Further Thoughts on Cheers (End Season 5)

So, the first five seasons of Cheers is dominated by the Sam and Diane relationship. Which is unfortunate, because this arc is the least interesting out of the ones they had, featuring the least interesting characters — at least at the time — and is also filled with nonsense in an attempt to wring dramatic tension out of the relationship.

At the end of Season 3, Diane is proposed to by Frasier, accepts, and then tries to call Sam to, it seems, get him to admit his feelings for her and/or talk her out of it. When Sam finds out about the upcoming marriage, he rushes off to Italy to try to stop the wedding. The arc ends at the beginning of Season 4 with Diane having left Frasier at the altar, and Sam having had to go through a number of trials to stop a wedding that never happened. And both Sam and Diane are quite aware that the other did that.

So how come they don’t get together after that? At that point, neither of them can really deny their feelings for each other, and there isn’t even a real explanation of them thinking that the passion was there but that the relationship wouldn’t work. Even then it’s clear that they aren’t going to be able to move on any time soon, and so at a minimum Diane probably should have stayed away from the bar and gotten a job somewhere else. But none of that happens because the show can’t let that happen, but there’s really no way to top this when it comes to their relationship. If this event didn’t convince them to get married or at least get back together, it seems that nothing could. And yet they still have to play this tired arc out and try to keep the tension in this relationship going somehow.

After a full season of this, they have Sam date a politician, who says that she wants marriage. This triggers Sam to think about marriage, and ultimately to ask Diane to marry him, who initially says “No” and then reconsiders, only for Sam to withdraw the offer. Not only is this in and of itself mostly ridiculous, it leads to Diane adopting the very annoying trait of consistently insisting that Sam is going to ask her again while Sam vehemently denies it. And the worst part of it is that given what has gone on before we know that Diane is right, but she’s being very smug and annoying about it. In an episode where Diane smugly insists that he will ask her that day, he does … and she says “No” again. At which point, they probably should just give it up, but instead they go to court and the judge insists that Sam propose in order to not be charged, which he does, she accepts, and they head to the end of the season planning a wedding. Which was also stupid, as it never really resolves why Diane said “No” the other times.

But since they don’t get married at the end of the season, you’d think that what makes them break up would follow from that, right? Nope … well, at least not directly. What happens is that Diane’s first fiance Sumner conveniently comes back right before the wedding — I think it was in the season finale — and says that he’s sent Diane’s book to an editor friend of his who thinks that it might be worth publishing, but only if Diane finishes it. He later confirms that it would be published, setting up a situation where it is believed that Diane has to choose between marrying Sam now or finishing the book. Sam convinces her — over her protests — to take the time to finish the book, which just happens to involve her going to Sumner’s cottage somewhere for six months. Diane insists that she’ll return, but she never does and the book deal ends up falling through. Diane is hinted at having gone to Hollywood to write for TV, probably a comment on Shelley Long focusing on making movies after that point.

But here’s why this really doesn’t work for me: bringing Sumner in at that point was just too convenient. Everyone should have suspected that he was doing this to try to break Sam and Diane up and possibly make a move on her himself. That he happens to send her novel off at pretty much the same time as he found out about the wedding and happens to send it to a friend who happens to think it will work and it just so happens that he has a secluded place available for her to work is an awful lot of happens to absorb, and yet no one questions his motives. If this had been set up more episodes in advance where there would have been time to question and verify what was happening, this would have worked out so much better. As it stands, it really looked to me like Sam and Diane got suckered by Sumner.

You can argue that Shelley Long’s decision to leave came too late to really do that sort of set-up, but then all they needed to do was have Sam or Diane have doubts about what her consistent “Nos” meant. Even if they had to leave the door open for her to return, this could have easily been resolved with her deciding that she needed more meditation time and then resolving that either way at the beginning of this season. As it stands, it’s a nonsensical ending to a nonsensical and boring story arc.

This is not helped by Diane being Flanderized a bit and becoming more annoying because of it. She always did have a streak of thinking that she was smarter and better than she really was, but she was always presented as being cultured and, for the most part, having some talent but ruining it by being overly ambitious and thus complicating everything. In Season 5, she’s far less competent and far more often overlooks failings that she really should have been able to spot. For example, in one episode she is trying out for ballet and gets a bad review of her abilities. To be nice, Frasier changes the recommendations to be more flattering, which ends up prompting her to barge in and try out for a professional ballet troupe to follow her dream, but Sam and Frasier stop her before she can make a fool out of herself. The problem is that she had a video of it, which makes everyone in the bar laugh at how ridiculous she looks. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to not see how her dancing really looks while dancing it, so that’s fine. But she watches it with them. And despite her having to know what the dance should look like, she thinks she did well, and it’s only when they tell her that they faked the review that she realizes otherwise. Well, sure, she might decide to trust the famous teacher over her own opinion, especially when that tells her what she wants to hear … but Diane had shown some self-awareness in the past, and this just sails right on past it. We might be able to believe that she could delude herself that badly about writing or poetry — although in those cases given how she does immerse herself in those media she’d likely be more derivative and think herself creative than be really, really bad — but with this she really should have known better.

And it isn’t even funny.

However, Cheers can be clever at times, and by now we’re starting to see its strength, which is its characters. Sam and Diane as characters work so much better when they are supporting the other characters and not hogging the spotlight. The relationship between Frasier and Lilith is much, much more interesting that the one between Sam and Diane. After starting from a disastrous first date, they end up on a show together, and Diane realizes that Frasier is in love with Lilith. Given her nature, she decides to intervene and tell Lilith about it, and then try to make her over in order to attract Frasier. What’s wonderful here is that when Diane tells Lilith that Frasier is in love with her, Lilith’s immediate reaction is that she’s not the type of pretty girl that people fall in love with, which made me immediately react with puzzlement. This seemed to come out of nowhere, and Bebe Neuwirth is a very attractive woman. But this results in Fridge Brilliance when you realize that the person who, so far, has made the biggest deal out of her looks is … Lilith. Diane simply says that she needs to dress better and use more … some makeup. Frasier, when he badmouths her, tends to talk about how cold and emotionally repressed she is, not about how unattractive she is, and give his personality he wouldn’t have asked her out the first time if he didn’t find her attractive. And if anyone else comments on that, it’s as a quick aside. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that she might have been awkward as a teen, and to avoid the teasing retreated to what she was better than most people at, which was things that involved intelligence, and thus cultivated the ideal intellectual manner, including the look. Since she wasn’t surprised that Frasier asked her out the first time, she had to think that her peers at least wanted to have sex with her, but could have fobbed it off as being the result of a male dominated field and her being one of the few women available. Her cold manner and aggressive intellectualism — worse than Frasier at lot of the time, who is pretty bad at it himself — would make most men not want to pursue a relationship with her, justifying her comment, and we can note that that is indeed what Frasier dislikes about her, and her more open style of dress and reaction to his flirting is probably more responsible for what gets his attention than simply that she looked hot. This underlying dynamic makes the relationship a lot more interesting than the shallow — and quickly dropped — idea of the cultured vs the everyday clash of Diane and Sam.

What the later seasons did better was avoid the split between the moral cultured class and the immoral or amoral working class. When Norm finds out that the person he is up against for a promotion is sleeping with the boss’ wife, while Diane is clearly opposed to him using that to get the promotion, Carla is also strongly opposed and Sam is uncertain about doing that as well. It’s pretty much left to Cliff to push for Norm doing it, and even here there isn’t a clear right answer.

That Norm doesn’t do it leads to another example of the importance of character. After he choose not to do it, the boss tells him that the reason Norm lost the promotion to the other person was that Norm’s wife Vera didn’t fit in with the other wives. Vera really wanted him to get the promotion so that they could buy a house. Norm is outraged and ends up quitting, and then has to tell his wife what happened. While he says that he plans to tell her the truth, he can’t hurt her that way, and so ends up accepting all the blame himself, proving that he really loves her despite his constant comments about her. This character development only carries on later when Diane tries to help Norm get noticed at a new job and get a promotion, and after his colleague steals Norm’s — bad, as it turns out — idea Norm finally says that he doesn’t want to big a big shot and just wants to be a worker drone, and is happy that way.

Woody makes a better replacement for Coach — the actor passed away in Season 3, I think — because as someone who is young you can maintain the naivete and stupidity without ever having to use the character as a mentor, which works against that. And Carla’s sniping got old, as it seems that pretty much everything she said was a snipe and it often interrupted the show to try to get in some cheap humour, which hurt her as a character.

So far Cheers is still “Okay”. Sometimes it’s clever and sometimes monumentally stupid. As I go on into season six, I’m finding that there’s more clever and less stupid, which is a good thing.

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