44. "Diane's Perfect Date," Cheers (1983)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Crossed signals have been the basis of sitcom plots since "Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her," but the misunderstandings rarely had any long-term implications until Cheers came along. In "Diane's Perfect Date," one well-worn plot — a bet that goes bad — is cleared up at the end of the episode, but only to open the wider mystery of where Sam and Diane's relationship is headed. (Five episodes later comes the conclusion of "Showdown.")
It's hard to convey how much of a thrill this episode was when it first aired. There had been previous sitcoms that teased us with episodes suggesting romantic relationships between regular characters, but they had almost always set the reset button by the following week. (On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou dated Rhoda for one episode, and on Taxi, Alex and Elaine had a one-night stand and nothing more.) They could be charming, but Cheers was more like the classic romantic comedies of theater and film, where characters played for keeps.
Sam: Would you just admit that you're hung up on me, damn it?
Diane: I am not!
Sam: You are too! (both get louder)
Diane: I am not!
Sam: You are too!
Norm: (from his barstool) Please, please! Do you think I would behave this way in your home?
"Diane's Perfect Date" begins with the pair mocking each other's taste in romantic partners: Diane is seeing someone with the irritating party trick of instantly counting the letters in everyone's sentences, and she counters that Sam's dates aren't even capable of forming sentences. So they decide to play matchmaker for each other, in one of their first games of one-upmanship. Sitcoms usually handle this kind of plot symmetrically, so that both Sam and Diane would choose horrible dates or maybe both would get jealous, but this time Diane takes the challenge seriously, while Sam gets it in his head that she's going to present herself as his perfect date.
Sam is going out on a limb, but his self-regard is so high that he doesn't realize he's doing it. (If he had thought he needed a back-up plan, would he have asked Cliff to be his understudy?) When Diane actually produces a suitable date for him, he grabs a random guy in the pool room to hold up his end of the deal.
Andy: What if she doesn't like me?
Sam: It's okay, she doesn't like anybody.
"Diane's Perfect Date" might have worked as a full-length screwball comedy in the '30s, but the fluid nature of Sam and Diane's relationship feels contemporary. When do colleagues, platonic friends, and even friends with benefits become something more, and who makes the first move? As Meredith Blake mentions in the A.V. Club discussion of this episode, Sam and Diane are all about gaining what George Constanza called "the hand" in a relationship, so it's inevitable that their feelings wouldn't come out until a comedy of errors like this. But at this point, Sam and Diane are still in their cute phrase. The more disturbing gamesmanship is yet to come.
• Though peripheral to the story, Coach has some good moments in this episode, maybe because veteran sitcom writer David Lloyd ("Chuckles Bites the Dust") is so accomplished at making sure everyone gets a few gems.
Diane: Walter happens to be a distinguished geneticist.
Coach: Oh, he studies genettes!*
*Maybe he means women named Jeanette, but I prefer to think he's referring to really tiny genes.
• The A.V. Club also ponders on the question of why "Andy Andy," the smiling murderer with a Members Only jacket, became such a popular character despite having only a few lines in this episode (though "Do you ever dream you had claws?" is a killer). Derek McGrath is very good here, but it's such a low-key performance that it's surprising for him to get a big round of applause from the studio audience as he exits the bar. I wonder if there's ever a "Clever Hans Effect" in which other actors on stage somehow convey to the audience that they're impressed with a colleague.
• Cheers is on Netflix. Below is a YouTube clip from near the end of the episode.