Drinking in the no-hope saloon: Is 'Cheers' quite simply the best television programme ever made?

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK the last episode of Cheers, a 90-minute special, is to be broadcast in the United States. We are likely to see it on the weekend of 12 June on Channel 4. Of course, 'last' simply means the story of the Boston bar is technically over. The show will go on, its 274 episodes almost endlessly recycled around the world. Ideally they should be shown for ever. I should like my grandchildren to be laughing at Woody and Frasier, Sam and Norm, Rebecca and Carla. For, try as I may to enthuse about more respectably highbrow material, the truth is I cannot suppress the conviction that Cheers is the greatest television programme ever made.

Explaining why may be difficult, since neither the British nor the Americans are prepared to listen. Certainly the Americans like Cheers, but they think of it as just the best of their network comedy shows, part of the electronic wallpaper. OK, it's good, but it's not, you know, serious, and, anyway, don't you British make the best television in the world? Equally, the British, in rather smaller numbers, like the show, but they turn incredulous at the grander claim. What about Hancock, or Fawlty Towers?

The first point to make is that, though many realise that Cheers is well written, few grasp just how well written. It is not simply that the gags are brilliant and the one-liners the best in the business. Rather it is that there are whole, blissful passages in the show that simply float along from gag to gag with plot, character and situation all exquisitely realised simply through a succession of jokes. The lines suggest James Thurber, the construction Ronald Firbank. The effect is of a kind of delirious lightness and, perversely, of a sort of intensity. You are floating, but you could fall. A word out of place or, worst of all, an out-of-character line and the bubble would burst. But Cheers never falters.

This can only be done because every character is so flawlessly realised. After half a dozen episodes you know them well enough not to invite them to dinner: Cliff the compulsive talker with the mother problem, Carla the low-life dragon lady, Sam the rationalising erotomaniac, Rebecca the wrecked, gold-digging tart and so on. Almost at once, you know them to the point of intimacy because, though they are types, they are not stereotypes. They are all so richly endowed with a witty, terrible awareness of the implications of their characters that, endlessly, they can simply describe what it feels like to be Norm, Frasier or whoever.

Indeed, that is all they can do. 'How's life in the fast lane?' Sam asks Norm.

'Beats me,' he replies, 'I can't find the on-ramp.'

Being Norm is a total response to life. Being any character in Cheers is to confront a dead-end destiny, the fate of who you are, with the one consolation that you are licensed to talk about it for ever.

And they are never allowed to change. There are no Damascus Roads for the customers of this bar. They are stuck with themselves. So, when the multiply inadequate postman Cliff thinks he is in love and is loved in return, we know it is an illusion. Cliff is the personification of lovelessness, no such transformation is possible. So Norm is deputed to explain that the woman is deceiving him and, as Cliff stares at his feet, he asks: 'Who do you hate most, the world, the girl or yourself?'

'Myself.'

'My choice, too.'

The bar's chorus, the two most definitive losers in a cast of losers, had confronted the abyss and all they knew for sure was that it was theirs and theirs alone. There was no bland consolation to be had from the thought that this was the 'human condition' for, in truth, it was only Cliff's and Norm's. As the conman Harry the Hat said to the whole bar,: 'How would we know we were winners if we didn't have you guys?'

Such stuff is poignant, but it is never sentimental. And it is this ruthless avoidance of sentimentality that lifts Cheers above the competition. One by one the best and toughest of US television shows invariably succumb to one type of sentimentality or another: Roseanne, Mash, The Cosby Show, Hill Street Blues, The Golden Girls are all wrecked, usually after the first series, by a compulsive, cloying sweetness, or by the revelation that, in fact, all the characters are saints, or by the gross intrusion of preachiness, whether politically correct or simply humanly edifying.

Rob Long, a writer and executive producer of Cheers, thinks the reason is that Hollywood's television industry is absurdly and weirdly packed with highly intelligent people, most of whom are not particularly funny and all of whom feel they should be doing something better. As a result they are not content - or indeed competent - just to go for the laughs. Instead, bored and ashamed, they want to make the world a better place.

But Cheers never seems even to be tempted. Long points out that going for what he calls 'moments' - sentimental high spots - would be impossible because the writing team would be too embarrassed. 'All that counts to us,' he says, 'is being funny.'

This determination in the context of the bar and the brilliant ensemble of actors and writers has a curious, ambiguous and quite complex effect that lies at the heart of the show's greatness. Being funny usually means being cruel and laughing at the inadequate and the bad. If all that matters to you is being funny, then the world will be a bleak place. And, sure enough, the Cheers characters are not just hopeless losers, they are also nasty. When a large sum of money is thought to be concealed in the bar, they are all at once prepared to stab each other in the back. All their frequent expressions of matiness and concern are instantly undercut by private greed, lust or fear.

Long thinks the US audience does not realise this. His theory is that the theme tune camouflages the show's true nature. The viewers take their cue from the lilting evocation of a place 'where everybody knows your name', and assume this is a warm and friendly show about a warm, friendly bar. Studio correspondence suggests that many viewers actually want to be Cliff Clavin, a role model from hell if ever there was one.

But these aspiring Cliffs probably do recognise his irredeemable futility, and that may be exactly what they find consoling. For, in the end, Cliff's futility does give him one role in life: he is there for absolutely everybody, Norm included, to laugh at. He belongs to the bar solely by virtue of his position as ballast, the lowest, most pointless point. And, at different levels, this lumpen futility applies to every other character. Sam Malone may be the sexually high-scoring, ex-pro baseball player, but he, too, is a useless klutz, all but brain-dead and willing to trade anything or anybody for a quick screw. Rebecca is a two-bit tart and Woody is not just a clown, he is frighteningly thick.

When the Americans laugh at and simultaneously identify with such characters, they are thinking that, if all else fails, they could at least be Cliff or Sam or Rebecca or Woody - lowlife anti-heroes who can belong in the one place where their multiple frailties find a home, 'where everybody knows your name'. It could be worse, thinks the viewer, I could be worse, stripped of everything but my rat-like self, and it still might be some kind of fun.

But there is one untainted, redemptive hero in the show: the bar. This is a strange creation. It looks realistic, with its dark wood, beer pumps and wooden Indian, but every American I have ever spoken to has admitted they don't know a single bar like it. Most assume that English pubs are roughly similar with their gossiping, plotting regulars, but certainly, they insist, there is nothing like it in the US.

It is, in fact, a clever idealisation, a calm, changeless place where you go to be your most truthful, changeless self. It is neutral ground, constantly assaulted by the demands of the real world, but always restored - even after Rebecca has burnt it down or Lilith's lover has burst in with a gun - to the same, empty, waiting stage. Cheers is, you see, Heaven, a place where not only do you become immortal but also you are free to remain yourself - your lowlife, low-rent, lying, greedy self - for ever.

Cheers seems to have slipped miraculously under the guard of American popular culture. Normally this is unspeakably bad. Look at Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis plugging their new hamburger joint on Aspel and Company at the weekend. With their unreal, caramel flesh, horribly distorted bodies, toddler clothes and infantile, self-regarding affectation that destroys speech and curdles thought, they represent the moronic bottom line of that frightening, violent culture. But the top line, Cheers, is so very high, so very cool and so very, very funny that, watching Sam and Woody, Carla and Norm, Frasier and Lilith, Cliff and Rebecca, you can forget those dreadful, posturing jerks and slump quietly down among the losers in paradise.

(Photograph omitted)

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