Most television casts evolve over time and, when you look back on a long-running show you might forget which characters were the originals. Can you imagine Cheers with no Frasier, no Woody, and no Lillith? In watching the pilot, 30 years old this season, you might be surprised to recall there were essentially only six characters: Sam, Diane, Coach, Carla, Norm and Cliff
The pilot, as you might assume, centers on Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long) and their first meeting. It’s your basic Welcome Episode, where a new member is introduced to an existing group. It’s horribly contrived and implausible, but sometimes that’s how pilots go, and it doesn’t mean that a good show can’t unfold. First there’s a pointless cold open, where an underage kid shows up in the empty bar and tries to order a drink with a phony military ID. All we learn from this is that Sam isn’t completely gullible.
The story begins when Diane, dressed in conservative pastels enters with a buttoned-up partner, and they explain that they’re on their way to Barbados to elope. This pair of academics quotes poetry while the bar’s denizens duck phone calls. Diane just needs to wait around while her betrothed, Professor Sumner Sloane (Michael McGuire), goes to see his ex-wife and get his heirloom engagement ring back. Why do they have to stop in a bar, of all places? Why can’t Diane go with him to pick it up? Why can’t they pick it up after they get back from their trip? Why has he never thought to ask for the ring back before today? Just forget all that and observe as Diane meet each of the players.
Sam, we learn, is a former baseball pitcher and recovering alcoholic. (The script was originally written with Sam as an ex-football player, but the casting people loved Ted Danson and thought he was more believable as a baseball player.) Coach is literally his former coach, turned acolyte as well as bar back. Cliff and Norm are happy hour regulars, the latter hiding out from an overbearing wife. For this episode they are a comic peanut gallery as opposed to integral characters.
Carla gets the biggest and best entrance. She has the best one-liners, too. This may be explained by the fact that Rhea Perlman was the most well-known of the actors at the time (primarily thanks to Taxi). She burst through the door daring anyone to take issue with her being late to work, shouting about her kid puking everywhere. We learn much about her character in a few brief lines.
The plot unfolds predictably, as getting the ring back proves harder than Sumner promised. He returns to the bar once, then goes back again for the ring, only the second time he doesn’t return. The waiting time gives Diane and Sam further opportunity to get to know one another–and juxtaposes Diane’s cock-eyed optimism with Sam’s cynicism. She keeps believing Sumner is coming back. Sam doesn’t.
In the end, of course, Diane is left stranded with no fiance and no job, seeing has Sumner was also her employer. She has a brief monologue about how preposterous it would be for her to become a waitress, but in the end we all know where she ends up. If it strains belief, well then, just start with episode 2, as this little cast of unlikely compatriots takes shape. Here’s what GQ calls the eleven best episodes–three of them from the first season.