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One Good Thing: Sam and Diane were TV’s first big romance — and maybe still its best

TV’s will-they, won’t-they relationships stem from Cheers.

The gang from Cheers’s first season included Sam (Ted Danson, top right) and Diane (Shelley Long, bottom right).
NBC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The history of television is littered with will-they, won’t-theys. From Ross and Rachel on Friends to Issa and Lawrence on Insecure, seemingly every TV show has one couple who get together, then break up, then get together, then break up.

Sure, they sometimes get together for good (see: Jim and Pam on The Office), and sure, these relationships can eventually get a little exhausting as they go through their millionth iteration of the drama (uh, see: Ross and Rachel again). But the will-they, won’t-they is a TV staple for a reason. We love to see people fall in love, and TV loves a story that goes on and on and on (and on).

For me, however, TV has never topped the original will-they, won’t-they couple — Sam Malone and Diane Chambers from Cheers, the NBC sitcom that aired from 1982 to 1993.

Before Cheers, it was rare for TV shows to develop romances across their runs. If, say, Andy Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show was to wed his sweetheart, well, she’d be his love interest essentially as long as she was on the series. There wasn’t a long period of wooing or courtship. And most romances on TV were between husbands and wives.

Yet plenty of TV fans loved to read implicit romance into certain couples. In the 1970s, for instance, enough viewers thought there was a spark between characters Mary Richards and Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show that the writers sent the two on a date in one of the series’ final episodes. They ended up laughing at how bad of an idea getting together was after an exploratory kiss, but a series even acknowledging an implicit romance its fans had read into the show was unprecedented.

When Cheers started in 1982, co-creators Glen Charles, Les Charles, and James Burrows wanted to explicitly build their series about the people who work and drink at a Boston bar around the conflict between two potential lovers, in the style of a 1940s screwball comedy. Sam was to be a lanky lummox of a former baseball player whose machismo lured countless women into his bed. Diane was to be a hyper-intelligent woman who got in over her head in matters of the heart. Sam needed to believe he could be a better person; Diane needed to be less judgmental of those who had been to fewer graduate school seminars than she had.

The Charles brothers and Burrows found lightning in a bottle when they cast Ted Danson and Shelley Long to play the characters, too. The two actors had worked here and there, but they were hardly household names. Yet they captured Sam and Diane’s essences with ease and boasted absolutely sizzling chemistry.

Even their acting styles complemented each other nicely. Danson is a gifted physical performer, and even when Sam is trapped behind the bar, he’s doing something interesting with his hands to keep you watching him. Long is headier and more verbally dexterous. The writers leaned into these impulses while also knowing that Danson could pull off a long speech and Long could nail a pratfall when needed. The versatility of the two performers gave every episode of the show an unpredictable, electrifying quality.

At the core of the series is the question at the core of many great love stories: Can these two people make each other better? And will either of them change enough to benefit the other person? Relationships are about give and take, and neither Sam nor Diane was particularly good at giving anything up.

The strength of this relationship is most evident across the series’ first two seasons, which are among the best seasons of TV ever made. As Sam and Diane inevitably move toward getting together then just as inevitably move toward breaking up, Cheers underscores how good they are together and how tragically inept they are at figuring out how to maximize what works about their pairing. Every time they come close to solving these core issues, one of them (usually Sam) does something to screw it all up.

The rest of Cheers is also terrific. It ran 11 years, and it never had an outright bad season (though the 10th disappoints at times). What’s more, for a show of its era, it “holds up” better than most other series of the ’80s, with a surprisingly progressive streak that never becomes the center of the series. At its core, Cheers is about building a place outside of the politically fractious arguments of its era, but it never loses sight of the specter of unchecked corporate America that lurks just outside the bar. At one point, the bar itself becomes just another cog in an immense corporate restaurant machine.

But the Sam and Diane spark was never as strong as it was in those first two seasons. Sure, the two of them bounced back and forth until Long left the show at the end of its fifth season. (Fear not, first-time Cheers viewers: She comes back in the finale.) And after Long left, the writers wisely didn’t just try to replicate that dynamic with another woman for Sam to endlessly flirt with. They added the character of Rebecca, played by Kirstie Alley. Sam flirts with her, yes, but there’s rarely a sense that the two will end up together. They just like flirting and occasionally sleeping together.

So I recommend Cheers as a whole. But I especially recommend those first two seasons, both as a TV history lesson and as one of the greatest examples of a romance TV has ever seen. You’ll know, at every turn, that it’s a terrible idea for Sam and Diane to end up together, but you’ll never stop hoping they do anyway.

Cheers is available to stream on Hulu, Peacock, and Paramount+. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.