Warning. Feminist opinions on 80’s television incoming.
Cheers was an ’80’s staple. Almost nothing changes throughout it’s impressive 11 year run. People prefer for things to stay the same; “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” That was the mantra of Cheers. At least this is how it was seeing as I had already watched other hit series that came after Cheers: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Seinfeld. Removing what I know of television from the 90’s and 00’s while watching the predecessor was difficult, so of course there is some bias. I would also like to point out that, whatever my opinion here, I do recognize that without Cheers, TV might have looked much different (for example we wouldn’t have had 20 years of Dr. Frasier Crane).
Where to start?
It feels like I’ve been with these characters for years, however it has only been about 6 months. 6 months to binge watch a decade + of hard work and dedication. This says something else entirely about our “all-or nothing,”and “instantaneous” culture, one that I can’t believe I’m participating in so wholly. More on that another time.
Let’s start with the backbone of Cheers, and I’m not talking about the bar itself. I’m talking about the characters. Cheers wasn’t exactly known for it’s character development, remember, status-quo was ideal for this show. You could tune in to any episode and not feel lost. The first 5 seasons would be a typical mix of the following:
‣Sam and Diane fighting
‣Norm drinking too much beer from his perch on the corner barstool
‣ Cliff shouting random facts at uninterested bar patrons
‣Frasier giving out some textbook mental health advice for anyone within ear shot
‣Coach and/or Woody saying something completely stupid or incredibly insightful
‣Carla slinging insults like it was her job.
After Diane left, the next 6 seasons were replaced with Sam and Rebecca fighting instead. Oh, I forgot to mention Lilith, and, well there’s also Lilith. There you have it. A cocktail for any episode of Cheers.
What can I say. Sam is the archetypal ladies man with horrible come-ons that could have only been popular in the ’80s. Of course, he’s endearing in his own way – he has a bit of charm, the kind that comes with being completely full of yourself. Sam is a washed up relief pitcher for the Red Sox, an alcoholic, and a bar owner. He has the wisdom to be a real mentor, but his character is almost never given the opportunity. For a bit he babysits Freddie, Frasier’s kid, and he thinks maybe he wants children of his own – yet the writers never give Sam Malone a child. His baby is the bar, as we learn in the finale, that is what he always comes back to, what he always takes care of. There is no room for a child when you run a bar part time and hit on the ladies full time.
And the prize for world’s most annoying character in the history of television goes to Shelley Long for her portrayal of Diane Chambers. At every turn Diane was correcting someone. She would go on at lengths to describe her everyday trials and tribulations. She would trail off to herself, losing every listener, and then happily go on her way as if she didn’t just waste 2 minutes of precious screen time. I would often say I need a break from Diane when watching this series. I want to say it’s not often that something annoys me this greatly, but that’s probably not true so I’ll just keep my mouth shut on the subject of my ability to determine great annoyances. I must insist that her character was impossibly, dare I say infamously, annoying. (Do I sound like Diane, anyone?) Here I was incredibly excited for a strong, intelligent female lead, a character that lent a hand in immortalizing an iconic TV show (So iconic the original bar in Boston changed it’s name to Cheers.) Instead of leaving it at that, the writer’s morphed her into a weak and irksome blonde waitress. IE: She falls for Sam, the exact type of male she professes to be a turn-off. Her potential to do so much more is stifled by the writers need to have every single episode appear in the bar – we don’t leave it for all of season 1 – so of course, Diane falls into place alongside Carla as waitress. When Diane finally left the show, it was no surprise to know the reason was that she “didn’t want to keep doing the same episode over and over again and the same story … I didn’t want it to become old and stale.” While it was becoming old and stale already at season 5, the writers and producers charged ahead with the same basic plot lines for the next 6 seasons, mixing it up a bit here and there, but never really developing the characters beyond their archetypes, or giving any one character much of a story line outside of the bar, besides, perhaps Dr. Krane and wife, Lilith.
This dear old man was perhaps the most genuine character on Cheers, with his much too literal sense of everything, you couldn’t help but laugh. At the same time, Coach was a wise old man with everyone’s best interests at heart, and his way of relating everything back to baseball was on point. One of the best episodes that focused on Coach was with his daughter, specifically this scene. It’s better watched than told – the sentiment does not come across through words on a screen, the emotions were palpable. I would have loved to see heart like this in each episode, not just once every few seasons. In addition, Coach should have had a better send off – his demise was truly sad and I felt it was not properly addressed on the show – He had been a major character on Cheers, but all we hear about his death? “Oh, Coach, he passed away.” Why couldn’t they do a funeral episode? Or would that mean bringing down the bar-jokes and insults a notch? Giving Coach a proper send off would not have hurt their ratings – rather it might have pumped them up.
Woody was quite clearly brought in to replace Coach – Nicholas Colasanto was sick and the writers knew he’d be gone before long. They even joke on the show – “Oh, this is Coach’s boy?” No, he’s just a midwestern farm boy come to make it in the big city. Woody’s innocence is delightfully misplaced in Sam Malone’s bar – his hardworking attitude, however, is not. Woody makes his way up to head bartender, once Rebecca is placed in charge of the bar, and you could say Woody’s character becomes a bit more developed over the years as he gets married and becomes a city councilman, however he doesn’t seem to have wised up any, he’s still as innocent as ever. Oh, Woody.
Clifford Clavin was brought on to the show as a regular, because every Boston bar has a know-it-all. Often times you couldn’t help but feel sad for Cliff. You know, he’s not a bad looking guy. He could have married, he could have had a family, you know, a family that didn’t consist solely of his mother. But, alas, he was in contest with Ms. Chambers for world’s most annoying character in the history of television. He didn’t win, mind you, and he had 6 extra seasons compared to Ms. Chambers – but by-golly did he try. Cliff’s quips and fun-facts really don’t stand out in my mind – but his voice does. That voice is quite original; fun-fact, he played the voice of Hamm, the pig in Toy Story.
NORM!! I’m not sure what’s more famous, Norm, or his greeting when he walks into Cheers. Norm is known for exactly one thing throughout the entire series: Drinking Beer. He even comes within reach of being a professional beer taster, but in classic Norm style, he bungles it. Every now and again you think Norm is about to say something profound, but then he just asks Carla to pour another pint. Norm’s character truly had me disgusted during the episode where he and Cliff display some serious homophobia. The episode has Norm and Cliff wishing all the gay folk would leave, or THEY would. As I understand it, Cheers was heralded for broaching the topic in such a divisive decade – but in the end, no one came away any wiser and less homophobic – the Gays just got the jump on Norm and made him look like a fool. I do like what the episode is trying to say, gay folks are indistinguishable from straight folks, but couldn’t they have ended with a heartfelt apology from Norm? That’s what I want to see, the big burly straight man say, “Look, I was wrong. Please have a seat next to me and I’ll buy you a beer.” No, instead the ending is a shocked Norm being kissed on either cheek by the gay couple amongst them. In the end, Norm’s character is no more developed than the first episode. He’s seen asking Woody, the City Councilman, to lengthen unemployment benefits, and again, asking for a job when presumably his benefits have run out. At least he’s back in his original career of accounting, letting go of the painting business.
Dr. Frasier Crane has probably the most in-depth story line that we actually witness: He starts out at the bar, single, and falls in love with a fellow professional, Dr. Lilith Sternin. He marries Lilith, and they have a baby named Freddie. Eventually Lilith cheats on him and leaves him. Frasier is, once again, single in the bar. When Lilith returns, she wants him back, and they remain together until the end of Cheers. How sweet. This emotional ride is offset by Dr. Crane’s imaginative character flaws, advising others with advice he might take for himself, and by Lilith’s stern (no pun intended) appearance and robotic voice. They are a match made in a psychologist’s experiment. For all the knowledge Dr. Crane has, one would think he could maintain a positive relationship with his wife, yet he does not, and it’s hard to decide why. Is it because he has been sucked into the atmosphere of the bar? Is it because he is truly self centered? I’m not sure – and I intend to find out more by watching all of Frasier – so stay tuned for that follow up review.
Lilith is cold, robotic, and yet, falls for any semi-attractive man who looks her way. She demonstrates this by nearly ripping Sam’s shirt off while guest appearing on a talk-show, flirting (however strangely) with men in the bar, and finally by betraying her husband by having an affair with her co-worker. They tease on the affair by overplaying Frasier flirting with other women, and cutting to Lilith’s look of disgust. At least I assume this is disgust she is displaying, it’s hard to discern from her other facial expressions. So, when she strays romantically, it is surprising, but not altogether unbelievable. Lilith does not appear to change herself over time, just amplifies the qualities her character started out with. Lilith’s affair was the writers’ way of humanizing her. I’m surprised they didn’t try to make her slightly more motherly, or chummy with the regulars at the bar, so I’m actually delighted to say, the writer’s nailed it with Lilith.
If you were thinking Rebecca is our wonderful female role-model, please think again. Rebecca is a poor excuse for a human. She represents one of the most unsympathetic stereotypes of women – the Gold Digger. She even fools herself into believing she truly loves rich men, and not because they have money, because, well, she never really justifies this to the viewer. Her on-going affair with Robin Colcord is shameful! When he finally decides he loves her and only her, she is no longer in love – he’s lost his wealth. Surprise! When Robin returns in a later season, a penniless drifter, Rebecca decides it is a test. He must want to see that she has grown and that money means less to her now. Is anyone surprised when Robin actually is penniless and Rebecca is still looking under tabletops for hidden cash? Rebecca is shallow and childish, she makes several mistakes throughout the run of Cheers – the worst of which might be burning the bar down with a cigarette. The writers’ grasp at an attempt to develop Rebecca in the last 2 episodes, they have her fall in love with a middle class, blue collar worker, and even this doesn’t go over well – she says no the first 3 or 4 times he asks her to marry him. Her husband, Don, is technically in only 2 episodes – Rebecca falls for and eventually marries this man because she is settling. She never makes much of herself, and her life continues on in blissful married life. So, unfortunately, Rebecca is not a great role-model nor is she a very well developed character.
Let me just admit it now, I was saving the best for last. Carla is by far the best character on this show – she goes through several pregnancies, the death of her husband, and finally, she makes it through Dianne’s dramatic return in season 11. Carla is exactly the kind of woman I want in my corner. She’s tough, feisty, and knows how to throw around a great insult. Let’s take a moment to remember some of Carla’s best insults:
Carla Tortelli: Where’s Diane anyway?
Sam Malone: Ah, I gave her the night off. She’s trying to interview for a TA job down at the college.
Carla Tortelli: She’ll never get it. She’s a big A with no T’s.
Diane Chambers: This is Heather Landon, my oldest friend.
Carla Tortelli: Meet her this morning?
Frasier Krane: Lilith is carrying a dead rat in her purse. Why would she be carrying a dead rat in her purse?
Carla Tortelli: Just a wild guess: a snack?
Cliff Claven: Sometimes I’m ashamed God made me a man.
Carla Tortelli: I don’t think God’s doing a whole lot of bragging about it either.
Carla Tortelli: If you can’t say anything nice… say it about Diane.
Frasier Krane: I just came off a seven year marriage. It’s hard to think of replacing Lilith.
Carla Tortelli: Just go to the morgue and open any drawer.
Carla was already a fully developed character when she first opened her mouth on Episode 1. She’s a mother and a divorcee, then she gets remarried, suffers the death of her husband, becomes a widow, and despite this, continues on with her life. If this was any other character she might have sat on her rump in black for the rest of the show, but instead she gets back to slinging insults and drinks, because she’s a realist. She has to provide for her family, because no one else is going to. Carla’s east-coast edge is what I love most, she’s fearless and willing to take on any challenge that comes her way. Look out, I think we found our role-model.
All that matters though…
I really enjoyed my time watching Cheers, even if I am critical of the characters and the writing. It was a good way to close out our evenings, especially after watching something dark and heavy, we would put Cheers on for a good laugh. And after all, isn’t that what they were going for? Nailed it.
Written by The Girl
Click here to read Byrd’s review of Cheers
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