Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “Father Knows Last,” “The Boys in the Bar” and “Diane’s Perfect Date”

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.

It very difficult to manage different tones in a mainstream sitcom. Something like The Office can get away with tonal clashes because of the presumed rawness that comes along with the mockumentary style and because it’s so damn awkward to begin with. However, at least from my perspective, overly popular comedies — especially multi-camera ones — tend to transition into overheated sap when they move towards a “serious” or “emotional” moment. Perhaps I feel this way because I cannot escape the PTSD I have from all those Danny Tanner lessons on Full House or perhaps it is because Modern Family bored me to death with its unfortunate use of emotional bow voice-overs for too long.

I have talked about this a little bit in past reviews, but Cheers can be very serious. This is a supremely funny series that knows how to construct jokes and gags to expert perfection, but when necessary, Cheers can easily turn into a more straight-forward character drama. Since it is a product of the early ’80s, I have to admit that I am surprised the series can integrate this more serious beats into the story without pushing it a step too far. Thus far in season one Cheers has not devolved into “special episode” territory at all even though it has tackled alcoholism, paternity and homosexuality. Those last two topics came in this week’s “Father Knows Last” and “The Boys in the Bar” and although I do not like those episodes as I much as I enjoyed Sam’s near-relapse in “Endless Slumper,”* the execution of the stories was similarly effective.

*This sounds like I really enjoyed watching someone almost fall off the wagon and embrace the alcoholic within them. This is not what I mean. 

I think what really helps “Father Knows Last” and “The Boys in the Bar” work so well is that they tackle oddly heavy issues, but keep them within the purview of bar conversation. There is no question that everyone working with Carla or frequenting the bar while she worked would be able to see that she was pregnant again and they would likely talk about it constantly. I can only imagine the scientific facts Cliff presented about Carla’s probable pregnancy as she avoided telling them despite ballooning up in obvious fashion. Similarly, Sam’s decision to support his recently-outed former teammate would surely spurn on all sorts of talk about what that means for Sam and the bar. Though Norm was acting like a massive prick when he kept telling Sam that Cheers could easily turn gay, it’s not like his actions were unrealistic for some bar hound from 1983.

The setting helps Cheers immensely in this case. If this were a family sitcom, randomly discussing paternity or homosexuality would feel more externally manufactured and special episode-y. There wouldn’t be much way around it, really. Cue up the Full House score and Bob Saget talking in hushed tones. But because Cheers takes place in a bar where all the people are A.) adults and B.) somewhat intoxicated, these kind of debates, discussions and dialogues feel relatively natural.

Additionally, when the series wants to transition into a more “serious” conversation built around these topics, like when Diane pulls Carla aside in “Father” or Norm works Sam into an angry moment in “Boys,” it doesn’t ring false. Bar debates always start in good fun but when opinionated people take in some booze, things are bound to get heated at some point. The series also does a really nice job of avoiding many of the markers of the IMPORTANT CONVERSATION, as there is rarely Full House-y music nor do the actors start speaking slower or quieter. There might be less quips-per-minute in these moments, but Cheers still feels like Cheers and the characters still feel like themselves for the most part.

Per usual, Cheers finds these heavier moments in the characters themselves instead of pulling in obvious external forces. Sam’s alcoholism is entirely about his internal struggle; Carla is entirely too stubborn and proud to admit the true circumstances of her new pregnancy and Norm’s goofball, lunk-headedness would clearly not lead to a complex understanding of homosexuals in bars and homosexuality in general (I’m not forgiving him for his somewhat awful behavior in “Boys,” but he’s clearly a naive product of a generation that just doesn’t understand in a time where only a select few people understood anyway). Therefore, it feels like these kind of serious moments actually have an origin and similarly will impact the character moving forward. Sam’s issues with alcoholism aren’t go away and obviously neither is Carla’s new baby. And I’d like to think that Norm is a good enough guy that his ultimate embarrassment means he’ll learn not to pop off as much. These aren’t stories that are constructed so that the series can check a capital-I Issue off their network-directed list. Or at least they don’t appear to be and the fact that we cannot really see the strings makes for better story and character construction.

Finally, these stories succeed because Cheers isn’t afraid to let the characters be kind of terrible in certain circumstances. I’ve talked a little about this already in regards to how insufferable Diane can be at times, but she’s not the only one who can become less admirable. Carla’s decision to lie about the identity of her baby’s father is played mostly for sympathy, but I don’t think the episode entirely lets her off the hook. In the least, it is clear that she made the wrong choice, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

And as I mentioned earlier, Norm is actually pretty terrible in “The Boys in the Bar.” He outwardly rants about the negative possibilities of Sam’s decision to support his gay friend, tries to organize a makeshift gay witch hunt to try to find the bar’s two gay patrons and even creates a mischievous ploy that runs the possible gay men out of Cheers altogether. He’s obviously scared about what could happen to his second — or first? — home and is also kind of having fun, but it gets way out of control pretty quickly. It was the first time in 16 episodes that I didn’t love Norm. The episode smartly makes sure that he gets his by the end of things, but man was Norm a jerk here. But again, a real middle-aged white dude living in Boston in the early 1980s? Educated or not, Norm’s actions are relatively honest for the time and circumstances, I think.

There are no lessons, no posturing on Cheers. Things are regularly very funny and sometimes they happen to get somewhat serious. I like this.

Other thoughts:

  • I thought it was kind of funny that Norm’s (and the rest of the bar, really) behavior represents a deconstruction of the Sitcom Healing Center ideal. At least for this one episode, Cheers is not welcoming nor healing.
  • You might be shocked to learn this, but “Diane’s Perfect Date” was almost entirely about the Sam-Diane pairing. Because I hammered the point home for 1,300 words last week, I decided to disregard talking about it too much this week. However, “Diane’s Perfect Date” is a really fun episode that actually makes some headway in the relationship with both of them outwardly admitting that there might be something there. Things could be worse in the second half of a first season, I guess.
  • This week in Diane is a buzzkill: As she tries to give Carla this emotional, motivational speech about being honest with those you care about, a customer takes her advice and admits to infidelity to her husband/boyfriend. Whoops. Diane sucks.
  • “It’s been a long time since I ran my fingers along a woman’s digits.”
  • “Heres’ my number and a couple of quotes from past lovers.”
  • “If single women stop coming in here, I lose my will to live.”
  • “We’ll check in a couple of weeks and just see if Cheers is still the kind of place where a single woman can be assured to be harassed and hit on.”
  • “That was the noblest preposition you’ve ever dangled.”

One response to “Surveillance Summer Watch: Cheers, “Father Knows Last,” “The Boys in the Bar” and “Diane’s Perfect Date””

  1. Another great post. I enjoyed these episodes, though I skipped “Diane’s Perfect Date” as I’m not a fan of those misunderstanding-based stories or the episodes that center entirely around Sam and Diane doing their dance. Maybe I’ll revisit it at some point.

    I like how you’re touching on just how serious this sitcom can be, something that continues to amaze me – I’ve always had this paradigm in my head of older comedies being very straightforward in being comedy, but this has completely shattered that worldview. Kudos to them for doing so, and never going into Very Special Episode territory. That scene with Sam weighing the beer in front of him from last week – that whole quiet five minutes where he and Diane face his addiction head-on – is probably the highlight of the season, capped with his flawless spin and rousing applause as everyone realizes Sam’s still awesome.

    And it’s another good observation that so much of the talk in Cheers come out of the fact that these guys have been drinking all day, and that’s what’s leading them to their conclusions. I think we forget this somehow given that Sam doesn’t drink, and Coach/Carla/Diane don’t drink when they’re on the job, but everyone else is throwing back beers all day – and occasionally that leads them in certain directions. I’d like to think that they’d still have adopted Carla’s kid as the bar’s kid even without, but it’s not hard to see in a certain light that as much as they love her there’s some alcohol-fueled enthusiasm there. Certainly in their closing musical number, at least.

    I think Norm’s attitudes – while certainly reprehensible, even if they’re entirely in line for 1980s mostly conservative norms – actually do show another side of Cheers beyond its role as a place of healing. To the barflies there, Cheers is an oasis – as the theme song says, a place where they can get away and where everybody knows their name. They go in there and they know Sam and Coach are always going to be behind the bar, Norm’s name’s always going to be shouted, Carla’s always going to provide service with a snark. They don’t go there to become better as people, that just sort of happens as a result (next week’s “No Contest” has some very clear statements of that). It’s not as much a fear that they’re going to surrounded by gay fellas making them uncomfortable (even though that’s part of it), but that Cheers isn’t going to be the place they know. Less homophobia, more fear of change. Or maybe I just hate thinking of Norm and Cliff in a bigoted context.

    I just finished the first season this weekend – really, one of the best first seasons of a comedy I’ve seen. Looking forward to weighing in next week (all three of those episodes are terrific) and again on your season finale post.


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