This is why Cheers writers risked everything to bring Sam and Diane together in the first season
Cheers was a show that truly grew over time. It started with a cast of five and eventually expanded to a core of eight cast members. It began with every scene shot in the bar and eventually took us out to other locations. It was a sitcom, sure, but it was never supposed to be stuck in one groove, and series co-creator James Burrows said in an interview with the Archive for American Television that was very much by design.
According to Burrows, the plan was always to have Cheers adapt from season to season, and it didn't take writers on the show very long to declare this objective to the world. They did it just about as boldly as you could in the realm of primetime television: by tossing out the TV rulebook and making the supposedly ill-advised decision to end the flirtation between their two series leads, Shelley Long and Ted Danson. Burrows said, "We did something that the critics thought would kill the show, which was we brought Sam and Diane together.”
He's referring to the two-part finale of the very first season of Cheers, a memorable episode called "Showdown." In it, Sam's brother comes to town, and the competitive dynamic between the boys only increases when suddenly Diane is made to romantically choose between the two. Burrows said the entire plot was a set-up to push Sam and Diane to finally kiss and their decision to bring about this moment so soon was definitely meant to be a statement to those pushy critics who warned them not to do it. "We didn’t care what they said," Burrows said, "because we were going to do an evolving show, so we said, we’re going to get them together.”
The moment arrives during what Burrows identified as Cheers' longest-running scene in the series, where a party is happening, and people keep nosing into the backroom to talk to Sam. Among them is Diane, and in true Sam-and-Diane fashion, when the pair finally unites, it's in the middle of an impassioned confrontration. Burrows said the whole two-part episode took them just a little more than three hours to shoot, knocking out the full finale in just one night. Although Cheers' has a magical ensemble cast, this had never happened before, and it's a testament to how easy and natural the moment came in the show at that point that they were able to wrap it up so quickly.
The back half of "Showdown" ends just after the famous TV kiss, and all this time later, Burrows is able to succintly define what was so exciting about this unusual choice of a sitcom cliffhanger: "It was the beginning of the affair but the culmination of the flirtation.” Nobody could guess where the show would go next, and that's what made Burrows' and Glen and Les Charles' show so positively magnetic for audiences over the course of 11 seasons.
There's just one more lesson in this particular episode of Cheers for TV writers today. Burrows said what worked between Sam and Diane was that the writers were never afraid to delve into serious issues, but they also refused to go more than a page or two, maximum, without a joke. So no matter how hard the writing hit, Diane was already ready to pull a nose or get a quick face-slap in to break the tension and get a laugh. “That doesn’t happen very much anymore on sitcoms," Burrows said.
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