From 1982 through 1993, tens of millions of Americans watched the lives, relationships, and musings of barroom workers and their friends play out in a place where everybody knows your name. During its 11-year run, Cheers garnered widespread critical acclaim, won 28 Primetime Emmys, and forever changed the small-screen comedy landscape. It holds a near-mythical place in the annals of American TV, launching the careers of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, and Kelsey Grammer, among others, and birthing multiple spinoffs, most notably Frasier, which similarly became regarded as one of the best sitcoms ever created. The breadth of the legacy of this Boston-based show about working-class people who find solace and comfort in beer and, more importantly, their beermates, cannot be overstated.
But accolades aside, what’s truly remarkable about Cheers is that, almost 40 years after its premiere, it mostly remains a warm, friendly, accessible show, despite some attitudes of its time. It began as a collaboration between brothers Glen and Les Charles, writers for M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and others, and James Burrows, a longtime TV director. As Burrows told the New York Times in 1983, the trio “wanted to create a show around a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy-type relationship” between a sophisticate and an average Joe.
They came up with a former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher and Casanova named Sam Malone (Danson), whose problems with alcoholism derailed his career and who now stays sober while owning and tending his own bar, Cheers. His former coach, Ernie Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto), helps run things, while the sharp Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) works as a waitress, and the three regularly serve proud postal worker Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger) and accountant Norm Peterson (George Wendt), the latter such a staple at the bar that he’s cheered by name whenever he walks through the door. The Hepburn to Sam’s Tracy is intellectual, snobbish Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), an academic who, after being dumped by her fiancé and former professor, takes a job serving at Cheers.
The famous Sam-and-Diane dynamic is an essential part of the show and affects just about every plot point in some way, but the show is not just about the two of them—it explores all the characters’ lives in detail. And as Cheers goes along, characters filter in and out, including new bartender Woody (Harrelson), psychiatrists Frasier Crane (Grammer) and Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), and businesswoman Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley). The show is also very proud of its firm Boston and Massachusetts roots, featuring cameos from local celebrities and politicians like Wade Boggs, Tip O’Neill, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis. As any actual Bostonian will be quick to tell you, Cheers as the characters know it never really existed, although there is a bar at the exterior location seen on the show, formerly known as the Bull & Finch Pub and now a tourist landmark named Cheers Beacon Hill.
After its legendary run, Cheers lived on through syndication and streaming availability, allowing boomers to soak up the nostalgia and new generations to discover the show’s charms. The sitcom will depart Netflix at the end of June, though it remains on Hulu and CBS All Access, and is headed for NBC’s own streamer, Peacock. That leaves plenty of options for newcomers to watch the show their parents always raved about, and I know the place for them to start: Season 1, Episode 19, “Pick a Con … Any Con.”
Available to stream on Hulu.
“Pick a Con,” the best-written episode of the first season, is an ensemble piece with plenty of twists and turns that will keep you hooked. Coach is losing money, a lot of it, getting consistently swindled by an older Cheers patron named George Wheeler (Reid Shelton). To get back at the con man, Sam enlists the help of another frequent guest, Harry the Hat (Harry Anderson). They decide to set up a poker game that they’ll use to cheat George out of all the money he hustled from Coach—though Harry also requests a steep sum for his assistance. Thus begins a high-stakes caper that gets the whole bar watching and invested—in some cases, literally—as poor Coach tries to get his thousands back with his friends’ help. You’ll have to watch to find out for yourself whether he succeeds.
“Con” is an episode where you see all the characters’ personalities heightened by the poker game, their camaraderie as they show up for Coach and bash the con artists, and the tangle of hijinks and messes as money is bet and lost with unnerving ease. It’s a fun, joyous episode, hilarious and heart-wrenching in equal measure, a tour of the bar that’ll have you hooked. The early Sam-and-Diane tension is there, but it’s not the central focus, leaving room to showcase the other characters and the dynamics that make Cheers such a special place for everyone, whether or not their name is Norm.