortured alcoholic. On his own, Coach was a merry but weathered old man who graced the world with an attitude of descent. Like Sam, Coach knew that his best days were over. He didn’t let it defeat or embitter him, he simply rode out his final years (the character himself did pass away in the reality of the series) trying to make people happy — his best friend and old protegee especially.
Woody could not have been more different. He was a young man with eyes wider than the world around him, hungry for every life experience and unfazed by the multitude of things that he didn’t understand. They were both sweet, simple, well-meaning characters, but were two wholly different people. The important fact there, they were both full human beings.
The show even invested this degree of effort into its smaller characters. Dr. Frasier Crane was introduced in the third season premiere of Cheers, meant only to be a short-term character. But thanks to the comic talent of Kelsey Grammer and the immaculate density of his neurotic, arrogant, self-loathing psychiatrist, he not only lasted until the end of Cheers‘ run, but earned his very own highly successful spin-off series.
Spending inordinate amounts of time between the subterranean Boston tavern’s walls, these people found something in one another, and in the bar itself, that they couldn’t find elsewhere. To borrow from the unfathomably recognizable theme song, Cheers was a place where, for better or worse, people were all the same. Broken marriages, dead-end careers, oppressive parents, unattained dreams, contentions with alcohol abuse — Cheers wasn’t satisfied doling out comical bar chatter (although it excelled at this). The show was rooted in these people and their sadness, their aloneness. Throughout every one of the show’s important plot turns — Sam and Diane’s toxic relationship, Carla’s loss of two husbands (one to divorce, the other to his death) and her challenge with raising eight children by herself, Rebecca’s insurmountable self-esteem hurdles, Cliff’s curse with alienating everybody he knows — there existed the theme of being alone. There’s a reason the Cheers pilot introduced Diane via a broken engagement and a lack of fallback plan, and a reason Sam had plenty of one night stands but nary a steady girlfriend. There’s a reason that Carla, Norm, Cliff, Frasier, Rebecca, that just about everybody who stepped down that icy flight of stairs, passed the Tecumseh statue, and entered the bar did so: they needed to be there. They needed to be around people who understood them. That’s what Cheers was about: sharing humanity, especially when the world doesn’t seem to have any left.
Thirty years after the debut of its pilot and almost 20 after the show’s eventual conclusion, Cheers maintains the strength of its original on-air run. That’s because there is nothing time sensitive about the issues on the show. People will always need each other. Why it took so long for television to recognize that this — not this with the twist that the wife is a genie or that they’re all stuck on an island or that Bill Bixby’s a martian — is the most interesting and relatable conceivable idea for a story.
Many shows owe their substance to Cheers. Considering the words of their creators, we can assume that the likes of Community, Parks and Recreation, and How I Met Your Mother would not truly exist without this bar-set predecessor. But beyond these, sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, and even hit dramas like Lost, could be considered the aftermath of Cheers‘ influence on the media. Stories about people who have built a world for themselves when there seemed to be no place else for them to go.
And what better place to find home? A place where nothing outside the rigid walls really matters, because you’ve got all the people you trust, rely on, understand, and love surrounding you. A place with the people you want to see, because they’re the people you get and the people who get you. That’s what Cheers was about: a place where you can find people like this. A place where everybody knows your name.
I know, that was super corny. But give me a break, it’s my favorite show.
[Photo Credit: NBC]