The Cheers Challenge: The Trials of Norm Peterson

I’ve just finished the third season of Cheers, and while I know the big thing this season is the introduction of Fraisier, and to a certain extent Sam and Diane’s reunion, for me, the huge standout of the arc is George Wendt’s work as Norm. It’s kind of remarkable how, in two seasons, Wendt takes on both the psychological weight of long-term unemployment and the challenge of infertility. And he does it all in a performance that’s essentially the equivalent of the episode of Community where Abed delivers a baby in the background of the action.

I’ve found lots of the show quite impressively progressive, including the fact that Norm loses his job in the first place when he stops his boss from sexually assaulting Diane. In a contemporary movie or television show, he would be rewarded for that, and fairly quickly: one of his coworkers would be bolting to start a new firm or something, and would be impressed by Norm’s integrity, and his firing would be truly momentary. Instead, his suddenly former coworkers cheer, and Norm’s left to face unemployment alone. There’s real pathos in watching a man who’s worked most of his life at one company try to revise his resume, or calculate how much beer he can afford to drink on his unemployment check. It’s not as if Norm’s struggle to find work is always delivered in jokes and asides. It’s the A story in the second-season episode “No Help Wanted,” where Norm secretly starts washing dishes at Melville’s until Diane convinces Sam to hire Norm as his accountant. But rather than having that episode and being done with it, Norm’s unemployment is a constant if low-boil factor in his presence at the bar until he finally finds a new job, and Wendt really shows the toll it takes on Norm. Late in the third season when, finally reemployed, Norm’s new company asks him to become their layoff man, it’s clear how scary the experience of unemployment was for him. He may be collecting a paycheck again, but it’s clear how traumatic not having a job was for him.

I’ll be curious to see, if the job market stays stagnant and unemployment stays relatively high, if more shows and movies start incorporating characters who have been unemployed for a long time into their storylines. Obviously shows like the Real Housewives franchise haven’t suffered during the recession, even though the lifestyles they portray are more out of reach than ever, but I think that’s because they provide a convenient opportunity to judge the rich. But if persistent long-tem unemployment becomes a more prevalent part of the American experience, giving people reflections of their own struggles seems like a good to way to be responsive to audiences and maybe lock in a little audience loyalty while you’re at it.

It’s interesting to me that, having gotten Norm back on his feet financially, the show chose to saddle him with the equally intimate and manhood-implicating problem of infertility. That’s a lot to lay on a guy in a period of a couple years! Not being able to get Vera pregnant appears to weigh a little less heavily on Norm, but again, it’s something that the show keeps running rather than mentioning it once and forgetting about it. I think that’s one of the reasons the show is so good: it remembers that its characters are real people with ongoing problems and concerns, and that most of the things people discuss with their friends are sort of circular and repetitive because that’s what it takes to work big things out. But even though Norm treats their ongoing fertility problems with his usual jocular humor, the whole incident strikes me as a very real way people use their primary group of friends. Sometimes you’re vulnerable, but these are the people with whom you rehearse the stories and self-presentation that get you through the day when things are hard.