Cheers and the 1980s: A Strange Marriage

Welcome to Cheers Month, where we’ll be writing about Cheers throughout October to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its premiere.

I wrote on Wednesday that the 1980s, specifically the fact that Cheers was on the air during that decade, plays a large role in Ted Danson being underappreciated for his performance as Sam Malone. But Cheers as a whole had a strange relationship with its era in that, unlike almost every other television show that aired during that decade, Cheers managed to hold itself at a safe, respectable remove from ’80s excesses and markers.

Cheers seems to exist out of time. Other than the video quality that’s clearly a few decades behind modern technology, there are very few indicators or giveaways that the show is taking place when it is. If we can leave aside Rebecca Howe’s more egregious shoulder pads, even the wardrobes are not overly ’80s. Watching Cheers now, it would be easy to believe that most of its episodes, that the bar at its center, existed in the 1970s or the 2010s.

Compare Cheers to other ’80s sitcoms, even good ones like The Cosby Show, Night Court, and Family Ties, and Cheers stands apart. Those other shows are very much products of the environment in which they were created, even if their quality sometimes allowed them to transcend that environment.

Or compare Cheers to Seinfeld, another of the handful of greatest sitcoms ever made. Seinfeld is VERY much of the ’90s in terms of attitude and look, to the point that it feel like that show could not have existed in any other decade.

The old-timey photos in Cheers’s opening credits set the tone for the timelessness to follow. Even the theme song avoids falling into the synthesizer traps that so many of its sitcom brethren abused. Then, the show unfolds: just people in a bar, talking. That’s basically it. The creators of Cheers trace their lineage back to Taxi, which has a similar, timeless quality. The Charles brothers’ writing and James Burrows’s directing lend both Taxi and Cheers a quality of not being era-specific, but also not feeling anachronistic in any way. There are few references to current events, aside from the odd throwaway line about “Vera went to see Gandhi today…” or some such.

Later in Cheers’s run, it developed a hint of ’80s sheen, as it began to parade a seemingly endless series of guest stars through the bar, many of whom (Tip O’Neill, Kevin McHale) set their episodes firmly in the ’80s and even in a specific year. But for the most part, Burrows and the Charleses kept the ’80s wolves (Teenwolves?) at bay.

There is one exception, though — one characteristic of the show that pops up occasionally and demands we recognize that it wasn’t made in the present day. Especially in its early seasons, Cheers was marked by a surprising lack of political correctness…at least surprising to those of us watching 30 years down the road.

In season two’s “Homicidal Ham,” ex-con/psycho killer Andy Andy performs a scene from Othello with Diane for the bar. Before the performance, Cliff and Norm yell out uncomfortable impressions of retarded people, which would never get on the air today.

Beyond that, Sam and Diane’s courtship and relationship was filled with implied and actualized domestic violence.

Before their first kiss, Sam screams at Diane that he’s going to “bounce you off every wall in this office.” And his tone is much darker than the old Jackie Gleason “One of these days, Alice!” bit.

Later, when they prepare to sleep together for the first time, Sam decided to “take charge” by literally knocking down Diane’s door, scooping her up and carrying her into the bedroom.

Then, of course, there’s their infamous slap fight/nose-pulling session. Sam was also likely to pick up a gold club while in his office and wave it threateningly.

The show seemed to skirt the issues of a big guy threatening/hitting a tiny woman by having Diane give as good as she got. After the wall-bouncing line, Diane replied, “Try it and you’ll be walking funny tomorrow.” When Sam broke her door down, she called the cops on him. When he slapped her, she slapped him back.

Even so, there’s something a little unsettling watching these exchanges today. Imagine Jim Halpert threatening to bounce Pam off the walls of the office, or Chandler Bing slapping Monica across the face. That shit would never happen and it’s probably for the best.

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Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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