Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Thanks to the growth of Netflix Instant Watch, I’m continuing my project of Catching Up On Everything I Missed Growing Up by watching Cheers. And oh my goodness, you guys. It’s like watching Casablanca for sitcoms: things seem like cliches because they’ve become so deeply embedded as tropes and references in our culture that it’s easy to forget that this is the wellspring, or one of them, anyway. But beyond that, the show feels like it was engineered with me in mind (or maybe I’ve been reverse-engineered to prefer the things that Cheers epitomized): it’s a constraint-based show, taking place essentially in the bar, the pool room, and Sam’s office; it’s deeply grounded in place, and a place that’s not New York, Miami, or Los Angeles; and the show’s politics are fairly remarkable.

The politics in particular get to me. It’s amazing that a full eight years before Murphy Brown got pregnant, Cheers had a main character who was already an unmarried mother of four get pregnant again, and have the cast be broadly supportive, except for some mild ribbing. I don’t know if the show pulled it off because it wasn’t yet a ratings phenomenon, or because Carla Tortelli was clearly coded as both ethnic and working-class, and so she didn’t need to be attacked as some sort of Threat to the Family because she didn’t make single motherhood look cool.

It’s also fairly remarkable that Cheers did a sensitive, nuanced athlete’s coming out story the same year that scientists would establish that HIV was a virus. In “The Boys in the Bar,” it turns out that Sam’s old roommate during his Red Sox days has written a memoir in which he comes out. After Sam overcomes his shock, he stands up for the guy (backbone courtesy Diane), and becomes something of a gay hero, but his regulars worry that Cheers will become a gay bar, and push Sam to kick out gay patrons. The episode just bar homophobia with humor. It’s a genuine accomplishment:

Lorna Cooper, the editor of MSN TV, passed along a terrific essay by Ken Levine, who wrote the episode, and notes:

CHEERS, like most multi-camera shows, operated on a five-day production schedule. The first three for rehearsing with the cast alone, then on day four the camera crews come in and the technical work is done. Finally, on day five the show is shot in front of a live studio audience. The crew is usually a good indicator of what works. We’ve now heard every joke nine times. Nothing is funny to us. They’re hearing the material for the first time. The crew LOVED “Boys in the Bar’. Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.

Things like this episode and Levine’s story make me wonder if we consistently underestimate what audiences can handle. If we pushed for universes that were more intelligent and direct about race, gender, class, homophobia, that were more diverse, our pop culture would have a lot to gain, and I think very, very little to lose.