With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Cheers stands almost alone in American sitcom history. It was on the air for 11 seasons and 270 episodes, and it was good for nearly all of that run. Its weakest season—the 10th—also contains some of its funniest episodes, and every time the show seemed like it was losing its powers, it would rebound with a great episode or stretch of episodes. Other shows ran as long—M*A*S*H, for instance—but they entered inevitable declines that all series that run that long succumb to. There were other shows that lasted for more than 100 episodes and were good for their whole runs—The Mary Tyler Moore Show—but those series also ran for a far shorter period of time than Cheers did. There’s a reason Cheers holds such a hallowed place for everyone from TV writers to the executives who put shows on the air: It defied all known laws of TV decay, and it joined a handful of sitcoms as a perpetual success in syndication, defying mortality as well.
But why? When Cheers began, it was hailed as the best new sitcom in ages—at least since Taxi, which its creators had all worked on—but it was also a fairly basic workplace hangout comedy about a bunch of people who spent their time in a bar. Sure, there was a romantic element added on, which would prove to be one of the most influential in TV history, but there was nothing groundbreaking that suggested the show would be as good as it was for as long as it was. But maybe that was part of the reason Cheers worked: Shows that break ground tend to burn hot and fast, making lots of news but also running out of whatever fuel was driving them. Cheers was content to make consistent, well-crafted, funny comedy week after week, and it did so thanks to a crackerjack team both in front of and behind the camera.
The series was co-created by Glen and Les Charles, brothers who theorized that they could write for TV and found themselves doing so in short order, working on The Bob Newhart Show and Taxi before moving on to Cheers. Bob Newhart was a production of MTM Enterprises, the company founded by Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore in 1969 to produce her aforementioned show, which grew into one of the foremost purveyors of good TV in the ’70s and ’80s. Several MTM hands moved on from the company to Paramount in the late ’70s, where they were responsible for creating Taxi as well. The MTM approach to comedy favored character interaction and pathos above all else, and Cheers may well have been the height of that approach, blending the darkly comic worldview of the Charles brothers with a hard-earned sentimentality. Their writing staff would include more than a few comedy legends as well, with many going on to great work on other shows. To list all of the significant comedy writers who worked on the show would add several hundred more words to this piece.
The show’s other co-creator was a director, unusual in TV comedy, but he was arguably the greatest multi-camera comedy director in television history, James Burrows. Already well known for his work on several MTM sitcoms and, yes, Taxi, Burrows joined the Charles brothers to turn Cheers into a proving ground for all that could be done in the multi-camera format. Yes, he did experimental things no other multi-camera shows were doing at the time, like a long tracking shot through the bar to close out an episode, but his comfort with actors and his understanding of pace made even the more garden-variety episodes of Cheers delightful. Excited to work with the Charles brothers and Burrows, NBC gave Cheers a direct-to-series order, and the three used the time they’d received to perfectly hone their concept, going from a bar in a hotel (and a rough spin on Fawlty Towers) to a bar in Barstow to the Boston-set pub that ended up as the center of the series. The show always had at its core the idea of a reforming athlete—driven by the creators’ wish to tie the series somewhat to a popular series of Miller Lite ads airing at the time—and the brothers wished to add in a Hepburn-and-Tracy-style romantic-comedy element.
They also took their time in casting. Three different pairs of actors read for the roles of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers, who would be the center of the show for the first half of its run, and the creators and network finally settled on the pairing of Ted Danson and Shelley Long. As dumbass, brawny former baseball pitcher Sam, Danson created one of the greatest characters in sitcom history, a ladies’ man with a surprisingly sensitive soul who’d never even realized it was there until he ran into Diane. And as graduate student and intellectual wannabe Diane, Long created a prickly picture of perfection who also had a nasty habit of falling completely apart. The chemistry between Danson and Long was palpable; their dance around a relationship would drive the show for five seasons.
It’s that five-season mark that’s key to why Cheers stayed good throughout its run. At the end of season five, Long decided to leave the show to pursue a movie career. Seen at the time as a sign of the show’s end, her departure inspired the producers—who secretly were tired of the Sam-and-Diane dance and didn’t want it to consume the show—to head in a completely different direction. They brought in Kirstie Alley to play ultra-cool businesswoman Rebecca Howe, the steely brunette whose relationship to Sam would be very different from the one he’d had with Diane. (Like all characters on the show, she’d be revealed as a complete nutcase within half a season.) And while the series played around with Sam and Rebecca hooking up, it also evolved from a romantic comedy into more of an ensemble workplace show, placing the focus on the bar itself and the barflies who occupied it.
Cheers was able to do this because it had a tremendous cast and because it was willing to keep evolving that cast. When Nicholas Colasanto (who played the sweet, naïve Coach) died near the end of season three, Woody Harrelson was brought in as a younger spin on the same sort of character. George Wendt’s downtrodden bar regular Norm and John Ratzenberger’s know-it-all Cliff held down their end of the bar, where they were eventually joined by Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier, a psychiatrist who’d fallen in love with Diane and kept coming back to Cheers after she inevitably left him for Sam again. Rhea Perlman’s Carla, a waitress who indulged in her anger and frequently insulted customers, proved a very different type than Perlman’s sweet Taxi character. And the show added characters even in later seasons, like ice queen Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), who married Frasier and brought life to the show just when it needed it most. Were the Diane years or the Rebecca years better? What’s most interesting about this question is that the show essentially broke into two completely different sitcoms with the same cast and premise elements, making the question almost irrelevant.
Yet this also makes boiling the show down to 10 episodes extraordinarily difficult. Even though the show breaks down into two distinct eras—romantic comedy and ensemble show—those eras break down into their own smaller units. The best choice, then, is to simply watch a smattering of the show’s finest half-hours to understand why it worked so well. It’s tremendously unlikely anyone will watch just these 10 and decide that’s enough. To watch Cheers is to get sucked into what’s arguably the multi-camera sitcom at its peak. Why mess with the best?
Here, then, are 10 episodes that show Cheers at the top of its game:
“Truce Or Consequences” (season one, episode eight): The first two seasons of Cheers are its best, the point when the show’s dramatic stakes and examination of a relationship as it grows and declines were at their most potent. They’re also when the show was most interested in taking advantage of one of the foremost strengths of the multi-camera sitcom: quiet. Long, essentially dramatic scenes weren’t uncommon on the show in the early going, and they had the intimate feeling of a play staged in a 200-seat theater. Take, for instance, this episode, which places the dramatic scene at the middle of the episode, then dares to make it the biggest part of an unfolding punchline. This is also one of the best episodes for Long and Perlman, whose rivalry drove some of the best early episodes.
“Showdown, Part 2” (season one, episode 22): Cheers’ first-season finale is one of those episodes that legitimately changed television. The lowest-rated show on TV, Cheers was no cinch to come back for a second season—though critical love and the Emmys would ultimately devote NBC to the show enough to carry it through another low-rated year. So the producers decided to hook up Sam and Diane at episode’s end, thus providing a boost to the show’s central dynamic—and potentially ruining it. Of all of the will-they-won’t-they couples over the years, Sam and Diane remain the best, and it’s bold storytelling choices like the one that closes out “Showdown” that make that the case. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that the duo’s first kiss is perfectly pitched and screamingly funny.)
“Homicidal Ham” (season two, episode four): Cheers always had a penchant for goofiness, best exemplified by the series’ continued employment of David Lloyd, one of the cleverest sitcom writers out there and the man responsible for Mary Tyler Moore’s “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” This season-two episode brings back a borderline psychopath named Andy whom Diane went on a date with (because Sam set her up with him) in the first season. That Cheers is able to play this setup—which involves Diane trying to help what she believes to be a reformed Andy put on Othello—for laughs is surprising. But that’s the strength of a Lloyd script: It goes somewhere viewers wouldn’t expect to find comedy, then garners every laugh possible. The performance of Othello is one of the show’s funniest setpieces.
“Fortune And Men’s Weight” (season two, episode 17): Season two is Cheers’ best, because the relationship between Sam and Diane forced the series’ creative personnel to consider just what might happen if these two very different people made a serious attempt at being a couple. The season starts with the two in the playful throes of new love, but as it progresses, their differences drive larger and larger wedges between them, culminating in the best finale the show would ever do. An old-fashioned scale that provides one’s weight and a fortune drives much of the action in this episode, but it also drives the two lovers to confront the growing space between them, in a heartbreaking final scene indicative of the pathos episode writer Heide Perlman (Rhea’s sister) regularly brought to her scripts.
“The Heart Is A Lonely Snipe Hunter” (season three, episode 14): Cheers gained so much from the relationship among the guys who hung out at the bar, and adding Frasier to the group only strengthened that. The show always posited a conflict between intellectualism and more base pursuits—these characters do hang out drinking, after all—and Frasier sat at the center of that, wanting to be one of the guys but also somewhat repulsed by their actions. Here’s an early example of the show using that conflict to its advantage, sending Frasier out into the wilderness with the guys to go hunting. It’s also from the short period of time when Frasier was dating Diane and Sam was trying to figure out how to deal with that, offering a glimpse of that dynamic.
“Thanksgiving Orphans” (season five, episode nine): The show’s fourth season isn’t its best, as the series attempted to figure out how to deal with the twin issues of Long’s recent childbirth and Colasanto’s death. It’s a season that grows weirdly mean-spirited toward Diane, in a way the show had always tiptoed around in the past but was no longer able to avoid. Skip, instead, to this fifth-season entry, one of the most famous Cheers episodes of them all, mostly because of the lengthy food fight that closes it out and the fact that Norm’s always-unseen wife, Vera, makes her only appearance. (She’s hit in the face with a pie, obscuring her.) It’s a great example of how game the cast could be for big, physical comedy, and it’s a fine example of the final Diane season.
“Bar Wars” (season six, episode 23): The battle between Cheers and Gary’s Old Town Tavern became a frequent part of the Rebecca seasons, and it neatly emphasized how the show had moved past the Sam-Diane song and dance to something else. Instead of one relationship dominating the show, its center was now the relationship of all the characters to the bar itself, something both more complicated and easier to turn into broader, ensemble-driven comedy. Though there would be many “Bar Wars” episodes over the years, the best is still the first, which provides the origin story for the competition and doesn’t beggar belief at the elaborateness of the pranks the two watering holes aim at each other.
“How To Win Friends And Electrocute People” (season seven, episode seven): As it evolved into more of an ensemble show, Cheers began delving into unusual character combinations. This episode is notable for a main plot that focuses on Cliff, who tries to change his personality when no one from the bar comes to visit him in the hospital after his appendectomy. That, in and of itself, would mark the episode as worth watching, since Cliff episodes are such rarities over the run of the show, but “How To Win Friends” is also notable for pairing up Sam and Lilith in a hilarious plot where he gives her driving lessons. Lots of other shows with character relationships this well-developed wouldn’t have kept digging for more, but Cheers was still finding surprising and fun new pairings this late in its run.
“Indoor Fun With Sammy And Robby” (season eight, episode 19): One of the things that’s most notable about the Rebecca years is that the show occasionally feints toward putting Sam and Rebecca together, but it also spends much of its time tossing her into relationships with other men, particularly ones who are rich and successful. (Rebecca’s primary character trait of “businesswoman” had mostly receded by this point, but it still surfaced in the type of man she was attracted to.) The height of Rebecca’s relationships was Roger Rees’ Robin Colcord, a multi-millionaire who won her affection at the start of season eight and was a part of the show for two seasons. Yet like all male characters on Cheers, he was inevitably sucked into the orbit of Sam and the gang at the bar, as seen here, where Robin’s romantic day with Rebecca is ruined by him getting into a series of childish dares with Sam.
“It’s Lonely On The Top” (season 11, episode 22): Cheers’ final season is arguably the best final season of a sitcom of all time, with every episode bringing back some character or element from the show’s long run. It also works because it returns the show to what it was at the beginning: the story of a down-and-out reformed-alcoholic baseball player who bought a bar and tried to make something of his life. Putting Sam back at the show’s center made everything snap back to life, and Danson had rarely been better. This episode works well as an alternative to the show’s super-sized series finale (which is also fantastic), returning the series to the relationship between Sam and Carla and pivoting off a revelation that puts a chink in the armor of Sam’s vanity.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Give Me A Ring Sometime” (season one, episode one); “I’ll Be Seeing You, Part 2” (season two, episode 22); “I Call Your Name” (season three, episode three); “2 Good To Be 4 Real” (season four, episode seven); “I Do, Adieu” (season five, episode 26); “Home Is The Sailor” (season six, episode one); “What Is… Cliff Clavin?” (season eight, episode 14); “Woody Interruptus” (season nine, episode 13); “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” (season 10, episode 25); “One For The Road” (season 11, episode 26).
Availability: All 11 seasons are available on DVD. In addition, the entire run of the show is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Next time: Noel Murray takes us into the world of Mission: Impossible. You may start humming the theme song now. This article will self-destruct in five seconds.