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When Cheers Became Cheers: An Appreciation of ‘Endless Slumper’

Ted Danson as bartender Same Malone in Cheers. Photo: NBC

Thirty-five years after it first premiered, Cheers remains a sitcom benchmark, a comedy institution that left an indelible mark on the modern television landscape. Over the course of its 11 seasons, Cheers perfected the workplace–cum–surrogate family template established by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. It helped introduce TV audiences to the viability of will-they, won’t-they relationships, multi-episode arcs, and disconnected cold opens. Pick a workplace sitcom from the last 25 years, and odds are it owes a debt to Cheers co-creators Glen and Les Charles, as well as veteran director James Burrows. The series gained admirers from all walks of life, from subsequent TV stars like Amy Poehler and Dan Harmon to other cultural luminaries like Prince and Kurt Vonnegut, who once said that he’d “rather have written Cheers than anything [he’s] written.” It’s a comedy behemoth whose shadow still looms large over the medium.

But in the fall of 1982, during its first season, Cheers was just a critically adored, low-rated freshman sitcom. In its first 13 episodes, the original run ordered by NBC, the series introduced and slowly developed its five main characters: womanizing owner Sam Malone (Ted Danson), haughty intellectual Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), the lovable yet senile Coach Ernie Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto), wisecracking Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), and resident barfly Norm Peterson (George Wendt). It established the bar setting as a living, breathing institution, complete with its own recurring faces and unique quirks, which allowed the series to keep the action limited to one location and three sets for its debut year. Taken as a whole, the first season is a minimalist gem that, in its best moments, aspired to the immediacy and tension of live theater.

Yet with any great show, there comes an episode that elevates its status from “very good” to “all-timer” by surpassing its fixed potential and entering a new plane of quality. For Cheers, that episode was “Endless Slumper,” which came ten weeks into its run, on December 2, 1982, and illustrated what exactly the series was capable of accomplishing.

In “Endless Slumper,” written by the late, great Sam Simon, struggling Red Sox relief pitcher Rick (Christopher McDonald, later of Thelma & Louise and Happy Gilmore fame) enters Cheers to solicit advice from Sam about getting “back on the beam.” Sam reluctantly lends his lucky bottle cap to Rick so that it might improve his performance. Rick ends up a hero on the mound, but Sam’s own good fortune dwindles without the cap, evidenced by his inability to perform his singular bartending trick: sliding a beer mug around the corner of the bar.

The majority of the episode maintains focus on the ensemble as they try to help Rick, and then lament Sam’s bad luck. Though it features some stellar jokes — especially the sight gag of Norm using his 22 empty beer steins to measure the length of an extra-inning baseball game — it’s a relatively quiet affair fitting with the tone of the series’ early years. It’s heavy on conversation, wordplay, and farcical misunderstanding, and light on belly laughs.

In its final six minutes, however, Simon shifts the focus entirely to Sam and Diane (who are in the very early stages of their strained mutual attraction), and “Endless Slumper” moves into a more mature register. Diane learns that Sam’s lucky bottle cap didn’t help him win games, but helped him maintain his sobriety. Without it, he’s feeling tempted to drink again. Sam then finally reaches Rick, who confesses that he lost the bottle cap a week ago and has put off telling him about it. Diane then desperately tries to stop Sam from relapsing at his place of business.

Simon’s approach in this closing sequence forgoes emotional shortcuts by emphasizing patience and silence. His script allows both characters to organically move through credible, nuanced emotions without shortchanging the transitions, the moments when one face fades away and another one suddenly takes its place. Sam’s monologue about the bottle cap never falls into maudlin very-special-episode territory, but remains grounded and simple, consistent with Sam’s characterization up to this point. Diane plays the reactive agent, initially adopting a skeptic’s remove toward Sam’s story, but she, too, comes to understand its significance without belaboring the message.

It’s when Sam learns that the bottle cap has been lost forever that the dual performances overtake the script. Danson and Long would have many electrifying scenes as a couple in future episodes, but this is a platonic scene between new co-workers and it’s mesmerizing. At the beginning of the sequence, Danson plays overjoyed relief that he’s finally getting his bottle cap back, but as soon as Sam learns the bad news, his visage turns convincingly morose, and he subsequently channels a recovering addict’s frustration. He paces around behind the bar, clearly steaming as he halfheartedly restocks glasses. It’s only a matter of time until Danson plays angry on a dime. “What are you gonna tell me that I haven’t heard a hundred times, huh?” Sam sneers at Diane when she insists she just wants to talk.

Long’s role in the scene might be secondary, but it’s no less important. The Charles brothers designed the Diane character to be a fish-out-of-water type, a privileged thorn in the side of a blue-collar environment. Long’s theatrically affected performance heightened that design by purposefully clashing with the subdued, naturalistic acting of her co-workers. Though this would later create issues as Diane’s relationship with the ensemble changed, Long’s play-to-the-cheap-seats technique is still reaching its peak during this scene. She potently communicates intimidation and distress behind a failing façade, her concern reaching a believably high register without belying the scene’s restrained emotional work. It never fails to choke me up when, after Sam tells her that he’s always going to be in a bar every night, Long delivers, through a slightly cracked voice, a futile plea: “But you’re gonna feel better tomorrow!”

Burrows, who directed the majority of Cheers and established its house visual style, privileged a moving camera over a stationary one. His camera frequently traveled with the characters both to illustrate a scene’s dynamism and to emphasize the set’s expanse. He employs that style in the beginning of the sequence as Sam moves from one side of the bar to the other to tell Diane about his past, visually drawing out the eventual truth. As the tension escalates, he limits the motion to key moments, allowing the performances to shine in medium shots and close-ups. The constrained framing renders the normally inviting bar a prison of sorts. At the moment when Sam decides he’ll “feel better now” by pouring himself a beer, Burrows quickly pushes in from one side of the bar to Sam’s location on the opposite end, keeping pace with the character’s own impulsivity. It’s a small gesture, but it perfectly captures the Sam’s desperation and misguided focus.

Everyone’s talents shine in the climax when Sam pours himself a beer and decides not to take a drink. It’s a hoary idea on paper, but Burrows’s staging of that moment, along with Danson and Long’s own controlled performances, render it downright inspiring. It takes a little over 30 seconds from when Sam pours the beer into a glass to when he successfully slides the glass around the bar, and yet it feels like an eternity. There are only six shots in those 30 seconds, and while each is crucial, the penultimate medium shot of Sam slowly deciding not to succumb is a series’ high point. Simon’s script and Burrows’s direction established the scene’s high stakes, and Danson realistically conveys a person’s capacity to resist temptation under enormous pressure. It’s a process and it’s a decision.

Of course, none of that would work if “The Endless Slumper” didn’t successfully create the illusion that Sam might take that drink. We know he won’t because a prime-time network sitcom demands a return to the status quo, but the scene’s true magic lies in its ability to suspend that disbelief. Danson, Long, Simon, and Burrows all bring their respective skills to the table, and their collective ability to play the studio audience like an instrument allows for that belief to be deferred. The audience mostly stays silent during the sequence because it’s not really played for laughs, but the silence only becomes a part of the scene itself as soon as Sam pours the beer. You can feel the audience in that room at the edge of their seat. You can feel the room, and that collective anticipation engenders the necessary catharsis for Sam’s triumph and Diane’s relief.

Cheers would have more scenes like these in the future, ones that embraced the series’ melancholic foundation and its corresponding emotional stakes. Yet, “Endless Slumper” first signaled that the series was capable of creating a space for the somber and the joyous to sit together hand in hand. It actively engaged with the medium’s inherently theatrical nature, channeling television’s unique ability for direct emotional connection. It welcomed the idea that a bar slide could be a substitute for a reclamation of the soul. Cheers innately understood that life, in the words of Lester Freamon, is the shit that happens while you wait for moments that never come, but it never accepted that that shit was solely mundane. “Endless Slumper” illustrated it could take the form of a bartender helping a stranger out of a jam, or a makeshift family worrying about their patriarch, or even a lonely night when two co-workers stare down a dark path and choose not to take it. Most importantly, it embodied the subtext of Cheers: A place where everybody knows your name is a small, but necessary comfort in an otherwise unforgiving world.

“Endless Slumper” is available to watch on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and CBS All Access.

In Praise of the Cheers Episode ‘Endless Slumper’