Genius Explained: Play it Again, Ted

By Matthew Reed Baker | Boston Magazine |

It’s hard to imagine now, but emotions ran high when Cheers aired its series finale almost 16 years ago. Only once cable stations began airing repeats 24/7 did goodwill toward the show begin a slow, painful descent. Thank goodness, then, for historical distance. Now that the surfeit of reruns has subsided (more or less), and with the ultimate season just out on DVD, the sitcom’s understated brilliance reemerges—especially that of central character Sam Malone, as played by Ted Danson.

Beyond the swagger and sly womanizing, Sam the bar owner/recovering alcoholic/washed-up Red Sox pitcher truly served as the show’s emotional core. Rewatching the final episodes, you’re struck by how Danson approached the role with poignant nuance. But something larger was lost when Sam turned out the bar’s lights for the last time: that human element. Seen in the light of the stylish comedies that supplanted it—more-irreverent fare like Friends, Seinfeld, and FrasierCheers may just be the last consistently smart, funny show about recognizable people, not mere cheeky attitude.

[sidebar]BACK STORY Sam was written as a Medford native who played for the Sox from 1974 to 1978. In theory, then, he witnessed both the ’75 World Series loss and Bucky Dent’s cataclysmic home run three years later. Logically, such disappointments drove this fictional man to drink, but with a patient eye toward redemption. 

METHOD Other cast members had been comedians, but Danson was a seasoned character actor, with all the attendant focus on "motivation." As he philosophized in 1983 about his then-new show, "Finding the human part of it, the human truths, is what I care about." 

PAYOFF Danson set up other people’s punch lines for 11 years, but the actor got the last laugh. By 1993 he was the highest-paid TV star, at $450,000 an episode. (His cast mate Kelsey Grammer would later take that title, earning $1.6 million per on Frasier). 

ANTICLIMAX Actor and role were matched so well that Danson’s career has paled ever since. Exhibit A: his wretched follow-up sitcom, Becker, in which he played a curmudgeonly doctor. Of course, the setting may have been the problem—it’s a diner, sure, but in New York.

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