“Just Three Friends” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 12/15/1983)
In which Markie Post drops by
Erik Adams: Can a man and a woman be “just friends?” If you’re a Billy Crystal character in a Rob Reiner rom-com or Sam Malone circa 1 BC (Before Chambers), the answer is, of course, a resounding, masculine “No.” As the Billy Crystal character will helpfully explain, sex is always going to get in the way—or, as Sam Malone circa 1 AD (After Diane) sees it, when a woman shows a romantic interest in a man, there’s simply no way for the man to turn her down. Even if he’s currently unavailable, and that woman’s oldest friend is the reason he’s unavailable.
And so begins the internal struggle at the center of “Just Three Friends”—a struggle that is articulated in loud, paranoid, hilariously over-the-top terms when Sam and Diane sit down for dinner with the latter’s childhood friend, Heather (played by a pre-Night Court Markie Post in David Bowie’s Labyrinth mullet). To the credit of David Lloyd’s script, that struggle passes elegantly from Sam to Diane. Initially, Sam is dismayed by Diane’s plans for a dinner date with the comely Heather. What with him being a newly housebroken tomcat, Sam is concerned that his feral side will reveal itself if he spends too much time in the company of an attractive, apparently interested female. Diane eventually talks him down from this foolishness, only to have the seed of doubt planted in her head by Heather’s all-too-convincing joke about being attracted to Sam and Carla’s intimate knowledge of her boss’ lizard brain. Convinced of the spark between Sam and Heather that might or might not exist (the ambiguity of Heather’s feelings is the smartest element in Lloyd’s script), Diane derails the dinner party, seeing Sam’s excitement at a new friendship as flirtatiousness and channeling those old facial-tic compulsions into inflammatory mid-dinner exclamations. As we get to see Sam stifling his wild side, the green-eyed monster within Diane flashes its teeth through some wonderfully broad character moments at her apartment. (I found Shelley Long’s reading of the one-word line “Slut” both jarring and hilarious—it’s too shocking and unexpected not to be.)
Underlining these concerns of the heart is a goofy B-story involving Coach stashing a ferocious guard dog in Sam’s office. It’s a neat parallel to Sam trying (and managing) to suppress the beast within, but it’s rendered cartoonish by the complexity of the paces Sam and Diane put one another through in “Just Three Friends.” This episode belongs to Sam and Diane, and while it’s good to shine the spotlight on the couple (all the while illuminating further indications that this relationship isn’t built to last), it does a disservice to Cheers’ strong ensemble. It’s a good half-hour for the central couple, but a fair-to-middling one for their friends and coworkers—it doesn’t help that the bulk of the material given to Coach, Norm, Cliff, and Carla is tangled in the flimsy jokes and crummy ADR prompted by the guard dog.
Before this episode, the second season has done a spectacular job of balancing Sam and Diane’s relationship with satisfying stories for the rest of the regulars. I could be alone here, but I feel like the balance in “Just Three Friends” tips too much in favor of Sam and Diane. Thankfully, their experience with Heather is so funny and so emotionally honest that it hardly matters that everyone in the bar is relegated to a handful of zingers and contending with an unseen killer dog. Do you think this episode could’ve used more input from the likes of Norm and Cliff? Or is the relationship material better off without them butting in?
Ryan McGee: A lot of this episode to me hinges on Heather’s “admission” to Sam in the bar that she’s wildly attracted to him. On one level, we’ve already seen her and Diane engage in tomfoolery with their joke about three cars that all begin with the letter “P.” (That Cliff and Norm co-opt the joke later on is one of my favorite small moments of the show.) On the other hand, Heather’s declaration is also a way for her to express her true feelings in a safe manner. So if you think the joke is on Sam and Diane, you interpret the episode one way. If you think Heather is really trying to worm her way into Sam’s lap, the episode plays much differently..
That duplicity keeps everyone on edge, and the episode itself plays with this tension nicely. But I don’t know if I particularly enjoyed seeing this trope play out. It’s not really the episode’s fault: I won’t pretend to be an expert on how many sitcoms had deployed the “just friends” storyline at the time “Just Three Friends” aired. But I’ve seen it so many times that it felt retroactively redundant. If this version brought something new to the table, that would be fine. After all, there are not an infinite amount of story ideas, and the make or break point lies in the execution, not the concept. But Markie Post’s Heather doesn’t stand out enough to make her a truly viable threat to the Sam and Diane relationship, which makes the endeavor more academic than intended. Erik, you liked how broad things got in this episode. Maybe that breadth is my overall issue.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’m not crazy about this one, which feels a little half-baked to me. This may have something to do with the fact that I’ve never been a particularly big Markie Post fan. (I was very lonely during those years in the ’80s when the phenomenon we all remember as “Postmania” swept the land.) Post should probably get only half the blame for the fact that it’s hard to get a fix on her character, though guest actors who were more inventive and sparkling and game did a lot more with characters who weren’t much more cleverly written. I wasn’t sure until the final scene whether or not she really is supposed to be interested in Sam, which made it hard to know how ridiculous Diane’s mounting paranoia is supposed to be. And when you’re trying to get a bead on what’s really going on, as if you’re watching Last Year At Marienbad with a laugh track, it’s hard to find anything very funny. (Then at the end, when she convincingly insists that she isn’t interested in Sam at all, I sort of wanted some back-story. Does she suffer from face blindness?) And this episode could really use some subplots or more pitching in from the backup chorus. When this show is firing on all cylinders, it’s easy to take Cliff and Norm and company for granted, but when the central story is hogging more time than it deserves, you really miss the hell out of them.
Donna Bowman: I love the concept of “Just Three Friends,” and where it could have gone is indicated by the masterful way Sam congratulates himself for looking forward to spending time with Heather. “Being friends with such a sexy woman is a big step forward in my maturity!” he enthuses, with all the vigor of a man who’s about to have his cake and eat it too. But the big dinner setpiece in Diane’s apartment just plays strangely to me, with its mumbled and improvised dialogue interrupted by Diane’s big explosion. Might I suggest that it’s almost too real? I can remember being the friend invited to spend time with the old pal and the new flame, and Heather does exactly what I then understood the job to be: not to flirt so much as to impress, to engage in the subtle competition that says, “In an alternate universe the musical chairs could have ended differently … and don’t you wish it had?” (I can also remember being the coupled-up one with a best friend playing the Heather role, and Diane’s reaction is painfully true. You want your boyfriend and your friend to meet because you’re proud of them both and want to show them off to each other, but strangely enough, that leaves you as the third wheel.) Even though I find “Just Three Friends” oddly herky-jerky, and unfortunately true to life, I still treasure it for Sam’s performance. “I’ve eaten through worse than this,” he explains as he continues shoveling spaghetti into his mouth while apologizing to Heather for Diane’s histrionics.
Noel Murray: I’ve never written a TV show or even visited a TV writers’ room, but there are times when I watch an episode and assume that what sounded like a can’t-miss idea during a brainstorming session proved to be less fruitful when someone had to turn it into a script. That’s my impression of “Just Three Friends,” anyway. All the elements are there: Sam’s womanizing, Diane’s neuroses, and a farcical dinner party. But there’s just nothing to it, ultimately, and there’s only so much that Shelley Long can do with her aggrieved interjections. (Though I do like the sort of Muppet-monster voice she adopts when she shouts, “DINNERTIME!”) It’s not a terrible episode by any means; it just sort of peters out quickly.
Meredith Blake: I’m with the naysayers on this one. To me, this episode just never really gets off the ground. Cheers already kinda-sorta pulled this stunt in “Any Friend Of Diane’s,” an episode that, despite its patent absurdity, really worked for me. A large part of the problem in “Just Three Friends” is the Diane-Heather friendship, which just seems (and surely was) conjured out of thin air. We are told that Diane and Heather have been friends since childhood, but I simply didn’t buy their relationship, maybe because Markie Post looks more like an aerobics instructor than someone who’d be BFFs with Diane. I feel like even a kernel or two of back-story about their relationship—have these two competed over guys in the past, for instance?—would have explained Diane’s sudden explosion of jealousy. Also, given the flirtatious banter Cheers tends to do so well, I was disappointed by Sam and Heather’s weirdly juvenile tickling and spaghetti slurping. The winner of the episode is Shelley Long, for her indignant delivery of “Spaghetti, sauce, bread. Have you no shame?” A great line in an episode that is otherwise basically filler.
Todd VanDerWerff: What a weird little episode! I appreciate the ambiguity that Erik points out, but I don’t know that the whole thing really works. I mentioned a while back that David Lloyd’s scripts tend to work perfectly or get a little too high-concept for their own good, and the latter is true here. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept. After all, as Meredith points out, the show used it in an episode that was a real highlight. But Heather just doesn’t mesh, and Markie Post looks like she’s wandered in out of a Jazzercise video. I like Danson and Long’s performances (particularly Long’s frequent outbursts), but there’s something too… unsettling about the dinnertime scene, and the less said about that guard dog (who drinks loudly enough to be heard through a door!), the better.
- EA: I didn’t enjoy the segments involving the dog, but that didn’t keep from wondering what it looked like. I’m assuming he’s of the same line of monstrous St. Bernards as “The Beast” who prowls behind the outfield fence in The Sandlot.
- RM: The show goes to the well of demonstrating Sam’s lack of literary prowess too often, but mistaking The Three Musketeers for The Supremes made me laugh pretty hard. Also? I’d love to know what worse encounters he’s eaten through before this episode.
- NM: If I ever start an ‘80s cover band, I’m going to call it Markie Post’s Hair, because, c’mon.
- NM: Soon-to-be-significant character stealthily introduced in “Just Three Friends:” Vera’s seductive little sister. We haven’t heard the last about her.
- MB: Heather’s “come get me” dress is essentially a big, droopy, brown sweatshirt. Oh, the ‘80s.
- MB: Has anyone else noticed Sam’s habit of drinking water out of tiny glass bottles? What gives?
- TV: The timing in that scene where the bar patrons are all laughing (the one that ends with Coach laughing far too late) is off in really weird ways. The timing is off all over this episode.
“Where There’s A Will…” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 12/22/1983)
In which the gang turns greedy
EA: Cheers is bested only by The Simpsons when it comes to television comedies that surround their strong core ensemble with a living, breathing community of background players (though Parks And Recreation is slowly creeping up behind both shows). The barflies aren’t sure-shot punchline machines like Disco Stu or Hans Moleman, but they’re good for a laugh every now and then, in addition to providing the sense that, while we truly care about only a handful of people who hang around the bar, they’re not the only people who frequent Cheers. In terms of making the bar a fully realized setting, guys like Alan or Tom the wannabe lawyer play a crucial role.
Unfortunately, as we see in “Where There’s A Will… ,” the Cheers regulars are just as prone to dangerous groupthink as their Springfield counterparts. After dying industrialist Malcolm Kramer (character actor George Gaynes, visiting Boston between Tootsie and Police Academy, all the while providing this week’s Cheers doubleheader with the ’80s comedy order to Markie Post’s ’80s comedy law) wills $100,000 to the gang at the bar, the debate over how the money should be divided up merges patrons and employees into a greedy and potentially murderous mob. It’s a neat contrast to the crowd’s typical behavior, but the turn occurs too quickly to be effective. Springfield’s dependence on mob rule is a giddily deployed trope because such extremes can be expected of a cartoon characters; Cheers is typically more nuanced than the miniature version John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” which unfolds in the middle of “Where There’s A Will… ”
That too-swift transformation (and the similar reverse Sam undergoes after he realizes that the greed has infected him, too) aside, I found myself at turns tickled and moved by “Where There’s A Will… ,” another “Christmas episode that’s not a Christmas episode” in the vein of season one’s “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One.” Of course, this episode has more perceptible thematic ties to the holiday; you can read the avarice in the air as an analogy for yuletide consumerism, to the point where I worried Kramer would return for an climactic scene in the office, where he reveals he’s the real Santa Claus and this whole nonsense with the $100,000 was simply his way of showing everyone what Christmas is all about, Sam Malone. Thankfully, the episode refrains from being that obvious, and instead wrings laughs and pathos out of the horrible things greed makes people do and say. (My favorite: The way Sam’s humble plans for his share of the dosh slowly take the shape of a 60-foot yacht.) Did “Where There’s A Will… ” fill any of you with delayed holiday cheer? (I’m lookin’ at you, VanDerWerff.) And what do you think about the way money madness takes over the bar?
DB: To me, George Gaynes will always be John Van Horn, the lecherous elder statesman on the soap opera Southwest General in the masterful comedy Tootsie. I can’t see him without thinking of his confusion in the big climactic scene when Dorothy Michaels rips off her makeup and reveals on live television that she is her character’s twin brother. (Prompting Bill Murray, watching at home, to remark, “That is one nutty hospital.”) But I didn’t really connect with this very stock stranger-leaves-a-surprise-will plot. Cheers can produce great farce, but its strength isn’t playing out a farcical premise but finding the farce in subtler or more realistic premises. I found myself ruminating on the graceful shape of Diane’s crocheted collar instead of caring about who has the right bar napkin and what that says about greed and fairness. One notable feature of this half-hour, though, is the little business with the matchsticks. When the woman at the bar asks Sam, “How do you do that without burning your hand?” and he replies, “I don’t,” it’s an homage (I would guess an intentional one) to Peter O’Toole’s introductory scene in Lawrence Of Arabia, where he puts out matches between his fingers. “That damn well hurts! What’s the trick?” asks one of his fellow soldiers in the map room. “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts,” smiles Lawrence.
RM: The first act of this episode is just about perfect, which makes the latter half of the episode…well, I don’t want to say it’s disappointing, but it’s problematic. There’s value in exploring the uglier side of characters within a comedic structure: After all, if everyone always did the right thing, it would be a mighty boring program. But as you have both pointed out, stuff gets really ugly, really fast in this episode. It’s one thing to show how avarice might infect good-hearted people. But it’s another to have them all turn into late-stage Gollum all angling for their part of the precious addendum to Malcolm’s will.
And that’s too bad, because there’s a warm character study in that first act that I could have watched extend through the entire running time. Even if I love the core cast, there’s an inherent narrative value in a barroom setting that lets people such as Malcolm wander in, rub off a little on the regular patrons, and then never be seen again. Maybe Malcolm’s terminal illness was too much for a sitcom premise to bear in and of itself, thus creating the perceived necessity for a farcical chase for the dying man’s money. But watching Malcolm make drinks while blindfolded certainly didn’t bear the specter of death hanging over it. Instead, we got to see him living life to its fullest, and having that energy pervade the entire bar. (Norm didn’t even mind losing the bet, and he’s essentially destitute at this point in the show’s run.) Erik: You mentioned Parks And Recreation in your analysis earlier, and co-creator Mike Schur is on record as having Cheers be his favorite show of all time. I can easily imagine that show taking this premise and maximizing both the bitter and the sweet of the situation. In this episode of Cheers, it feels as if the latter half is a palette cleanser meant to wipe away all the sentiment already established. While that’s not a crime, it certainly feels like a bit of a shame.
PDN: In the early ’80s, when Tom Carson was the TV critic for the Village Voice, I remember him once writing something to the effect that part of what made Cheers feel like a contemporary show was that the gang at the bar, for all its standing as perhaps the most likable TV family of the time, were, as human beings, often no better than they had to be. I’m guessing that he had episodes like this one, and the one where the coming out of Alan Autry inspires Norm and Cliff to try and establish Cheers as a no-gay zone, were what he had in mind. But where that earlier episode didn’t really work for me, I like this one, much more than some of y’all do. In fact, I think it may be one of my favorites of this season.
It is as close to straight-out black comedy as the show had come to this point, and by the time the barflies actually drag poor George Gaynes back to the bar to stipulate the terms of his generous gift, we’re practically in Ricky Gervais territory. But I think the show pulls it off. The tone feels right to me: It’s sure enough that I never feel that the show expects me not to recognize that my dear TV friends are acting like animals (the way some more recent shows, such as Rescue Me and the Sheen-era Two And A Half Men, actually don’t seem fully aware that their protagonists are beyond redemption), but it’s funny in a way that lures me into admitting that, in a similar situation, I’m not sure that I’d behave much better. And I think the ending is perfect. If Sam didn’t do the right thing, the episode might leave a sour taste in my mouth, but I’m also glad that the last laugh of the night comes from his acknowledging that he wishes he were a slightly worse person, because this is one time when he really hates doing the right thing.
NM: Yeah, I hate to be one of those guys who complains about characters being “unlikable,” but everyone behaved so awfully in the back half of this episode that I found it hard to enjoy (even though on the whole this was a funny half-hour, with sharp dialogue and performances). I was also distracted by the craziness over such a paltry amount of money. Even by early ’80s standards, a hundred grand isn’t exactly life-changing dough. So instead, I’ll try to remember how sweet the first half of “Where There’s A Will” is, and how much I always enjoy seeing Sam be good at his job as a bartender. Sam’s instant rapport with Malcolm is reassuring, especially given how jerky he behaves later.
TV: This is another weird one, though I preferred it to the episode before, if only because I prefer Gaynes’ performance to Post’s performance. The guest stars could often make or break this show, and Gaynes keeps things from veering too far off-course, particularly in that first act. He’s warm and sweet, and you buy that he’s this guy who has such a good time at the bar that he’d really do something this impulsive (though you’d think he’d have realized just what his gesture would do). I’m of two minds about the later acts, which do have some nice darkness to them but also feel a little strained. I just didn’t buy that the gang would sink this low, this quickly, and though I really enjoyed Danson’s bug-eyed performance in the final scene, there was something so… forced about the whole story, as though someone had watched Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and tried to cram it into a half hour.
MB: Sorry, guys, but you are all wrong: George Gaynes will obviously always be Henry from Punky Brewster. Other than that minor quibble, I’m with the majority of you in thinking that, after a wonderful first act, this episode strains too hard to be some kind of grim morality tale, and it doesn’t quite succeed. And once again, we’ve got an episode that feels like a rehash of things we’ve already seen in season one—the rich stranger from “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One,” and of course the tired will conceit from “Someone Single, Someone Blue.” It’s far too early for Cheers to be cannibalizing itself. Also, what a weirdly unflattering way to introduce us to supporting characters Alan and Tom! We know Carla, Norm, and Cliff well enough to forgive them their momentary insanity, but who would want to hang out with those other dudes after this?
- EA: Lest you worry about his actual health, online sources indicate that George Gaynes is still with us, a sprightly 94 and married to his wife of 59 years, Allyn Ann McLerie.
- EA: I believe our old friend Severn Darden would attribute a real, murderous intensity to Rhea Perlman’s snarling reading of the line “We should’ve killed her when we had the chance.”
- RM: Carla The Coat Diver would have made an excellent spin-off show. Watching her go into the veritable jungle of parkas was a fun bit of physical comedy, punctuated by Cliff having to answer a postal emergency wearing a woman’s overcoat.
- NM: Sam’s unconvincing disavowal of a couple of sleazy opening lines reminded me how much he has in common with Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother. It’s too bad we know who Barney’s real father is now; a Ted Danson cameo on HIMYM would’ve been legend… wait for it….
- NM: Something else that dates this episode, besides the amount of money Malcolm leaves: He has to leave the bar by 11 to catch a plane. Do they still have flights that late? (Or is the implication that he’s been at Cheers all morning? In which case: Who drinks that early?)
- NM: Another member of Cheers’ sub-ensemble becomes a player in this episode: Tom, the not-yet-lawyer, whom Cliff will continue to antagonize in multiple episodes to come.
- TV: I can’t be the only person who thought that the best solution here would have been to pour that cash back into Cheers, right?
- TV: Not to be Meredith, but the girl Sam tries out his magic tricks on is dressed very oddly. Ah, the ‘80s.
- TV: Not a lot of holiday cheer in this one, but I’ll admit the sight of all that snow gave me a rather warm feeling, like staying in on a cold December night to watch sitcoms with your family. Again, the ‘80s!
- MB: Donna, I am surprised you were even able to notice Diane’s crocheted collar, what with her mesmerizingly awful poodle perm. Some day, I am going to start a Tumblr devoted to nothing but screen grabs of Diane’s fluctuating coiffure. (Very, very stray observation: For the record, the most distracting perm of all time is the one Ione Skye suddenly has two-thirds of the way through Say Anything).
- MB: My favorite moment from the episode: the funny aside between Sam and Diane about “the wonderful little gesture” he performed for her in bed. The Cheers writers are great at working in these sly little references to Sam and Diane’s (apparently abundant) sexy time.
- NM: … dary.
What you said:
“Cavett was in a sense the Diane Chambers of talk show hosts, coming off as rather pretentious, frequently name-dropping his famous witty friends (Woody Allen, Groucho) and generally making no secret of being the intellectual superior of his talk-show rivals.
So the real point of the Cavett appearance was so Diane, who would obviously be enthralled by Cavett being in the bar, could try to suck up to him in a ridiculous manner, which she did hilariously. For this particular reason, Cavett was the perfect choice for this episode.”
Spurred on by a pickled Diane, Nathan Ford’s Evil Twin led a roll call of comedic actresses who are great at playing drunk. Among them: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Jenna Fischer, Leslie Mann, Kaitlin Olson, “the blonde girl who acted drunk in Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”
“Also, Coach’s ‘Who does?’ is a classic. I’m always reminded of it when people express their tastes beginning with the phrase ‘I don’t like too much…’ or ‘I don’t want too much…’ of something. (Since, by definition, ‘too much’ means it’s something you consider undesirable) ‘I don’t want too much pepper.’ ‘Who does?’ Zing!”
Next week: Have you met Nick Tortelli? Well, you’re about to.