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.
STAGE THREE: The Love Triangle, or “You know how I like to read between the lines.”
This is the part where I realize I might be a masochist, because in many ways, this is my favorite season of Cheers overall. And I know that a large part of that is because of Frasier Crane; when the will they/won’t they romance goes back to the “won’t they” part, throwing in some new person for kicks is the natural solution to keeping it interesting. It’s been six months since the breakup, and in that time, both Sam and Diane seem to have hit their bottom. Sam turns back to the bottle while Diane seeks professional help in sorting through the debris of their relationship. When she finally agrees to return to Cheers, it’s to ensure Sam gets back on the wagon…with a little help from Frasier. Her reluctance to return, and her physical inability to say Sam’s name for the majority of “Rebound” are definite indicators, but once it’s revealed that she’s involved with Frasier, it seems that she’s determined to close her chapter with Sam for good.
Of course, there’s the occasional exception. Well into the season, Sam and Diane finally start to confront what happened between them when they were together; and let’s be real, this probably would have been beneficial if it happened while they were still together, but better late than never. In “A Ditch in Time,” after he hears what Diane said about him in her group therapy sessions, Sam owns his role in a moment so incredibly human, it even takes Diane by surprise:
Sam: I’m sorry. I did the best I could when I was with you. You’re right, I have blind spots and I’m not a very good boyfriend, but I have never tried harder with any woman in my life. I mean, we had some bad times, but I tell you…the good times with you were some of the best of my life.
This show is trying to kill me, I’m sure of it.
It’s that moment that always felt like the turning point to me. Yes, you could posit that Diane started having doubts about Frasier in “Diane’s Allergy,” when her psychosomatic allergy to Frasier’s dog was a mask for the fact that she didn’t really want to move in with him. But the moment Sam apologizes, it’s like the terrible breakup and the “cruel for the sake of cruel” mentality that plagued the end of their relationship are pushed to the side, and she once again sees the things in him that made her fall in the first place. It’s why she’s so ready to run off with him for the weekend in “Behind Every Great Man,” when she overhears Sam making arrangements to take another woman to Maine and believes he’s actually talking about her. I believe it’s this development—more so than her usual tendencies to overanalyze everything—that makes her hesitant to join Frasier in his six-month stay in Italy.
But she still calls Sam often, racking up one hell of a long-distance bill. They’re still joking the way they always have. There’s still a chance, and that’s all Diane needs to call Sam to stop her from saying yes to Frasier’s proposal. And even when that fails, she still clings to that last bit of a chance as she makes one more call to Sam in the hopes that he doesn’t pick up, that he’s actually on a plane to Italy to stop the wedding. And he is on a plane…but how anticlimactic is it to just let Diane know that? In a moment that probably wouldn’t happen in 2017, Diane gets Sam’s answering machine, complete with an outgoing message that makes it seem like he picked up the phone. She hangs up before she realizes it’s a trick, and rushes off to get married to Frasier while Sam’s in the air, the season ending before we get a resolution. I am so grateful for my Nick at Nite education, because I can’t imagine what it must have been like to wait through summer hiatus to get to the next episode. Honestly, by the finale, my notes for this season were just the result of an extended keyboard smash, because GODDAMMIT SHOW, why do I have to feel all the things? And why do I have to love it so much?
STAGE FOUR: Slow Burn, or “If this is hell, I’m not that unhappy.”
Look, Ma, no wedding!
When a will they/won’t they romance narrowly avoids death by marriage to someone outside the relationship, what’s next? Apparently a lot of denial that snowballs. Frasier’s not in the picture anymore—romantically, anyway—so this season basically consists of Sam and Diane skirting around the fact that one of them called off their wedding while the other flew to another continent in order to stop said wedding. Or…skirting around it as much as they could with Frasier hanging around. At this point it’s a question of when things are going to explode again, but it’s not like these two will face up to it any time soon; it’s going to take a few major pushes in the right direction.
“The Triangle” drops some greatly needed truth bombs courtesy of Frasier (“Sam and Diane, you are now and have always been hopelessly in—I guess the word for it is—love, and unfortunately for you, like it or not, you always will be.”), while “Fear Is My Co-Pilot” does the same thing courtesy of the threat of death via fiery plane crash (Kim yelled at me a lot for this one. She yelled at me a lot throughout her first viewing of these seasons. I really like dragging people down with me). But between Frasier’s shouting, Diane’s frantic regrets about going to Europe and Sam’s lamentations of not marrying her when he had the chance, we still don’t get to the point we should be at. We get close during “Diane Chambers Day” as she gets swept up in the grand gestures Sam appears to be responsible for (THAT KISS ON THE FLOOR THOUGH), but Diane is hesitant to rush into anything for fear of ruining it. And since no one cares to remember their own damn history, the assumption that opportunity will always stick around holds them back, because of course it does.
It’s the season finale, when Sam becomes involved with Councilor Janet Eldridge, when the truth starts to sink in (this show really knew how to end a season, didn’t it?). Unlike previous finales, where Sam’s about to lose his chance with Diane because of his brother or Frasier, the tables turn and Diane feels the threat of Sam settling down with Janet. And to be fair, it’s not an empty threat; aside from Diane, this is the first time we’ve seen Sam in a relationship lasting longer than a weekend all series. Sam seems to go along with all the things Janet wants—including thinking about the possibility of marriage—things that will effectively rid his life of Diane for good. But Diane is never one to back down. With a little one-sided water gun fight (season two callback, anyone?) during Janet’s press conference, and the aftermath having the potential to derail his relationship, suddenly Sam has some major decisions to make, all culminating in his picking up the phone in his empty bar and proposing to the woman on the other end, leaving the question of who she is up in the air.
But not really, because come on. Like he was REALLY going to become Mr. Janet Eldridge.
Here’s the thing with the will they/won’t they sitcom romances that followed Cheers: the characters involved usually make it all the way until the end of the show, which leads to a greater possibility of them ending the series together. But with Shelley Long making her exit at the end of this season, this love story needed to wrap up cleanly, however it was going to end. And exactly how did it end? By ripping my goddamn heart out.
But…you know…I guess there was some stuff that came before that.
This season boils down to three major things for me: the almost-engagements, the actual engagement, and the “Have a good life” heard ‘round the world…or at the very least, heard ‘round Boston. First up: the time that Sam proposed to Diane. And that other time he proposed. And that other time. But I get Diane’s point. Think about it: Janet and Sam literally JUST broke up before he proposed to Diane. It’s kind of hard to think of that as anything other than a rebound reflex, so Diane’s red flag is totally valid. It’s natural that Sam wouldn’t want to face rejection again and put impending marriage on the backburner. Of course, he could never put it off forever; sure, that patented stubbornness stalls him, but deep down he knows it’s what he wants (I mean, he DID save all of Diane’s love letters from their courtship, and kept them safe in a lock box in his office. COME ON). But when the next proposal happens, Diane admits she helped it along with a little emotional blackmail, and rejects him because of the situation she put them in…which, again, is totally valid, because why would you want to start a lifetime commitment with a foundation like that? All of this sets the stage for an actual engagement reminiscent of when they got together at the end of the first season (who said an engagement couldn’t result from a court hearing? Yay sitcoms!). From then on, we see Sam and Diane plan for their nuptials, pick out a home, and journey on to their wedding with happily ever after on the horizon.
All the immaturity over the years, and all of the impulsiveness for better or worse, are shed when Sam stops the wedding so Diane can work towards her dreams. He wants her to take her shot, like he did years ago with the Red Sox; he wants her to aim for success, even if it means leaving him behind. You can tell in that moment just how much he loves her, how much he’s loved her all along. Even with Diane’s insistence that she’ll be back in six months, Sam’s resigned himself to the fact that he will likely never see her again, in her quest for bigger and better things. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s nothing compared to the final minute. I would have been devastated by Diane’s departure regardless; she’s my favorite character, and this is my ship, what do you expect? But I think I might have taken it better if Sam’s vision of the two of them as a couple who grew old together didn’t DANCE TO AN INSTRUMENTAL VERSION OF “WHAT’LL I DO” AT THE END. SERIOUSLY, WHY KICK ME WHEN I’M DOWN? Cue the ugly crying, the emotions, and the awe over a sitcom being capable of so much more than punchlines.
So, that’s it? We’re done? Diane goes off to finish her novel, imaginary elderly Sam and Diane dance into the night, I give myself (more than) a few moments to recover from this show decimating me. And then everyone goes about their business. Right? RIGHT?!
Wrong. So. Very. Wrong.
BONUS STAGE: Rehashing the past, or “I think we both know.”
I get it, you guys. It’s the series finale. One last hurrah in front of millions before Sam locks up the bar for good. If there was any way possible to include Diane in that, then it needed to be done, because she’s such an important part of the show. And god, did they find a way to include her. After six years of radio silence, we basically get the Sam and Diane story all over again, but this time, it’s the Cliffs Notes version. Diane returns to Boston, and once she and Sam both shed the fake spouses and children they used to cover up the fact that they’re still single, they get back together and decide to get married, with Sam leaving the bar and joining Diane in her new home of Los Angeles. Once they’re on the plane and have a little time to think due to the flight’s delay, they think it best to toss their plans and go their separate ways. Sound familiar?
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a part of me that wanted them to take the plunge in the end, unrealistic as it might have been.
What are your thoughts on Sam and Diane? How well do you think the will they/won’t they relationships that followed hold up? Come find me in the comments before I cave and start reading War and Peace.