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Brittas Empire #5: “Assassin” (#1.06, 14/02/1991)

The season finale begins in the familiar setting of Brittas’ kitchen, where he is puzzled and concerned by the reports in front of him: on this occasion, it is the Centre’s pitiful visitor numbers. Later, in his office with his deputies Laura and Colin, he announces that his solution is to promote special offers to encourage more visitors.

Brittas is particularly incompetent in this episode, at times eye-screwingly so. His promotional offers are meagre in value and bewilderingly complicated, and even Colin is wise enough to point out that posting the leaflets within the leisure centre will do little to attract people from outside.

There’s a memorable sequence at the reception desk (similar to “Bye Bye Baby”) when Brittas engages with the public. Two blokes have come for a game of tennis, when Gordon grabs their attention and explains a promotion for a tiny discount at a sports shop. They are politely appreciative in response but Brittas, completely occupied with offering them a good thing, wrongly believes that they are genuinely keen on the offer. He eagerly explains the myriad conditions, but each one logically results in the worth of the offer disappearing. Brittas ends up forcing the exasperated men to abandon their intended tennis to go to the sports shop before it closes down.

His incompetence is further illustrated with his relations with his staff. Their weariness of him is illustrated by their avoidance and contempt towards his variety of staff recognition schemes – they don’t value them (and certainly don’t want to win an evening in Brittas’ company).

Whilst Brittas is going about his business, a shadowy character is going around in sinister manner, planning to kill him via sabotage/gas poisoning/throwing him off the roof. Given the series’ history so far, the assassin could justifiably be most of the regulars, but it turns out to be a deranged choirmaster; from the points he maniacally describes to Gavin, Brittas’ presence in the choir seems to have driven him far beyond the end of his tether. It’s a demonstration of Brittas’ capacity for destruction, that a stolid middle-England figure could become murderously deranged.

So by presenting his flaws as much as it does, this episode offers some reasons as to why Brittas should die and also how he could die. Why he doesn’t die here is due to firstly, his capacity for self-preservation: Larry lures him up onto the roof, but isn’t able to control Brittas, whose blithe assertiveness even in complete ignorance of his own peril, easily turns the tables on him.

Secondly there is the morality of Brittas and his desire to bring good to society. This is why Gavin is shocked by Larry’s plot to murder him (even though Brittas’ insensitivity on the matter of homosexuality makes him change his mind about warning him).

And then in the epilogue in the hospital room, where we find Brittas stricken after being run down by a treacle lorry, Laura earnestly persuades a jaded Helen of Gordon’s qualities, things that should be supported and appreciated. In a brilliant punchline, Helen gets up and turns his life support machine back on.

I thought that this was a good episode, which presented the ultimate contradiction in the character of Gordon: how can someone who causes so much chaos and aggravation also be moral and decent? If the show had only this one season, it would have been a fine sign-off. 3/5

Cheers #6: “Now Pitching, Sam Malone” (#1.13, 06/01/83)

The next four episodes of the first season didn’t get recorded on my DVR so I pick up with episode 13, a Sam focused instalment. Here Sam finds himself having made a Faustian pact in giving his body over to a glamourous cougar who as his new agent fixes him up with an appearance in a cheesy beer commercial. Deeply discontented as a result, but reluctant to give up this chance of fame, it takes Diane and Coach to persuade Sam to put an end to the arrangement.

The agent Lana Marshall is not a very pleasant person: witty beyond acerbity to actual rudeness, she preserves her looks and uses her wiles to satisfy her sexual urge, in targeting younger men and ruthlessly using sincere flattery to get her way (by looking straight in their eyes and calmly and directly praising them: “a lot of people saw you and they liked what they saw”).

Lana, as realised by Barbara Babcock, is though a great guest character to appear in Cheers as the interactions with the regulars is rather good: flirting expertly with Sam, quickly sizing up a wary and uncomfortable Diane and felling Norm with a one-liner (deadbeat: “she’s good”). Only Carla, the character with the most similarities in personality to Lana, manages to get the better of her (Rhea Perlman’s faces, when engaging Lana, or rooting for Sam, are wonderful).

The episode is lightly sprung: there isn’t much depth given to Sam’s motivations (beyond his libido and missing his baseball glory). When pressed by Diane for the truth about his unhappiness (an explanation which is obvious to everyone), he briefly describes the situation in abstractions, then expounds on his internal conflict. Finally, an angry Coach appears to rouse them back to the busy bar and kick Sam up the butt to bring him back to his senses. In a way, it is unsatisfying that we don’t learn precisely why Sam is unhappy, but perhaps we (as with Diane and Coach) don’t really need to know.

This episode feels more like the familiar Cheers than the earlier episodes (for a start, Cliff is properly installed at the bar). The back and forwards rhythm of back and forth wisecracks seems to be properly working like a machine. The situation is slight and somewhat superficial, but the guest character and pace and vitality of the humour work well. I also thought James Burrows’ direction was excellent: some really good close ups of Lana and one great pause prior to Coach kicking Sam up the arse (I though he was about to point something out on the wainscoting). I won’t talk about how bad a character Tibor Svetkovic was.

Cheers #5: “Truce or Consequences” (#1.08, 18/11/82)

The first act of “Truce or Consequences” is a three-hander in an empty bar. Diane and Carla are collecting the glasses after closing time, when Diane decides to play around. Carla bluntly rejects this intrusion on her territory and they soon are trading insults about their respective looks.

Either it’s been a long night in the bar, or maybe something has just ticked Sam off, as he demands of the pair that they sort out their animosity right away. They force him to go and leave them to it, then settle down to attempt to spend time together. Diane makes an effort, passing complements to her colleague and self-consciously affecting sisterly remarks about their bonding. Carla cruelly elects to knock Diane out with a cocktail bomb and then plants in her mind a timebomb of a fib about Sam. Sam returns, quite unsurprised and relaxed to see the state Carla has got Diane into and by Carla’s explanation for it.

Part 2 picks up the following day with a badly hungover Diane sympathetic to Carla, remembering of her tale. When Carla loses her temper at a meagre tip and is dragged by Sam to his office, Diane bursts with indignation, revealing the sworn secret to Coach and then realising that Carla has tricked her into believing that Sam is the father to one of her children. Another conflagration ensues. Back in Sam’s office, the situation behind this latest fall-out is explained to him, which results in his falling into hysterics. The child concerned and his actual father, are suggested to be hilarious in appearance, so much so that even Diane gets the joke.

“Truce or Consequences” gets straight to the point, uncharacteristically for Cheers, eschewing jokes and non-sequiturs of the cold openings we’ll become used to. Also odd is the lack of action for the supports: Coach is only used to assist Diane in her realisation about Carla’s fib, Cliff gets a good joke about mud-wrestling and helps Sam physically restrain his staff, Norm is only briefly seen leaving the bar.

The three-way relationship is the theme here. Firstly, there is the animus between the two barmaids, which is based on their being polar opposites: physical appearance, background and education, personality. This seems unlikely to ever be resolved.

Then there is Sam’s relationship to them as their boss which, on the occasions when required (such as when they are squabbling) is something he exercises with paternal responsibility.  

Sam/Diane isn’t developed a lot from the previous story. This week’s emotional development is achieved, directly and indirectly, through Sam’s relationship with Carla. I think Carla works as a character because although she’s not the wittiest figure in Cheers, she is portrayed with such spiky, charming, winning, malevolence by Rhea Perlman. Sam likes her ferocious personality and tolerates her misbehaviour and immaturity. They share a bond via the bar, and baseball, and their promiscuousness. This episode tentatively places Diane as a possible cause of rupture, but backs out when the story wraps with her (a bit surprisingly) getting the joke about Gino’s hideousness.

Cheers #4: “Friends, Romans, Accountants” (#1.07, 11/11/82)

The main joke in this episode is that Norm organizes a debauched toga party for his colleagues, a very large bunch of accountants. On the night everyone (apart from Norm who is alone in sporting a toga) stands around like corpses dressed in three piece suits. The shock and humour of this is quite laboured and the episode flattens out and drags, leavened by Norm’s self-deprecations and Sam & Diane’s bitching. Situations where dullness is used for comic effect sometimes work well (“The Reunion Party”, “Entertaining Father Stone”), this isn’t brilliant.

Furthermore, the moment where Norm’s boss begins to sexually assault Diane is quite disturbing. Diane has only accepted Norm’s initial proposition as a date with an attractive male (but a very unpleasant figure with regard to the humour of the episode). It’s a very awkward scenario to realise (but an example of Cheers’ laidback view of sexual mores).

Not a favourite, but the opening’s OK, with the customary peppy dialogue. And it presents an important part of Norm’s characterisation in exaggerated fashion, in that to make his living he has to operate in a cold, sterile, sanctimonious workplace, where he is obliged to fit it and suck up to his bosses – the punchline is that his (now former) colleagues react with joy to him when they learn that he has physically restrained the boss and been fired in consequence. Norm’s working life is the flip side to his life in Cheers and fuels his weariness and cynicism.

Brittas Empire #4: “Stop Thief!” (1.05, 07/02/1991)

A good lively edition, with a straightforward sitcom situation: Carole loses a fiver hidden in the baby’s cot, Brittas ridiculously overreacts, conflating this supposed crime with a series of trivial property losses. He annoys his team by closing the centre to deal with the matter, then alienates them by clumsily implying that one of the team is the thief (when we know that almost certainly isn’t the case) and in pedantically interrogating their actions around the time of the incident. His belief that in managing the matter this way will result in improved morale is contradicted by the actual results. He then sneakily and ham-fistedly attempts to catch the thief in the act (the views of the staff are made clear by their open knowledge and contempt of his behaviour).

The sub-plot is again about Brittas’ marriage and is nicely done: with her clandestine affair now over, a severely depressed Helen persuades her sceptical doctor to double her medication, by introducing him to Gordon. Overall, the plot is quite busy, the performances are ably lead by Chris Barrie and Pippa Heywood and the production does a good job in keeping things moving along.

The major flaws are the bladder-weakness humour directed around Colin, which is already quite tiresome and repetitive. In these early episodes, Colin is a stooge figure, with his embarrassing personal hygiene and his appearing to prop up Brittas’ schemes. Also the climax is poor, the second straight episode where the story is abruptly rounded off with a silly stunt.

Verdict 3/5.

Cheers #3: “Any Friend of Diane’s” (#1.06, 04/11/82)

A very Sam/Diane focused episode: the only other action is a side-plot where Norm tries to impress his new boss, who is the only one who fails to notice his ineptitude at hiding his passion for drinking beer and slovenly behaviour. Coach has some funny interactions with the guest character (one of the joys of Cheers is how the unfeatured characters act as back-ups with the humour), Cliff starts to be developed, Carla doesn’t have much to do.

So, the plot this time is a friend of Diane’s who turns up after a recent separation, looking for some physical action on the rebound with a savage brute – Sam obliges. The twist is that Sam doesn’t go through with it, not out of honour but abject boredom with the woman’s pretentiousness. Diane is happily relieved. Then on finding that the friend is downcast enough by Sam’s rejection to consider going into a nunnery, she is forced into pretending that she and Sam are an item. The repartee between the pair begins: at the start, it is Diane who makes the first move (in farcical circumstances), which gives Sam the upper hand.

It’s a thin episode: Rebecca is not much of a character, a dry, dowdy girl of Diane’s type, with very little backstory (why she needs to go to Diane and then get laid is a lame plot device). Although her robotic, caustic personality is perhaps picked up and developed further down the line with the character of Lilith. It’s more about Sam and Diane (Danson and Long are great in their different ways) and moving them together.

Quotes

Coach: “How’s life treating you Norm?” / Norm: “He caught me in bed with his wife”

Diane: “You got angry because she considered you nothing more than a stud service” / Sam: “No, I like that”

Diane (on her attraction to Sam): “It does test the limits of human logic. Like you, I was getting bored with bright, articulate men”

Brittas Empire #3: ‘Underwater Wedding’ (1.04, 24/01/1991)

This episode is an example of what the series is perhaps best remembered for: farcical, chaotic disaster situations with a mild tint of surrealism. It seems an ordinary morning; Brittas is in his office, interviewing a girl for job. Then a problem arises with the underwater wedding in the swimming pool. The best man’s finger has got stuck in the grate in the pool floor. Brittas’ officious attitude and his staff’s well-intended but ineffectual responses provoke a inevitably irate response from the guests (amusingly so with the Vicar).

Back in the reception area an oddly flustered Laura appears, chasing a drunk man in an electric wheelchair who, she reports, has been acting as a peeping tom in the ladies changing rooms. That scenario is all the 2nd half of the episode amounts to. The drunk man in the wheelchair isn’t a characterisation (may as well be an unruly Dalek running amok), its presence allows Brittas to declare a lockdown of the leisure centre. Again, his staff bungle the attempted capture: the martially disposed Colin discharges a harpoon into Tim.

Away from this runaround, Fegen and Norriss provide some more of Brittas’ backstory. The job interview with the vacant girl allows him to present his values and philosophy to us. He’s an idealist, dreaming of leading an inclusive community utopia, to the point where the functional purpose of the leisure centre is almost beyond him.

Helen appears prominently, in cutaways set in the canteen, confidentially chatting with a friend Pam about the origins of her life with Gordon (back to the long hot summer of 1983). Here she seems quite upbeat about her life, although characteristically blunt about his faults.

Underwater Wedding is a disappointing episode, its weaknesses being the flimsiness of the two disaster scenarios, and the unconvincingly farcical way they are handled by the characters.

Verdict 2/5