The Tragicomedy of Sam Malone, Part 1

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On Thursday night September 30, 1982, the pilot episode of Cheers aired and almost no one watched it. The first scene was of an empty basement bar and a 35-year-old Ted Danson sauntering through the back hallway with a box of coffee mugs to restock. Watching it today, the last vestiges of the 70’s are apparent on Danson: a pompadour hairpiece and flared shirt collar buttoned down to see just enough chest hair. A piano plays in the background the first ambling notes of what is now one of the most recognizable theme songs of all time. Where Everybody Knows Your Name.

Thus Cheers began with its main character literally walking onstage.

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Sam Malone is character type. The writers of Cheers didn’t shy away from acknowledging this type in Season 4 with the episode titled “Don Juan is Hell,” but it is obvious from the beginning. In the pilot episode, the first time she comes into the bar, Diane Chambers relays a message from one of Sam’s trysts, Vicky, who is on the phone waiting to tell him that he is “a magnificent Pagan beast.” Sam, an ex-relief pitcher for the Red Sox, and still serial Lothario, relishes the comment. If this is not overt, I don’t know what is. Diane rolls her eyes. The first of many times.

The Don Juan myth has a long tradition in western literature but didn’t begin until after Christianity became widespread. There is no Greek equivalent to Don Juan, the man who serially seduces women, probably because Greek culture didn’t freight sexual conduct with such spiritual importance. Don Juan’s corollary, also of medieval lineage, is the myth of Tristan and Isolde which uses sex differently. Tristan and Isolde is the story of romantic love as divine image. W.H. Auden pointed out that the enemy of both myths is time: “Tristan and Isolde dread it because it threatens change, and they wish the moment of intense feeling to last forever; the love potion serves as a defense against change. Don Juan dreads it because it threatens repetition, and he wishes each moment to be absolutely novel.”

As we will see the story of Sam Malone is about what happens when Don Juan tries to become Tristan, without addressing the underlying problem of human satisfaction and its trappings.

This is one of the surprising things about Cheers. For all its buffoonery, it is obviously a literate show. The first time Diane Chambers meets Sam, she sits at the bar and reads W.B. Yeats while looking down her nose at the rest of the characters. Her fiance Sumner Sloan mentions Proust. One entire episode revolves around a priceless collector’s item: the desk of George Bernard Shaw. You would never hear any of these references on prime time TV today.

The real magic of Cheers is the relationship between Sam and Diane. Their sexual tension is the most interesting I’ve seen from a TV series. It’s unsurprising that Ted Danson was awarded the role of Sam because of his chemistry with Shelley Long. Together they comprise not only the smattering together of Don Juan and Isolde, but also of low-brow and high-brow, and of the strong willed male and female personae.

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Beyond all this literary stuff, Cheers is just plain hilarious. The writing is phenomenal. Take, for instance, the first encounter Sam has at the bar, before Diane Chambers comes in and creates the tension which will complicate his life:

The first patron to enter the bar is a very young looking teenager who first casually looks around and then sits down.

“How ‘bout a beer, chief?” he says.

Sam turns around to look at kid.

“Ha, ha. How about an ID?” Sam says.

“ID! Ha, ha, ha. That’s very flattering. Wait till I tell the Mrs.”

Kid hands Sam fake ID.

“Ah, military ID. First sergeant Walter Keller born 1944. That makes you 38. Must have fought in Vietnam.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“What was it like?”

“Gross.”

“Yeah, that’s what they say. War is gross.”

Sam turns away the kid. But he can appreciate what the kid is trying to do, because Sam is doing the same thing. Trying to be someone he’s not. This is only funny when we watch other people fail at it so blatantly. In every other context, it’s tragic. This is maybe the greatest point of subtlety in Cheers. By outsourcing this social game into the lives of fictional characters, it can make us laugh at the flaws in ourselves.

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