It was almost cancelled after the first season due to low ratings. However, critical praise, studio support and a strong showing at the Emmys saved this little series from extinction, and it went on to become one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since the debut of “Cheers” on September 30, 1982.
Director James Burrows and writers Glen Charles and Les Charles created a premise that was simple and a nod to the successful screwball comedies of old: a prissy, elitist feminist meets a womanizing, flippant “commoner” and the sparks fly. Set in a bar with a wise-cracking waitress, a befuddled bartender and a couple of beer-guzzling barflies, there were endless opportunities for crazy situations and to introduce oddball characters. Thus began our love affair with Sam Malone (Ted Danson), Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), Ernie “Coach” Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto) and Norm Peterson (George Wendt) and Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger). Even though it did take awhile for audiences to warm up, it became a Top 10 show by Season 2, and over the next several years, we would bid sad farewells to some characters, but meet new ones who brought renewed energy and a fresh dynamic.
Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was brought on not only as Sam’s rival for Diane’s affection, but also as her intellectual equal and another foil to the bar regulars, often smirking at the “locals” while also begrudgingly admiring their street smarts and appreciation for the simple things. Sadly, Coach passes away (reflecting the real-life death of Colasanto from a heart attack), but his penpal Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) shows up to meet him, unaware of his death. A naive farm boy from the Midwest, Woody stays in the big city and takes up Coach’s place at the bar. When Diane breaks up with Frasier, he eventually finds romance (strictly logical, of course) with the strait-laced Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth). And when Diane leaves a heartbroken Sam, he sells the bar to a corporation, and in steps a new female lead as the manager of the bar.
I remember well the anticipation after Long chose to leave the series at the end of Season 5. The antagonistic “will they or won’t they” storyline had largely taken over and she was one of the main leads – a hard hit for a show to survive. However, the storyline had grown old and run its course, so it might very well be that Long’s departure is the reason the show stayed on the air for so long after. The introduction of Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), who is as neurotic and unsure of herself as Diane was confident and full of herself, breathed new life into the series.
And that might also be the reason “Cheers” rose in the ratings and remained a critical darling, becoming an integral part of “Must See Thursdays” for so long – it was so easily relatable. Although the setting was a bar in Boston, it could have been about any of us, anywhere. Much like that bar, people come in and out of our lives – people die (Coach), babies are born (a boy for Frasier and Lilith, and a seemingly endless supply from Carla), romances bloom and either survive or fade (Sam and Diane, Frasier and Diane, Frasier and Lilith, Woody and Kelly), people move on (Diane) and people move in (Woody, Rebecca). It was done with such humor and finesse that it’s easy to see why this show remains popular four decades later.
Over its 11 seasons, “Cheers” received 111 Emmy nominations, with 28 wins, including one Best Comedy Actress win each for Long and Alley and two Best Comedy Actor trophies for Danson, while Harrelson won once in supporting, Neuwirth twice and Perlman four times. Along with some technical victories, there were two wins each for directing and writing. The series itself won Best Comedy four times, in 1983, 1984, 1989 and 1991. Among its competition in its winning freshman season was another beloved sitcom that was ending its run after 11 years, “M*A*S*H,” which only claimed the title once (1974). Ironically, “Cheers” would also make it to 11 seasons, and “Cheers” is second only to “M*A*S*H” as the most-watched series finale of all time. “Cheers” received eight Emmy nominations for its final season; Danson was the only major win, but it wasn’t the end altogether. The next year, its spinoff “Frasier” would win its first of five consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy, eventually setting various Emmy records; that character would become one of the longest-running in the history of television.
It’s the series that came in with a bit of a whimper, but went out with a bang as people eagerly waited to see if Long would reappear, and if Sam and Diane would get their happily ever after. Again, the bittersweet finale reflected real life in that things don’t always work out the way that we expect or want – but usually the way they should.
I watched “Cheers” from the time it premiered when I was 11-years-old to the time it ended, just a week or so after I graduated from college. Not long ago, my husband and I shared the series with our own children, and they enjoyed it just as much as us kids and teens of the 80’s did.
Join us in celebrating the 40th anniversary of the place “where everybody knows your name” with our rankings of 30 of the best episodes in the photo gallery (be sure to let us know which one we missed – they’re aren’t any bad ones!), including a not-so-perfect wedding, a game show fiasco, a couple of bar wars, a spectacular food fight and what might be the most awkwardly passionate kiss ever. We promise that you’ll be glad that you came.
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