Lessons from Great TV #4: Cheers
Film directors are often advised to burn the first reel, and audiences are usually better off skipping a sitcom’s first episode. Comedy pilots, even for shows that later became classics, generally aren’t very good, for reasons that aren’t hard to understand. They’re often shot before the writers or actors have figured out of the show’s voice; the cast hasn’t had time to develop a comfortable rhythm, or to see which combinations of characters are most promising; and worst of all, their scripts are usually saddled with a lot of exposition. As David Mamet likes to point out, when we tune into a television show halfway through, we already know exactly what’s going on—so why do we need all this backstory? The answer is that pilots aren’t made for viewers, but for studio and network executives, who, as any screenwriter can attest, like to have the backstory spelled out. And for comedy, which is rarely very good at conveying information, this sort of thing can be deadly. (This is one reason why dramas are more likely to have strong pilots than comedies, and why there’s never been a comedy pilot as good as the first episodes of Twin Peaks or Mad Men.)
Cheers has one of the rare sitcom pilots that works. Watching “Give Me a Ring Sometime” again this morning, I was struck by how elegantly structured it is. Crucially, it doesn’t try to throw too much information at the audience at once: it introduces the principal characters one at a time, and it doesn’t present us with a new face until we’re comfortable with the ones we’ve seen so far. In particular, it starts with Sam by himself, then opens, brilliantly, with an encounter with a character we’re clearly never going to see again, a kid trying to get into the bar with a fake ID. As a result, instead of scrambling to process two major characters at once, we’re focused, properly, on the star. The other regular players enter roughly in order of importance: it’s no accident that the next entrance belongs to Diane. Every ensuing beat is built around a readily identifiable situation, as screenwriter Terry Rossio recommends, and the plot itself, with Diane waiting in the bar for her fiancé to return, couldn’t be simpler. These are all smart decisions by writers Glen and Les Charles that could, in theory, be copied—but it wouldn’t work if it weren’t also funny and charming in a way that defies easy interpretation. Like most great shows, Cheers occupies the place where craft and magic meet. It’s easy to see how it’s done. It’s just hard to do it yourself.
Tomorrow: The accidental finale, or “How’s Annie?”