“Battle Of The Exes” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 1/5/1984)
In which Nick Tortelli comes to town
Noel Murray: Here’s what’s so fun about television: The weekly episodic format gives writers and producers the flexibility to adjust shows on the fly, taking advantage of characters and stories that prove more fruitful than expected. That explains how an actor as odd-looking and uniquely talented as Dan Hedaya could become a frequent visitor to a hit sitcom, and could ultimately get his own show: the short-lived (but not so bad, as I vaguely recall) Cheers spin-off The Tortellis. Of course in “Battle Of The Exes,” we only get a hint of what an indelible character Nick Tortelli will soon become. That weirdly lovable combination of elevated language and simian grubbiness? Still on deck. Even Nick’s George-and-Gracie-esque relationship with his squeaky-voiced new wife Loretta (played by Jean Kasem, real-life wife of Casey and co-owner of a successful crib-making company) has yet to manifest. We only get the briefest exposure to the vivacious Mrs. Tortelli in this episode.
But even a little bit of Nick and Loretta is enough to demonstrate that these two are something special. (Maybe not “stars of their own spinoff” special; but special.) Hedaya in particular has a lot to live up to, given the way that Carla has talked about Nick before, both in this episode and in earlier Cheers. Here, Carla describes Nick as the most desirable man in the world, despite—or perhaps because of—his drool and his ear-hair. She also shows Diane a picture of Nick and Loretta—naked—and later, we hear about how Nick spent his entire wedding ceremony with his fly open, as a sign of fertility. Clearly this guy’s a Grade-A sleazeball, and yet whenever Hedaya’s on-screen, he’s not really all that repellant. There’s a certain charisma there, enough to explain why he would appeal to Carla.
And that matters, because ultimately, “Battle Of The Exes” is about Carla, and it humanizes her about as well as any Cheers episode ever has. The main plot has her taking Sam to Nick’s wedding to make her ex-husband jealous, which works exactly as planned. Nick stops flaunting Loretta in front of Carla, and instead asks for her to take him back (an offer which she refuses). If Hedaya weren’t so weirdly likable as Nick, then Carla’s persistent attraction to him—and her overcoming of same—wouldn’t be as impressive. As it stands, “Battle Of The Exes” builds to a poignant and overdue conversation between Sam and Carla about how well they know each other. That conversation ends with a passionate kiss, which Sam enjoys more than he expected, and which breaks Carla’s heart a little, since she knows it’s not going to lead anywhere. The final sequence of this episode—with Carla rejecting Nick and then Carla and Sam parting as mere friends—is at once triumphant and sad. It’s great to see Carla get a win. But this is a victory with no spoils.
Ryan McGee: Here’s the greatest testament I can give this episode: By the end of this installment, I partially felt like Sam was in the wrong oddball relationship. Maybe this is knowledge of future events clouding my judgment, but knowing how doomed Sam and Diane are makes the kiss (and subsequent sizing up) between Mayday and Carla seem like a poignant, “road not taken” moment in Cheers’ history. The show briefly touched upon the duo’s latent chemistry in season one, but here it reaches a much greater height. And while Cheers is already showing signs of its later screwball energy, the long, two-person scene after Nick’s exit was a perfectly human-scale exchange that demonstrates how three-dimensional these characters are.
I know we only get a hint of Hedaya in this episode, but I love how fully-formed he emerges upon his initial appearance. Sometimes, characters such as Nick grow through accumulated experience on the part of both actor and audience. But here, you can feel how much the live audience reacts to this man, making Carla’s schizophrenic reaction to him all the more believable. Hedaya certainly adds shading to this character in subsequent appearances, but my, what a first impression.
Donna Bowman: Attraction isn’t all about looks. That’s a truth little-acknowledged in the sitcom world… or in all of television or movies, for that matter, visual media that they are. I was deeply moved by the way Sam comes to Carla’s aid and has a genuinely wonderful time with her at Nick’s wedding, evidenced by their later banter about how well they know each other. Why wouldn’t this connection—this intimacy, really—lead to a kiss? No reason at all, except that the show has made a running joke out of Sam’s obsession with hot chicks and Carla’s undesirability. (The latter is lampooned by having Carla turn out to be irresistible for a certain class of sad-sack male, and having her libido turned up to eleven, but nonetheless, those jokes rest on us looking at Carla and seeing anything but sexy.) So I appreciate the complication, not because it’s a further step into the world of topsy-turvy, but because it’s so plausible in the real world. As Noel says, it humanizes Carla—and Sam, too, if we’re being honest. “I’ve had better,” Carla bluffs, and Sam responds quietly and kindly, “I haven’t.” “I know,” Carla says with a sly grin, and it’s an elegant retreat into friendship carrying some unexpected souvenirs.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I have more trouble with Carla than any with of the other regulars or recurring characters (unless Harry the Hat counts), and I’m not sure that the show creators themselves always knew what they wanted from her. I sometimes think that the idea behind the character was to create a female version of Danny DeVito on Taxi, but where DeVito’s Louie was a small man in a position of power that he relished abusing, Carla is a working stiff with umpteen kids whose insults often seem like the audible working of somebody’s last nerve. And Rhea Perlman isn’t the mind-boggling genius at making sheer nastiness funny that her husband was on that show. (Not many are, though too many have tried.)
I don’t know if this episode is her finest moment ever on the show, but it’s one time when she was allowed to simply be likable for most of an episode, without ever quite becoming pitiable. It shows respect for her character that she does pull up short of inviting the audience to feel sorry for Carla, and the teamwork between Perlman and Ted Danson is one of the acting glories of the series: They really talk to each other like two people who’ve known each other for a long time and know enough about each other’s failings that they’re past the point of being embarrassed. (I don’t see them as romantic material, but the actors do suggest a deeper level of chemistry between them than there ever is between Sam and Diane.) In some situations like this, it would be easy to imagine it feeling as if something were lost when they go back to being wisecracking buds, but that isn’t the case here. They just know how best to enjoy being around each other at work most of the time, but they’re also capable of dropping their guard and being serious about their feelings when they need to. Sam and Diane’s passionate incompatibility keeps them swinging back and forth between Heaven and Hell, but Sam and Carla’s stable friendship is the best of both worlds.
Erik Adams: I’m lukewarm on this episode: It’s great that Sam and Carla tiptoe to the edge of testing the spark between them without taking the next step; Hedaya’s wonderfully unseemly as Nick, but the character, like so many TV all-stars before him, is a work-in-progress in his first appearance. My strongest feelings about the half-hour lie outside the realms of tricky workplace emotions and character introductions: I respect Cheers’ commitment to keeping things simple, but I’m starting to feel the show straining within the confines of the bar. It doesn’t take much work to get Nick and Loretta to Cheers in the first act, but having them return in the final minutes is a stretch—even if it gives Carla the home-field advantage in her showdown with Nick. I know the show’s world gradually expands beyond the bar and Diane’s apartment, but this is the first time I’ve felt like it needs to do that.
Meredith Blake: Erik, I agree that there are some plausibility issues in this episode, but for me what saves it—and in fact makes it kind of great—is how it defies expectations. About 30 seconds in, I thought I knew exactly what was coming: Carla would enlist Sam’s help in making Nick jealous, thereby conjuring up her deeply repressed feelings for him, only to have her advances politely rebuffed. Instead, Sam seems just as into it as Carla. Can you really blame him? Carla does look positively fetching in her little pink dress.
That being said, does it make me the TV Club prude if I admit to feeling a bit of vicarious anger for Diane, who cheerfully bounds into the bar just moments after Sam and Carla’s furtive kiss? Sure, it was a one-time-only thing, but somehow, the fact that Diane had loaned out her boyfriend for altruistic purposes makes their spontaneous, G-rated smooch seem like more of a betrayal.
Todd VanDerWerff: One of the things I like about a great sitcom setting is that it seems like a place that’s open to possibility, a place where pretty much anything can happen. Needless to say, I feel that way about Cheers, and I felt that way about the wonderful scene that closes out this episode. I’ll have more to say in the next episode about how the show tiptoes up to the edge of utter despair, then isn’t quite sure what to do about that, but this is an episode that handles a pretty sensitive issue—just why Sam hasn’t made a pass at Carla in all of these years—with aplomb. The relationship between Sam and Carla, a kind of alternate universe will-they/won’t-they, became a running theme throughout the show, one that the series would return to whenever it needed a quick dash of poignancy. But I had forgotten that the series actually let things progress quite this far, and I suspect this one is one of the finer half-hours in terms of the show suggesting so much of what could happen without ever actually letting it happen.
I wrote a few years back—in the heat of the Jim/Pam vs. Jim/Karen argument on the American Office—that I could see that Jim and Pam would end up together, but it seemed like Jim and Karen had more of a future. I could more easily picture them reading the paper over their morning coffee and chuckling over some stray bit together. In some ways, I feel the same about Sam and Carla, even if I know it will never happen. There’s a world of possibilities that open up when you step into Cheers, but some of them close themselves off almost as quickly.
- NM: Diane’s esoteric grad school studies continue, as she makes reference to “a classmate in my Samoan literature class.”
- NM: Even though nearly all of Norm’s stories about his life with Vera end the same way, it’s still funny to hear him describe a romantic country inn with feather beds, a fireplace, and a circular driveway that made it easy for him to drive through and yell, “Cancel Peterson!”
- NM: Speaking of running gags, Angry Carla’s habitual yanking of sweaters over the heads of anyone who expresses concern is consistently hilarious, even when the episode introduces an entirely new character—the earnest Dr. Paul Kendall—expressly for the purpose of seeing him get sweater-bombed.
- EA: Considering that Carla ends up falling for a Boston Bruin a few seasons down the line, it’s none-too-surprising that Angry Carla’s main defense mechanism resembles a classic hockey-fight move.
- RM: Dr. Kendall, Cheers’ resident psychotherapist, has one of the best voices for a random bar patron in show history. That man should be selling cutlery on late-night television.
- DB: Coach’s delight upon being congratulated for his mere $16,000 error in toting up the till—“I never had an accounting course in my life!”—makes me grin as foolishly and as sincerely as Coach himself.
- PDN: Does anybody know if this episode was what got Dan Hedaya his gig in Blood Simple? Reviewing that movie, Pauline Kael compared him to “a primate version of Michel Piccoli,” but now, he looks as if he might be a proud graduate of the same Charm & Posture class as Silvio Dante.
- MB: Eighties sitcoms were so great at bimbos, weren’t they?
- TV: Really, Noel? You think this is somewhat watchable?
- TV: When I was a kid watching this show (the later seasons), I was so confused by the way Sam treated Carla. He called her “sweetie” or “honey,” and I’d never heard a man casually call a woman that. From the way the two treated each other, I assumed they were married, and I didn’t understand why she was so okay with him trying to hook up with Rebecca. Come to think of it, there’s probably a good sitcom in that setup…
“No Help Wanted” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 1/12/1984)
In which Sam and Norm mix business and friendship
NM: Damn, who would’ve guessed that two consecutive Cheers episodes would choke me up a little? After the sweet Sam/Carla interaction at the end of “Battle Of The Exes,” here comes Norm in “No Help Wanted,” storming into Sam’s office after claiming to the whole bar that he’s about to give Sam a piece of his mind before he leaves Cheers for good. Instead, Norm collapses on Sam’s couch, sobbing and saying, “I don’t wanna go, Sammy.” It’s meant to be funny, yes. But Norm means it, man. And that got to me.
Norm’s been an interesting character this season—a lot more graceless in these early episodes than I’d recalled. In recent weeks he’s eagerly borrowed money from Cliff, and behaved abominably during the whole Malcolm Kramer affair. In “No Help Wanted,” Norm reveals that he’s been washing dishes at Melville’s—“Now I spend afternoons watching lettuce float,” he says, wistfully—and when Diane suggests that maybe Sam could hire Norm to be his accountant, Norm jumps at the chance, without even waiting to see what Sam has to say about it. Norm’s something of a boor about the whole arrangement, frankly, telling Sam, “I don’t want to put you on the spot. I don’t have to be your accountant. I could always just kill myself.”
Ultimately, Sam retains Norm to do his taxes, but he keeps his regular accountant too, and when Norm discovers the duplicity, he flips out. He’s legitimately pissed. And Sam’s legitimately pissed. As we’ll see later this season, the Cheers writers were unafraid of real, volatile disagreement between their characters, and that’s what makes the argument between Sam and Norm so tense, and what makes Norm’s begging in Sam’s office such a relief to see (however pathetic it makes Norm look). It’s also nice, for the second episode in a row, to see Sam interacting at length with someone other than Diane. He is the star of this show, after all.
On the whole though, I’m kind of mixed on “No Help Wanted.” For one thing, this is yet another episode where the bar’s mob mentality gets a little too ugly to enjoy, as Carla turns Sam’s patrons against him for not trusting Norm’s aggressive accounting style. And Cliff’s very odd in this episode, making little jokey asides that come off a little manic and exaggerated for the character. But there are plenty of funny moments in “No Help Wanted,” too—mostly Diane-related. She’s amusingly proud of herself for her commitment to social change, noting that she helped integrate her sorority, by letting in girls with poorly publicized coming-out parties, and she’s amusingly embarrassed too, when Norm does her taxes and then lets the whole bar know that Diane’s therapy sessions are deductible. (“Shut up, Norman, I’m better,” she mutters tersely.)
So… a middling episode overall, saved by a few strong lines and scenes. At least it doesn’t make a mockery out of Bell Day.
PDN: For me, the strangest moment here comes when the patrons, who’ve been expressing concern about Norm’s situation—Cliff, sticking up for his buddy, says that he’s sure that, rather than being reduced to washing dishes, he was just in the back of the restaurant “begging for scraps”—suddenly start making mean remarks about how bad he smells. (Then they all act aghast when he insults the state of Coach’s brain. Granted, that’s a no-fly zone on Cheers if anything is.) But even that scene has a redemptive set-up when, having primed us to expect Norm to come into the bar smelling like fish, it initially makes the point not by having everyone crinkle up their noses but by having him make his entrance pursued by an army of cats. It’s a stop-and-start kind of episode, but in the end, I liked it, because the best jokes feel surprising and fresh. That definitely includes the scene of Norm breaking down in Sam’s office, another scene that could have been played for pathos, but that the show (and the actors) were too classy to wring for tears.
RM: I also found the audience reaction to Norm’s breakdown fascinating, as I’m always curious about the ways in which people confront pathos inside of comedy. It’s a large gesture when he plops down upon the couch, one that seems grotesque within the confines of the episode but actually borders on tragic when considering the full arc laid out by Noel. We see this type of moment quite often in today’s comedies, but I’m not sure the audience as a whole is any more equipped to deal with it than when “No Help Wanted” aired.
I rather loathed when the entire bar went money mad in “Where There’s A Will… ” since it felt arbitrarily raised in order to create the second half of an episode. Here? Norm’s reaction feels specific, and appropriate. If I would quibble with anything, it’s the way in which the entire bar turns on Sam on a dime. It’s another example of the show pushing too far, too fast in order to create conflict. But Cheers, for better or worse, isn’t a show in which the group psychology moves along a steady ebb and flow. The show can do that on a character level, but not a group level. In many ways, the social psychology of the bar is alive and well in every installment—but that psychology can often be too easily swayed in one direction or another.
DB: “No Help Wanted” is strangely disturbing, what with a character best known from his genialness and stoic attitude in the face of a loveless, boring life breaking down completely. It’s like a car wreck: I didn’t want to see the naked, gory details, but I couldn’t look away. Yet there’s very little joy to be found in Norm hitting rock bottom and Sam keeping a backup accountant on the side. Threats to personal dignity are the basis of all comedy, but when the dignity isn’t based on a social role or fiction, instead resting on fundamental human needs, the laughs can be harder to come by. That’s cutting close to the bone.
So I’m going to ignore the central spectacle and focus on the wonderful grace notes in “No Help Wanted”: Sam asserting his happiness in having “good solid pleasantness” instead of fun; Norm in his green eyeshade bouncing the coffee cup off his bicep (no beers while he’s working); Diane establishing her civil rights bona fides with her sorority campaign to include “girls with poorly publicized coming-out parties” (“And within a couple of months, they blended right in!”); and Coach’s aggrieved “You’re making a mockery out of Bell Day!”
TV: One of the issues Cheers danced around in these early seasons was just how sad to make its sad sacks. That moment when Norm launches himself onto the couch could be played for laughter or tears, and it’s interesting how you can feel the studio audience almost tense up. There’s no possibility that Sam will actually kick Norm out on the street, but there’s definitely the sense that things could keep getting worse for this lovable guy. The show created characters that were easy to like, then it spent its fair time pummeling the hell out of them.
A few weeks back, Hitfix’s Dan Fienberg said it was easier for a drama to be funny than a comedy to be dramatic. And that’s largely true now, in a culture that seems to value laughter more than any other property in a comedy. But it wasn’t true in the ’70s and ’80s, when ambitious shows like Cheers weren’t afraid to really dig down into the despair these people felt, even if they backed away at the very last second. (The character arc for Archie Bunker on All In The Family is rivaled by few in TV history, even those on the much-acclaimed serialized dramas that are supposed to be the point when TV finally got good.) When I say I miss multi-camera sitcoms, it means I miss stuff like this, where the show wasn’t afraid to go for broke in a moment when the audience might turn on it at any second. Even if this isn’t a great episode, and even if it has flaws, it’s worth it for a moment like that, when the show uses what goodwill it has to get us to earnestly contemplate a man who’s lost everything.
MB: Is it just me, or does it feel like there’s a beat missing from that final scene with Sam and Norm—some revelation, other than the pathetic sight of Norm flopping around in despair on the floor, that forces him to change his mind? Yes, it’s truly wrenching, but at this point Sam seems resolute about protecting his business, and he’s already shown his willingness to cast Norm out. I suppose I just don’t see the reason for the change of heart, and it feels in the end like Sam got pity-bullied, if you will, into hiring Norm. It just seems like a disastrous idea all around. The conclusion is especially strange, arriving as it does after “Battle Of The Exes,” which totally defied expectations—this episode gives into them with a shrug. The ending is too bad, because I for one really enjoyed all the bleak, almost Gervaisian humor in this one—the herd of feral cats trailing Norm, that image of the floating lettuce, the casual threats of suicide. I like when my laughs are served up with a hearty side of discomfort.
EA: Here’s an extra coat of bleakness on Norm’s situation: Wasn’t it just a few episodes back that Sam was letting Norm sleep at the bar? If that was still the case, his only reason to leave the place would be that dishwashing gig at Melville’s, which is in the same building as his crash pad/regular watering hole. So Sam isn’t just throwing Norm out of a bar—he’s relieving his pal of the only home and family he has. These aren’t the economic realities of Norman Lear—that’s some Charles Bukowski shit right there.
As such, count me among the bewildered in the studio audience, temporarily uncertain how to react to Norm’s breakdown in the office. To George Wendt’s credit, he tips his hand toward the melodramatic, letting us know it’s okay to laugh with (and maybe at) Norm’s wallowing. This is a character reaching his lowest point, but Wendt’s a smart enough comedic performer to know that a side of ham keeps the full-on tragedy at bay.
- NM: Some wonderfully Abbot & Costello-ian Coach-logic: Whenever he hears “A Foggy Day In Ol’ London Town,” it makes him think of Frank Sinatra, which makes him think of From Here To Eternity, which makes him think of Hawaii, which makes him think of his buddy Wally Engels, who, like Coach, has never been to Hawaii.
- DB: Good luck trying to pick up that station—the one that plays only instrumental versions of American standards—on anything other than a pocket transistor radio.
- TV: Donna, if you lived here in Southern California, you’d have instant, easy access to the “instrumental versions of decades old pop standards” radio station. Just another thing all of you miss out on by living anywhere else. Why, I’m listening to “When The Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” as performed on jazz flute right now!
- NM: After the cold open and the credits, “No Help Wanted” adds what’s effectively another cold open, as one of Sam’s old honeys comes by the bar to see when he gets off, so that they can go have some fun. Sam’s answers? “I don’t get off any more, Becky,” and, “I got something better than fun now.”
- RM: “Oh, I don’t get off anymore, Becky.” I damn near spit out my drink upon hearing Sam say that. The show hasn’t really been shy about its sexual underpinnings, but I’m shocked that line made it to air.
- DB: Sometimes you have to twist a line all out of recognition to set up a joke. Such is the case with Becky’s supremely awkward “I really missed this city and a lot of its landmarks.”
- NM: As I mentioned, I thought “No Help Wanted” was a little erratic comedically, especially where Cliff is involved, but I did love the little throwaway gag when Cliff turns his chalkboard sketch of a DNA strand on its side and says, “Let’s talk about the gas turbine engine for a while.”
- PDN: Most Valuable Bit Player in both these episodes: the old guy in the hat who’s seen sitting in the background during a few key exchanges, always looking as if he’s eavesdropping and is really getting into it. There were times when I half expected him to stand up and say, “Excuse me, I’m Mickey Spillane, and I’m in town shooting a beer commercial and couldn’t help overhearing… ”
What you said:
“On one hand, it’s ridiculous for Diane to feel this way (Heather wouldn’t have anything to do with a guy that had dated Diane, and Sam is actually trying to use the experience to better himself, and Sam and Diane have justifiably famous chemistry), but on the other, it’s easy to get upset when you feel like everyone is trying to spare your feelings. There’s really not a better plot to highlight awkward humor, because the dinner-for-three has so many inherent emotional conflicts for everyone involved. I think that despite the broadness of the dog-plot, the main story does a pretty good job of navigating tricky emotional territory, especially in the scene where everyone laughs awkwardly, then laughs at the awkwardness, then Coach laughs even though he doesn’t understand why.”
First of all, I love “Where There’s a Will…” - it has a “morality-play” feel that reminds more of sitcoms (and TV in general) from the 1950s, 60s and 70s - when writers would attempt something like parables about social responsibility, etc. - than anything made during my lifetime. The pacing was not an issue for me because events in such stories tend to unfold according to a compressed sense of time; the bigger idea behind the story trumps any concern for realism and, in some cases, traditional punchlines and joke structures. This is the type of episode I can only imagine coming out of the early years (Season Three at the latest).
“Speaking of Ted Danson playing fathers, it has always been my wish for him to play Jeff Winger’s father (more so than the often wished/rumored Bill Murray). Just my two cents.”
Speaking of psychologists: Dr. Frasier Crane is in the building—half a season too early, not that it matters. He’s listening!
Next week: Coach keeps inviting himself along for Sam and Diane’s private moments, and Cliff gets into a fight.