"Cheers" is for cheering. It's the best new series of the season and the most substantial new comedy since "Taxi," which makes sense because some of the same creative minds are behind it, chiefly brothers Les and Glen Charles, executive producers and writers, and James Burrows, executive producer and director.
It grows out of the traditions of ensemble character comedy perfected by these folks and many others at MTM Enterprises in the days of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- comedy that starts with good writing and then lives or dies on the basis of performance. By happy fortune or clever design, both elements combine in "Cheers" to create a new instant favorite, a comedy series with the potential to enter the ranks of the all-time greats.
What a swell place to hang your hat "Cheers" is.
In the new NBC series, premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 4, Cheers is the name of a Boston bar, essentially the same purgatorial enclave as the garage in "Taxi": a way station out of which people would probably like to get. Circumstances, good and bad, keep them there. "Cheers," like "Taxi," celebrates the comedy of commiseration. The opening theme song says, "Makin' your way in the world today takes everything you've got," which may sound trite but is true, and what the characters in the show provide each other is sustenance.
They have problems, they have foibles, they have failings, but they know they are all in this together. What one gets from them is a warming and richly funny sense of camaraderie; the bar is a Duffy's Tavern bittersweetened for the '80s, shelter from an outside world that is completely screwed up but that must eventually be faced and conquered.
The central characters are shrewdly drawn and lovingly played. Sam Malone, bartender and proprietor (Ted Danson), is a cured alcoholic who hasn't touched the stuff in three years -- an odd choice to run a bar, except the guy is incurably gregarious, and he needs a place to practice trying to be noncommital. Into the bar tonight trots Diane Chambers (Shelley Long, that absolute disarmer from "Night Shift"), who thinks her fiance, a drippy professor at Boston University, is going to take her off to the Caribbean for some amoroso paradiso. But first, the louse has to visit his ex-wife and retrieve a wedding ring. And of course, Diane is not going to get any closer to the Caribbean than the Charles River.
The writers fill out the room with a terribly recognizable, yet original collection of barflies. Bartender Ernie "Coach" Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto) is the quintessential armchair jock; he has a million cherished sports theories etched in stone, but he'll change any of them the minute he hears a new one. Waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) was abandoned by her husband, who left her with four kids, and she has a fulltime job wreaking revenge on the human race.
And Norm (George Wendt) is a regular customer, more of a drinker in residence really, who keeps finding time and room for "one more quick one" before going home. Coach: "Doesn't your wife wonder where you are?" Norm: "Wonders. Doesn't care." There has been some published worry that the show glamorizes or trivializes drinking, but that doesn't appear to be a problem. The patrons of "Cheers" aren't there for the booze. They're there for solace, escape and the kinds of laughs you certainly cannot have at the Palm Court.
Unfortunately, a ferociously anti-Communist old lady in a wheelchair, once part of the general throng, has been omitted from the group. In the pilot, the professor had said to his intended, "No one is going to take Barbados away from us," and the old lady, nearby, growled, "Ever hear of the Kremlin?" Losing her hurts, but the quality of the badinage remains extraordinaire.
With the premiere of "Cheers" tonight, the arrival from ABC of "Taxi," and the season premieres of "Fame" and "Hill Street Blues," NBC can boast the most enviable and watchable evening of series television in the entire viewing week. It is a night of television worth staying home to see, and that hasn't happened in the regular weekly prime-time grind for years.
In fact, not since the early-'70s Saturday night heyday at CBS has there been quite so solid a lineup. On a Saturday night in 1974, you could set the old dial to CBS and see "All in the Family," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Bob Newhart," and "The Carol Burnett Show." A Thursday night in 1982 on NBC is almost as good. "Fame" is certainly imperfect, but also encouragingly different, and it explores dramatic and emotional avenues few shows navigate any more. "Cheers" and "Taxi" and "Hill Street Blues" are as good as series TV gets; TV this good deserves as much respect as anything this good.
The beauty of the new NBC Thursday night lineup is that there's not one clinker in it, and no show that people need feel they are watching out of desperation. Perhaps NBC plans to use Thursdays as the foundation for a thorough rebuilding of its prime-time schedule, which can use all the rebuilding it can get. But for now, a TV critic can, in fairly good conscience, recommend the whole NBC Thursday night slate with no apologies. It's a tiny little Golden Age once a week, and if every night were as splendid, television would be too good, and we wouldn't be able to stand it. 'Star of the Family'
A funny thing happens in the second act of "Star of the Family," a new sitcom premiering tonight on ABC. Not a funny ha-ha thing. A funny peculiar thing. Midway through the program, it turns into "The Honeymooners," except that it's depicting a father-daughter relationship instead of a husband-wife relationship. And Jackie Gleason isn't in it.
The premise of this moderately-pleasing entertainment, at 8:30 on Channel 7, has to do with a gruff but loveable firehouse captain whose 16-year-old daughter aspires to country-western stardom as the singing and songwriting Jenny Lee. Mom deserted with a bellhop some years ago, and Dad must also raise an amusingly doltish jock of a teen-age son; after a stupefying chat with the kid on the phone, Dad sighs, "It's like talking to wool."
Naturally Daddy doesn't like the skimpy outfit Jenny Lee plans to wear on a TV show and in a San Francisco club. But then, when she appears on TV, and sings a tune called "Daddy, I'm a Woman Now," pops takes it as autobiographical and throws a Gleasonesque tantrum. His laying down of the law to Jenny Lee is a parody of, or just an imitation of, all that futile steam Ralph Kramden used to blow off in the general direction of Alice on "The Honeymooners," and actor Brian Dennehy -- a good, solid father figure type -- sounds like Gleason, too.
And at the end of the show, he sheepishly apologizes as Gleason used to. "Honeymooners" was a classic, but there's something a little creepy about this variation -- father-daughter and husband-wife are simply not interchangeable. Still, the cast of "Star" is definitely above par, including Dennehy, Kathy Maisnik as Jenny Lee, and the reliable Todd Susman as one of the guys at the firehouse, a sentimental slob who weeps at recipes.
At the moment, the prospect of witnessing some new humiliation each week by a blundering papa, and a subsequent reconciliation with perky daughter, is not terribly tantalizing, but "Star," thanks to writer-producer Stu Silver and his colleagues, has more charm and less scream than most ABC sitcoms, and six weeks from now, if it still exists, it might be worth another look.