This I know for sure: the Cheers pilot is the best sitcom pilot I have ever seen.
Let me back up a bit.
I was eleven years old when I took my first venture into the world of Cheers and its inhabitants (I am forever indebted to you, Nick at Nite), and I never wanted to leave. It wasn’t because I knew anything at all about bar culture—I was eleven—but because it felt like a place that was warm and friendly and welcoming of just about anybody. And when I found out there was an actual Cheers in Boston you could go to, I wanted desperately to go there; I still do, though imagine my disappointment back then when I realized it would be at least a decade before I could legally do it. As I grew up, my love for this show evolved into something deeper, as I started relating to certain characters in ways I never could before, and as adult responsibilities made me appreciate a place to take solace that much more. But in order for the show to achieve that lasting effect, it had to have that warmth, that friendliness, right from the start.
Luckily, it did.
I’ve always felt that the best sitcom pilots are the ones that don’t feel like pilots, that don’t overtly seem like they have to get all the introductory stuff out of the way before they can really dive into the meat of the show. And that’s the kind of pilot “Give Me a Ring Sometime” had to be in order to pull off its entire concept. When you step foot inside a bar like that, you expect to be immediately thrown into the middle of a sea of camaraderie, even if you’re not a regular. You want to feel like you’re part of that world. And in order for a show’s pilot to have that feel, it has to master the tricks that make you believe you’ve known these people all along, that you’ve been coming around this place for as long as you can remember. The plot of this episode plays like one of those crazy bar stories: a woman makes a pit stop at Cheers with her fiancé before flying off to their spur-of-the-moment wedding, only to be abandoned by him under the pretense of getting his grandmother’s wedding ring back from his ex-wife, and ultimately taking a job at the bar she was left in. And as you’re watching, you know you’re witnessing something special. So take a seat at the bar, grab a pint, and settle in.
This is how you unleash a creative vision onto an unsuspecting audience.
“Sometimes you want to go…”
Before I get into the heart of this episode, it should be noted how Cheers wonderfully romanticizes the notion of the cozy neighborhood bar without completely glorifying public drinking. It looks so inviting, to where—once I turned twenty-one—I longed to find a Cheers of my own. I’ve come close a couple times (and really, the closest I think I’ll ever get is the coffee shop I go to every morning for my caffeine fix and a little relaxation before the day starts), but this show hit on something special, and it showed right from the start.
Literally, from the start. As in the first second of the pilot.
Maybe it’s because I circle through the first five seasons of this series constantly and have had a lot of time to think about it because I’ve seen this episode about thirty million times (and that’s a conservative estimate), but I think there’s something beautiful in how the pilot opens. That exterior shot of the bar panning down the stairs as you’re about to enter this new environment. Sam in his solitude as he prepares for another work day. The music that starts small and then grows. All of it makes it feel like you’re ramping up to something wonderful. It’s like a calm before the storm moment, but the storm in this case is just really good comedy.
More important than that, though, is the way Sam walks through his bar, straightening one of the wall hangings and running his hand along the wood before unloading that box of coffee mugs with care. You can just tell how much he cares about this place, and how much effort he puts into making it feel like a second home for those who walk through the doors. Because in a way, this is his second home, too, with his employees and his regulars as a makeshift family. You want to know that he’s as invested in the friendly atmosphere of Cheers as its regulars are, and in this moment, you’re sure of it.
Of course, part of the fun of a neighborhood bar comes in those trivial debates and conversations that seem like the most important thing in the world at that very moment, and the easy, comfortable feeling of contributing your two cents. Cheers absolutely nailed it with the sweatiest movie ever made debate. It’s so much fun to watch it snowball from Carla’s offhand observation to Norm shouting his answers across the bar to other regulars chiming in with their opinions. The only time I even barely tolerated Sumner was when he offered up Cool Hand Luke. There aren’t a whole lot of places you can feel free enough to do that.
While I’m at it, can we talk about the theme song for a second? Remember the golden age of sitcom theme songs? Before binge watching and television becoming more cinematic in quality all but killed people’s desire for a slightly cheesy, definitely catchy opening sequence? When theme songs sometimes actually made it onto the Billboard charts? When I couldn’t help but sing along every single episode? (Wait, that last part still happens. Disregard that.) I’d hardly call “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” cheesy; in fact, I think it’s one of the best theme songs out there. And that’s the point. A theme song is supposed to set the tone for the series at hand, and the Cheers opening sounds like a neighborhood bar should feel, again romanticizing it before we even see it in full swing. If you do a little searching on iTunes, you’ll find an EP of all the songs that were pitched as the Cheers theme before they landed on the one that accompanies all of those great old-timey images during the opening credits (which fit with each of the characters these actors play SO WELL). The other options aren’t terrible, but they feel too much like they were written for a musical rather than a network sitcom; the original idea, “People Like Us” actually was written for a musical the songwriters were working on. Still, it’s fun to listen to what might have been and chart the path to that perfect encapsulation.
“Don’t you know who this is?”
One of the biggest problems with sitcom pilots comes in trying to introduce a new batch of characters to the world, and convincing everyone that they should spend half an hour every week with them. Sometimes you can pull it off, but sometimes you can really miss the mark. Let’s take the pilot episode of Will & Grace for a moment. I love Will & Grace with all my heart; it got me through my awkward teens and led me to some of the best friends I have ever known. What has always bugged me about the pilot episode, however, is the way Karen was introduced. Granted, I’m sure it was a challenge to find a way to make everyone get on board with an Upper East Side socialite working as an interior designer’s office assistant. But take a look at the phone exchange between Will and Grace seconds before Karen makes her grand entrance:
Grace: She’s late again.
Will: Oh, fire her already.
Grace: I’m not going to fire Karen. Her social contacts keep my business afloat.
Will: Why does she even work? I mean, isn’t she worth, like, a gazillion dollars?
Grace: She feels working keeps her down to earth.
This always felt clunky to me—more like a pitch than an introduction—especially after the brilliant way Will, Grace, and their dynamic were presented at the top of the episode. So how do you introduce everyone properly, even if someone falls outside the characteristic average? You do what Cheers did. You make the outsider the catalyst.
Enter Diane Chambers.
If you read my post on the Brady Bunch movies, or my collaboration with my amazing writing partner Maggie on Troop Beverly Hills, you know I make no secret of my complete and utter adoration for Shelley Long. I think she’s a queen, and this is the role that made her gain queen status in my heart. Similarly, my love for Diane is real, strong and deep; I will never understand the hate some people have for her, and I will defend her until the end of my days…but I’ll save that for another time. From the moment she picked up the phone while Sam was in his office, I was invested. I love this woman for walking into a strange place for the first time ever and answering a phone that wasn’t hers to answer; it’s an incredibly small yet early indicator of her confidence and her determination to do whatever she puts her mind to. And that part of her only thrived once Sumner was out of the picture.
By the way, I feel like this goes without saying, but I can’t help myself: Sumner Sloan is a dick…like an astonishingly massive dick, to the point where I don’t even get what Diane saw in him and obscenities are shouted every time he shows up in subsequent episodes. Fine whatever, he’s intelligent, but my god, is that man condescending to her. How he thinks calling the woman he’s supposedly going to marry a child is a compliment is beyond me. And that’s not even covering the fact that he ABANDONED DIANE IN A RANDOM BAR TO PURSUE HIS EX-WIFE. WHO RAISED YOU, SIR?! Okay, I’m done.
For the purposes of “Give Me a Ring Sometime,” Diane is perfect. Sitting at the bar with a book in one hand and a pen in the other, she is—aside from being 100% my aesthetic—immediately set apart from the rest. In a bar that will soon be filled with regulars who have heard each other’s stories time and time again, she is a fresh pair of ears. And in a bar filled with sports fans, she is clueless about the subject, and therefore, about Sam’s past. Through Norm, Coach, Carla, and eventually Mayday Malone himself, we learn right along with Diane about his career as a relief pitcher for the Red Sox, and the drinking problem that derailed it. The great thing about this show, though, is that it doesn’t dwell on it in a manner that would depress an audience in any way.
It would have been easy to focus heavily on Sam’s alcoholism, which was written into the show in an effort not to glorify excessive drinking. A recovering alcoholic owning a bar? Were this pilot in any other hands, that could have been the gimmick that made this show a one-trick pony. Cheers definitely addresses it in future episodes (if you want to be fairly devastated for a hot second, watch season one’s “Endless Slumper”), but to put any more focus on it would be missing the point of the show. The Mayday of “Give Me a Ring Sometime” is a Mayday who put his life back together, who is settled and successful in his newfound career.
It’s impossible not to immediately love Coach. Everyone else might be one step ahead of him—one of my favorite interactions comes when Diane asks, “Where is your bathroom?” and he responds without missing a beat, “Next to my bedroom”—but his slightly different perspective on things and his indecisiveness are incredibly endearing. Through Diane, we learn that he used to coach Sam during his baseball years, but the way he wavers between opinions in the debate over the Patriots’ new linebacker gives you an amazing idea of what you’re in for.
Carla does a pretty good job of introducing herself as she storms into the bar, and if this doesn’t make you immediately jump on board with Rhea Perlman, I don’t know what will:
Carla: Okay, I’m late! My kid was throwing up all over the place! If you don’t buy that excuse, I’m quittin’, ‘cause I don’t work for a man who has no compassion for my children. And it doesn’t look like you’re exactly swamped here. I’m usually very punctual. You don’t like it, that’s fine because this ain’t such a great job to begin with! I’m gonna change.
Sam: Think I was too hard on her?
Let her stick her nose into Diane’s situation, though, and you end up getting a little background on her ex-husband and the circumstances of her divorce. You also get a sneak peek of the dynamic between Diane and Carla. Their different backgrounds pave the way for them to be at odds most of the time, but every once in a while, you see a hint of compassion creep into their interactions, whether Diane sympathizes with Carla as she learns about how her husband left her, or Carla tries to show solidarity with Diane when Sumner still hasn’t returned after leaving for a second time (“Hey, cheer up, cookie. He may have been in an accident.”).
Then there’s NORM! (I’m obligated to say it like that, right?) The epitome of the bar regular, everyone shouts his name the second he enters the room (because everybody knows it, get it?), automatically walking towards a specific stool at the bar, with a few quips about the general struggle of life in his pocket. You even get a pretty good idea of who Cliff is with his little-known facts about sweat glands, and that really wasn’t something that needed to be knocked out right off the bat; John Ratzenberger wasn’t listed as a series regular until season two of the show. These characters are so richly portrayed from the beginning, making the bar, and the show, that much more inviting.
The Student and the Magnificent Pagan Beast
Let it be known that I ship Sam and Diane and I ship them hard. I shipped them before I even knew shipping was a thing, let alone a thing lots of people did on the regular; you never forget your first. To this day, I can’t get through certain episodes of Cheers without very vocal and slightly flailing reactions to moments that are heavy on the Sam and Diane feels (god help the person brave enough to watch “I Do, Adieu” with me). Love them or hate them, they make up the precedent-setting sitcom romance, and it was the series’ main focus up until Shelley Long’s departure. So it’s only natural that a few glimpses of what’s to come weasel their way into the pilot.
I’d be lying if I said my years of flailing haven’t colored my viewings of this episode, but it’s undeniable that these two are intrigued by each other from the start. Diane could have easily sold Sam out with that phone call, but she saves him with what is quite possibly my favorite fake excuse ever. Even though Diane figures out pretty early on that Sam’s a bit of a womanizer, she quickly discovers a more human side to him as the episode rolls on. The glances they give each other as Sumner still has not returned, the way Sam is the only one who doesn’t pretend like he wasn’t watching her pleas to Sumner to stay when he finally did come back. You can tell he feels for her, and wants to let her know that there’s at least one person in her corner.
And the more they get to know each other, the more they seem to trust each other. Diane finally wears down enough to spill her story to Sam, while Sam is comfortable enough to let her know how he really feels about Sumner. The fight they have over Sumner is classic Sam and Diane, as you learn fairly quickly while making your way through the series. Both are a little stubborn, both are convinced they’re right, and the back and forth is amazing before it gets extremely real with Sam telling Diane what pretty much everyone guessed a long time ago: Sumner and his ex are well on their way to Barbados by now.
But I think the biggest indicator of their impending relationship lies in Sam’s offer to have Diane work for him. Because let’s face it: usually people aren’t going to just drop a paying job in your lap. Sam had no obligation to her, and could just as easily have wished her well and left it at that. But he’s invested now, wanting to do right by her. And, once Diane’s laughing fit subsides, she surprises herself by rattling off Carla’s lengthy order, realizing that Sam’s idea may not be so bad after all. A big part of me believes that if she didn’t trust Sam, she still would have been wary of the job offer. But he saw her through a particularly low moment in her life and didn’t check out; considering the main guy in her life before this offer was on the table, I’d say that gains major points. And in true shipper fashion, my heart melts into a puddle when Sam wishes her luck on serving her first customers.
Thus begins a five-season rollercoaster ride I’ve never figured out how to get off of…but to be fair, I never really tried.
A Series in a (Parenthetical) Nutshell
I’ve been trying to rein in my Diane love (which I’m pretty sure I failed at, and I don’t think I’m sorry), but I couldn’t possibly write about this episode without mentioning her speech to her supposed first customers ever. I know it’s the setup to what is frankly a killer final joke, but its poignancy should not be forgotten. With a smile on her face, she walks over to this silent couple, and leads them to a table, saying:
Diane: You know, I should tell you parenthetically that you are the first people that I have ever served. In fact, if anyone had told me a week ago that I would be doing this, I would have thought them insane. When Sam, over there, offered me the job, I laughed in his face. But then it occurred to me: here I am, I’m a student. Not just in an academic sense, but a student of life. And where better than here to study life in all its many facets? People meet in bars. They part. They rejoice. They suffer. They come here to be with their own kind.
Isn’t that the whole point of Cheers? In this, Diane essentially gives this place its mission statement, completely summing up the show (and, with the meet/part/rejoice/suffer spiel, inadvertently tracing the path of her relationship with Sam, but I digress). For the entire episode, we’ve seen people walk in who feel somewhat defeated by life: Diane jilted by Sumner, Carla being a single mom trying to feed four kids on a cocktail waitress salary, the regular at the end of the night thanking Sam for letting him vent over his beer as he slips his wedding ring back on his finger. This is their safe space, where they’re free to feel however they feel. And in turn, we as an audience feel as though this is our safe space, too. It’s why I’ve loved this show for fourteen years and counting, and it’s why—especially on a particularly awful day—I always find myself gravitating towards this Boston watering hole for an episode or two (or six). Because it’s good to know that there’s a place where you can rest if you’re weary, that there’s a place where you don’t feel so alone in the world.
It’s good to know that there’s a place where everybody knows your name.
What are your thoughts about the pilot? Or the show in general? Is there anyone out there who loves Diane Chambers the way I do (please say yes)? Come find me in the comments. The first round is on me.