Posted by: dougery | June 19, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name (But Hates Your Guts)


L and I have fallen into watching Cheers. The fact that the show is Boston based is purely coincidental (we began watching it before we knew we were moving there). In truth we are just very old people who watch tv shows that only old people enjoy. Thus our heady crush for Frasier. Somewhere along our return engagement with the Crane family it occurred to me that Frasier was in fact a spin-off (in truth one of the most successful spin-offs of all time). So we began to dabble in Cheers. An episode here and there. It was slow going. Cheers may be an archetype for many contemporary comedies but 30 years is a long time. You get constantly reminded how much has changed in terms of, well, everything from superficialities such as fashion to the form of the show itself. These differences can be funny, disconcerting, and annoying but we persevered. Mostly, to be honest, I was just waiting for Frasier to show up.

We’re now most of the way through Cheers S3 and the show appears to have found its groove. However lately I’ve been reminded of what Shirley mutters a few times in Community about a certain bar owner and barmaid on Cheers. Being middle-aged, Shirley is one of the few Community characters to have actually watched Cheers and her comparing Winger and Britta to Sam and Diane and then viciously mumbling “I hated Sam & Diane,” are telling. Annie and Troy’s oblivious looks as to who the hell Sam and Diane are, Shirley’s next comment “We get it, you’re young” and the generational divide problem notwithstanding, the main issue here is does anybody out there actually like Sam and Diane?

I’m struggling to come up with a show where the two central characters are as deeply unlikable as those on Cheers. The show as it is constructed is unfathomable today. Going back to Community again, the sheer number of comments Harmon & Co. received for the pilot episode from suits eager to make Winger more likable and less douche-y is indicative of how important attractive, predictably lovable protagonists are to network comedies. And while I’m aware there might be plenty of women who found a young Ted Danson, helmet hair and all, attractive (and that notions of attractiveness are thorny and subjective), I find it hard to believe there was the kind of frighteningly rabid (read: undersexed) fanbase that has developed around Annie and Britta in place for Diane.

Yet it is far less Diane’s look that annoys, though her Olive Oyl physique and predilection for poofy shoulder-pads doesn’t help, but her personality. The know-it-all is a stock character on many shows. On Cheers, where every episode is a bottle episode in a bar full of the ‘unwashed masses’ that file in and out all day, an elitist is pretty much a necessity, foil-wise. It is so necessary that they developed Cliff into a know-it-all parody, a guy who talks endlessly and erroneously on any number of topics. Whereas Cliff blathers on in a misguided effort to be liked (and ironically is liked because of the unintentional comedy his speeches brings about) Diane’s prattling is specifically mean-spirited. She is relentlessly condescending. She has so little in common with any of the bars patrons (Frasier excepted, though where I’m at he’s still being phased in) that it is a huge leap of faith just to accept her presence there at all.

What is interesting to me is the relationship that develops between Sam and Diane and how odd it is. The pair is unlikable separately, and their relationship is by turns cloying and boring. Lovey-dovey one moment and predictably strained (they just have nothing in common, like OMG) the next. It takes a wickedly dark turn toward the end of S2 where the specter of physical abuse, both Sam’s desire to inflict it and some kind of perverse wish on Diane’s part to receive it. But this move is swiftly retconned after a early S3 sanitarium spell for Diane and fall off the wagon for Sam. By a half dozen episodes or so we’re right back where the show started, sexual tension wise. But by now the rest of the gang of losers are fully formed enough to carry episodes by themselves. How I Met Your Mother follows a similar-ish pattern, albeit one doesn’t hate Ted or Robin or Ted & Robin (it is hard to hate characters that are so blah), and by the time the writers knew the central couple was a core of ‘meh’ Barney, Lily and marshall had deservedly stolen away the show.

So yeah, Cheers runaway success bewilders me. And yet here I am watching it so what the hell do I know. There must be something there besides my desire to study the history of the television comedy that keeps me coming back. But your guess is as good as mine as to what that is.



  1. we used to watch Cheers growing up – definitely a household favorite – and you still get the occasional “Norm” or “Cliff” reference/remark/insult at a Regan family dinner.

    But now that I am thinking it, you are so right. Where WAS the appeal? Could the banter have possibly been as good as my head is telling me it was?

    Maybe we should start re-watching it too!

  2. I hate Ted on HIMYM with the fiery intensity of a meganova (that’s when a million stars supernova at once). He is the nadir of the human species. I actually had to stop watching the show because even though I loved Barney, Marshall, and Lily, Ted’s epic douchery was too much to take. I would pay good money to watch an R-Rated HBO special where the Ted character is viciously tortured to death a la “Saw.” I hate him so much.

    I watched a lot of “Cheers” when I was unemployed (and DS9) and I think it’s basic appeal is similar to Community’s (and ST:TNG come to think): it’s a comfortable community. You settle in with the characters and enjoy their banter and feel like you belong. I think it feels really dated now in many ways, but I think Cheers does a good job of being a world you step into and enjoy for a half hour each week (or a 3-hour marathon every day on TNT in my case).

    Diane always struck me as sort of pathetic, her know-it-all-ness coming from a desperate desire to be thought of as special by people she knew she was no better than (worse than, really), which made her annoying but also strangely sympathetic.

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