The Cheers pilot is not just one of the best pilots ever, but it is one of the best 25 minutes of television ever produced.
The show literally begins with Sam Malone walking into the empty bar he owns. The audience gets an immediate sense of who Sam is when he busts a teenager for trying to drink a beer at his place. He pleasantly but firmly deals with this person. Sam might not take things seriously as the show will prove over and over again, but he cares about his business and isn’t going to let some kid put one over.
A key part of any pilot is to have a new person. It’s an excuse to have exposition and also an audience surrogate In many ways, it is ironic Diane Chambers is our audience surrogate as she’s the perfect representation of the New England elite, and this show would have appealed to the American working and middle class. Diane ends up being the character most identify the least with very quickly into the series’ run. Sam’s womanizing ways are made clear in the first scene when Diane takes a message on his behalf. We see the main players come into the bar one-by-one.
Ernie “Coach” Pantuso is a simple yet affable fellow as he debates the quality of the New England Patriots’ draft. Carla rants about her obnoxious kids and ex-husband as she walks through the door. Everyone knows Norm’s name as he walks in. Cliff gives an obnoxious fact (even though he wouldn’t be a permanent fixture in the cast until season two).
Part of what works about this pilot is the way all of the dialogue gets across character traits in a somewhat natural way but also is funny. This functions as a small play. Even if you never watched another episode ever again, Sam and Diane would still be memorable. The chemistry is immediate as they argue for the first of many times about 20 minutes in. Ted Danson is a television icon at this point, but here he was at his most charming and likeable in a role of a former alcoholic baseball player who now owns a bar. Shelley Long is a punchline…literally (See the episode of Saturday Night Live where the show parodied her decision to exit the show and try to do films, but there’s a reason her name is on the screen with Danson. This show does not function without their relationship. Coach, Carla, Norm, Cliff, and a host of others served as great foils who would eventually be able to carry individual episodes. However, from the start Sam and Diane served as the emotional core. They were the original “will they or won’t they” couple. It is a television trope that has been done on almost every other popular sitcom since Cheers. Here’s a short list: Friends, The Office, Parks and Recreation, How I Met Your Mother (This show almost became a metacommentary on the whole concept) and even shows still airing such as The Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine Nine.
Normally, I can’t handle the multi-camera sitcom, but Cheers excelled where so many others failed because of its true to life scenarios and more realistic characters. Every episode felt like a mini-play. The dialogue was sharp, and although the stakes only hit a ceiling as high as “Will they or won’t they,” it still felt important. There was someone for everyone to identify with in some way. These people were all flawed in their own ways, but right from the pilot, it’s clear just how much was there.
So many sitcoms take a half season, sometimes a full season to really get going. I would argue Parks and Recreation took nearly two seasons to get good. Adam Scott and Rob Lowe made the show feel complete (Paul Schnieder’s Mark character leaving also helped). Cheers seemingly came out fully formed. Other than Sam Malone’s hairstyle and other aesthetic changes to the cast, Cheers was the same show in episode one as it was in episode 275.
The show functions as a commentary on the lives of so many “average” Americans yet is able to be funny thanks to sharp dialogue and clearly delineated characters.