Monday, March 8, 2004 by

Occasionally, just occasionally, you manage to catch a little slice of history on your screen and it fills your heart with joy that you witnessed something special. This episode of Cheers is not quite one of the all-time classics but it was, undoubtedly, one of the most historic. With the unforgettable line, “Hi Sam – I’m Dr Frasier Crane” the character of Frasier was deposited onto our screens and into our hearts, where he has remained for almost 20 years.

This episode may have first aired on British television screens around (and I’m guessing) November 1984 but it has lost little in the intervening period; the season opener in perhaps the best run of the show (the third – and the only series to feature both Kelsey Grammer and Nicolas Colosanto) this slice of Boston bar life stands the test of time and remains, indomitably, a classic example of one the all-time great sitcoms. Whilst we in the UK argue over the relative merits of the contenders on the rather inconsistent and slapdash list produced by BBC2 for Britains Favourite Sitcom and further argue over the meritocracy of those involved, Channel 4 quietly and proudly slips Cheers into the early morning schedule for our viewing delight. God bless them for that, I say.

Following on from Friends and the quite magnificent Everybody Loves Raymond, Cheers is balm for the troubled early morning soul. I would urge anyone reading this to set their videos on a daily basis as there are some brilliant episodes that will appearing over the next few weeks – highlights include Nancy Marchand’s wonderful turn as Hester Crane (a must for all Frasier fans), another astonishingly brilliant performance from Dan Hedaya at the incomparably sleazy Nick Tortelli, Norm deciding to give up all his worldly goods, renounce modern living and sail away to live forevermore on Bora Bora and Frasier’s snipe-hunting trip to try and bond with the regulars. This is a living, breathing example of American ensemble comedy at the very zenith of its art form and it sets a preposterously (and almost impossibly) high benchmark for those who wish to follow it. The 25 episodes that make up this third season of Cheers are, arguably, the best situation comedy to have come out of America and deserve to be bracketed alongside the very best of The Phil Silvers Show, M*A*S*H and Frasier.

In this opener we had all the usual ingredients; a sniping, violent Carla, a Normism (“A beer, Norm?” “You smooth talker!”), Cliff failing to realise his profound unpopularity, Sam lusting after a pair of baton twirling majorettes and Coach as detached from reality as he ever is. Each part is played to perfection. The timing of the entire cast is miraculously immaculate but special praise is due for both Shelley Long and Nicholas Colasanto. Whilst Long may have been, behind the scenes, a somewhat difficult individual to work with (indeed, she tried, unsuccessfully, to have Kelsey Grammer removed from the show) in front of the cameras she was a gifted, natural comic actress. Her face showed a depth and range of expression that the likes of Amanda Holden can only dream of as she evinced her way through this episode.

But for me, as ever, the real star of the show is the late, lamented Nicholas Colasanto. The character of Ernie “Coach” Pantuso remains amongst the finest creations in sitcom history and Colasanto’s consistent level of performance elevates him to the pantheon of comedy genius. Today, we saw him brilliantly ad-libbing to John Ratzenberger, who was almost doubled-up, convulsing with laughter. To appear so monumentally idiotic and utterly childlike takes a considerable amount of talent, and Colasanto has it in spades. Such is his performance that the viewer is convinced that he really is that stupid. His timing was, perhaps, the best in the business and his comic performance is always so measured and unbelievably assured. Undoubtedly, the rock upon which the show was built, the tragic loss of Colasanto was a huge blow to the show. Another reason for viewers to drink in and marvel at his comic genius over the next few weeks.

The debut performance of Kelsey Grammer was brief but memorable nonetheless. Already one could see the early architecture and putative skeleton of the Frasier Crane character and Grammer gave an honest, deftly nuanced performance as Diane’s former psychiatrist turned lover. Thankfully Long’s protestations about Grammers’ inclusion were in vain as the show certainly needed another character to alter the on-screen dynamic, especially that of the Sam/Diane relationship. One of the great joys of seeing Frasier develop on Cheers is watching the gang slowly, but surely, smoothing out his well-refined, WASP corners and transforming him from cold, analytical uptight shrink to amiable barfly. That Frasier Crane has remained in popular culture so long (he is now the second-longest running character in American TV history) is testament to the acting and comedic talents of Grammer, one of the great talents of his generation.

This episode was a joy to watch. It was not, as I said, one of the classics but it contained all the essential ingredients that, when put together, combine to make one of the all-time great television shows. It’s an old line and one that has, in all honesty, been done to death but Cheers was a place where you wanted everyone to know your name just as you knew, and loved, their’s.


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