4. "I'll Be Seeing You," Cheers (1984)
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.
When Diane says it to Sam on the second-season finale of Cheers, after they've repeatedly slapped each other and are stuck in a nose-pulling travesty of a mating dance, it is shocking and suspenseful as well as hilarious. The moment can never be the same as it was in 1984, when Cheers was bringing the sitcom into unexplored territory. Now we see romantic cliffhangers all the time and know how easily things can be reset (see How I Met Your Mother), but when "I'll Be Seeing You" first aired, it really seemed possible for Diane would to walk out of Sam's bar forever.
The episode takes place a year after Sam and Diane bowed to the inevitable and became a couple (see "Showdown"), and we're seeing what happens long after the closing credits on a screwball comedy like It Happened One Night or a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn film. The movies have conditioned us to think that opposites attract, but in the case of the hedonist bartender and the intellectual waitress, their differences only grow more problematic. Sam and Diane may have genuinely saw a chance to better themselves through their relationship, but they've actually spent more energy trying to control each other.
Diane: Oh my God, Sam, I've made you a babbling idiot.
Sam: Who are you calling a babbling idiot?
Diane: You don't have to get upset. I'm actually criticizing myself.
Sam: You just called me a babbling idiot and you're criticizing yourself? Do me a favor, let me criticize me for a while. You're sickening!
The final scene, with only Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long), is almost 10 minutes long, but it never feels static, thanks in part to the choreography by veteran sitcom director James Burrows. The pair constantly circle the bar and each other, and the object of their latest fight, a portrait of Diane hidden in brown paper, takes on the weight of a ticking time bomb.
Burrows and scriptwriters Glen and Les Charles (the three creators of the series) tweak the rhythm of sitcom dialogue in a way that lets us know this is not just another argument with flirtatious undertones.
"In the last six months, you've come so far, made so much progress," Diane chirps when assuring Sam that he'll like the abstract painting. Instead of throwing back a one-liner, Sam just stares at Diane (who avoids his gaze), weighing his options, before escalating the tension with "You know, you sound like you're talking about a chimp." Diane tries returning to a lighter tone with "That's a ludicrous comparison. There isn't a chimp alive who can keep up with you!" That gets a relieved laugh from the audience, but it doesn't appease Sam.
Then there's the nose-pulling moment, when Diane says the line cited at the beginning of this post but gets a huge laugh from the audience after just five words: "We have sunk as low—" I wrote about a similar moment in the Dick Van Dyke Show episode "All About Eavesdropping," when Buddy tries to defuse a tense moment with a corny one-liner and actor Morey Amsterdam can only get out "I haven't had laughs like this since—" before the audience drowns him out with laughter. It's a mark of strong plotting and characterization when sitcom writers don't need to lean on jokey dialogue to get such a response from an audience.
Shelley Long does get the rest of the line out, at least for home viewers to hear, and she does a masterful job in the multi-camera format, as Noel Murray points out in the A.V. Club discussion of this episode: "The way Shelley Long works around the audience’s laughter when Diane and Sam have each other by the nose is a prime example of how shooting a sitcom live can be a boon. I’d love to show that to everyone who sniffs about the awfulness of the 'laugh track.'"
Indeed, the reactions of the audience are less intrusive than the film editing, music cues, and voice narration on many contemporary single-camera sitcoms. Long and Danson are able to build tension without any artificial help, and when they graduate from insults to face-slapping, it's both startlingly funny and almost unbearingly sad.
Diane: Do you know the diffrence between you and a fat, braying ass?
Diane: The fat, braying ass would.
Sam: Speaking of fat, braying asses, you're about to get dumped on yours.
"I'll Be Seeing You," a two-part episode, builds up to its epic conclusion with a series of deceptions, adding to the pile that Sam and Diane have been building since they first kissed. Sam is named one of Boston magazine's "Most Eligible Bachelors," which understandably upsets Diane, but he insists that he told the magazine that he's got a girlfriend. Of course, he's lying, and Sam frets that Diane is surely going to find out by calling the reporter. "There was a time when she wouldn't call," he says, perhaps remembering a two- or three-day stretch in their relationship.
Coach: Sam, you don't trust Diane very much, huh?
Sam: Coach, it's gotten to a point where I can't trust a thing that woman says.
Norm: I know what you mean, Sam. Once the trust goes out of a relationship, it's really no fun lying to them anymore.
Sam soon tells Diane about his deception, seemingly out of pure malice. He confesses as much to the guys at the bar, saying, "It's gotten to the point where I start doing things I don't even want to do, but just knowing it's going to tick her off, I gotta do them." Later, as Diane sits for her portrait, she says, "Sometimes he hurts me and seems to like it."
The portrait is Cliff's idea, offered after Sam grouses, "It's going to take a lot more than music and a candlelit dinner to shut her up this time." But Philip Semenko (Christopher Lloyd), a snobbish painter on Cliff's mail route, has no interest in creating a portrait from Sam's snapshots of Diane. "I find myself face to face with a nightmarish product of our floundering American educational system," he says after a minute with the bartender. "You are all stuff to fill graves," he tells the Cheers patrons, a line that seems to unsettle the studio audience but which I found hysterically funny. Semenko's ludicrous misanthropy makes for an important contrast with Diane, who can be just as pretentious but retains an optimistic view of humanity and has genuine affection for the barflies like Norm and Cliff.
Sam tells the painter to get out, but Semenko gets a glimpse of Diane and decides he must paint her. "Your eyes have the look of a strangling sparrow," he tells Diane, a grim compliment that nevertheless intrigues her. Though Sam forbids it, she agrees to sit for Semenko in secret, who says of Sam, "He'll hate it. And he'll hate you for doing it." Diane insists that Semenko is wrong, but it's clear that she's prepared to make a break if Sam fails the test. That way, of course, she can end the relationship on her own terms.
The gamesmanship leads to that unforgettable final scene, when the two are simply exhausted from battles of the previous year, driving them to express themselves through brutal honesty and even physical violence. Donna Bowman nicely summarizes the battle in the A.V. Club discussion:
...as the stakes get higher, neither of them can stop in order to step back from the brink. That slap fight and nose-twist sequence is a masterpiece — both funny and legitimately humiliating for the two of them. When Sam dismisses Diane’s offense by saying he didn’t hit her that hard, and she asks what that means, he hisses: “It means not as hard as I wanted to.” There’s no veneer of civilization left to provide a cushion between word and act. And then when we see Diane’s legs on the steps stop, turn, and wait, a moment with no music or laughter behind it, only our collective held breath — well, that may be the most heartbreak the American sitcom could ever hope to produce. To quote Sam: “Wow.”
We've seen a lot of sitcom couples break up since "I'll Be Seeing You," but in most cases, we viewers are simply relieved that the show is finally giving up on a pairing that just doesn't work. Sam and Diane remain the best example of a romantic duo who seem to be guiding the writers rather than the reverse.
• One of my pet peeves in sitcoms is when two characters who are supposed to be fighting stay on the same page throughout, both getting angry and both calming down at the same time. So I like that Sam and Diane have different interpretations of what's going on almost to the very end. Even after the nose-pulling incident, Sam seems to think they can patch things up, teasing Diane with "You look a lot like Rudolph. Come to me, my sweet little reindeer. Your big old stag is back in town." The way he suddenly relaxes after the nose-pulling and other physical activity seems post-coital, suggesting again that he's too distracted by sex to really pay attention to what's going on in the relationship (and that he probably hasn't been too attentive to Diane's needs in bed). Once he's rebuffed by Diane, however, he races ahead of her in trying to shut things down permanently.
• There's some foreshadowing of the physical aggression of "I'll Be Seeing You," especially Diane almost strangling Sam with a telephone cord, in the early second-season episode "Homicidal Ham," in which the homicidal "Andy Andy" tries to strangle Diane as they're performing Othello. Especially in its first few seasons, Cheers is a highly theatrical sitcom, and the climactic scene in "I'll Be Seeing You" gives the sense of two people — actually, four, counting both actors and characters — moving into some dark territory and not knowing exactly how far they'll go.
• This episode's silly sex joke:
Semenko: (suggesting that he and Diane retire to her bedroom) I make love to everything I paint.
Diane: Your most famous painting is of the Harvard-Yale football game!
Semenko: Yes, I spent three months in jail. College types don't understand me. I do, however, still get a few Christmas cards.
• And Carla's best zinger:
Sam: (explaining his inclusion in the "most eligible bachelors" feature) It's a simple picture of me. It wasn't like it was cheesecake.
Diane: No, Sam. With men, it's beefcake. If I posed, it would be cheesecake.
Carla: If you posed, it would be crumb cake.