Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “The Spy Who Came In for a Cold One,” “Now Pitching, Sam Malone” and “Let Me Count The Ways”

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.

Hola, everyone. Thanks for not revolting when I took some time off last week. I really needed it for my sanity and I do feel a bit refreshed and ready to move through the rest of Cheers season one.

I don’t want to write about the will-they-or-won’t-they unresolved sexual tension relationship between Sam and Diane, I really don’t. But Cheers isn’t really giving me much of a choice here in the middle of its very good first season. The series is very good at making episodes that appear to be about one thing ultimately have to do with Sam and Diane’s burgeoning sexual chemistry. I would like to sit here on this sweltering July afternoon and tell you that Sam and Diane’s relationship is still relatively annoying and it is overbearing to the rest of the characters’ development, but in the middle of season one, the Cheers team has figured out what works and what doesn’t, meaning the Sam-Diane histrionics are actually very appealing in these episodes.

Earlier in the season, it seemed like Cheers was trying too hard to hook audiences on Sam and Diane’s inevitable pairing. But that’s the thing, right? It is inevitable (at least temporarily), so from my perspective, it seemed like the series could have easily let the two of them have their sexually charged tiffs while other things were happening. “Sam’s Women” and “Any Friend of Diane’s” felt almost entirely dedicated to this kind of story and although those episodes were funny in spots, they leaned too close to traditional, generic romantic comedy for my taste. At that point, I could totally understand Community‘s Shirley having such rage for the portrayal of Sam and Diane.

Things are different now, sort of. “Now Pitching, Sam Malone” and “Let Me Count The Ways” are fairly heavy on Sam and Diane’s relationship, but the episodes have other premises and purposes, at least to begin with, that actually make the relationship stuff more palpable and enjoyable. What is kind of interesting is that the last batch of episodes has taken steps to keep Sam and Diane separate while still keeping them together in so many scenes. I know that doesn’t really make sense, so let me try to clarify further. Sam and Diane have both been given small stories and beats to play that are separate from their relationship with the other, almost as if the series is readying them for a relationship, pushing them closer without forcing it too much.

Last go around, “Endless Slumper” focused on Sam’s drinking. That was a very well-done episode that highlighted Sam away from Diane — or any other woman, for that matter — and Sam’s personal struggles made the final moment with he and Diane even more substantial. It seems like this relationship works much better when it isn’t really “forced” and Ted Danson and Shelley Long are just able to bounce off one another in small, but impactful moments. Although this is a populist sitcom from the 1980s, Cheers has done a nice job of developing Sam and Diane as individuals, which not only helps their inevitable relationship be more believable, but makes the two of them more complex characters along the way.

Throughout these first 14 episodes, Diane’s story has arguably been the most interesting. Though Danson’s Sam is obviously the series’ lead character, Diane has been following the beats of the typical fish out of water story. She’s been thrust into this situation that she doesn’t really understand with people who aren’t really on her level intellectually, but much more adept than her socially and unsurprisingly, it has been difficult. I do not think I am being too harsh by saying that Diane really sucks. She’s pretentious, judgmental, snobby and completely unaware of her self. Plus, she’s a graduate student and if 30 Rock has taught us anything during its time on the air, graduate students are the worst. (As one, I can testify that this is almost certainly true.) Diane still lacks a lot of self-awareness, but she’s improving. She still sticks her pretentious nose into others’ business (like she does in “Spy Who Came In”), but she’s doing those things less often.

In “Let Me Count The Ways,” the tension between past Diane and future Diane is on display. When she finds out that her family cat has died, she’s a wreck (and who wouldn’t be, by the way?). This is a big deal for her, but she’s sort of unable to see that there are other things going on at the moment that equate to big deals for everyone else (in this case, it’s a Celtics game). A few people try to give her some offhanded support and although that doesn’t really do the trick for the distraught Diane, I think that does show that the Cheers crowd is slowly warming to her. They don’t particularly love her, but they are growing to tolerate her. She doesn’t really handle this well, but the good news is that for the first half of the episode, this is a story that is about Diane as an individual, not just as a romantic interest for Sam. Diane is getting hardened by the “real” world after being stuck in academic purgatory for years on end and it is going to be a rough ride, but I do enjoy the small beats the series has employed thus far.

On the flip side, Diane’s arrival has gotten Sam Malone thinking about the man he wants to be, it seems. He has tried pretty hard to date more emotionally mature and intellectually stimulating women as a way to prove he’s not just a “jock strap,” and he’s battle his past discretions on a fairly regular basis over these first 14 episodes. Although he clearly loves running Cheers, the series has done a great job of dipping into Sam’s slight sadness. His career flamed out relatively quickly, he was an alcoholic and now he’s the manager/owner of a seemingly successful, but not overly successful bar.

There are worse paths for former athletes (see: Porn, bankruptcy, murder, Mike Tyson), but outside forces keep sweeping into the bar, tempting Sam with the nectar of his past triumphs. He was offered a television interview that was axed, accidentally pushed himself to almost drink and in “Now Pitching,” he gets another slight brush with fame through a local commercial that is ultimately ripped away from him because he doesn’t want to keep having sex with his cougar of an agent. For Sam, reconnecting with his past appears to be nothing but a bad thing, moves that bring him frustration, pain and embarrassment. And by the end of “Now Pitching,” it seems like he’s realized that cutting himself off from bad situations like the one with agent means giving up two big anchors of his past lifestyle: Sports/fame and a certain brand of woman. Ditching the agent with the knowledge that the commercial deal will probably go as well was a relatively mature, developed decision.

Looking at Sam and Diane separately helps make enjoying them together easier, I think. She’s still a pretentious wannabe do-gooder who doesn’t have the social skills to make it happen. And he’s still a jock strap. But they’re both changing, probably because of the other’s presence, and it’s been really great to watch them mature and develop, albeit slowly (this is a sitcom, after all). Additionally, it seems much more believable that the two of them would hook up now. Not only because of the passing of time and the basic ways people grow closer over it, but because of how the two of them have grown up. They were sort of obvious polar opposites in the pilot episode, but they’ve both moved closer to the proverbial middle now.

So when they almost make out at the end of “Let Me Count The Ways,” it’s not only funny, it makes some sense. Sure, Sam is taking advantage of the moment, but he’s also legitimately worried about Diane and her feelings. Somewhat. And although she protests, it’s pretty clear that her protesting doesn’t go too far. She wants it just as much as he does. I’m not sure if the plotting was entirely intentional, but this felt like a perfect moment to bring the two of them together like this, even if they don’t actually consummate the relationship in any way. We’re more than halfway through the season and everything has built to that moment where Sam is emotionally honest and Diane is vulnerable. I might have been bored and/or annoyed with how forceful some of their relationship beats were in the early episodes, this scene felt entirely earned. They probably should have actually kissed or something, but I’m actually a bit invested in Sam and Diane now, so bravo Cheers.

Other thoughts:

  • “The Spy Who Came In for a Cold One” bored the hell out of me. There were some interesting Sitcom Healing Center things going on, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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