The greatest sitcom of all time?

By MARTIN SIEFF, Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 25, 2001 at 12:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- Happy Christmas! Or are you not happy? Are you "celebrating" the holidays alone? Are you ill and house-ridden? Or are you "looking forward" to a gray January post-season of bills and hangovers? Well, if you are, but you still have access to cable, Nick at Night has the answer for you, and it's a lot cheaper than therapy or shopping. Spend a couple of hours every night at the old Boston bar where everyone knows your name.

Yes, Nick at Night, the adult side of Nickelodeon network, is now running a solid two-hour block every night of "Cheers," quite arguably the best sitcom of all time, and almost certainly the most popular of all currently in syndication.

Now those are sweeping and contentious statements. "The Lucy Show," after all has just celebrated its golden jubilee, or 50th anniversary, to paeans of praise from the pundits, including that supreme accolade, serious and respectful treatment in the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section.

But the dirty truth is that "Lucy's" popularity is generationally limited. GI Generation elders and older love it. Baby Boomers hate it and Generation X-ers are left cold while Millennial kids say "huh?" and switch to "Digimon." And with the old World War II, generation, the last to be adults and set the taste standards for television's late 40s, early 50s founding generation, now passing away, Lucy's devotees are vanishing faster than supporters of the Russian Communist Party.

"All in the Family" is heavy-handed, liberal-moralistic and preachy, vices that weigh down the wonderful performances of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapledon. No one watches "Taxi" anymore. "Seinfeld" is as generationally limited as "Lucy". It is the definitive guide in etiquette for Baby Boomers, no small achievement, but everyone older and younger wonders what the fuss is all about. And "Friends" performs the same role for Twenty-Something X-ers and no others. But none of them bestrides the Video Vaults of the Halls of Cable like "Cheers."

In the cutthroat, ever-changing world of cable network competition, it is virtually unprecedented for any channel to risk extinction by running solid two hour blocks, or four fresh successive episodes every night, of a single 30-minute sitcom. Apart from the obvious boredom factor, that means a full 20 shows, almost a full yearly season of 22, is swallowed up and digested every week, which means every eight to 10 weeks, viewers will be seeing exactly the same episodes all over again.

But clearly, Nick at Night's viewers don't care. Why? Because, simply, "Cheers" is wonderful and a very strong case can be made that it is indeed the greatest sitcom of all time.

The scripts by Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows are a marvel of literate and lethal wit, better even than "Seinfeld " or "Frasier." The performances by the core cast are spot on and perfect from the first episode to the last. The show survived the departure of the brilliant Shelley Long for the even more beautiful and versatile Kirstie Alley and the death of Nick Colasanto who played dim "Coach" Ernie Pantusso to be replaced by the even funnier and more brilliant comic timing of Woody Harrelson as the even dimmer Woody Boyd without missing a beat. The character development is subtle but consistent, and unlike the at first brilliant, but obnoxious and erratic "Roseanne", it never lost its nerve and veered into fantastic and embarrassingly unwatchable self-indulgence.

Most of all, unlike "Lucy," "Roseanne", "All in the Family", "The Cosby Show" and even the perfectly poised, bittersweet "Frasier," "Cheers" resisted from beginning to end the Curse of Sentimentality. That is the moment when in virtually every sitcom, all the comically outrageous and selfish behavior of the lead characters is magically resolved and their underlying kindness and compassion is "celebrated" in a way that undermines everything that went before.

This sickly sentimentality pervades "Lucy", gradually undermines "All in the Family" and blunts the biting edge of Michael J. Fox's early brilliance as Alex Keaton in "Family Ties." Jackie Gleason alone in his wonderful "Honeymooners," got away with celebrating it because it was an inherent part of his tragic comedic vision. Ralph and Alice Kramden had to come back together in love and forgiveness at the end of every episode because it was the only way they could endure from day to day the awfulness of their own lives and the torment they inflicted on one another.

But Burrows and the Charles brothers resolutely resisted sentimentality's allure in "Cheers." Norm, the fat, boozey accountant with the ever invisible, unloved and unlovable wife is the same unredeemable slob after 200 episodes that he was at the beginning. Cliff is far worse, the know-it-all postman who confides that it's the "next" Martian invasion he is really worried about, slowly but inexorably goes mad and there is no waking from the fetid paranoid nightmare.

Woody the barman finds true love and even material success. But this is presented not as an example of the generous kindness and compassion of the Universe but rather of its manic dark and twisted nature. Kelsey Grammer's psychiatrist Frasier intuits. -- a far more troubled and abrasive figure in the bar that he evolves into in his own spin-off show -- intuits this when he prophetically visualizes Woody, as stupid and sublimely unaware of his own incompetence as ever, becoming President of the United States and blithely unleashing the nuclear holocaust of World War III.

Most of all, Rhea Perlman's magnificent Carla Tortelli, the Barmaid from Hell, has a mouth spewing hydrochloric acid as undiluted at the end of the epic as at the beginning.

"Cheers" is a decade-long celebration of the wisdom of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius' insight in that people are as they are, and that they have an inner nature that propels them and is inherently unchangeable.

And "Cheers" has, in Ted Danson, one of the greatest leading men in television dramatic and comedic history. Danson's performance as Sam "Mayday" Malone, the ex-Red Sox baseball jock and sex-obsessed smooth sleaze, from first to last, never drops a self-indulgent or false note in all those years. His technique, in an exceptionally daring departure from the narcissistic self-obsessive style of comedic stars before him, is a marvel of generosity and restraint. It is no wonder that his two most successful successors, Grammer as "Frasier" and Jerry Seinfeld as, well, himself, adopted the same restrained technique of encouraging their supporting cast to flourish as stars in their own right, generating an ensemble richness and longevity to their entire mini-worlds. And his long, ghastly, endlessly tormented mutually consummated passion for and with Shelley Long's Diane Chambers, the Batty Barmaid with a Brain, is one of the greatest romances in the history of comedy, or drama too, for that matter. Even Aristophanes and Shakespeare never came up with anything to equal it. It is the hell Romeo and Juliet would have inflicted on each other if they had both lived.

So if life gets you down in the post-holiday season gloom, avail yourself of the abundant miracles of cable. Spend an hour or two every night in that old Boston bar (established, as we are helpfully reminded at the start of every episode, in 1895) where they're always glad you came. And you'll be glad too.

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