Editor’s Note: Robin kicks off our Valentine’s Day week series Aspects of Love where we take a look at great television couples and the various forms of love they represent. Our first is dedicated to the famed love affairs of Sam/Diane and Sam/Rebecca in the classic sitcom Cheers.
The decades of television that have graced our homes has given us, the audience, all manner of romances between characters we love. Love stories fuel all genres of TV as they do in our own lives. You don’t need to be astute to find branches of romance in detective series and documentaries, yet more directly they thrive in commercials and reality TV these days. The popular discourses of drama and comedy of course make love stories a thing of habit and necessity. When we look back over the years at the shows that have captured our very own hearts and minds, we can all pick our favorites. In recent decades, Friends‘ Ross and Rachel saga has become, and was then, one of the all time great TV romances. In similarly effective fashion, The Office‘s Pam and Jim was built on the enduring waiting game – that they were unable to be together for so long.
Ross Gellar and Jim Halpert, though they had to work hard to be lovingly acquainted with Rachel Green and Pam Beasley respectively, would live happily ever after as far as we were allowed to experience. Let me, then, bring Sam Malone to the table. The charismatic, social predator and retired Red Sox pitcher-come-bartender has not one, but two, prospering romances he can brag about. Both of Sam’s love stories depicted in the American classic Cheers were hard-earned, bittersweet, and perhaps ultimately, not meant to be. They also formed a great stem of the show’s successful comedic narrative that spent over a decade on our small screens.
Watching the pilot of Cheers again and the titles rolling, I get warm, wondrous chills. We meet Diane Chambers right away and discover she is due to be married. Entering the bar, Diane immediately gets an idea for Sam’s casual relations with women when she is put on the spot, having to lie to a woman calling for him. Of course, Diane does not like this. She is a noble, well-to-do woman – we already know Sam and Diane are worlds apart.
Diane’s husband-to-be Sumner (don’t laugh) is an intellect, educated, and credible – none of those traits jump out when asked to describe Sam. Long before her fiancé returns to the bar we already feel attached to Diane. As sophisticated as she may be, this better life with a professor may not be for her in actuality. Who is she trying to kid? She does not know it yet, but the familiar surroundings of the bar appear more alluring, even if Diane would never have accepted such a situation in her wildest of dreams. Or nightmares. Diane calls Sumner (I told you, don’t laugh) distinguished, Sam calls him goofy. Both are right, but this is going to be hard work. For both of them.
I know Cheers was not pitched as a romance, but the seeds are deeply sewn early on. Clear intentions that this opposites attract relationship is going to be a significant part of the comedy’s appeal. As the cast of now regular characters roll into the bar in that first episode, characters we feel we know better than some of our friends, talk of sports are not an instant mix with the book-reading Diane. She is an outcast here, almost a pristine feline amidst a pack of amiable wolves. She will somehow fit right in. Even as wise or well-bred as she may be, Sam has bartender’s intuition, and this tells a more direct, honest take on relationships and the people in them. Including hers. Sam has kindness it seems, too, seeing the despair in this woman, offering her a job as a waitress. Although she deems beneath her at first, we discover she is not qualified to do anything – but has something of a photographic memory for cocktail drinks apparently. Perfect. Plus, that charming, well-meaning persona of Diane could give the Cheers bar a new dynamic.
Some five seasons on, times are a-changing at Cheers bar with the corporate take-over, including those new staff uniforms. Going to take some getting used to. With the re-branding comes a supposed change of scenery for Sam as he ventures off on his boat with the money he made from the bar’s sale. His relationship with Diane coming to a close after such a long journey. For all of us. Except Sam returns, a lot like Diane in the pilot, his intended plans go awry and the Cheers bar will be his docking station or saving grace.
This time around the new lady in his life, Rebecca Howe, is the boss, and her no-nonsense, confident manner means she’ll be domineering and strong also in their eventual romantic to-and-fro. This will be a tough chase for Sam in much different ways to how his conforming to Diane meant varying degrees of self-awareness and change. Rebecca shuts down Sam’s immediate advances when they first meet, and, in fact, she claims she is repelled by him. Not a good start.
Rebecca’s hard shell will eventually be cracked, not just by Sam, starting with his openly nostalgic feelings towards the bar – made the more interesting given that she can read him and his sly ways like a book. It seems his own male pride is something of an obstacle too. Sam was once a womanizer, sure, but he is likable partly because of his show of emotions from time to time, be it to manipulate or actually express how he feels. With Rebecca, behind the power suit and big hair, she carries an emotional weight of her own. She clearly has some neurotic issues of insecurity of her own hidden away. When Sam latches onto this he will not let go. Their see-saw cat and mouse game of love is just beginning made more empowering by the forward-thinking, brash similarities between Sam and Rebecca. Though both fail to acknowledge this just yet. In fact, Rebecca is very unlucky in love indeed until she final caves in to Sam’s advances.
To add, with Rebecca, the creators of Cheers clearly wanted not necessarily a polar opposite of Diane, but a very different woman indeed. Not just for the show’s progression but likely to give Sam a brand new challenge in his romantic escapades. Kirstie Alley’s character was so far from Shelley Long’s in many ways, the hair, the poise, the profession, physical appearance. Shall I go on? Long’s departure was the choice of the actress in the end, but the writers incorporated this into the comedy’s blood without losing the fans or the ratings. In my view, Alley was a great replacement, enticing and funny, and again in different ways to Long. Rebecca was perhaps my favorite as a boy growing up loving Cheers and developing crushes on TV women. I, though, had an easier ride than Sam Malone.
Both of Sam’s relationships had countless occasions of flirting one minute and bickering with each other the next, constantly reminding themselves and their love interests they were not right for each other. This may be just as well. Look at how even the great TV love stories like Ross and Rachel and Jim and Pam had little place to go once the couples were finally joined to live happy ever after. Cheers showed us that TV romance can blossom in the attraction, the chase, the antics of two people who we want to be together, but in the end won’t be.
Whether it is meant to be or not, love is wanting to be where everybody knows your name.
And they’re always glad you came.