Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “Any Friend of Diane’s,” “Friends, Romans and Accountants” and “Truce or Consequences”

This is the newest post in 2011′s Surveillance Summer Watch series featuring Cheers and Hill Street Blues. For the next couple of months, I’ll be writing weekly reviews of episodes from each series’ first seasons, with Cheerson Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post and for all the SSW pieces,visit this page.

I don’t know what my problem is. I loved the first two episodes of Cheers, felt generally lukewarm on the next three and now have positive thoughts to bring you on the following three. Perhaps I’m expectations are getting screwy on a week-to-week basis or perhaps these episodes are just better than the third, fourth and fifth efforts. But no matter what, I can certainly say that I probably should not have watched “Any Friend of Diane’s,” “Friends, Romans and Accountants” and “Truce or Consequence” in a crowded Panera bread. I laughed loud and I laughed consistently at these episodes, which is more than I can say for the second three I viewed.

Because of my fairly simple reaction to these episodes, I wanted to discuss a similarly simple topic in relation to Cheers: funniness. When I am writing about comedies on a regular basis, it’s easy to get lost in the analysis of themes, character development and plot movement. This is unfortunate because the most obvious and visceral way that anyone is going to react to a comedy is simply how much it makes us laugh. Sitcom episodes can be successful without being overly funny (see Community’s “Mixology Certification” for a recent example), but no matter how much they intrigue with structure or character, laugh-inducement is still the primary goal. Comedies want and are supposed to make us laugh.

Of course, writing down all the bits in an episode that make us laugh doesn’t really fit into the realm of television criticism. If it did, reviews of most television comedies would look a lot like the “other thoughts” and “stray observations” tacked on at the end of most reviews. Great comedies make you laugh and accomplish other goals, but they still need to do the first thing.

Cheers makes me laugh. A lot. I could spent all sorts of time in this review discussing how the bar serves as a this central hub for healing and change or continue to harping on my slight frustrations with Sam and Diane and I will. But goodnight, is this series funny.

The jokes on Cheers come relatively fast and furious, but the rhythm is not so snappy that it feels like the characters are quipping just to quip. The studio audience never gets in the way so that anyone tells a joke and then lets the laugh build and subside before the performer begins in. The flow of the dialogue feels pretty natural and realistic, more so than any live audience/laugh track comedy that I can remember. Even the broad physical comedy beats that I took down last week felt relatively honest for the characters as they had been portrayed to that point. Everything here is fairly character driven with very little focus on plot movement or massive gags. There’s a simple narrative for each episode and the series commits to that.

Similarly, the series gets a substantial amount of mileage out of the characters making fun of one another and in the case of Coach, Diane and sometimes Norm, saying ridiculously dense or naïve things, but it never feels forced or obvious. One of the things that bothers me about all comedy, no matter how it is shot, is that sometimes it feels like there is really no diegetic reason for these people to be hanging out. In those instances, characters are little more than joke machines ready for the next line, which can be funny, but doesn’t really help deepen the world or my connection to them. When it seems like the main characters hate one another, it is pretty easy for me to hate them as well. This applies to anything from Entourage to The Big Bang Theory.

Cheers avoids all of this and eight episodes in, I’m moderately surprised at how well the series knows its performers and its characters, especially as far as the humor goes. Each character has their own place in most of the jokes – from Carla’s sarcastic butt-ins to Coach’s exasperated answers – but the series isn’t afraid to mix things up while still holding true to the general air of likability. Although Carla and Diane do get into it in “Truce or Consequence,” there’s a lack of vileness that makes Cheers comforting and warm, even when the primary female characters are screaming at one another. In short, it never feels like these characters wouldn’t be friends or amiable co-workers in the real world, no matter how loud they yell or how often the crack wise.

Moreover, I am still somewhat surprised at how established the personas and the relationships are here. The characters came fairly well-formed in the pilot episode, but each episode has nicely added another small layer of shading to them without over-complicating it. This is still a mainstream, dead-center sitcom.

We knew from the beginning that Diane was a pretentious, hypocritical do-gooder, but “Truce or Consequences” shows us that she really wants to be liked, perhaps more than anything else. We could tell pretty quickly that Norm didn’t have much of an interesting life outside of the bar, but “Friends, Romans and Accountants” shows us that his stressful, thankless job full of similarly boring and somewhat depressed people is the reason for that. We knew that Sam wasn’t as devoid of humanity as Diane initially accused him of, but “Any Friend of Diane’s” completely confirms that assertion, even though it ultimately gets Sam in more trouble than is worth.

These are the primary reasons I love Cheers already. There’s something really charming about the series’ easy pace and the characters are loveable without really trying too hard to be so. Nothing, from the set-up of the jokes to the plotlines to the characters themselves, feels forced or artificial in any way. The artificiality of the multi-camera sitcom still bothers me to this day, but it bothers me less on Cheers than on any other series of similar ilk.

After the last three episodes, I was really relieved to see that I enjoyed these three. And then I realized that I must really, really like Cheers if I didn’t even blink at the fact that all three of these episodes follow fairly typical sitcom plots. “Any Friend” plays the “romantic lead hooks up with other romantic lead’s friend” card; “Friends” is all about “the bad party” and “Truce” is a quasi-bottle episode (even though every episode of Cheers is unofficially a bottle episode since we never leave the one set).

But it doesn’t even matter because the series quickly sets up those conceits and lets the characters make hilarious fools of themselves within them. The “bad party” of “Friends, Romans and Accountants” doesn’t really dominate the episode, it serves as the backdrop for some quality development of Norm’s character and a number of funny jabs at the set-up’s expense. “Truce” does feature the Carla-Diane heart-to-heart as its primary narrative beat, but the aftermath of their conversation is really what makes the episode enjoyably funny. The same could be said for how “Any Friend” handles the “romantic lead hooks up with the other lead’s friend” business. The series knows how to use these obvious tropes and story frameworks, but it doesn’t dwell on them so much that it ever becomes cumbersome or manufactured.

Next week, I’ll spend more time talk about some of Cheers’ thematic concerns. Today, let’s just revel in how funny and how enjoyable these episodes are. I hate when people say that all television audiences want to do is be comforted, but Cheers is comforting in the best of ways. I love these characters and I love this world.

Other thoughts:

  • Seriously, these episodes, especially “Friend” and “Truce,” are hilarious. Both episodes have final sequences in the office that made my day and garnered me a dozen dirty looks at an Indiana Panera Bread.
  • The Sam and Diane stuff was less annoying in these episodes. All three of them figured out a way to work it into the story, but only “Any Friend of Diane’s” was really about Sam and Diane’s relationship. And again, even though I criticized it last week, I still enjoy Ted Danson and Shelley Long’s performances. I can see why people were enthralled by the relationship back in the day.
  • There was also less overt physical comedy in these episodes, which made me happy. Sam and Diane’s couch-wrestling was relatively funny and purposeful, as was Diane’s reaction to the Open Grave Carla made her. Shelley Long is a very adept physical comedienne. Maybe I was just in a better mood this week, considering I enjoyed the two things I hated most about last week’s batch of episodes?
  • 30 Rock is, as always, correct. Diane and her friend Rebecca yet again prove that graduate students are the worst. So insufferable, in a good way.
  • I’ve talked about this already, but the series continued to pay the “serious” moments with the right amount of respect. Norm’s defense of Diane being sexually assaulted by his boss was surprisingly intense and Carla and Diane’s conversation was honestly tension-filled and terse. This series really knows how to be dramatic without over-selling it.
  • “Do you sense as I do that this conversation is an exercise in futility?” “Oh thank you very much.”
  • “I love numbers. God help me, I love ’em.”
  • “I want something I’ve never had before: An evening of unbridled bestial pleasure.”
  • “I couldn’t help noticing your arms.” “Yeah I get a lot of comments on these, they go all the way down to my hands here.”
  • “I was getting bored with beautiful, sensual, sexy women. I decided to go with pleasant.
  • “I never threw a party, I’ve killed a few.”
  • “You know Sam, if I am to serve as a waitress and the butt of jokes, I deserve a little bit more money.” “Yeah, what does a good butt make in this town?”

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