“Old Flames” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 11/17/1983)
In which Sam tries to forget all the names in his little black book…
Phil Dyess-Nugent: The callbacks to Cheers’ first season continue with the return of Fred Dryer as the incandescently loutish sportscaster Dave Richards, and let me be the first to ask, where the hell was this guy when Dryer was lumbering through seven seasons of Hunter? He makes his entrance right on cue, swaggering in just as Diane is saying, “The level of conversation in this bar could not sink any lower,” and greeting her with, “Hiya, Wonderbuns.” It’s as if she’d been looking in the mirror and repeating, “Candyman, Candyman…”
The last time Dave was in the bar, he was there on business. This visit’s all about pleasure. His wife has left him, so he’s in the mood to go “scoutin’ those El Feminitos”—or, as Diane puts it, “trollop-hunting”—and he wants Sam to join him. It would be a lot to ask of Sam, who has spent the day at the art museum with Diane, learning to enhance his appreciation of such masterpieces as Michelangelo’s Two Muscular Guys Touching Fingers, to not expect him to need a minute to remember why his new, serious love relationship forbids this. With a lot of help from Diane, he explains to Dave that he is now a one-woman man. Dave is unconvinced: “You’re a worse hound than me,” he tells Sam, “which makes you the worst hound that ever was.”
This is an early example of a play that Cheers will run again and again during its Sam-and-Diane period, the one where the two of them beat their brains out trying to prove the durability of their relationship because they’ve been challenged by some doubter. (The definitive episode of this kind is probably one from 1987 in which the doubter is John Cleese.) But this is a terrific episode itself, in no small part because everybody who has the capacity to shine gets to shine a little, without ever creating too much distraction from the main story. It’s an expert piece of sitcom traffic management.
Norm, also catting around while his marriage is on the shelf, has a great running gag about dating a woman he used to work with, except that he finds it more enjoyable to date her in absentia, taking her to see Gandhi—“a first-rate piece of cinematic ahhrt,” Cliff affirms, in a line that made me laugh harder than the one about Michelangelo—and sneaking out to return to the bar once the theater is dark. And I love this exchange between Sam and Coach: “Coach, I’m having blackouts.” “It’s a nice little break in the day, isn’t it, Sam?”
Noel Murray: “Expert piece of sitcom traffic management” is a great way to describe this episode, Phil. There’s a real confidence about “Old Flames.” The script, the direction, the cast, the premise… this is Cheers running in high gear, without any bumps or rattles. But I also like that this episode is sort of the flipside of “Sumner’s Return.” In that episode, Diane denies she’s dating Sam because it would’ve been inconvenient and uncomfortable to claim him. She does this consciously. In this episode, Sam leaps over the bar to go tomcatting with Dave, forgetting all about Diane. He does this unconsciously. That says about all you need to know about what these two mean to each other. Well, that and Sam thinking that he’s making a grand gesture when he offers to reach into his Little Black Book and rip up “X through Z and all but one of Q.”
Donna Bowman: “Old Flames” is so expertly performed—both in front of and behind the camera—that it’s easy to overlook how expertly written it is. That line Noel just quoted about the pages Sam is tearing out of his legendary book has the kind of unexpected specificity that slays me. It’s a joke that goes the extra mile. Not simply tearing a couple of letters out of the book, but the least-used letters. Not just the least-used letters, but reserving a page from that group that presumably contains a vital name Sam is not yet willing to give up. Once it’s come to life in Ted Danson’s hands (he announces it as a grand, magnanimous gesture, belying its calculated mendacity), it’s a thing of such beauty, I want to watch it again and again.
Here’s another example, and one that didn’t get as big a laugh. Cliff, off on one of his magisterial explanations, wraps up by saying, “Cogito… ” before his conclusion. He means ergo. But it’s not just any Latin word substituted for the right one, like a garden variety bluff from a run-of-the-mill know-it-all. It’s a word from the same famous phrase, cogito ergo sum, Descartes’ dictum of what cannot be doubted. Cliff isn’t a blowhard. He’s got a lot of little-known facts and bits of culture under that postman’s cap. He just doesn’t always grab the right one when he’s fishing around in there. When he misses by just a little, like he does with “cogito,” it’s far more telling about who he is and how his mind works than if he were just spouting nonsense.
Meredith Blake: I think what makes the push-pull between Sam and Diane work so well in “Old Flames”— and in Cheers more generally—is how well-balanced their bad behavior is. Yes, Sam’s vulnerability to Dave’s peer pressure is troubling, as is his almost one-night-stand with Didi, but so is Diane’s fixation with Sam’s debauched past, and her default habit of insulting his intelligence. Neither party is obviously at fault, and Sam and Diane are vexing in nearly equal measure. In this episode, I was more frustrated by Sam’s nearly instantaneous reversion to cad mode—but just slightly. Sam and Diane are both acting immaturely, but there’s also a real emotional honesty to their behavior. After all, Sam does care what his old buddy thinks of him, and Diane does wish Sam hadn’t slept with so many women. If only one of them were being truly deceptive, then it would all be so much easier.
Ryan McGee: Maybe it’s because Friends is perpetually rerun on basic cable now, but I kept waiting for Sam to shout, “We were on a break!” during the final scene inside his office. These two aren’t Ross and Rachel, although it’s easy to see a similar template applied to both pairs. What’s great about Sam and Diane is that while they are both older than either Ross or Rachel, they reduce each other to equal levels of immaturity. I should be annoyed by the constant bickering between them, but at least at this point in the show’s run we understand these two have a mutual attraction but stands miles apart in terms of life experience and general perspective. Sam clearly saw his night with Didi as a “victory,” unaware of the anger he would awaken within Diane upon telling her.
I do want to echo Donna’s assessment about the show’s writing. In particular, I marveled at the sequence in which Coach and Carla talk about his propensity to forget his keys at the end of the night. I’m so used to the way comedy works in the current single-camera world of television that to see an extended verbal sequence of this quality leaves me slightly in awe. Trying to even summarize the comedic heights Nicholas Colasanto and Rhea Perlman’s dialogue achieves would do it disservice. Needless to say I had to pause the episode to catch my breath upon its completion.
Todd VanDerWerff: I have no idea how much the writers of this show had planned out the direction for the Sam and Diane relationship as the second season progressed (Noel’s Very Special Episode article about the show suggests to me it wasn’t terribly thought out), but I’m really struck by just how carefully the whole thing seems to fall in place as this season plays out. This reminds me of one of those rules of TV writing that too often gets overlooked: If you really ask yourself what these people would do in these particular situations, you’ll come up with something that feels more real than if you try to force those characters to reach certain pre-determined points. I think nearly every great TV show (maybe every great work of narrative art) has been about people who go on journeys that never feel forced or compromised, and that’s the case here. It’s even more remarkable because there were no cases to look back at for the people making this show. They were feeling out the Sam and Diane thing as they went, and making it look easy.
PDN: There’s a throwaway moment when Sam ushers Diane into his office to tell her something important—she doesn’t know yet that it involves his having almost spent the night with another woman—and she settles in behind his desk and mutters, “Oh, the big guy’s chair, huh?” before excitedly saying, “Okay, tell me, tell me”—that represents a high-water point on Shelley Long’s adorability meter.
NM: Phil, you’ve pegged Shelly Long’s brightest throwaway moment in this episode. On the Ted Danson side, I have to go with Sam realizing that he’s inadvertently about to ditch Diane and immediately returning to the bar, shouting, “You take care, Dave!” Danson’s so good at turning on a dime like that.
Elsewhere, George Wendt gets one of the funniest lines in Cheers history: Norm grumbling that his shorts are binding up, then shrugging off the inconvenience, saying, “Give ’em five minutes… sometimes they self-correct.”
MB: The single joke that really tickled my funny bone in the bit about “Wanda Mendelssohn,” a name in Sam’s little black book. He claims Wanda’s an “all-night plumber,” which actually sounds far dirtier than if he’d just said “some woman I slept with years ago.” I am also a sucker for a mildly ridiculous fictional name—see also “Brendanawicz, Mark” and “Malwae-Tweep, Shauna”—so this one got me.
RM: Cliff’s “I can see!” reaction upon touching Sam’s black book is one of my favorite Cliff moments to date. Too often Cheers mines humor from the space between what the character means to say versus how he actually comes across. (Donna pointed out a prime example with his improper use of Latin.) So to see him as the genuinely funniest man in the bar at that moment felt great.
TV: David Angell’s the credited writer on the script. He was one of the foremost writers in the show’s room for an astounding amount of its run, and he would go on to co-create the show’s most successful spinoff, Frasier. (We’ll obviously have to cover the other spinoff, The Tortellis, in this space when the time comes.) He would die, tragically, in the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Manager Coach” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 11/24/1983)
In which we meet the version of Coach from the darkest timeline…
PDN: This one begins with a simple and, frankly, tired-looking premise: Guy walks into the bar, says he’s looking got somebody to coach a little league baseball team, and Sam nominates Coach for the job. It’s not much of a team; in fact, Corey Feldman is on the roster, and of the kids who actually get to deliver a line, he’s not even the worst of them. But Coach figures, what the hell, it’s something to do, and if Sam thought it up, it must be a pretty good idea. Right away you can imagine a few obvious, unentertaining ways for this to go: The kids will take advantage of poor old Coach, not respect his authority, run a game on him. Or maybe they’ll get along all right, but because Coach lacks the killer instinct and would rather the kids have fun than drill them like little Spartans, they’ll drop a bunch of games and the parents will complain. Either way, I was resigned to being asked to feel sorry for the poor old guy.
But Coach, bless him, takes this Bad News Bears setup and goes his own way with it. Driven mad with power, he turns into an R. Lee Ermey character, screaming at the kids, bullying them through endless practice sessions, and showering them with such endearments as, “Go home and tell your mother you’re a flop.” It pays off, too. The little sumbitches become the terrors of their league. But at what cost? To judge from the way he bitches and moans when the team doesn’t win by enough to suit him, not even the Coach enjoys having the new Coach around.
Sam and Diane are just about to stage an intervention when the kids themselves march into the bar and announce that they’re so miserable they’re quitting. They do not appreciate Coach’s tough-love approach. Coach tries to explain his methods by telling a story about a teacher who bullied and tortured him in school because he couldn’t learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Sure, says Sam, and the point of the story is that, thanks to your teacher, you learned to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and came to respect the man who’d helped you learned it? Fuck that noise, says Coach; he never did learn the damn thing, and when the hated teacher died and went to Hell, Coach wanted to turn cartwheels down Main Street. This sacred memory snaps Coach out of it, and the episode ends happily, with Coach announcing that from now on, carefree enjoyment will be the name of the game, and ordering the kids to belly up to the bar and accept free sodas “’til you drop!”
This is the kind of showcase too few great sitcom characters ever get. It gives us a chance to see a new side to Coach that rises organically out of the situation and that is dispelled, like a virus, at the end of the episode. I can’t say that I see this as one of Sam and/or Diane’s finest half-hours. Her bit about being anal retentive regarding the arrangement of her apron is stale, and several of Sam’s punchlines land with a thud. (In response to Carla’s asking if she can breast feed her baby in the bar: “I guess it’s cheaper than a piano player.”) The whole Carla subplot is mostly a gruesome distraction, though I did laugh when she explained that she didn’t breast feed her first four kids because “they went straight to raw meat.” And the Norm and Cliff stuff is fine. But this is Nicholas Colasanto’s episode to either screw up or ride triumphantly or like a Mardi Gras float, and I think he pulled off his fling as Mr. Hyde beautifully—which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise, since he’d spent most of his pre-Coach career playing roles that were closer to Mean Coach than Sweet Coach. (“You’re right, Sam,” he says at the end, “I was a lovely person.”) Anybody else have a problem with it?
NM: Every time I see one of these Coach-centric episodes, it kind of breaks my heart a little, because it makes me realize how much I undervalued Nicholas Colasanto when I was watching Cheers the first time (and even later in syndication). Not that I ever disliked Coach—a few of my favorite Cheers moments involve the character, including at least one that we’ll be getting to later this season. But the writers found a lot more to do with the “sweet, dumb guy” role once Woody Harrelson joined the cast. The more complicated Coach of “Manager Coach” didn’t come around often enough.
Of course it helps that the Coach storyline here is kept fairly concise; too much Mean Coach might’ve been hard to take. Instead we get all sorts of funny and/or sweet little moments, like the pre-credits singing of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” (gotta love it when the bar comes together like that), and the way Cliff begins quietly putting a tie on over his uniform as he and Norm head up to a candlelit dinner at Melville’s, and the return of Diane’s odd nervous habits via her apron-arranging. (Sorry Phil, the last item in that list cracked me up, perhaps because I can identify with it. I have similarly obsessive quirks. Like, for example, I can’t submit any article to my editors unless the word count is an even number or ends in five. Anything else? Well… that’s just irritating.)
DB: There’s not much to the B-story of Carla bringing her baby to work, but the very idea of a breastfeeding-on-the-job plot in the 1980s made me sit up and take notice. We forget how progressive those earlier decades were trying to be, preferring to think we’ve made all the advancements in the last few years. It’s enough to make you realize, with a twinge of depression, how little the discussion has moved forward since then. (Cf. contraception wars, GOP primaries, whatnot.) Yeah, the punchline is the most obvious one imaginable—the corner gang is disgusted by the thought of Carla whipping out a boob to feed her baby in front of them, but ogles the Playboy centerfold without shame—but it’s not hard to imagine a 2012 sitcom making much the same joke in much the same way.
Even though “Manager Coach” is far more ramshackle than “Old Flames,” it still has some beautifully written lines. Coach’s haranguing of his players, both in Lombardi mode (“Then he hit the bottle and he was through in less than a year—remember that!”) and more enlightened it’s-only-a-game mode (“Everybody’s gonna play, even the lousy ones, like you Pee-wee!”) walk an elegant tightrope between communication and character revelation. And Noel, although Diane’s OCD is eminently predictable, I don’t think you could ever introduce that sequence with a more glorious line than “Look at the laissez-faire attitude I have about my apron.” The artist who crafted that line is right up there with Michaelangelo and his two muscular guys, in my book.
RM: Coach was one of the first characters to get some character treatment in the first season, when his ugly-ducking daughter came to visit. That was a fine showcase for Coach, but in some ways this is more impressive. While “Coach’s Daughter” showed a deeper hue of an existing shade, here we get another color palette altogether. Colasanto just carries himself differently in this episode: He stands up straighter, his eyes dart back and forth more frequently, and he’s simply more present than at any other time in the show’s run. (Recall his opinion on blackouts from the last episode.)
What’s really remarkable though is how Colasanto transforms his personality without ever making it feel like anything that was transpiring was out of character. This isn’t like Andy Kaufman transforming from Latka Gravas into Vic Ferrari on Taxi. It’s a “What if?” scenario that actually gets to play out a short time, fueled by Coach’s past shortcomings and present insecurities. His speech about forgetting the Pledge of Allegiance shows how this angry, competitive side of him relates to his normally timid persona. Even if Coach doesn’t always know what he’s saying, it usually comes from a place of truth. Sometimes this happens when absentmindedly giving advice behind the bar. Sometimes this happens while screaming at little Corey Feldman.
TV: I like Ryan’s idea of this being a sort of alt-universe version of Coach that drops in to our universe for a little while, just long enough for us to see how different things would be with him around, before leaving and going back from whence he came. This isn’t a great episode of the show, but it holds together well, and much of that is thanks to Colasanto’s performance. He really makes you believe that this guy could shift personalities on a dime like that, and it doesn’t feel gimmicky or like a trick. This was an episode that started out with a vintage ’80s sitcom premise—doesn’t it seem like Uncle Joey did something like this about every other week on Full House?—then took it somewhere very different and very weird, where it might have been simple pabulum.
Not a lot is made out of the fact that Cheers was seen at the time as a show about lovable losers, but Ryan’s mention of Taxi put me in mind of that. Taxi was a show about people who’d made the wrong choice somewhere along the line, and it had a dark tone that would be almost unthinkable in most sitcoms today. That was the show where the Charles brothers had their first major job as executive producers, and it’s interesting to watch how they took that basic tone and modulated it for this show, reining it in just a bit while cranking up fizzier things, like romance and verbal wit. But this last string of episodes has been, essentially, a series of episodes in which the characters get to see alternate versions of themselves, who are perhaps happier but also aren’t the versions we know. The return to the status quo isn’t always presented as an unalloyed good, just as an acknowledgement that the chance to be that other person passed them by a while ago. And now they’re perfectly happy to sit around a bar.
MB: Maybe I’m the only one who enjoyed just about everything in this episode. I think Diane’s “pen-pen-pencil-pad” monologue is one of Shelley Long’s finest moments yet, and I love the slightly naughty, ongoing joke about whatever it is that happened between Sam and Diana last night. (Did he climb on top of her while she was sleeping?) I disagree with Ryan about the Norm-Cliff material; one of the things I like about Cheers is how deftly it interweaves its subplots, so that they feel less like separate story lines than “other stuff going on at the bar.” Plus, Norm and Cliff really have settled into a routine, which feels somehow comforting. I was also impressed by Carla’s breastfeeding advocacy, mostly because this piece is fresh in my mind (see case number one for most striking evidence of Donna’s point). As Ryan and Todd have pointed out, the way Colasanto plays Coach, you believe that there could be an angry obsessive lurking just below his dopey, sweet demeanor. Oddly, I think this combination of traits is fairly common in the real world—who hasn’t encountered a “nice guy” with a barely sublimated rage problem before?—but is hard to pull off in a fictional context. Mostly, though, I’m just preemptively sad knowing that we won’t get to see much more of Coach, who’s such a lovely, kind, masterfully played character. The image I can’t shake is Sam’s description of Coach: “His whole life is a can of SpaghettiOs and reruns of Baretta,” If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.
NM: The Cliff-Norm subplot felt undercooked, and probably only served to ensure that two increasingly popular characters weren’t underserved in the episode. I have dubbed this the “Modern Family problem” lately, where shows feel the need to include every character in every episode even if means including them in less than organic ways.
TV: Noel, I have no idea what you’re talking about with regard to word counts. If one of you doesn’t make the number of stray observations for this capsule odd, I will scream.
“Ah, Sumner. Frasier before there was a Frasier. One thing I find amusing about the Diane years is the way the show takes liberties with how much of a specialist an academic like Sumner would actually be. The references to Diane’s many majors in other episodes indicate that she never did manage to gain much focus. (and she is, in her own way, somewhat narrow: her idea of being an intellectual is to appreciate poetry and art, and to a lesser extent history, but she never makes so much as a passing reference to physics or mathematics, as though intelligent people would never have such interests) But Sumner is presented, like Frasier, as a kind of polymath (though, like Diane, minus the math). Case in point: he’s a “literature” professor, so he’s taught (and grown sick of) Tolstoy. Um… is he a RUSSIAN literature professor? Colleges tend not to have a “literature” department. There is an English Dept, Russian Dept, Spanish Dept, etc. There MAY have been some interdisciplinary department, or a major that allowed a student to focus on the canon, a “Great Books” approach . . but on the whole, Cheers seems unaware of that. Sumner is just, you know, a smart guy, so he knows about books. There’s no notion that someone at the level he’s meant to have reached would have a very narrow field of expertise — even if he did read and admire works outside it, he wouldn’t have TAUGHT them, and certainly not to the extent that he’d be sick of them.”
“Honestly, I think the show either fails to convey Danson as a not-smart guy or Sammy is meant to be smarter than he appears- I mean, the dude did read War and Peace in a week, and (I suspect) he understood it, which puts him well above the level of a lot of grad students. So while he and Diane might not have a lot of the same interests, I don’t think they’d have a hard time discussing the things they do have in common, which if nothing else includes virtually their whole working lives and social circle.
It makes sense that Sam would be particularly tongue tied at dinner with Sumner, as Sumner would naturally guide the conversation on to his own turf (and Sam was wiped out) but I don’t have a hard time imaging that under normal circumstances, he and Diane would be able to enjoy talking to one another.”
“In response to the question, “When’s the last time you really felt anything for someone on The Big Bang Theory?”, I can honestly say that it happens to me all the time.
Of course, the feeling is pure, white-hot loathing.”
Next week: Sam and Diane deal with words—specifically one that beings with the letter “L.” Also: Special guest star Dick Cavett!