Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Era of Crane Begins

Season three's first episode, as I blogged about on Monday, focuses on Sam's downfall after breaking up with Diane in the season two finale. And by episode's end, Sam is introduced to Dr. Frasier Crane, Diane's "friend" she has brought to the bar to help Sam battle his alcoholism.

The following episode, Diane comes clean about her relationship with Frasier, announcing the two are intimate. "Ewwww," Sam and Norm say in stereotypical sitcom unison. Yet Sam and Frasier begin to get along fairly well and, thanks to some prodding from Coach, the two realize having Diane come back to work at Cheers will be a suitable arrangement.

And even though he's still listed as a guest actor throughout the third season, Kelsey Grammer's Frasier Crane is a full-on presence in the series by the end of the third episode of season three.

Here, Frasier comes to Sam asking him for advice (Oh, the irony!) after Diane calls out Sam's name in bed. In the natural ways of the American sitcom, Frasier disguises the situation by saying the scenario is that of a patient and not Frasier's own dilemma.

Sam realizes that the woman in Frasier's story is indeed Diane, yet doesn't want to rub it in as the two men have begun to develop a friendship over the previous two episodes. Rather, he lets Frasier leave his office believing Sam doesn't know what's up and, as soon as Frasier's out the door, Mayday picks up a mirror and begins singing "Unforgettable" to his reflection.

Funny? Sure. Typical Mayday behavior? Absolutely. So what's this episode got to do with Frasier's role in the series being cemented? Well, this comes moments later when Diane comes into the office and Sam lets Diane know he knows whose name she called out the other night. Diane reluctantly admits that there still is a spark there between her and Sam.

The embrace, then kiss. "Oh, Diane!" Sam calls out. To which Diane says, "Oh, Frasier!" In her typical, spunky way, Diane gives Sam a little smile and walks away, leaving Sam to feel the confusion and humiliation Frasier felt the other night.

And there it is. Perhaps the biggest laugh this series has gotten out of me thus far, and also the scene that lets us know Dr. Crane's going to be sticking around for awhile. And by awhile, I mean until 2004 when his titular spin-off series finally ends...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mayday Malone: Off the Wagon, Back on the Sauce

Two phrases I use quite often (both on the blog and in everyday conversation) are tomcatting and hound-dogging. These two words are verbs, actions. When one is tomcatting, they are in the act of being a tomcat, for instance. The difference between tomcatting and hounddogging is that a tomcat is a playboy (or ladies man or whatever phrase you want to use), yet the actions of a tomcat are for the most part respectful and innocent. When one is out tomcatting, he's looking to hook up with chicks (or dudes; if there can be female tomcats, there certainly can be gay tomcats) but the target of a tomcat knows what she/he is getting into. Both people realize what the situation is -- there are no broken hearts with a tomcat.

A hound dog, on the other hand, is less gentlemanly than a tomcat. A hound dog doesn't know when to give up. He pushes and pushes his agenda to the point of being creepy. Or he comes across as embarrassing, making those around him uncomfortable with his actions, whether or not they are the target of his sights.

And, ladies and gentlemen, the Sam "Mayday" Malone we are introduced to at the start of season 3 is a hound dog. He's unruly, unshaven, and going out at all hours of the night, picking up -- and presumably having his way with -- a great deal of women. But most importantly, he's back on the sauce.

In the scene from which the photo above comes from, Mayday comes bursting into Cheers during the middle of the day with two baton twirlers around his arms. (He explains that he picked them up from a parade earlier in the day.) As you can see, he's got a five o'clock shadow, is wearing a poorly tied neck tie, and wearing a hat. In other words, this is what a recovering alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon looks like in 1984.

What's more, in the picture above, Mayday is the spitting image of what a hound dog is -- a man (or woman) whose selfish, womanizing ways are hurting the ones around him. Coach is the man who got Mayday to seek help years ago for his alcoholism. And we find out Carla is ragged and tired after working night after night as the only waitress because Sam keeps hiring waitresses to replace Diane (who quit in the season 2 finale) but these replacements themselves keep quitting because Mayday bangs 'em and leaves 'em. In fact, he's hired 8 women to replace Diane and (according to Carla), Mayday had his way with all of them and it's six months later and she's still without a fellow waitress to work beside her.

And on this particular afternoon, Sam has brought these two showgals to the bar because they didn't believed he owned one. Coach confirms he owns Cheers and the ladies are impressed. So, naturally, Sam takes them back to his office saying as they walk "It's time for the halftime show at the Sammy Dome!" (Of, that Sam!)

Coach is brokenhearted to see Sam back to being his old self, so he goes to Diane's apartment to get her help. What he doesn't know, however, is that Diane has had some difficulties of her own as we see Diane and her mother's chauffeur bringing in luggage after her extended stay in therapy. Reluctantly, Diane agrees to help Sam even if it means going back to the Cheers bar she vowed to never return to while in therapy.

The next day, Mayday comes into work and heads into his office. As he enters the door, the audience sees several customers standing and sitting at nearby tables. And, since I have the luxury of hindsight as I watch these episodes, I know something is afoot because one such customer is Kelsey Grammar in a three piece suit.

Coach, Carla, Norm and Cliff discuss Mayday's downfall, debating whether or not they must intervene and moments later, Sam returns from his office, asking Coach what day of the week it is.

"Friday," Coach answers.

"Well that's it for me. Goodbye, everybody," Sam declares as he grabs a fifth of vodka and heads for the door.

But that's not it for Mayday. No, far from it, as Diane walks in and stops him in his tracks. The two discuss life since they broke they broke up and eventually the conversation turns to Sam's boozing. He denies being a drunk to Diane and asks Norm and company to vouch for him; they don't.

"When you try to be a good time drunk, you really find out who your friends are," Mayday declares.

Diane tries reasoning with Sam, asking him if he'll at listen to her friend she met while in therapy. Reluctantly, Mayday agrees to here the guy out, prompting Frasier, now seated next to Cliff at the bar to extend his hand and say hello to Sam. Mayday, naturally, jumps at being startled and accuses Diane of running a sting operation.

While I got more than a few laughs at this episodes writing (ie the dialogue I quoted in this post) and at the way Ted Danson played Sam Malone as a down and out drunk, I'm not sure how long I want this off-the-wagon version of Mayday to last. It's intriguing, for sure, but having the lead character of a sitcom outwardly expressing signs of out of control alcoholism won't be entertaining for too long...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Oh, Sam. Oh, Diane. Oh, End of Season 2...

A few blog posts ago, I said I was enjoying the heck out of the Season Two Version of Diane and Sam (manly because of the witty dialogue between the two). And that I've wrapped up the second season of Cheers, I'm a little sad to see how the season concludes.

The Season 2 finale is a two parter featuring Christopher Llyod as Phillip Semenko, a famed, if not extremely eccentric artist who Sam hires to paint a portrait of Diane. Why a portrait? Because Sam is trying to get out of the dog house after doing an interview with Boston Magazine after being named one of the top 20 hottest bachelors in town. (Oh, that Sam!)

Semenko, however, makes a bad impression with Mayday who sees him as nothing but a showman who uses his talent and assumed genius to bag women. Thus, Sam calls off the portrait painting arrangement; but Diane goes through with it behind Sam’s back because she respects Christopher Lloyd’s talent.

This causes obvious friction between S and D and we end up with the two slapping each other in the face in an empty Cheers bar, because, you know domestic violence is ha-larious! After pinching one another's noses for two minutes (which the live studio audience goes bonkers for, by the way), the two end up saying goodbye to each other.

I’ve got to admit I wasn’t feeling this episode for the simple reason that I new this goodbye was not THE goodbye. Diane’s got a few more seasons left on the show and even after that, she returns in the final episode of the series. That said, I did like the final scene of the season in which Sam tells Diane “One more thing… get the hell out.” They say their “final” goodbyes and Sam, just for a second, physically displays that he’s considering running after her before walking towards his office. From inside the bar, we see Diane’s legs walking back down the steps and stopping, only to walk back up the stairs after noticing Sam is walking away. Needless to say, this scene got me pretty emo.

I’m interested to see how they bring Diane back to the bar in season 3. And I’m also excited as all hell for the beginning of the Frasier Crane era!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Norm Peterson: Unemployed Accountant. Alcoholic. Hopeless Romantic?

In the past few weeks, I feel like I'm beginning to find my niche with this blog in terms of what to write about and how often to write. Yet, as I go through these 270 episodes, I am finding the occasional need to blog about one single episode. Such is the case today with episode 42 of the series, "Norman's Conquest."

In this episode, things are starting to look up for Norm. Sam (at the behest of Diane) made Norm his accountant for the Cheers bar a few episodes back and now Norm has some business cards and is working out of the trunk of his car and is landing new clients. One such client is a hot single lady who has joined Norm at the bar for a celebratory drink.

And here's where the conflict for Norm begins as Cliff and the other barflies (minor, and up to this point still nameless, characters) egg Normy on to take the broad home and sell the deal, so to speak. Norm plays up to the hounddogging antics of his fellow drinkers but keeps coming back to the bar for their advice because he's nervous to just sit down at the table and talk to the woman.

Eventually, the woman gets annoyed with Norm's lack of attention to her and heads for the door. Norm tries getting her to stay but instead is invited over to her place for dinner (cue the heckling from Cliff and the peanut gallery).

Norm returns to Cheers two hours later, his shirt half-tucked and his tie loose. "That woman's an animal!" he declares upon his entrance. Great for ole, Normy, yes? The only thing is, the woman called the bar just before Norm walked in, explaining he dropped her off and said he'd park the car and be right up but never came back.

So, naturally, the barflies ask Norm for all the nasty details until eventually Norm realizes they know his story is a lie. Ashamed and embarrassed, he agrees to go to the poolroom with Sam and the two have a discussion on women and life, leading to Norm making a shocking confession...


Surely, this shouldn't be shocking because, after all, isn't marriage supposed to be a union of two people that love each other? In theory, absolutely. But how often is that really the case? Without getting into a diatribe about changing societal norms (no pun intended), it's worth putting out that my generation seems to be delaying marriage more and more. I have few friends that are married. And I think I know more divorced couples than I do couples that are married with children.

The point being, marriage is hardly ever perfect. And given the fact that's we've seen Norm paint a very negative picture of his better half, Vera, for two seasons, it is a bit of a shock for him to admit he loves his wife. As he and Mayday continue to talk, Norm goes on to admit that all the jokes about Vera is just an act so he can fit in and be one of the guys.

"When's the last time you saw a bunch of guys at a bar slamming brews, sharing tales of marital bliss?" he asks Mayday.

It's this scene in the pool room where I found myself frantically jotting down notes as I became intrigued by Mayday's discussion with Norm. It was only one post ago where I chastised Cheers for trying to be serious with its episodes and characters, and here I found the scene to be both serious and really authentic.

Adding to the authenticity is Sam admitting that, in a way, he's jealous of Norm for being able to be with one woman and being happy with what he has. And with the benefit of knowing how the series ends, we know what Mayday is saying here is true since the man is for all intents and purposes a sex addict who never finds true happiness.

Norm feels relives to let someone in on the secret that he loves Vera and the relief gives him a sense of pride. "My marriage is my prized possession," he admits to Mayday, adding, "And next to my Honda Civic, my only possession."

And right there it is, a joke. Which, for me, is fine because it's realistic for the character of Norm Peterson to not be able to help himself from making jokes. Hell, he even goes back to the bar and (off-screen) begins doing an imitation of his wife with the premise of the joke being she's an elephant. A cheap joke to end the episode on a laugh? Absolutely. Does it ruin the conversation between Norm and Sam in the pool room? Not necessarily.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cliff Clavin, Jessie Spano, and the Problem with "Very Special" Sitcom Episodes

There seems to be a theme this week when it comes to my posts here. The theme? Realism and it's place in sitcom television.

I chastised Cheers earlier this week for not poking fun at itself when it should have done so, then I applauded the show for giving the characters a degree of depth I found to ring true.

And now it's time to talk about an episode of Cheers where shit got real for a minute. It's still season 2, and the episode (overall) is #31, "Cliff's Rocky Moment." As you can conjure, the episode is centered around Cliff Clavin, the resident know-it-all. And in what can only be called "a very special episode of Cheers," the Boston mailman's mouth gets the best of him as some new guy repeatedly tells him to shut up.

But we all know Cliff Clavin can't help himself. He's like Bono -- the man just cannot stop talking. So this new guy challenges Cliffy to take it outside. And I know they're not going to go outside. Not because Cliff is a big wuss, but because thus far there's only been three rooms the entire show's been filmed in (the main bar area, Sam's office, the back poolroom, and Diane's living room). No way is this show going to spend the cash for it's first outdoor shot on a fight between a minor character and guy whose name we do not know.

No, instead Cliff gives the guy the slip then comes back the next day with his friend from the post office who is both large and black. The only reason I mention the guy's race is because Norm introduces himself and quickly makes the "all black people know each other" joke. Not funny now, not funny in 1983. The paid muscle steps in between Cliff and the bully, only to leave Cliff astray after agreeing that Clavin indeed is a know-it-all.

Cliff is left to his own devices and states he's a master at karate yet refuses to fight the bully. The entire bar believes Cliff to be a liar, sans Diane because, you know, she sees the good in everyone. Next the bully, in what is portrayed as a very tense scene, tells Cliff to man up and to not be a coward. Cliff hangs his head low and walks out of the bar.

Sam asks the bully (who still has no name) if he's happy with himself and to beat it. Okay, great Mayday, but where the hell were you two minutes ago?!?

The gang wonder if ole Cliffy were ever show his face in Cheers again, only to be surprised when he returns a minute later with a piece of 4x4 and three mortar bricks. He makes Norm hold the board and Carla a brick, breaking them with his bare foot and forehead, respectively.

The bar applauds and celebrates Cliff's ability and truthfulness. And there's a lesson to be learn, which of course is to not trust a book by its cover.

And here's where my over-analyzing goes back into high gear. A hallmark of sitcoms in the 80s and early 90s were these "a very special episode..." episodes in which the perceived drama outweighs the comedy and (usually) the social issues of the era are tackled.

This happened once already with Cheers in season 1 (see my previous post on Mayday being a gay rights pioneer). And here the drama centers around Cliff being made out to be a coward. Though that first episode ends on a bit of a cheap joke (two gay dudes kissing mildly homophobic Norm Peterson on the cheek), I thought the show did a good job of trying to tackle a serious issue.

Here, on the other hand, the drama felt out of place. Not exactly forced, as there was no social issue at hand; it was just Cliff wouldn't shut up and someone wanted to kick his ass. But still, whatever the show was trying to go for didn't work.

And that's the reason I spent the past hour writing this post. When has it ever really worked for a sitcom in terms of trying to be serious? We all can recall "a very special episode..." of our favorite sitcoms and we usually laugh at whatever dramatic scene was the climax of the story.

The one that surely jumps out for people of my generation is this scene from Saved By The Bell in which Jessie confides in Zack Morris that she's taking caffeine pills in order to balance studying with extra curricular activities.

Is this clip memorable to my generation because it taught us all the important lesson of staying away from over the counter stimulants? Eff no! It's memorable because we all thought it was cheesy as hell, even at the time it aired and we were elementary school kids.

And this is the point I'm going for: Why do sitcoms try in any serious manner to teach their audiences life lessons when it so often does not work? Or does the question become just because it usually doesn't work, does that mean a show should not bother trying to be serious?

To avoid sounding like a know-it-all myself, I'll end this post with saying I have no answers to these questions. Instead, I'll ask you, my eight loyal readers, what you think.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Some Quick Thoughts on Dialogue and Diane & Sam

Can I just say I'm loving season 2 Diane and Sam? Not only is their relationship (which we all know does work out in the long run) going well right now, but their bickering and banter at work has gotten to wittier and cleverer levels.

A few highlights so far:

1. Mayday refuses to throw out his little black book because it contains "business contacts," leading to this exchange:

Diane: What emergency service does Wanda Mildredsen render?"
Sam: She's an all night plumber.

2. Diane's drunk in her apartment singing Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" (God, I love her!) when Mayday enters, surprised to find his main squeeze in nightgown and hammered:

Sam: Hey, you're drunk!
Diane: Hey! You're stupid! And tomorrow I shall be sober.

3. An old rich man has graced the bar with his presence one particular evening and is the person Diane originally addresses:

Diane: You made a wonderful gesture and now these people are asking you to repeat it.
Sam: You ask that of me every night...
Diane: I'm waiting for you to get it right!

4. Diane's on the phone booking a hotel for Malone. "Yes, Sam Malone," she replies to the person on the phone, "how did you know?" Mayday looks up with a nervous expression on his face.

5. Becky, a woman Sam knows, walks into the bar. She explains she just moved back to Boston for a job and has been checking out the landmarks:

Becky: Speaking of which, when do you get off?
Sam: Oh, I don't get off anymore, Becky...

Cut to a sour look on Diane's face, right in Mayday's direction. She goes on to shoot him in the crotch with the soda gun when he offers to walk Becky back to her car.

Clearly there's a theme here to the dialogue exchanges I've selected as highlights. And it's obvious to me know that for as much as I liked the show as a kid, there's no way was catching even half the jokes Cheers was throwing out back in the early 80's...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Just When I'm Taken Out, I'm Pulled Back In

In my last post, I talked about realism and how sitcoms can rarely achieve it on any meaningful level. And perhaps I didn't make this point clear (or at all) in the last post, but it's because of this fact as well as the fact that the sitcom form has been around for so long that we have shows like Community and Cougar Town that habitually break the fourth wall.

Yet there are still moments on tradition sitcoms that make me relate to and connect to the characters in a way that makes them seem real. The Office is good at doing this through the way in which the show brings the ensemble cast of characters together and portrays their average, simple, and kinda boring lives as realistic. Ditto with Parks & Rec.

And I'm beginning to quickly learn that Cheers was doing all this long before all these other shows I admire. For instance, in season 1, an episode ends with the entire bar singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," a showtune from the 1940's that later was recorded by dozens of singers. (The most famous version being a version by Gerry & The Pacemakers, which was later adapted as the fight song for my favorite soccer team, Liverpool F.C.) The fact that the entire bar knows the song, to me, is realistic seeing as it's 1982 and the song wasn't that old at the time and it would be reasonable for a room full of drunk barflies to know such a song.

(Here's Johnny Cash's recording of the song, juxtaposed with video of Liverpool fans. Kinda eerie but kinda awesome...)

Another such moment happens in the cold open of episode 30 in which Carla get a call from one of her numerous children explaining that her newborn baby will not fall asleep. The child puts the phone to the baby's ear. Carla and the entire bar proceed to sing "That's An Irish Lullaby," which effectively puts the babe to sleep. Carla, still on the phone, tells the Cheers gang this fact and they shout and applaud, presumably waking the child as we cut to the opening credits.

(Here's Bing Crosby singing the song, for anyone interested.)

Again, this seems realistic to me because it's reasonable for people in 1982 to know a song popular just a few decades prior. (Kinda like high school kids today knowing the lyrics to "Don't Stop Believing.") And it makes even more sense for these characters to know this song given the fact that the show takes place in Boston, a city infamous for it's strong Irish roots.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for ensemble casts who sing, but then again I'm into Glee, so I don't think that's the case. Rather, I think I'm just a sucker for when a show puts together a moment that feels authentic and believable. And if Cheers can do that from time to time as I go through these episodes, then I'll be pretty satisfied.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Watching 1983 and Wanting 2011

My personal favorite TV show ever just so happens to also be the greatest TV show ever made, The Wire. This sounds like hyperbole, but I swear to you it is not. The Wire is literally the greatest piece of televised art ever created.

And what makes The Wire so great is the realism. I know nothing of the inner workings of gang life, the docks and the shipyard union that controls them, or Baltimore city hall. But The Wire is a show that makes you feel like you understand these avenues of life because the show so brilliantly immerses you into them. And I do have experience with the focuses of the show's fourth and fifth seasons, the education system and the world of print journalism, respectively. And while I'm sure these worlds are portrayed with 100% accuracy, this show went to great lengths to make these worlds as true to real life as possible.

This is one extreme of television.

Sitcoms, generally speaking, are the other extreme. There a number of culprits for why sitcoms can feel like anything but real, but none more obvious than the laugh track. Whether it's actual canned laughter spliced in after the fact or the reaction of a live studio audience, the sound of laughter is a constant reminder that what you're watching is a performance. A play, acted out in front of a camera for the purpose of airing on TV.

But I could go on and on about laugh tracks and my absolute hatred for them. And in fact, it's all but guaranteed that I'll revisit the topic again as I venture through these 270 episodes of Cheers.

Instead, I'd like to talk about some of the other things that make sitcoms unrealistic. One is the classic TV sitcom device of having the same actor portray more than one character. Such was the case in episode 24 where Rhea Pearlman's character of Carla finally goes into labor and the baby she was impregnated with since about halfway through season 1.

Her replacement while on maternity leave? Her sister, also played by Pearlman. While it does make sense that the sister of a character would look a lot like that person, what we have here is clearly just Rhea Pearlman in a wig. And that's fine, and can even be a comedic device, but in 2011, I found myself thoroughly disappointed when I finished this episode and there was not one joke made in reference to the fact that the character was clearly the same actress that plays Carla.

In other words, I wanted meta. The reason I want some metacommentary out of the sitcoms I watch is because I enjoy shows like Community, Scrubs, and Cougar Town, all of which routinely break the fourth wall.

And of course I didn't get it because this was 1983. This episode was made before I was born. That all said, does the fact that I watched this episode without my disbelief suspended prevent me from enjoying it?

Or how about the episodes featuring, Andy, the resident Cheers serial killer? Does the fact that there's a minor character in this series that is a professed serial killer who routinely attempts to commit felonies make the show less realistic? Absolutely. Does it pull the audience out of the story so much that it steps on the comedy? Not necessarily.

By the sounds of the laughter during the first episode featuring Andy The Serial Killer, the audience of 1983 loved the idea of Sam mistakenly setting Diane up with a serial killer. And to an extent, I agree because it is a funny premise.

Episode 26, however, marks the return of Andy in a storyline whose premise I just couldn't buy into. For starters, the ep begins with Andy coming in and scarring the bejesus out of my sweet little Diane Chambers (and rightfully so, he once murdered a waitress!) before going on to saying hello to Sam and pulling out a gun and sticking up the joint. The bar's patrons and employees (mainly Carla who's back on the job after only an episode off) step in and are able to wrangle the gun away from Andy.

Yet the cops are not called because Diane convinces Sam to put down the phone because she believes she can help Andy. You see, Andy wants to become an actor and Diane feels a since of obligation to help him. And since she always seems to know some kind of critic or academic in high standing, she arranges for Andy to put on a performance in front of a stage director.

And, in the nature of 1980's sitcoms, the performance takes place right at the Cheers bar itself. And the performance? A scene from Shakespeare's Othello, the kill scene in particular. And, naturally, Andy confesses his love to Diane during their rehearsal and Diane says "I love you" back. And, naturally, Andy sees Diane kissing Sam and realizes he must kill her. He is, after all, a serial killer.

So the performance begins and Andy is hitting all the right lines until he begins legitimately chocking Diane to death. Norm and Coach tell Mayday he outta step but Sam doesn't do so because he knows Diane will get upset for breaking the scene.

Eventually the audience of barflies realizes Andy is chocking the life out of Diane and Sam, Norm and Cliff step into action, resulting in Norm sitting on Andy so he can't escape. Cue the audience's laughter.

Concerned for his main squeeze, Mayday asks her if she's okay. Diane says something to the affect that she won't be performing Shakespeare again any time soon. Mayday, straight face, replies with "No, I meant for tonight." Laughter and applause. Roll credits.

And yes, I laughed at Mayday's line, as I do with all of his lines. But I couldn't help thinking, then writing down, then blogging that this episode's premise and the very idea of Andy The Serial Killer as a minor character are a bit too dark for a show like this to handle realistically.

So let me invite you to leave a comment here. What do you think, dear reader? Am I over analyzing things? Or should I dwell on sitcom premises from the early 1980's that I, today, find unrealistic? Should I just shut up and enjoy the comedy?