The best sitcom pilot was made in the 1980s and took place entirely in a bar. That's right, I'm here to defend the honor of "Cheers"!
There are so many TV shows on the air today that start off with a whimper. They kinda flutter on-screen and then die after a season or even a few episodes. Recently, I went back and watched a lot of failed TV shows, concentrating on their pilots. While there were a few gems in there, they all kinda sucked. They failed to get at the core of what makes a TV pilot great.
That made me think about the best sitcom pilot of all time, and how crazy it is that I haven't talked about it on this blog yet.
The Cheers pilot is pure perfection and I feel like not enough people have sat down and watched it. It's available on Netflix and Hulu, and it's a masterclass in character, structure, and proving that a TV show has the legs to last. So today, I wanted to defend the honor of the show, go over some of the key moments of perfection, and talk about how you can emulate its success in your own writing.
Ready for another round?
What's so great about the Cheers pilot?
The pilot, entitled "Give Me A Ring Sometime," debuted in 1982. It was the start of an 11-year run that saw a revolving cast of characters enjoying their weekly brews with bartender Sam Malone.
In order to have a successful sitcom pilot, you need to put forth a cast of characters you'd want to hang out with each week, a location you could use over and over without getting stale, and a series of problems that people want to tune in to see resolved.
Cheers had all that in spades.
Here's what IMDB user Huggo says is the summary of the pilot:
"One afternoon, Dr. Sumner Sloan, a Boston University English professor, and his Teaching Assistant, Diane Chambers, stop into Cheers, a local Boston watering hole, on their way to catch a flight to Barbados where they plan to marry the following day. The bar is owned and tended by Sam 'May Day' Malone, a former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a recovered alcoholic, and in the words of one of his girlfriends "a magnificent pagan beast". Before heading to the airport, Sumner wants to retrieve his grandmother's wedding ring to give to Diane, the ring currently in the possession of his ex-wife Barbara. While Sumner is off getting the ring, Diane patiently waits at the bar for his return, in the meantime learning about the lives of the many Cheers regulars, and they learning about Diane. After Sumner returns to the bar, Diane receives another offer in light of Sumner's implied message to her, which could be the start of Diane's fish-out-of-water association with Cheers, its employees and patrons."
Check out the Cheers cold open and then let's chat about how the pilot uses all these elements to make us want more.
In terms of location, we know right away that we're in a bar. Now, for our 21+ crowd in the US and 18+ crowd everywhere else, there are lots of funny things that happen in bars. It's a place where recurring stories can take place and a place where people, thanks to alcohol, can lose their inhibitions and throw caution to the wind.
Hello, drama! Hello, romance! Hello, comedy!
The bar location made it feel like anything could happen. but it also made the overhead on a show like this cheap. While later seasons would expand on the sets, the first season just had the bar and backroom. And all the stories never felt like they needed more places to be. There was enough there to keep us laughing and entertained.
But bars, more than many other places, are filled with characters.
The Characters of Cheers
One of the best details about Cheers is that it's run by Sam Malone, a retired baseball player, and an alcoholic. We get the sense that Sam is trying to relive his fame and party days, but has something constantly holding him back. We also know he's a flirt, a womanizer, and that everyone loves him.
We also meet locals like Norm, Cliff, bartender Coach, and waitress Carla. While they all stand out, the true co-lead of this sitcom is Diane. After her fiance leaves her in the bar, each of our cast gets to act off of her and gets to introduce the audience at home to what they'll be doing over the course of the series.
Norm is a regular and funny man.
Cliff is the know it all.
Carla is the sassy waitress.
Coach is the lovable idiot.
And Sam hits on her because he's a cad and we love him for it. And we get the slight sense Diane loves it, too.
The relationship driving the first few seasons of Cheers is driven by the relationship of Sam and Diane.
Sam and Diane
Diane is the complete opposite of Sam. She's an educated feminist who likes class and the finer things in life. There's zero chance she'd ever be in this kind of bar.
But how do you get Diane into Cheers?
Here's where Cheers get so brilliant. It starts on heartbreak.
The pilot covers Diane being stood up by a guy she loves. A guy she was thinking about marrying. He leaves her, she loses her job, and Cheers is all she has left. And she has no choice but to take it. Her flirtation with Sam makes us hope for something more, but we are hooked on hanging out to see what happens next.
As Diane accepts the job and the pilot ends, we get a sense of what the next 100 episodes will be. There's a will-they-won't-they between Sam and Diane. Carla is going to hate her. And the rest of the funny people are going to deliver enough laughs to keep us wanting more.
These simple things are done so elegantly that the pilot is perfection.
What's next? Download the Breaking Bad Pilot!
The Breaking Bad pilot script is widely considered one of the greatest of all time. So what can you learn from this screenplay download?
Click the link to learn more!