My wife and I sat down to watch through all of Cheers together—a commitment of 100+ hours of viewing time—partly as another comedy show to add to our Netflix rotation, partly because of my interest in the pop cultural value, and partly because the show Frasier (top contender for my favorite sitcom, which I intended to watch through next) takes place in the same universe as Cheers (and, incidentally, Wings). I'm a sucker for in-universe crossovers and continuity, so knowing Cheers was where Frasier Crane made his debut was enough extra encouragement to make the show our Next Big Viewing Project.
The first season was superb. Memorable characters, witty jokes, and plenty of personality. As we moved on to the second season, the show was still enjoyable, but more and more of the jokes and plotlines were new spins on old material, and the turbulent romance between the two lead characters left us aggravated as often as entertained. As the third season unfolded, "sitcom syndrome" had set in—the wretched curse of miscommunication, deceit, and awkward situations blowing situations out of proportion for allegedly humorous effect. My wife and I have a low tolerance threshold for this kind of comedy. Despite my wife's shared interest in seeing Frasier before Frasier, the character was only a bit player at this point in the series, and even his high-minded psychobabble wasn't enough to salvage the show for her. By the fourth season, I was watching solo.
Unlike my wife, who insists on watching every episode of a series in order, I have no compunction about skipping over any episodes that don't look particularly appealing. Most series I watch on Netflix are for self-education, not story; I want a cursory, yet meaningful, exposure to popular and culturally significant television. I'm in it for the expanded repertoire of things I can write and talk about; any fun I have is just a bonus. I'll start with the first and end with the last episode of a series, and I'll pick out one or two of the most important-looking episodes from each season in-between. If the show is worth my time, I'll start picking out a few more episodes of interest here and there. If I'm hooked by the time I get to the end, I'll go back and fill in the gaps with some or all of the episodes I skipped. Such was the case with Cheers.
Skimming through the episode descriptions, there were entire seasons that looked intolerable. Rebecca, a main character introduced halfway through the series, brought down the show for me—shallow, self-involved, opportunistic, unqualified as a manager, the perpetual target of men's sexual advances, and nervously psychotic, I struggled to find any redeeming qualities to make me like her whenever she wasn't making me laugh. I focused on the episodes centered around Frasier, which carried me past whole story arcs that reeked of sitcom syndrome. Nearing the end of the series, I was ready to give Cheers three stars out of five; the show was never bad, but the best parts kept getting nullified by the tedious parts I had to power through.
I got to the final episode, technically a three-parter, which was touted as one of the most memorable finales in television history. I paused. On an individual basis, yes, these episodes really did average out to three stars in my book. Yet, after a generous sampling, I wasn't quite ready to finish this off and remove it from the queue—and that's the mark of a four- or five-star series. I sprang back to where I left off in Season 4 and spent a weekend marathoning just about every episode that looked amusing or important. Which still left out huge chunks of Rebecca's romantic story arcs. But when I had circled back to the final three episodes, I was glad I'd taken the extra time to get to know this series better. I felt a sense of satisfaction in the conclusion that would have been missing otherwise.
In the midst of all the unnecessary angst and disaster that characterize so much of the show, there are key moments of character development and genuinely clever comedy that make Cheers worth watching. There are recurring themes and running gags and little nuances that make the characters endearing beyond the scope of an individual episode. The fact that people recognize Norm wherever he goes. Cliff's side comments that paint an increasingly bizarre picture of his personal life. Carla's late-night heart-to-hearts with Sam. The ever-escalating rivalry between Cheers and Gary's Olde Towne Tavern. My wife is right: You miss these kinds of things if you speed through a show.
In watching these characters develop and their relationships flower, flourish, and wither—and not necessarily in that order—I also gained a renewed appreciation for how easily my wife and I fell in love. I didn't spend years trying to charm her into giving me a chance; she didn't move off to Canada just as our relationship was getting started; we didn't wait until we were standing at the altar to start considering the ramifications of being together for the rest of our lives. We got acquainted through our social circles, got to talking one night and found we had a lot in common, began hanging out together more, started dating, put some heavy thought into getting engaged, got engaged, got married, stayed married. So far, neither of us has turned out to be an inside trader on the run from the law, or a womanizing scumbag, so we're in excellent shape in terms of Cheers relationships. As long as I don't join the ice show and my wife doesn't have her pictures taken by a French photographer, we should be able to expect several more seasons together without manufactured drama.
Not that life is always rainbows and kittens in the absence of a diminutive, underage boss effectively making us choose between dating him and keeping our jobs, but we aren't constantly lying, making under-the-table deals with people, and escaping from underground Eco-Pods to hold our marriage together. Maybe that makes us boring. Still, I'm grateful that when we talk about going our separate ways, we're only ever referring to one of us jumping ship on a TV show we started watching together. And that last episode of Cheers? I'd say it's one of the most famous sitcom finales in television history because, for once, we saw the characters for who they really were—people, not punchlines—and they were as truly relatable as the friends with whom we'd share a drink in real life.