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sitcom smackdown

The Best Sitcom of the Past 30 Years, the Finals!: Cheers vs. The Simpsons

For the last three weeks, Vulture has been holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer was charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, and it all ends now. Today New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz makes the final call to declare the ultimate champion: Will it be Cheers or The Simpsons? Read to see, and make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket, which has already veered from our critics' choices. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.

“Hmmm ... Barney's movie had heart, but ‘Football in the Groin’ had a football in the groin.”  —Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

That line from season six’s “A Star Is Burns” film-festival episode suits this final face-off between Cheers and The Simpsons. Apples and oranges? Feh. This is apples and pineapples, or pomegranates and prickly pears. How to compare such wildly different TV comedies? What values should we prize in a contest like this one? Should the formal elegance and tonal consistency of all eleven seasons of Cheers count as an altogether greater achievement than The Simpsons’ broader, messier accomplishments: five genius-level seasons, another five intermittently wonderful ones, and another fourteen of solid B work interspersed with occasional A+ bursts of crystalline inspiration? Should we consider Cheers’ lack of 2013 pop-culture presence a demerit? Should we dock The Simpsons points for being an anything-for-a-laugh gag-fest, in contrast to the almost purely character-driven comedy of Cheers? Which show’s portrait of humanity is deeper? Which show would you rather rewatch?

All of these questions matter, dear readers. And I struggled with them; oh, how I struggled! I furrowed my brow, gnashed my teeth, and rent my garments (someday I plan on buying them, he leered, waggling his Groucho cigar).  I’ll supply a detailed re-creation of my Solomonic adjudication shortly, but first I’ll spare you the bother of scrolling to the end to find out who won — like you haven’t done that already! 

It’s The Simpsons. There is no other possible choice.

I hate having to elevate one of these great shows over the other. They’re different in just about every way, starting with their scale. Cheers is minimalist. Over eleven seasons, probably 80 percent of its action took place in Sam Malone’s bar, his office, the poolroom, and the two stairwells leading, respectively, to the ground floor seafood restaurant Melville’s and to the street. Sam, his employees, and his patrons stayed put there as if waiting for Godot, or for Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman. (The Iceman Joketh.) The show’s creative staff — with a writers' room initially led by co-creators Glen and Les Charles, and direction by third co-creator and workaholic James Burrows, who helmed 266 of the show’s 275 episodes! — perfected a unique tone, like a mildly raunchy TV cousin of screwball comedy, echoing Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and Ernest Lubitsch.

No sitcom in TV history has more expertly balanced philosophizing, lust, humiliation, and compassion without overreaching. The signature Cheers moment takes you deeper inside disappointment, misery, loneliness, and other unpleasant emotions than you expected to go, or puffs itself up with what feels alarmingly like sentimentality; then it pricks the balloon with a slapstick flourish or deft one-liner. My favorite example occurs in the season one episode “One for the Book,” in which 85-year old Buzz Crowder returns to Cheers for his yearly meeting of World War I veterans and gradually realizes that he’s the only one left alive. As Buzz leaves the bar, the gang rallies and tells him he that he should start a new tradition, a yearly meet-up celebrating the first time he met his new pals at Cheers. “Why not every week?” Buzz beams; but once he hears their tone-deaf rendition of the wartime favorite “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” he changes his mind: “Once every ten years is fine.”   

Cheers was also — as you probably noticed — a live-action series with flesh-and-blood people who aged over time, and whose characters changed incrementally, maturing or at least getting to know themselves more fully. Although it’s known as the show that turned “Will they or won’t they?” into TV comedy’s workhorse trope — Sam and Diane got together and broke up repeatedly over five seasons, careening toward marriage and cohabitation before coming to their senses (with one last go-round in the series finale) — the show ultimately feels like it’s Sam’s story. When the show begins, he’s a washed-up bar-owning ex-ballplayer, recovering alcoholic and womanizer, rakishly charming but sleazy and proudly anti-intellectual, an overgrown Peter Pan–as-satyr; his on-again, off-again affair with Diane eventually breaks and humbles him, pushing him at one point toward a domestic, child-rearing fantasy with Rebecca he eventually realizes he doesn’t want or need. By the end of the show’s run, after that last near-miss with Diane, he seems to have accepted the possibility of permanent singlehood and found peace in the knowledge that he always had a great love that never let him down: the bar itself. All of Cheers’ supporting characters (Diane, Rebecca, Cliff, Carla, Norm, Woody, Lilith, even late additions such as the barfly Pete) have suffered and grown, and learned without necessarily changing. The totality of the show has the shape of a classical drama, and thanks to Cheers’ no-fuss style, the magnitude of its accomplishment sneaks up on you. The finale’s last image of Sam in the closed, dark bar walking down a hallway with his back to the viewer has an existential purity. Cheers was about loneliness and aloneness, and understanding the difference between those words, and navigating the places where they overlap. Coach put it best: "Loneliness is a good thing to share with somebody.”

The Simpsons was never about any of that. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and Springfield’s hundreds of other recurring characters don’t change, or barely change. The series turns their inability and unwillingness to change into a joke, and ties their stasis to the sitcom form itself. Season two’s “Blood Feud” is one of many episodes to acknowledge the show’s M.O. After Homer saves Mr. Burns’s life, the skinflint tycoon gifts him with a giant Olmec head; the family struggles to find a moral in this story, and Lisa finally concludes, “Maybe there is no moral, Mom.” “Exactly!” Homer exclaims. “It's just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

And what a bunch of stuff! Every episode of The Simpsons is about television, comedy, popular culture, history, human nature, America, the world, the universe, time, space, head and groin injuries, gluttony, piety, lust, greed, hypocrisy, dogs, cats, living together, mass hysteria, parenting, marriage, maturity, immaturity, and the exquisite pleasures of the prank phone call, plus anything else that Groening and his murderer’s row of writers felt like stirring into the mix. The show’s format was gleefully elastic and inconstant; Sideshow Bob’s attempts on Bart’s life and Homer’s wanton destruction of Mr. Burns’s schemes were invariably forgiven and forgotten, just like so many momentous events in Springfield’s civic life. In this sense, The Simpsons feels like an inversion, or an explosion, of the Cheers format. Where Cheers respected the integrity of geography and time, The Simpsons blew geography a raspberry and gave time a wedgie — and that was the whole point. At the end of the season nine episode “Das Bus,” in which Bart, Lisa, and their classmates are stranded on a deserted island, returning guest narrator James Earl Jones suddenly chimes in to reassure us that the children were rescued by, “Oh, let’s say ... Moe.” And why not? It’s all just drawings anyway.

Because neither Cheers nor The Simpsons had any pretensions of doing what the other show did so amazingly well, elevating one over the other on the basis of artistic seriousness or degree of difficulty seems more absurd than anything Charles-Burrows-Charles or Matt Groening could dream up. The difference in production method alone — live action versus animation — makes direct comparison difficult. The Simpsons clearly has a creative advantage over Cheers because it can go almost anywhere and show almost anything — and man oh man, has it taken advantage of that freedom. (When my editors told me that Cheers and The Simpsons were in the final round, I immediately flashed to a great Freaks and Geeks scene in which Jason Segel’s Nick realizes he can’t win a disco dancing contest because his chief rival is a skilled illusionist who pulls canes, playing cards, and scarves from his leisure suit. “They didn’t tell us you were allowed to do magic!” he whines.)

So what measurable criteria are we left with? Just two: consistency of vision, and overall impact.

In consistency of vision, Cheers is the clear winner, thanks in large part to its humility and extraordinary self-knowledge. The show always knew what it was and what its audience would or would not accept, and wrought increasingly dazzling variations on the formulas it had set up. Its flexibility was the flexibility of a real live person — one who had been around the block a few times and had just enough wisdom to know when to bend or fold or change direction. When the beloved Coach died between seasons, Cheers didn’t do a tearful very-special-episode sendoff, because wallowing in big emotions was never the show’s style. It had Sam make a brief reference to his dear friend having died three months earlier, in an introductory conversation with his young, very Coach-like replacement, Woody Boyd. When Diane exited the picture, Cheers tried to replace her with Rebecca, then quickly realized that there could never be a replacement for Sam and Diane’s prickly, volatile, Fay-Wray-and-King-Dong chemistry and pivoted gracefully, retooling Rebecca as a supporting character and turning Sam’s years-long reaction against having lost his great love into an integral part of his evolution. (When Sam and Diane nearly elope in the final episode, “One for the Road,” then come to their senses after hallucinating personal warnings from the airplane crew, it’s the closest Cheers gets to ancient Greek-style deus ex machina — a double-shot of wisdom that anyone who’s been in a Sam-and-Diane-type relationship should imbibe.)

The Simpsons, in contrast, has always been entropic, all-encompassing, at times scattered, and it makes its all-over-the-placeness a point of pride. That explanation doesn’t quite explain or excuse its dip in quality over 25 years. Everyone seems to agree that at some point it stopped being brilliant and became alternately amusing and tiresome, with occasional flashes of autumnal genius. (“All pumpkins are racist! The difference is, I admit it!”: “Treehouse of Horror XIX,” season twenty.) How many seasons can one legitimately label as classic?

I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. At some point in its run, the show transcended aesthetic concerns and became an institution, a juggernaut, a public utility, a monument, and (yes, really) a living document that’s probably quoted as widely and frequently as the Bible, and with a lot more enthusiasm. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Simpsons ran for another twenty years, or until one of its principals croaked of old age. (What if it’s Dan Castellaneta and it happens during taping? One last Homeric wail of anguish! They’d probably weave it into the final episode, the way John Travolta did with Nancy Allen’s dying scream at the end of Blow Out.)

Plus, at a certain point, indestructibility trumps every other value — especially if the artists in question have earned a spot in the pop culture pantheon, as The Simpsons surely has. Put it this way: The Rolling Stones continued to record and tour for a solid 32 years after their last really good original album (1981’s Tattoo You), but no matter how many “Get off the stage, old man!” jokes you make, you can never take 1964–1981, or even 1964–1972, away from them. The brilliant early stuff put them in the pantheon and will keep them there. Those first five or ten or however many seasons of The Simpsons should assure Groening & Co. the same degree of permanence, or whatever passes for permanence in the firmament of pop culture. To explain why, I need to get personal for a moment.

I re-watched a lot of Cheers over the last few weeks, and at some point my 9-year-old son heard the theme song and said, “Hey, that sounds like the Flaming Moe’s song” — i.e., the parody of the Cheers theme, heard in season three.* I explained to him that The Simpsons was parodying Cheers, just as it parodied everything else under the sun. Then he went into his room and built superhero dioramas out of Legos; his first exposure to superhero comics was at age 5 or so, via Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy on The Simpsons. His favorite Lego-building soundtrack is the Psycho score; he asked me to buy it if after hearing snippets of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock soundtracks in Simpsons episodes. Meanwhile, as I was making notes on Cheers, my teenage daughter, who likes to text me silly cartoons and captioned photos, sent me a frame grab from season fourteen’s “Pray Anything,” in which Marge sues the church: a flyer showing Homer asleep in a pew, captioned, “Jesus died for this?”

Not every day in the Seitz household is that Simpsons-heavy. But if you’re reading this piece, you can probably relate. A decade-plus past its prime, The Simpsons has a stronger presence in American life than Cheers, Seinfeld, Community, or any other sitcom you can think of. Since Matt Groening’s show debuted in 1988, not a week has gone by that I haven’t thought about it, quoted it, or heard someone else quote it. The writing staff’s vacuum cleaner has ingested so much data and imagery that it’s hard for a fan to think about a significant TV show, movie, play, musical, painting, song, fairy tale, myth, or historical incident without remembering how The Simpsons made fun of it. Cheers is a flawless pearl glinting on a beach. But The Simpsons is the beach. It’s bigger than Cheers, bigger than sitcoms, in some ways bigger than television. It’s our virtual Smithsonian and Library of Congress, our collective data cloud, the Force, or Farce, that surrounds us, binds us, and holds the galaxy together. The Simpsons losing the Vulture comedy bracket? That’s unpossible.

Winner: The Simpsons

* The episode that featured "Flaming Moe's" has been corrected; it was not in "Fear of Flying" as first indicated, but rather in the season-three episode called, appropriately enough, "Flaming Moe's."