After 11 years and a barrel-load of awards, the final episode of Cheers will be screened this week in the United States, calling time on a cast of characters better known than most politicians and better loved than all of them. Beer-swilling Norm, the tub-of- guts work-shy accountant; Carla, queen of spite; Sam, the sex-obsessed, volpine-featured barman; Rebecca, the gold-digger. All are about to be consigned to the celluloid archives. It is rumoured that President Clinton, desperate to prop up his sagging popularity, will make an appearance.
Americans take their comedy very seriously, so they mourn its passing in style. When MASH went off the air 10 years ago, the last instalment was watched by a record-breaking 50 million households, more than half the nation. Only a few million fewer tuned into the Dallas episode in 1980 that promised to reveal who shot J R. No one can accurately predict how many will watch NBC's extended 90-minute final Cheers, but estimates go as high as 100 million. It is not surprising, then, that the show's finale is billed as a national event. Gallons of printer's ink have been spent on valedictory articles, replete with anecdotes about the stars' lives. For instance, Ted Danson (Sam) uses a hairpiece to cover a bald spot, and has to dye the remainder of his greying mop before each shoot. (One sign that the series was definitely over came several weeks ago when the monstrously vain Sam finally confessed that he wore a rug.)
And did you know that Kirstie Alley (Rebecca) keeps 40 pets at her Los Angeles mansion, including possums and monkeys? Or that George Wendt (Norm) is an avid exercise fan and works out with a personal trainer during rehearsals? Or that William Devane was the producers' original choice for Sam Malone, but he messed up the audition?
Even Life magazine considered the death of Cheers of sufficient cultural significance to be worth this month's cover story, describing it as 'the wittiest, most intelligent, most sophisticated television comedy of its time . . . (which) blew a wonderful gale of good humour through a decade when chuckles were pretty hard to come by'.
Exactly why Cheers, syndicated to 38 countries with six million viewers in Britain, has touched such a chord with so many is the subject of much debate. Unlike many American sitcoms, it almost wholly avoids sentimentality: there are no cute kids, no dewy- eyed waffle about family relationships and no heroes. Romance is about sex; and sex is about lust or greed, or both.
But above all, it has almost always been extremely well-written, packed full of comic situations and witty one-liners worthy of Groucho himself. Woody, the bartender: 'What do you say to a cold one, Mr Peterson?' Norm: 'See you later, Vera, I'm going to Cheers.' As James Burrows, producer and co-creator, once commented: 'It's verbal entertainment. Radio on TV.' The programme owes its origins, in part at least, to John Cleese. Its two creators, Les and Glen Charles, wanted to attempt to create an American version of Fawlty Towers. Early scripts set the comedy in a California country club and an inn near Las Vegas, before they settled on the Bull & Finch bar in Boston, a quiet little tavern that has since become a mecca for Cheers fans.
The comedy got off to a wobbly start. After its first season in 1982, it ranked 75th out of 75 prime- time television programmes, and survived only because the reviewers raved about it and it won five Emmys. Several years later, it made it to the top ten list, where it remained ever after, regularly pulling in more than 25 million American viewers. It has been nominated for 111 Emmys and has won 26, making it the most honoured television programme in American history.
Some critics in Hollywood felt that Cheers was beginning to run out of steam, but undoubtedly many of the writers, cast and crew wanted to continue. The decision to stop was taken largely because Ted Danson, who was paid a reported dollars 500,000 an episode (dollars 12m a year) thought it time to explore new pastures.
At NBC, which buys the show from its producers, Paramount TV, Danson's desire to quit went down like a bowl of poisoned beer nuts. The network has lost some of its most popular shows in the past two years, including the top- rated Cosby Show and Golden Girls, and is still smarting from the retirement of talk-show host Johnny Carson. Cheers was one of the few remaining jewels in an increasingly tawdry crown. Bar- room life could, of course, have continued without Danson's Sam. The series has weathered the loss of other characters - Nick Colasanto (Coach) died, and Shelley Long (Diane, the posh barmaid) left to try movie acting - but Sam was the driving force behind the joke-machine. It was, the Charles brothers felt, better to close down while the going was good than risk sliding down the ratings towards a lame demise.
While Cheers fans mourn, attention is focusing on what will happen in Thursday's episode. The producers have kept much of its contents secret, which has prompted the Clinton rumours. An NBC spokesman said these were groundless, although he admitted he was in the dark about a seven-minute portion of the show.
Watch out for the extras around the bar, however. They include four leading NBC executives, taking a sip of fame while they have the chance. Rhea Perlman's Carla is undaunted. 'I don't know which of you two stiffs groped me,' she announces, 'but next time it happens, you're all outta here]'
From Thursday, everyone will be outta there, and television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic will be left with what they need least. Repeats.
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