Note: this post may contain spoilers for a TV pilot that’s more than 30 years old.
For reasons I can’t fully explain, I decided to start watching a sitcom that’s almost as old as me. Cheers. The entire series is on Netflix and, while I’d never previously watched an episode, I was already familiar with the premise: Sam owns a bar called Cheers. The bar’s populated by regulars like Norm and Cliff and some other folks I didn’t quite recall. And Danny DeVito’s wife, right? Right, Rhea Perlman. Cheers is an American cultural touchstone from the late 20th century, so if you’re at least my age you probably know a little about the show.
But really, the most recent connection was from a cartoon. I’m a huge Adventure Time fan, and while the show is mostly bonkers, it’s been marked by occasional moments of sincere emotional depth. The best of these moments, for me, shows a good man’s descent into madness in service of protecting a scared little girl. The Cheers theme song is used in the episode “Simon and Marcy” to illustrate both his attempt at comforting the child and later, his struggle to hold on to what makes him human:
It’s still a humorous episode of a cartoon ostensibly aimed at kids, but it’s also harrowing and ultimately tragic.
Anyway, I decided to check out the source material. And why not? I’ve heard and read good things from trusty sources. So over the weekend I finally watched the pilot episode. And I was hooked immediately.
In one short 25 minutes of television we get an avalanche of jokes, from one-liners to witty retorts, some physical comedy, humorous misunderstandings, and grade-A sarcasm. Every bit as funny as I could have hoped. The cast is terrific, too, from George Wendt and John Ratzenberger to Ted Danson and Shelley Long.
But the story in Cheers’ pilot is what really got me. An idealistic (if a bit stuck up) post-grad named Diane enters the bar with her fiancé on their way to the airport. The audience is introduced to the cast over the course of a long evening as Diane slowly realizes that she will not, in fact, be marrying this man the next day. Meanwhile she tries to resist her environment while everybody else draws her in until, ultimately, she acknowledges that it’s the perfect place for her.
Everybody in Cheers is there so they don’t have to face something outside and upstairs. Sam used to be an MLB pitcher but now, incongruously, runs the bar as a reforming alcoholic. Norm hints at an empty marriage. Carla is a single mother overwhelmed by her four children. None of these situations are as harrowing (or weird) as “Simon and Marcy”, but the bar is full of an ad hoc family that cares for each other, whether it’s overlooking employee tardiness or making sure an overindulgent regular gets a ride home. They’re just trying to hang on to what makes them human.
Our troubles are all the same.