Save for certain varieties of romantic trysts, we like to think our relationships — especially our friendships — are built to last. We don’t enter into them so that they can end. Our aim is that they’ll remain present, adding to our lives whatever it was that drew us to that relationship in the first place.
I’m talking about good faith relationships, not the variety with a plotting component: “I’ll befriend this person so I’m better positioned for the promotion at work,” for instance. A true friend — as anyone who hasn’t had one knows — is a great rarity. A true friend for life is a concept that may feel as if it were bedfellows with the impossible. Too much simply happens, whether we wish it to or not — underline that second bit — that changes our worlds and the worlds within us. A friendship is a vessel that travels through storms. A mast may fall, sails are shredded to ribbon, yet the craft emerges into calmer waters and continues her journey, and we’ll see about the next storm later.
The truth is, we have our friends — again, when we’re lucky enough to have them — for circumscribed periods of our lives. Those periods may last for decades, but the friend you had at nine-years-old and then through high school — your first and best bestie — is unlikely to be your friend at 42 after your first marriage didn’t work out and you long ago moved far away, while they nestled down in the next town over from the one in which you both grew up. “Such is life” is a phrase that exists for litanies of truths, but perhaps none more than the realities of friendship.
Growth can be the enemy of friendship, ironically enough. If two people don’t grow to similar degrees and in the same healthy, productive ways, friendship becomes an exercise in nostalgia. You rehash the old days. You feel connected to a part of you that you cherished, a time you cherished, a security you cherished, which no longer exists. The friend is not a friend anymore. Yes, you could ask a favor of them. They won’t knife you in the back. But they’re a symbol now, and true friendship is never primarily symbolic. True friendship has a time card, and it punches that card and goes to work.
We can be good friends without being a part of a friendship. We should try to be good friends to strangers. The next person we meet. The older woman downstairs who can’t lug her cart up to her apartment. The directives of the concept of friendship are complicated that way. We must be good friends to ourselves. No one else is going to be your friend if you’re not your own friend first, and that may be the hardest friendship of all to bring to fruition.
But true, partnered friendship looks like two people working in tandem for the shared benefit and well-being of both individuals. I think of it like the blues. The blues is beneath so much in music. Jazz, gospel, heavy metal, country, rock-and-roll. Even when we don’t single it out, the blues is there. The foundation. Friendship is a foundation; it undergirds romance, parenthood, filial bonds, sibling affinities, and this connection between me, this writer, and you, this reader. And if there is one thing that humans could install in a time capsule such that aliens might open it one day long after we are gone, I think it would be friendship that would most blow their minds and cause them to say, “Well, here was the best of a race that bungled an awful lot of things, but they somehow got this right on occasion.”
I was a massive fan of the sitcom Cheers from very early on, though I was a little kid, and certainly not a barfly, lest you counted the times my father would let me have a sip of his beer on hot summer days. We lived in the suburbs of Boston, a city I romanticized in a low-key way that the sitcom itself did. People there were passionate. They rooted for their sports teams — especially the Red Sox — with an immemorial ardor that was as if it went back eons before the game of baseball was itself invented. I was fairly certain New Yorkers were different and, to be honest, less admirable.
Boston was big but not too big. Its skyline wasn’t hubristic. Buildings didn’t have to reach the clouds — they could simply be arrayed interestingly and look cool from a perch at Fenway Park on a day when Jim Rice smacked one over the Monster. The place was as historical as American history got. I read the writings of Ben Franklin as a boy of seven or eight, and I loved knowing that he was from Boston. He wouldn’t have been the same if he came from Ramapo.
Yet it also seemed so unlikely that a city could have a show all about a bar that was pretty much in the middle of it, and this show would go out to a national audience. You couldn’t do that with Tulsa. You could set a show there, sure, but it couldn’t really be about it. I understood that Cheers was about Boston. No flinching: Boston, Boston, Boston. Watching that first season, though — which transpires entirely within that now-famous bar — I realized in my fumbling, kid way, that Cheers was also about — and more about — friendship. And, more still, the nature of friendship, and how friendship functions in those periods and storms of life in which the masts remain intact and at least one workable sail hangs aloft because it’s likely not always going to be that way.
Which is not to devalue friendship’s importance and power, despite its evanescent nature. Or maybe it is because of that evanescent nature — which brings with it a glimmer of foreknowledge that we will be vulnerable to loss that will almost surely come — that friendship is as special as it is. We think it asks a lot of us in a particular way — to be something dependable and strong for someone else. But that’s just one of the challenges friendship poses, another being, Can you give and be willing to lose, while retaining — and increasing — a will to give again?
The pilot of Cheers aired September 30, 1982, and not many people watched a show — the start of a pattern for this season — that would become a television hit and a television evergreen. What I mean by the latter is that if you partake in TV, you’ve seen Cheers, as deathless a sitcom as any. Cheers doesn’t go away. You’re bound to encounter it at various stages throughout your life. Cheers inevitably appears at the end of the various blocks of our experiences, and in we pop for a quick libation or two, before resuming our route.
Place is central to Cheers. The pub itself — what Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers terms a hostelry when she buttonholes Dick Cavett, who himself had stopped for a drink — is a friend to the people within it who are friends. In the pilot, we meet Norm (George Wendt), Cliff (John Ratzenberger), Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), Carla (Rhea Perlman). A show typically takes a season to discover itself. Watch the first season, for example, of The Andy Griffith Show, and it doesn’t quite work. Andy isn’t so much wise and soft-edged — but firm in the right ways — as he is a touch grating, and a bit of a rube.
We can’t say the same about the Cheers pilot. From that first episode — and this may be the perfect pilot — the show is fully formed. The characters are nailed. The atmosphere is as well. The episode starts with Sam Malone (Ted Danson) — ex-relief pitcher of the Red Sox — emerging from the pool room into the main hall of the bar, which is how I think of it. A festal place, but also where people in pain and need may come together. Not necessarily colossal pain, and often not; but the pain of the grind of life, and being ground down by what life brings.
Sam walks as if he’s a man who will know happiness that day, and understands this. The reasons are not particular. They are based in opportunity. To be surprised. To catch up with a buddy. To feel a part of a community. All while making a living.
The cold open has featured Malone turning down a kid with a fake ID. It’s a tasty, well-written comedic vignette, and it also establishes the idea that people will come to this bar at all hours. You sense that it’s the middle of the day, but the mid-day patrons don’t visit when they do to get bombed. Their motives rest elsewhere. There’s an effective crossover when the kid from the cold open — who is thwarted in his attempt to be served — is seen departing the bar after we come back from the commercial break. He passes Diane, crossing the threshold of the bar for the first time, and her fiancé, a total tool of a man in Sumner Sloan (Michael McGuire). I feel like you’d have to be a tool with a name like that, a very Dickensian name (Dickens liked to stick it to churls with churl-befitting names). He teaches in the English department at BU and is a pretentious bore, flying to the tropics with his TA to marry her, but not before first paying a call to his ex-wife in order to retrieve a ring to bestow upon the new wife, though we know what this guy is up to. Certain people are just always up to something. Sumner leaves Diane in Sam’s charge; or rather, he wishes for her to remain in the bar, which is empty anyway and she can read her book.
That also leaves Sam and Diane alone. Obviously, this is the first scene the two have together, and I think it’s important to mention that she makes him laugh. I noticed that as a kid. He doesn’t just laugh. He respects her attitude, sass, spirit. This is going to be television’s ultimate romance, though it’s not a romance that will last. Nor is it a romance that should have lasted. It’s a romance that was all it could and should have been, and that was okay. Love mustn’t always last forever, but what that love does and means when it is active and explored necessarily colors our lives, who we are, and also who we might become. And who we might become with someone else.
Our main characters filter in and the community builds. All of these relationships are different, and yet they have this place in common. Sam is not the same with Coach as he is with Norm, but these are men he obviously cares about a considerable amount. The jokes of this pilot have not dated. The best comedy doesn’t. Watch an episode of The Honeymooners or The Bob Newhart Show — or read Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, for that matter — and you may be surprised that what was funny then is funny now. Times have changed, but we didn’t become a different species. We may evolve or devolve as a species depending, but we remain humans, and those who best understand humor target the zone that most makes us human. Thus, comedic constancy.
There’s drama in Diane’s plight, and knowledge in the looks we see registering on Sam’s face. He’s a Chekhovian character in this first season, a lynchpin figure who has viewed it all, or thinks he has. Either way, he’s seen much as the publican of this place. Life as life is, not life as how one wishes it to be. They can be the same, but they’re often not. When Sam knows what Diane won’t let herself know — that Sumner is running out on her — and she asks how he could tell, he responds by saying bartender’s intuition. He lets her down easy, but he gives her the truth, and the truth has an aspect of a joke — it’s a high-pressure moment relieved by levity — that brings them closer together. She’s not thinking in those terms. Neither is he. But friendship is happening, and those are terms I believe they are thinking in.
The pilot has high emotional stakes, despite the laugh quotient. That’s how and why we care like we do. Diane is tough but nowhere near as tough as her intellectual attitude is meant to convey. Sam knows this. We know this. She knows this. There’s community in that knowledge. The dim-witted Coach may even know it. What you want with a pilot is an arc. You want an arc with anything that is well done. An arc with a story, an arc with a piece, an arc with a good meal with a good friend, an arc with a violin sonata. The best arcs contain totalities. They are not themselves a totality, but they are encoded with that larger something. Think about the best first sentences in fiction. The entire thing is in there — all that is going to happen, who those people are. In a way.
That’s the pilot of Cheers: the encoded arc that is also a stand-alone arc, which is the nature of many of our friendships. They may not last the duration of our lives, but they are encoded in our lives. Sam and Diane provide this joint encoding — she for him, he for her — even when their shared time is done. Fundamentally they are friends. Friends who rapidly develop the hots for each other, in the parlance of that era, but friends are friends for everything else they might also be or become.
Consider a time when a friend ceased being a friend because they’d behaved as if they were an enemy — at least in your estimation. When you reflect back on them, no matter how you came to view that person, you still mentally refer to them as a friend. “My friend Tim really hurt me.” It’s not “My enemy Tim was a real problem in my life.” Friendship can be evanescent, but what that friendship meant is anything but. The core of it sticks around, it has pull within us. The same as the old watering hole beckons when we’re in the neighborhood. You stop in for a pop or two. With friendship, that pop or two is what we generally call memories.
I watched this first episode as a kid and I knew it was important. I don’t mean I knew it was an important TV show. I knew it was important because it was real. I could take it or I could leave it, but here was life. Adult life. That’s a concept for kids, that far-off notion of adult life, because when we do become adults, we realize that there’s a lot of kid life in adult life — you will deal with many people who never grow up — and children have their adult qualities, too. Wisdom is abetted by age, but it’s also helped along with an open mind. Coach is the child-adult of Cheers, and without meaning to, he regularly has the most sagacious counsel and input. There’s a reason Sam listens to Coach. And there are different reasons why Sam has to help Coach and look out for him.
The timing of the language in the pilot is perfect. Comedy isn’t just the wit and what the words are, it’s when the words come, either with an additional beat — a delay — or sans hesitation. Coach answers the phone, hears what the caller says, and then asks the people of the bar if there’s a Coach present, to which Sam replies “That’s you, Coach,” and without that aforementioned beat, Coach says “Speaking.”
That is humor — the lack of delay communicates to us that this behavior is normal for this man. It’s how he understands himself. There’s nothing odd about what would be odd with anyone else. Now we know him better. We’re learning. We learn by observing and watching how a place works and how life within that place works. To watch Cheers in this first season isn’t a lot different than what Thoreau did in many a field, forest, or river bed. Cheers is also about nature — human nature. We’re inside, but we are also in the natural environment.
Diane’s life has been upended and she needs a job. Sumner was clearly her financial support. The arc has been taking us to this moment, but not telegraphing the moment. Sam offers her a job, but she also earns the job by recounting a complex drink order that Carla — the ace waitress — couldn’t recall. Diane’s pride is wounded that Sam could even think of her as a barmaid, a term that, of course, Diane would use. She’s someone who doesn’t see two people drinking their Budweisers but rather two individuals enjoined in their flagons of ale. She has such pluck even though you know she’s can work your nerves. I liked that about her right away. Sam has to convince her to take the job by laying out the realities of her situation, but he also throws in some perks. “You like the people” he says, which is true enough. She hasn’t said it, but Sam has gleaned as much. Then he adds the other half to the line that we thought was a totality: “You think they like you.”
That is some big-time writing. We don’t see that final portion coming. What it tells us is how he’s experiencing her nature and character. He has insight into her. She has insight into him. We have insight into both. This is character development, rich and real in a pilot episode. What Sam said is so Diane. She began by making him laugh this same way, by undercutting expectation. Now he’s returned that favor, when she needs him to. She requires levity. He gives it to her. Nor is this pity — she is, after all, the center of this joke. Technically, it’s at her expense, but also at her expense so as to be for her profit. Self-awareness is a boon. Knowing that those around us know what we are about is also a boon. That they want us and we want them is a further boon. Put them together, and you have friendship.
Cheers never improved upon what it was that first season. I loved it until the last sequence of the last show in 1993, which found Sam alone in the bar once again, now entering the pool room that he had stepped out of in this pilot episode. The totality of the arc revealed. I think so often, though, of the first time I met these people. They were never characters to me, except insofar as that’s what you had to call them, for practical purposes. They were representative of all the friends I had, the friends I would have, the friends I no longer have, and the friends I hope to make. If some of them are fans of Cheers, all the better still.•