“Coach Buries A Grudge” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 2/16/1984)
In which everybody sings
Donna Bowman: Poor Coach. He takes everything so personally, and it’s one of his most endearing traits. Once again, it leads to a top-notch episode, but there’s more genius at work in “Coach Buries A Grudge” than can be found in Coach’s character alone. When the moment turns communal in the third act—first as lynch mob, then as redemption—the sitcom turns sublime.
Coach returns from Phoenix, where he attended the funeral of his minor-league buddy T-Bone Scappagioni, and he is disappointed that the other mourners didn’t know anything about T-Bone in his glory days before retirement in the sun. “They didn’t even know why they called him T-Bone!” he complains, but when asked for the nickname’s backstory, he confesses, “I didn’t know either, Diane; I was hoping I would find out.” Diane urges him to hold a memorial in Cheers and invite T-Bone’s Red Sox playing and coaching buddies. When Sam tells her that T-Bone once made a play for Coach’s wife (“The rakehell!” Diane comments in her adorably Victorian way), Coach overhears. He doesn’t want to go through with the memorial, despite Diane’s amateur psychiatrics involving Sam role-playing T-Bone (“Sam, the sniff has to be louder,” Coach critiques his impression), until he decides that he should use the eulogy podium to tell everybody what a son-of-a-bitch T-Bone really was.
The first twist is that Coach can’t go through with his planned screed. As the camera cuts between him and the cardboard cutout of T-Bone from his Birmingham Barons days—looking both reproachful and oblivious, thanks to the Kuleshov effect—Coach decides not to speak ill of the dead. “T-Bone Scappagioni was the son of an immigrant,” he amends. “Like most immigrants, he was a human being. Human beings make mistakes.” The second twist is that everyone in the crowd was victimized by T-Bone, either in love or in the wallet. “He borrowed $500 from me and never even tried to pay it back!” one teammate shouts, and when asked how that’s worse than T-Bone’s disrespect for everyone else’s marriage vows, he retorts, “Hey, I’ve seen your wives!”
And the final twist: As the whole crowd storms up the steps to hang T-Bone in effigy (“To hell with that, let’s hang him right here in Boston!” Coach demands), Diane brings them all back with “Amazing Grace.” I was skeptical until Coach puts his arms around the cutout, and then I was overcome. The moment turns out not to be about T-Bone and the past, but about everybody left behind and the present. It’s a rare thing for a comedy to manage such masterful farce and such graceful depth in the same half hour. Did you stay with “Coach Buries A Grudge” through all its emotional pivots, and can you think of comparable episodes in other shows?
Ryan McGee: To me, this was an episode marked by its reaction shots. It’s not as if the show hasn’t established a beautiful bond between Diane and Coach at this point. But the shot of her welling up with emotion while watching Coach extemporaneously eulogizing his friend pretty much killed me. I can forgive the contrived way that the show let Coach hear about the past indirections of his friend, because it led to scene after incredible scene down the stretch. While we’ve all remarked about the theatrical staging throughout the show’s run, there’s something especially powerful about the way in which the camera frames Coach and Sam in the foreground of Sam’s office while Diane watches the pair role-play through Coach’s swirling, conflicted emotions. That scene prepares you for catharsis, only to delay it, then to undercut it, then to re-establish it with Diane’s performance of “Amazing Grace.” It’s a moment that I thought would be played for laughs, a desperate attempt by her to save the day. But no, it turns into something beautiful, and that leads to the second reaction shot: Cliff, Norm, Carla, and Sam are awed at what unfolds before them, nakedly absorbing the moment. This was something special, an episode I’d long forgotten and one I feel honored to have re-watched.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I love this episode for the way it dips into black comedy without violating the essential sweetness at Coach’s core. It’s very Coach that he can’t bring himself to slag T-Bone off when he’s finally in front of his old friends, and it’s hilarious that his efforts come to naught because the old friends don’t need him to be reminded that they all had good reason to hate the dead S.O.B.’s guts. (I also love the way the episode mixes some great moments of pure farce—most notably, when Coach is confused about just what about ol’ T-Bone has made it into the papers—with some great silly gags, like the line about hanging T-Bone in effigy.) It no doubt speaks ill of me that I wish this ended a little differently; I’m glad that other people find the “Amazing Grace” sing-along transporting, but I was sort of hoping that we’d get to see the guys on the stairs slipping a noose around the cardboard cut-out’s neck behind Diane while she was singing. Still, everything up to that point works so well that this would be one my picks for the time capsule, even if the characters were crooning about how their hearts will go on.
Noel Murray: This episode caught me flat-footed, because while I’d remembered the basic premise, right down to the moment where Coach’s friends shared their memories of how terrible T-Bone was, I’d completely forgotten the ending, which is so beautiful: this acknowledgment that we’re all broken, and that in accepting the worst of us, we accept ourselves. It was so much more poetic than I was expecting from an episode that begins with Diane making fun of Sam for having kind of a flounder-face during orgasm. (And by the way, how risqué! Especially for this era of TV.) But then, any episode that make Sam’s ugly new sweater a running joke is clearly one that knows what it’s doing.
Todd VanDerWerff: Way back in one of the earliest articles we did in this series, one of the commenters remarked that one of the reasons Shelley Long increasingly felt out of sorts within the ensemble of the show in seasons four and five was because she’d lost Nicholas Colasanto to play off of. The show very carefully laid out Coach as the one person Diane could have a genuinely affectionate friendship with, and when Colasanto died, the writers wisely didn’t transfer all of those emotions onto Woody Boyd, as that would have been too much of a stretch. Yet that left Diane Chambers without her friend to turn to, and it unbalanced the show in some ways (the ensemble of the series may be the most perfectly balanced in sitcom history, so even the slightest tweak to it was easily felt). This episode offers us a great example of how the Diane and Coach relationship was just as important to the former character as her relationship with Sam. Here’s a woman who didn’t expect to be working in a bar, yet she found this sweet old man for a friend. And in that case, why wouldn’t she take her time to comfort him in his time of need? It’s a beautiful episode, and it offers a bit of a breather from the mounting tension in the show’s central romance.
Erik Adams: Funny how we all had different expectations for “Amazing Grace”: At the moment Diane began singing, I figured she’d get in half a verse before being interrupted by twirling woodwinds and the “produced by” credits. That would’ve been a bold move, but it’s bolder to let the emotionally complicated sing-along continue the way it does.
“Coach Buries A Grudge” hangs together for me through all its ups and downs because of Nicolas Colasanto’s performance. His portrayal of Coach is so colored by the character’s episode-to-episode bounciness, that it’s easy to forget how well he nails the emotional beats in episodes like this one or “Coach’s Daughter.” I followed the pivoting because Colasanto makes those mood swings believable—Coach is definitely the type of guy whose absentminded bliss makes is only disrupted when he or someone else he cares about has been slighted. (That’s a positive mark for the writers as much as Colasanto.) He so obviously cares for these people, and that’s why he can’t bring himself to spit on T-Bone’s grave.
Meredith Blake: Here is another Cheers episode built around an absence—in this case, Coach’s old frenemy, T-Bone. For me, maybe the most impressive thing from these first two seasons of Cheers, other than the perfectly choreographed back-and-forth between Sam and Diane, is the way the writing team is able to do so much with so very little. Here in the space of barely 24 minutes, T-Bone morphs from (literally) a cardboard cutout into a rich, complicated, and not entirely likeable character, but we care about him all the same, mostly because of our emotional connection to Coach. Obviously T-Bone is dead, which means there’s a very compelling reason he doesn’t show up at the bar. But even still, his physical absence makes for a better, more inventive episode, as all the little twists and turns—especially that fantastic eulogy-writing scene with Diane—slowly add up to a full character sketch. We all enjoy Andy Andy and Harry The Hat, but it’s interesting to me how some of the most effective, vividly drawn guest stars and recurring characters on Cheers never even show up onscreen. What a perfect segue to the next episode …
- DB: The scene where Diane tries to translate Coach’s memories of T-Bone into positive statements for the eulogy (“He was a capable batsmen … his best moments were off-the-field … we admired his sardonic wit”) not only demonstrates Cheers’ skill at classic comic forms, but its ending with Diane humorously giving up on the job (“he was a hateful and terrible person”) also prefigures the second act complication with deft economy.
- DB: I was laughing so hard that I had to pause playback during this one when Sam responded to Diane’s assertion that even he wouldn’t stoop so low as to make a pass at a friend’s wife with “Well, most of my friends’ wives were real uggos.” As a matter of fact, I had to pause typing that previous sentence for the same reason. “Uggo” is maybe the most hilarious word Ted Danson has ever uttered.
- RM: With all my overly sentimental talk, let it be known that Norm’s line, “Let’s hope he’s not hitting on her up there!” might be a top five joke of the entire season. I lost a perfectly good mouthful of wine after he said that.
- PDN: How about a little shout-out for Don Bexley, the veteran African-American comedian and Chitlin’ Circuit fixture who, in his early 60s, broke into TV with the help of his old pal Redd Foxx when he got him a job as his sidekick Bubba on Sanford And Son. (Foxx had other old pals who he got jobs on that show as other sidekicks for his character, but Bexley was the one who stuck.) Here, he gets to demonstrate his ability to seem fairly gentlemanly and dignified while impugning the attractiveness of his friends’ dead wives, which is a trick that I’ll bet not every graduate of the Yale School of Drama can duplicate.
- TV: It must be said that Sam really does look amazingly ridiculous in that sweater.
- TV: I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit this season, but I’m impressed by how the show’s central set can stand in for any number of other public spaces. Here, it’s a church/funeral parlor. It’s almost as if the bar is an empty shell the characters imbue with whatever feelings they need to that week.
- TV: Donna: In terms of contemplative episodes, it’s hard to do much better than the great episode of Roseanne where the titular heroine deals with the death of the father she hated. It’s a terrific episode of television, held together by an amazing performance by Roseanne.
“Norman’s Conquest” (season 2, episode 20; originally aired 2/23/1984)
In which Norm meets a new lady-friend
DB: I don’t understand the psychology of men or crowds. “Norman’s Conquest” relies on both to such a degree that I was left flabbergasted at how the action unfolded, and convinced yet again that Diane is my spiritual sister. She’s the only one who seems convinced that Norm shouldn’t give in to peer pressure and cheat on Vera (still visiting family in “one of those rectangular states,” it seems) with Emily, an accounting client he brings to the bar. What are these cretins thinking, and by “cretins,” I mean the quartet led by Cliff who sing a mocking song about how whipped Norm is? And you have to throw in Carla, whose gleeful cackling as she shoves Norm toward adultery is ugly in the extreme. I know a culture of machismo and a mob mentality are at work. I just can’t understand why I’m supposed to have the slightest sympathy with it.
Maybe we viewers are supposed to be entirely on Diane’s side, but in other examples of Cheers vs. Chambers, she’s presented as moralistic, idealistic and otherwise unattractively prissy. Norm was so happy to be back with Vera a week ago; why would anybody consider sleeping with another woman at this stage a debatable proposition, manhood or no manhood? It must have something to do with Emily herself; played by Anne Schedeen (best known as Kate Tanner on ALF), she’s no low-class floozy in the make, but an entrepreneur who seems to enjoy Norm’s company enough to give him an opening. “Hot for your bod,” which is how Carla puts it, misses the point entirely. Emily likes Norm, and when she remarks that she could whip up some dinner for them at her place, there’s no lust in her demeanor, despite the clear signal. We would know what to feel about the situation if Norm were about to fall into the clutches of some maneater. But because Emily is both nice and genuine, maybe we’re supposed to want Norm to close the deal and win her over.
Arguably, the whole detestable will-he-or-won’t-he is worth it for the scene between Sam and Norm in the pool room. “No Help Wanted” demonstrated the comic potential of Norm begging Sam for help and possibly inspired this reprise; George Wendt and Ted Danson are just as glorious here. (I like the little business of Sam fixing Norm’s pitching grip on the billiard ball so much that I would be tempted to cheat on my husband with it, and I don’t think he’d blame me.) Their honesty one-on-one contrasts favorably with their weaseling out at the bar, where both are trying to please the people whom they believe hold the keys to their happiness—Norm with his guy friends, and Sam with Diane. In the end, though, they choose to slap a veneer of bro-vado on top of the truths they can only acknowledge in whispers. “Deep down we’re all wusses,” Norm muses. “Somebody’s got to pay for that, and it might as well be the women!” “When they made her, they broke the mold,” Sam says of Diane, then crows, “… and tried to pretend it was an accident!” That’s where “Norman’s Conquest” leaves us, with the assurance that men aren’t pigs, but have to act like they are in public. Do you buy it, and does it matter if you’re of the male or female persuasion?
PDN: Coming toward the end of a mostly triumphant season, sandwiched in between a wonderful episode and a (spoiler alert!) classic finale, this feels like the sitcom equivalent of one of those stink-bomb sketches that get crammed into the closing third of a weak installment of Saturday Night Live to fill space. Actually, that might be too nice a description; I doubt that calling it filler conveys how much I hate it.
I don’t think the gang has ever come across as so spectacularly resistible; only Coach comes out of it with barely a scratch on him. (The fact that Diane is clearly the voice of reason has to be weighed against the fact that she uses the word “blatherskites,” which I wasn’t even sure was really a word until just this second, when my spell-checker failed to ask me to try again.) Leaving aside the fact that these unfunny, charmless people seem to have no affection for each other and deserve what they get, the whole thing is based on a stale, lazy comic gimmick that it tries to pass off as a deep truth about human beings. Why does Norm talk shit about his wife while professing that he really deeply loves her? Is it because men are insecure about their feelings? Not on my planet. A lot of men may be insecure about their feelings, and the company of some other men may bring out the worst in them, but the reason that guys like this have traditionally talked shit about their wives is that comic writers in hack mode think that the audience can’t get enough of insult humor based on the idea that marriage is hell, and then those same characters do an about-face and insist that they didn’t really mean a word of it, because the writers aren’t creating a Strindberg play and don’t want to send people to bed with unsettling ideas about miserable people being yoked together for life.
A decade before this episode aired, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had Lou Grant and his wife divorcing, even though they loved each other, because she no longer found fulfillment in their marriage, and even though he was bewildered about it, he had to accept it. In terms of both its humor and its understanding of human beings, that earlier episode is to this Cheers episode as somebody performing laser eye surgery to a monkey pounding on a coconut with a rock.
RM: I’ll call this “A Tale of Two Acts,” because while I’m with you both on the tone-deaf nature of the first act, I found myself fascinated and engaged with the second half. There’s just something about putting George Wendt in that pool room that brings out the best in Norm. (I think this is his second appearance there this season, and his first with Cliff back in “Little Sister Don’t Cha” remains my favorite scene in this second season.)
I think it’s interesting that we’re watching this episode the same week that Girls premiered on HBO, because in both cases I think we need to ask how much the show actually expects us to empathize with what we see on screen. For Girls, it’s less of a problem, because the initial context is one of distance and detached judgment. But it’s much harder to have a group of characters that we love act the way they do tonight. To show how much Cheers had to work to create this mood, the series essentially takes three background players and thrusts them to the front in order to create tension. In episodes like this, the bar is not only a place where everybody knows your name, but also where they know your weak spots. It’s ugly, but it rings true. But how much of this type of truth can we handle in the world of this show? I don’t have an answer, but I know that this re-watch has revealed a darker side to the show than I remember when initially watching. I don’t think that realization has lessened or augmented my overall impression. But it’s certainly changed it all the same.
NM: Speaking of spotty memory, I didn’t recall there being this many Cheers episodes about mob mentality in the early going. The “we won’t become a gay bar” episode, sure, and the “Cliff has to fight or he’s a weenie,” yeah. But “Norm has to have an affair or he’s not a man”? Didn’t remember that part. Like you all, I found it very disturbing that this episode seems to be more neutral than critical toward Carla and the gang peer pressuring Norm. And once again, as with the Cliff episode, Sam lays back and watches everything play out far more than I would expect him too.
That said, I’m also with Donna and Ryan in really loving the final scene between Norm and Sam in the back room. That’s one I did remember, because the image of Norm telling a Vera joke off-screen and then running back on-screen to grab some props has stuck with me since the first time I saw it. (There are few more reliable bits of TV comedy grammar than characters running on- and off-screen.) But I’d forgotten how terrific Ted Danson is in that scene, such as when Sam laughs at Norm confessing that Vera’s been his only lover, and then quickly turns it around with an encouraging, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
Danson is so good, man. And he’s about to have one of my favorite moments in TV history next week.
TV: I’m not a big fan of this episode, outside of the way it sneakily answers a fairly big question in an interesting way: What is it that Vera Peterson sees in Norm? We’ve seen what a nice guy he is, and how he’s got an amiable charm, but he’s certainly not the traditional lady killer, and his level of ambition could be higher. By watching Norm with Emily, we get a sense of how he can have sort of a self-deprecating charm all the same, and we get a fuller portrait of the good parts of the Peterson marriage. It’s hard to fill all of that in with a character who will never appear, so I commend all involved for trying, even if the episode doesn’t rise to the level it would need to to be a classic. (Indeed, it might be the weakest of the season.)
MB: Beyond the ugly group mentality, what’s so strange about the retrograde “if Norm doesn’t cheat on Vera, then he’s not a real man” groupthink is that it’s inconsistent with the other outbursts of mass hysteria to have gripped the Cheers gang. Yes, Cheers is a decidedly macho space where traditional, heterosexual male values tend to rule the day, but these previous occurrences were at least motivated by a sense of honor, however misguided. This time around, it’s the exact opposite: Who needs honor or honesty when you can get some? Maybe I’m just being pedantic or overly naïve, but to me the first half of “Norman’s Conquest” doesn’t even work according to its own logic. Why would Carla, whose ex was a chronic philanderer, push Norm to cheat on his wife, especially since he’s spent the better part of the last season trying to win her back?
It also doesn’t help that these fits of mob mentality always seem to include a conspicuous number of those essentially anonymous background players, which only lends to the overall sense of contrivance (it would only be slightly less believable if that statue of Tecumseh wandered over to the bar and told Norm to “man up.”) I’m with Ryan, et al., in that the second half comes close to redeeming the episode, if only because it self-consciously exposes the kind of lazy male chauvinism latent in so much comedy writing. Take my wife—please! Um, if you say so …
EA: Inconsistent or unlikeable characterization aside, there is something to be said about the way that first act is staged. We’ve touched on how Cheers excelled in the “televised play” setup of the multi-camera-sitcom format, but when Norm paces back and forth between the bar and his table—caught between the bad influence of the barflies, the well-meaning advice of Sam and Diane, and the temptation of Emily—it’s easy to imagine the scene playing out, as is, on a theatrical stage. And thanks to James Burrows’ direction and blocking, we can see how Norm’s decisions are affecting his friends, in ways comedic (mostly coming from Coach) and dramatic (mostly coming from Diane). It’s the mark of a great TV series that even a dud like “Norman’s Conquest” produced at two elements worthy of praise.
- DB: So many quotable Diane lines, so little space in the stray observations. She commends Emily for “working, doing, rising on merit through the ranks.” Countering the boorish barflies to Norm, she declares, “The emptiness of their lives causes them to cast aspersions on your own.” And she urges Norm to reconsider “before you rend asunder in violent ferment your marriage.” Writing for Diane Chambers sounds like the best fun a TV scribbler could ever have.
- PDN: I’ve said before that I think Carla’s character was originally designed as a female version of Louie De Palma on Taxi, and I swear that during this period, Rhea Perlman must have studying tapes of her husband in action. In the (breathtakingly unfunny) pre-credits sequence, when she’s gesturing as she lectures Diane on how to waitress, you could almost believe that they’d started with an old clip of Danny DeVito as Louie and had her rotoscoped in.
- RM: I’m mad Donna beat me to the punch on the curveball thing, because it’s such a rich, wonderful detail that sells the loyalty these patrons have to Sam more than anything else he’s done to date.
- NM: I agree with Donna that it must’ve been fun to write for Diane, but to be honest, this episode the Diane dialogue struck me as a little overdone. It sounded like a spec script or fan-fic version of Diane.
- TV: It’s interesting you bring up spec scripts, Noel. Best as I can tell, this episode was written by a freelancer, as were several of our least favorite episodes this season. Was it really this obvious when a freelancer wrote an episode of your favorite show? I’d have to do more research.
- EA: Given Diane’s use of “blatherskite,” I wouldn’t be surprised if Lissa Levin is a pseudonym for a time-traveling Colin Meloy. That name certainly sounds similar to “Leslie Anne Levine”…
- NM: How come we don’t say “In your hat!” anymore? It’s gone the way of “So’s your old man!”
- NM: It feels weird to me that I’ve been married about twice as long as Norm and Vera were in this episode.
- TV: I do like the way Norm says he has “one of those little vacuum cleaners” when explaining his hickeys.
What you said:
“I love ’Snow Job’ cause the Cliff and Norm fight is very similar to many I have had myself. Of course Cliffy and Norm were the second best relationship on the show, and Sam and Diane got the spotlight for the majority of the episode. They still managed to make it count with their own version of a bittersweet ending. I think it is great that the betrayal only needed a few brief moments for Cliffy and Norm to become pals again, while Sam and Diane kept pushing each other way every time they had a chance. If only Sam and Diane could work as well as Cliffy and Norm they might have lasted.”
“I learned how to make gifs just because of this episode.
“The fights in these two episodes were foreshadowed in ‘And Coachie Makes Three’, in which Diane goes to an extra effort to make dinner for Sam, who doesn’t really appreciate it and immediately afterward grabs the TV to get the scores. Diane then laments how ‘ho-hum’ they’ve become as a couple. Only dressing up in a short nightie can possibly salvage the evening, as beyond sexual attraction they have little in common.
This sets up the exchange in ‘Fortune’ in which Diane talks about how she went to the museum with a male friend because she misses having more cultured conversations, which in turn might have given Sam the idea that he should resume his personal pre-relationship activities by going on the ski trip in ‘Snow Job.’
So while a conversation might come ‘out of nowhere’ that ends a relationship, as Todd said, in Sam and Diane’s case it was clear that it almost fell apart right there because the foundation it was built on was very unsteady. These episodes showed that it was only a matter of time before their fundamental differences would cause it to all come crashing down.
I love ’Snow Job’ cause the Cliff and Norm fight is very similar to many I have had myself. Of course Cliffy and Norm were the second best relationship on the show, and Sam and Diane got the spotlight for the majority of the episode. They still managed to make it count with their own version of a bittersweet ending. I think it is great that the betrayal only needed a few brief moments for Cliffy and Norm to become pals again, while Sam and Diane kept pushing each other way every time they had a chance. If only Sam and Diane could work as well as Cliffy and Norm they might have lasted.”
Next week: Sam and Diane have one last fight as season two wraps up.