Ted Danson and Shelley Long have ruined me for life and I thank them kindly for it, because the relationship between Cheers’ Sam Malone and Diane Chambers is a thing of glory. That’s not to say I wasn’t susceptible to other sitcom romances; I DID grow up while Friends dominated the pop culture landscape, after all. But for whatever reason, the connection between Sam and Diane was the one that made me realize just how invested it’s possible to be in the romantic life of two starkly opposite characters struggling to get it right.
The tight arc of their romance certainly owes itself in part to Shelley Long’s departure from the show at the end of the fifth season, which I’m actually fine with. Would I have liked to keep seeing Diane with her nose in a book at the corner of the bar and quoting Schopenhauer as she hands off a customer’s beer? OF COURSE. Give me all the Diane Chambers you have. But if the fifth season had ended with a wedding—or essentially anything else had Shelley stayed—what would we be left with after that? There wouldn’t have been anywhere to go; either the arc would plateau or they would have been forced to retrace the steps they took before, and it would have been upsetting to see that relationship become a shell of its former self. By the end of the fifth season, Sam and Diane didn’t have a chance to really get stale, and Shelley went on to a movie career that may not have been as commercially successful as she deserved, but certainly makes me very happy; I think about her “NINE YEARS OF BALLET, ASSHOLE” scene in Outrageous Fortune on a regular basis, and I’m okay with being that person.
Each of Cheers’ first five seasons plays like a different stage in Sam and Diane’s romance, and, in a bigger sense, the concept of the will they/won’t they relationship. These years are the blueprint for the sitcoms that follow, the guideline for a trope that has been and will continue to be stretched out, compressed, and altered every which way. But this romance is classic. It’s the precedent. It’s the one that holds the biggest part of my heart and refuses to let go. So why don’t we buckle up for a ride through the five stages of will they/won’t they, courtesy of an ex-jock and a perpetual post grad? Because easy is boring, simple is easy, and crying at comedy is a thing that happens sometimes, so I might as well deal with it.
STAGE ONE: Initial Attraction, or “How long have you denied that burning desire?”
Every will they/won’t they romance has to start somewhere! In my previous post on Cheers, I mentioned how the spark of Sam and Diane is visible in the pilot episode before growing throughout the rest of the first season, and it’s such a treat to watch curiosity turn into something deeper as they size each other up. It’s obvious that Diane needs to figure out how to adapt to her new environment, but she’s not the only one hyper aware of new life developments; Sam’s also trying to figure out exactly how to adapt to interacting with someone like Diane on a daily basis. As soon as Diane puts on that apron, it’s like they both have something to prove to the other, and it’s that stubbornness in both of them that really ignite their back and forth into something special and entertaining as all get out. They each know there’s something there, but they’ll be damned if they’re the one who admits it first.
The way they warm up to each other, though, shows its tender side in a number of wonderful ways. An early favorite comes during “Sam at Eleven.” Diane is wary of Sam agreeing to an interview with his astonishingly sleazy sportscaster friend (side note: Diane calling Sam an ex-jock strap is one of the greatest things I will ever hear in my life), and when his friend ditches the interview for what he saw as a bigger get, she’s the one to comfort Sam. Sure, she body slams him into the pool table when he tries to kiss her, but once they get over that little mishap, Diane insists on hearing the Baltimore story that Sam didn’t get to tell in the interview, sharing this beautifully private moment where they connect without butting heads. The standout moment for me, though, comes during “Let Me Count the Ways,” when Diane finally tells Sam exactly why her childhood cat meant so much to her. And despite his feeble protest to the contrary, he feels for her immensely. He shows her the only real sympathy she gets that day, and in that moment, it means everything.
Still, Sam is not the kind of guy Diane is used to being with, and Sam isn’t used to committing to much of anything, so why don’t we make Sam’s brother that kind of guy, and throw him into the mix for a hot second to kick things into high gear? It isn’t until Derek Malone makes his entrance (although we never actually see him) that everything falls into perspective, but the stubbornness that makes their dynamic so great is alive and well. And when Diane’s about to run off with the invisible Malone brother, it’s that stubbornness that causes the fight of a lifetime. Had these characters been played by anyone else, I’m not sure that mix of disgust and lust could have been as effectively conveyed, and I definitely don’t think the inevitable payoff would have been as rewarding or as believable. All at once, they confront their romantic feelings for each other, their distaste, their impulses, and their doubts. And then, when their frustrations are at the boiling point, of course that’s when they finally do what everyone was expecting them to do.
STAGE TWO: A Contest of Wills, or “No, I said that I wouldn’t call you stupid while we’re being intimate.”
Well, look at you, Sam! You got the girl. And the girl will have none of your shit.
Any will they/won’t they romance worth its salt won’t be an easy one once they finally get together, and I think we have “Power Play” to blame for that (probably also common sense, but let me just have this one). Honestly, the season two premiere does an excellent job of setting the tone for their season-long endeavor into this well-intentioned but spectacularly flawed romance. Whatever weirdly aggressive stuff that Sam thinks will work wonders (but how?) fails, because Diane knows how to fight fire with fire, and does it delightfully through the fake call to the police after Sam’s little breaking-and-entering stunt. Because who said that patented back and forth had to stop just because they got together? And it’s great to see that—for the time being, at least—they’re really trying to make it work. Diane’s joy over her water gun fight with Sam at the beginning of “Sumner’s Return” is a joy she wouldn’t have dared to experience a year ago. Meanwhile, Sam has a hard time telling Diane in earnest that he loves her, because after years of using “I love you” as a line, he suddenly finds it has meaning.
Somehow, they make it through still intact, but that in no way means they’re going to make an effort to clean up the mess they made. From this point, their path to the season finale is laden with deception and childish games, setting the stage for some pretty frank revelations at the season’s end. When we reach “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Sam’s main motivation for doing anything seems to be how angry it will make Diane, which ultimately leads him to be against her being painted by Phillip Semenko. You knew she was going to do it anyway, but Semenko’s observations and insistence that Diane’s soul is suffering are striking, especially since Diane tries to put that sadness out of her mind and not let it affect her. And it isn’t until she sits for Semenko that it finally starts to sink in:
Diane: I admit Sam and I are very different people. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s not so good. Sometimes he makes me cry. Sometimes he hurts me and seems to like it.
Up until now, she’s made excuses for her relationship, but it’s this moment when the light finally starts to fade and the effort starts to seem pointless to her. She doesn’t end her speech by attempting to defend Sam as she once might have; she just lets the truth hang there. It’s the reason the break up—despite each of them getting a few jokes in—hurts, even if you were prepared for it, because (let’s face it) it had to happen eventually. Diane is completely defeated by the circumstances at this point and unwilling to fight (“My rage is gone. Maybe everything is gone.”), which is more upsetting than any passionate argument she could have cooked up. Sam, on the other hand, tries to incite a fight as his way of holding on to what they have; when that fight finally happens, he laughs it off like it’s their usual behavior until he realizes it’s not. And to top it all off, once Diane leaves the bar, they both begin to turn back to try to salvage the relationship before stopping themselves, proving that you don’t automatically fall out of love the instant a relationship is over.
While I can’t pinpoint my favorite Cheers moment of all time, the moment Sam finally looks at Semenko’s portrait of Diane is definitely in my top five. Because their dynamic has, on some level, always been one where they constantly push each other’s buttons, I don’t think Sam fully realized the damage he was doing towards the end. And that’s not to say that Diane is faultless in this (ahem, “Fortune and Men’s Weight”); neither of them really knew how to be in a relationship with someone like the other. But that moment when Sam tears the paper wrapping away, and in an instant sees the pain that Semenko captured on canvas, his “Wow” of realization says everything he never could before. It leaves me with chills every time.