96. "Showdown (Part II)," Cheers (1983)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
"Showdown" is a landmark episode for a number of reasons. It's the prototype for the season-ending cliffhanger in sitcoms (as opposed to dramas like Dallas). It's also an early example of a sitcom "going there" — i.e., changing the relationship of its principals (in this case, bar owner Sam and overeducated waitress Diane) in an irrevocable fashion. Previously, there was a near-universal skittishness about writing sitcoms into a corner (Rhoda's wedding was regarded as a cautionary tale), but since Cheers ended its first season with a shippers' wish-fulfillment episode, viewers have felt entitled to complain when a TV series drags out the "will they or won't they" question for too long.
(Cheers might have been liberated by its atrocious ratings during its first season, and the prospect of a short run might have made a Hail Mary pass like "Showdown" more attractive — in the same way that underdog Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as a running mate the next year. Whatever the intent of the producers, I wonder whether a better reception for Cheers' first season might caused NBC to argue against changes, giving us a show more like Who's the Boss? or the Niles-and-Daphne episodes of Frasier.)
More excitingly, "Showdown" also gives us a romantic relationship that's more about lust and one-upsmanship than about the love we've seen displayed between the Ricardos, Petries, and even the Bunkers on other sitcoms. A high-minded intepretation is that the pair are engaged in a clash of philosophies as defined by Nietzsche, with Diane representing rational Apollo and Sam making the case for hedonistic Dionysus. Diane probably sees things this way in her more optimistic moments.
In practice, Diane and Sam are simply trying to annihilate each other's worldview and self-esteem. Hence Diane's belittling remarks about Sam's lack of intelligence and Sam's irritated references to the stick up Diane's butt. The goal is complete dependence on the part of the (now broken) other person, so that he or she stays in the relationship merely out of fright at dying alone.
In the screwball comedies that Cheers emulates, the kiss at the end signals that all the previous bickering and deception is forgiven, and everyone accepts that the ends have justified the means. But Cheers keeps going. And It makes you wonder whether the couples in films like It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby made it to their first anniversary without killing each other.
•Here is the transcript of what TV Tropes calls the Slap-Slap-Kiss moment of the episode:
Sam: You are the nuttiest, the stupidest, the phoniest fruitcake I ever met!
Diane: You, Sam Malone, are the most arrogant self centered, son of a b...
Sam: SHUT IT! Shut your fat mouth!
Diane: Make me!
Sam: Make you?! My God I'm-I'm gonna, I'm GONNA BOUNCE YOU OFF EVERY WALL IN THIS OFFICE!!
Diane: Try it and you'll be walking funny tomorrow... Or should I say funnier?
Sam: You know... you know I always wanted to pop you one! Maybe this is my lucky day, huh?
Diane: You disgust me! I hate you!
Sam: Are you as turned on as I am?
•The final scene has overanalytical Diane and impulsive Sam attempting to switch roles. As the screen goes black, Sam awkwardly says, "Now I'm going to nibble on your ear" and Diane snaps back, "Don't tell me you're going to nibble on my ear!" The idea that opposites can achieve personal growth by adopting aspects of each other's personality is shown to be wrongheaded — even Clavinesque — from the very beginning.
• The two middle-aged women who keep increasing the potency of their drink order are among the show's best one-time-only patrons.
• There are two gags that I can't imagine would be as good without the live audience. One is the increasingly indifferent rounds of "Goodbye, Diane" from everyone at the bar for each of her aborted exits, with the audience laughter adding to the riot of noise. The other is the revelation of the eavesdroppers at Sam's door. The actors having to hang in mid-action for a second or two while the laughter dies down makes them look even more absurd. And I love that the two ladies from the previous bullet point are right there with the regulars.
•Why isn't this episode ranked higher? The plot contrivance to bring Sam and Diane together — Sam's supposedly perfect brother, who woos Diane but whom we never see — is a touch too gimmicky. And the minor plots involving Norm and the Coach are non-starters. So we have to wait awhile to get to the great stuff in this episode. But don't assume that this is the only appearance by Sam and Diane in the Top 100.
•The A.V. Club's Noel Murray covers Sam and Diane's relationship in his review of the episode "Fortune and Men's Weight," and he frequently mentions "Showdown" — which should be coming up soon in the website's episode-by-episode discussion (it's now here). TV Surveillance has already covered the episode here.
Cheers episodes aren't on YouTube, but the complete series in on Netflix streaming video.