Summer sitcom rewind: ‘Cheers’ – ‘Thanksgiving Orphans’

We're continuing this periodic summer project where we revisit classic sitcom episode. This week, we're returning to the 1980s for the season 5 “Cheers” episode “Thanksgiving Orphans,” which you can find on Netflix, coming up just as soon as we're moving into the earth tones…

The short version of “Cheers”: Sam Malone (Ted Danson) is a former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and a recovering alcoholic who bought a bar during one of his drunker periods, then kept it in sobriety. At the time of this episode, the Cheers staff includes rookie bartender Woody (Woody Harrelson), a naive kid from Hanover, Indiana; single mom waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), as abrasive as she is fertile; and waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), a pretentious aging graduate student who has been Sam's on-again, off-again love interest. Among the regular customers: unemployed accountant and one-liner machine Norm Peterson (George Wendt), whose wife Vera is oft-discussed but never-seen; know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger); and smug psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), who first came to Cheers as Diane's boyfriend, then stuck around long after the relationship crashed and burned.

As I mentioned last week, I spent a long time trying to identify which “Cheers” episode to do, in part because the show ran so long and had so many great episodes, in part because there was a significant shift in the show's focus midway through that long run. What had been an intense, brilliant romantic comedy about the sparks that flew between crude, street-smart ex-jock Sam and erudite academic Diane had to become something else when Long quit to do movies full-time. There was a brief attempt at a new simmering romance between Sam and Kristie Alley as new bar manager Rebecca, but instead “Cheers” turned into a pure ensemble comedy about all the weirdoes who gathered at the place where everybody knows your name.

I could have gone with the season 1 finale where Sam and Diane's sexual tension hits full boil, or one of the raucous “Bar Wars” episodes from the Rebecca years. Instead, I went with “Thanksgiving Orphans,” an episode that neatly bridges the gap between the two eras.

Diane is still around, and still holding out hope of a reconciliation with Sam, but the series had been through so many different iterations of that relationship that it started being nudged into the background at times even before Long quit. “Thanksgiving Orphans” is the sort of episode that would fit perfectly into the show's later years, but with the added spice of Ms. Diane Chambers.

And let's talk about Shelly Long for a minute here, because I can think of very few actresses of that era who could have played Diane without making her completely insufferable. The show has stacked the deck from the beginning against Diane: she's the outsider in the bar, she's the temperamental opposite of the character everyone else on the show reveres, and she often lives down to every bad stereotype about intellectuals (or perhaps, in Diane's case, pseudo-intellectuals). And yet there was something vulnerable and appealing in Long's performance, so that you understood exactly why Carla would despise Diane, why Sam and Frasier would be driven mad by her, and why Cliff and Norm would mainly indulge her existence because Sam wanted them to, and yet you also found yourself liking her despite yourself most of the time. This fifth season was an especially tough time to like Diane, as she became a complete lunatic at times (there are hints of that in the first scene after the credits), but even as she's boasting about her impending Thanksgiving rendezvous with “Sophie's Choice” author William Styron, her desire for the other bar regulars to have a happy Thanksgiving together feels genuine, and not patronizing. And later, when she's wandering through Carla's house in her pilgrim outfit trying to seize control over the festivities – sparking the tensions that will lead to the epic food fight in the episode's climax – it plays out as Diane asserting herself after the humiliating experience at her professor's house. And then her hysterical, indignant reaction to the food fight – and then to Sam flinging food at her – is perfect, and shows that deep down, Diane belongs with these other misfits for reasons that go beyond her chance encounter with Sam on the day her fiance dumped her for his ex-wife.

Beyond Diane, and the food fight itself (more on that in a moment), what I've always loved about “Thanksgiving Orphans” is how simple it is. There's one basic storyline, most of it takes place at Carla's house, and most of the gags are very small ones that build smartly through repetition, like the recurring discussion of Boston driving routes or Frasier's grim, silent battle to keep the television set pointed towards his chair. It has the feel of an actual Thanksgiving get-together among friends, even if these friends have some of the the greatest punchline-writers in television history helping them out.

And throughout the football, and then the agonizing wait for Norm's turkey to finish cooking, and then the food fight itself, there is a genuine sense of everyone enjoying each other's company – even Diane's, to an extent. Carla insults Cliff, and Frasier loses his patience as everyone keeps talking about “the little pop thing” in the turkey, etc., but they also come across like the surrogate family they are – and like every other workplace comedy ensemble aspires to be. They're all there for lack of better options, even if some of them have loved ones elsewhere (Carla's kids, Cliff's mom, Woody's parents, even Vera), but given how much time they spend at that bar, they're also there because these are the people in the world who understand them best, for better or for worse.

And that's ultimately why the food fight is so great. It begins from a place of frustration – just look at the rage in Kelsey Grammer's face as Frasier and the others remain in combat positions after Diane interrupts the fighting – but then once Diane joins in, the mood shifts rapidly to pure childlike joy. They started assaulting each other because they were mad that the food wasn't ready (and that they didn't have a better option than to be here), but slinging mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce at your friends and co-workers is fun, and the episode doesn't try to hide that, any more than it stops the characters from laughing when one of them has said something that would be obviously funny in context (like Diane smiling at Woody's William Styron guess in an early scene).

The fight breaks the earlier tension, so where before everyone had been reluctantly listing things to be thankful for at Diane's urging, they give heartfelt toasts at the end to loved ones who can't be there (including the late, great Coach Ernie Pantusso). And the food fight isn't quite done yet, as it pays off one of the series' longest-running gags, with Diane hitting Vera – making her first on-camera appearance of the series (and her most visible one, though we see her legs once or twice in other episodes) – in the face with a pie so that we don't really get to see what she looks like. Norm has described her in such exaggerated, unflattering terms in the past (even though we are reminded from time to time that he genuinely loves her) that no actress could possibly live up to our mental image, and so the show doesn't even try. We at least get to hear her voice for a moment as she orders Norm to get his coat, but even that's a bit muted by the sound of the show's closing music.

Great episode. Nothing fancy, but so much fun.

Up next: When “Cheers” went off the air, “Seinfeld” replaced it as NBC's new flagship comedy, and with the 25th anniversary of the “Seinfeld” series premiere happening this weekend (look for a piece on that tomorrow), I was inspired to jump straight to Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. Sony's streaming site Crackle rotates a random selection of “Seinfeld” episodes in and out each month, and my favorite of July's selections is season 3's “The Red Dot,” whose title and plot deals with a deeply-discounted cashmere sweater. It's not as iconic as “The Contest” or some others, but it's an excellent example of the famed “Seinfeld” structure in full effect, and one of the episodes where the series really figured out who (and what) George Costanza was.

Given my upcoming travels, it may be a while before we get to this one, but so long as you watch before the end of the month, you'll be fine.

But as for “Thanksgiving Orphans,” what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at