Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Shelley, what were you thinking?"

I've always thought Shelley Long's been given a bum rap.

Her name's become a synonym for really bad career move because of her decision to leave Cheers to pursue a movie career that never amounted to much, unless you think the two Brady movies are masterpieces of high artistic camp.

But given the information she had to work with at the time, a good case can be made---and I'm about to make it---that hers wasn't a bad decision at all, just apparently unfortunate. In fact, all things considered at the time, it might have been the smart decision.

It may not have worked out all that well for her. But it turned out to be great for the show.

At the time she left, she'd already put in five seasons as Diane Chambers, about four years longer than 75 per cent of all situation comedies stay on the air, Cheers wasn't the ratings powerhouse it would become, she couldn't predict the show would continue for six more years and only finish its run because Ted Danson didn't want to come back for a 12th season, and she may have looked at the direction the writers and producers were taking her character and seen, I think correctly, that they were driving her and the show down a creative dead end.

After my post on Diane as prototypical blogger went up Sunday night, a friend dropped me a note expressing surprise that I prefered Rebecca to Diane. She didn't elaborate so I don't know if she meant the characters or the actresses who played them or why she thought I'd have been more of a Diane/Shelley guy. Maybe she thinks that pompous, pseudo-intellectuals are more my type or maybe she assumes, like a lot of people who know the hair color of the person I'm married to, this gentleman prefers blondes. Maybe Shelley/Diane is her type.

But I didn't mean that I prefered Rebecca (or Kirstie Alley) to Diane (or Shelley Long). I meant that the show, on the whole, got funnier after Diane left.

And I think the reason it did had nothing to do with either of the two actresses, but everything to do with getting rid of Diane.

She had begun to gum up the works.

The first big mistake the producers were on their way to making was marrying Sam and Diane.

Shows about happily married couples can be funny. Dick Van Dyke, Mad About You, before the baby, Cosby, for a while, both of Bob Newhart's best shows, Roseanne, really, and the Honeymooners. Shows about unhappily married couples are a matter of taste. Most sitcoms about married couples try to have it both ways, like Everybody Loves Raymond. The couple bickers, trades insults, and works at cross-purposes in everything, including and especially raising the kids; they avoid romantic gestures and they do not have sex, which is usually an occasion for jokes humiliating the husband while implying all women over 30 are sexless, castrating, joyless shrews; and then after a half hour of straining to make us laugh at their misery and foolishness the writers bring the couple together for a hug and a kiss and a declaration of undying love.

The husband still isn't getting any though.

Without drastic changes in their characters, Sam and Diane were headed for an unhappy marriage.

In order for the marriage to have worked---I'm talking about their marriage as a fictional conceit; I'm not offering free couples counseling---the writers would have had to pretty much write away the defining fact of Sam's character, which was not so much that he was a hound, as Carla liked to think, but that he was a lone wolf. And they would have had to complete Diane's character arc well before it was ready to be completed.

Diane's original role in the show was that of an outsider who longs to join a family. Her problem was that she looked down her nose at all the people in that family she wanted to join and she could never resist insisting on her superiority to them or demanding that they acknowledge it.

She was a snob, pure and simple, but she was trying. And she was learning. For a while.

Sometime in the third season, while she was dating Frasier, the producers, maybe unconsciously, began to see Diane not as the love interest but as the femme fatale.

She was a destructive force.

Carla had always seen Diane as a threat to the family. She instinctively understood that in order for Diane to become part of the group, the group would have to change too. Diane had to become more tolerant, more egalitarian, less full of herself, more open to different virtues and different ways of expressing virtue, but to accomodate her the gang would have to become...grown-ups.

Diane was, originally, a civilizing influence, a fact that was most noticeable in her effect on Sam, who was the gang's leader, the one who held it together.

Carla probably thought of herself as uncivilizable and therefore she'd be pushed out when civilization came. (If Neddie Jingo can rouse himself from his painkiller induced stupor he's welcome to chime in here with parallels to Deadwood's Al Swearengen. I'm not kidding.) Diane, as far as Carla was concerned, was the end of life.

But then the writers began to see things from Carla's point of view.

Diane became purely destructive. She was a threat to the gang as a whole. She was a threat to the two leading men, Sam and Fraiser, not just to their sanity but to their masculinity. She was no longer civilizing, or even domesticating. She was a rampaging ego that swallowed other people whole.

I can see how Shelley Long might not have enjoyed playing her anymore.

As a devouring monster of self-absorption she became the butt of every joke. So much so that Cheers was still getting laughs out of making fun of her years after she'd left.

This is why I always thought it was stupid to have brought her back for the final episode. There was nowhere they could go with it and no point they needed to make that they hadn't made already. Some day I'll make my case that the real final episode of Cheers was Woody and Kelly's wedding, with the first episode of the last season as a fitting coda, and every episode that followed a total waste of time and talent.

Long might also have seen that her character had already been recreated and split into Fraiser and Lillith, making Diane redundant.

Cheers never had a particularly rosy view of marriage to begin with. If Long hadn't left, we probably would have seen a lot of shows about the wife as villainess.

If the writers softened their views and the characters, then Cheers would likely have turned into a version of I Love Lucy, with Diane as the foolish wife constantly embarrassing her long-suffering husband Sam, or The Honeymooners, with Sam as the conniving overgrown child trying to scheme his way past his longsuffering wife's attempts to make him act his age. Either way, I think we'd have seen the last season or two of Cheers.

But with Diane out of the way, not only was Sam freed up to be more himself, the writers were freed up to make more of all the other characters. That damned Diane and Sam romance took up way too much time even before it had grown stale and angry.

Rebecca Howe was brought in to be a new love interest for Sam and in some ways she was another Diane, someone who was "above" Sam and whose love he would have to earn by bringing himself up to her level by civilizing himself and becoming a real grown-up.

And Rebecca's career ambitions were like Diane's literary pretenstions. She aspired to be part of a world the gang at Cheers could never join. To be part of the gang, she would have to give up her too high opinion of herself, just as Diane had to.

But there was an important difference that the writers were quick to recognize and exploit.

Diane was a true outsider. Rebecca wasn't. She belonged at Cheers from the moment she arrived. Diane stayed because she had fallen in love at first sight with Sam. This always meant that Diane had to choose between love and self-interest, always a disasterous position to find yourself in. Rebecca stayed because she had fallen in love with Cheers.

Of course she would never admit this about herself. Diane was a snob. But Rebecca was vain beyond all get out. Diane had reason to think she could be a poet or a writer or a college professor. Rebecca had no reason to think she could become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, not because she wasn't smart enough or lucky enough or talented enough, but because that wasn't who she was.

Her brains and her talents were all meant for other things, one of which was to be her own person, not a corporate stooge. She was born to run her own small business. But she had high hopes, high hopes, mile in the sky, apple pie hopes, and luckily, the writers of Cheers, unlike the writers of the song, were realists about pie in the sky.

Rebecca provided lots of opportunities for them to write about an ant trying and failing to move that rubber tree plant. Which was funny for a number of reasons, not least of all because we knew what she didn't, that her failures didn't really matter because they always brought her back to where she belonged, Cheers.

On top of this, the producers discovered that Kirstie Alley was very good at something they'd never really called on Shelley Long to do, physical comedy.

Alley could be funny with her body. She could do farce.

So could Ted Danson. He was a brilliant physical actor. Watch a few episodes and you'll be amazed and thrilled to see how much of Sam Malone was created through small gestures and postures and---no real actor will be surprised at this---the way he walked, which changed subtly depending on Sam's moods and intentions.

With Alley and Danson, Cheers had two leads who could play farce and so the writers wrote farces for them to act in.

And the show became funnier as a result.

Another post for another time is how it was Kelsey Grammar, of all people, who brought physical comedy into Cheers and the first signs that the show could change from light romantic comedy into farce were in episodes that featured Fraiser get knocked around.

I'm sure Shelley Long could have done farce if they'd thought to let her, but that's not the direction the show was headed when she left. It was headed towards black comedy.

So I think from her point of view it was reasonable for her to get out while the getting was good.

As for her anticipated movie stardom never materializing, I think that was because of bad career moves, on her part, and her agent's, and all but one of the directors' who cast her in their movies.

They all made the mistake of thinking she was a leading lady.

What she is is a gifted character actresses who happened to be able to play one particular romantic leading character well.

If you want to see the kind of movie careeer she should have pursued, rent Robert Altman's Dr T and the Women. Not bad Altman at all, as far as that goes, but the best thing in the movie as far as I'm concerned is Long's turn as Richard Gere's lovelorn office manager. The way she pines for him all movie long and desperately attempts to show him she's the woman for him with her efficiency and devotion to his business is heartbreakingly funny, but the scene in which she dolls up, making herself absolutely gorgeous, by the way, and throws herself at him, to his shock and dismay, is devastating.

Guess Shelley was never meant to get the guy.

Gratuitous sexist and lookist epilogue: Mannion's Bar regular harry near indy is a passionate Kirstie Alley champion.

diane chambers was too prissy for my tastes, but as for rebecca howe, when you have a beautiful woman (and alley is beautiful, while long is just pretty) who does slapstick .... ah, paradise.

Now I admit that Alley had the more voluptuous figure and you could lose yourself for a year happily in her hair and those gray cat's eyes of her are riveting. But I think Shelley Long was at a severe disadvantage. She was on the show in the early and mid-80s when there was still enough of the insanity of 70s fashion tastes lingering, particularly in matters of hair styling, but also in clothing. Plus, the costume designer decided that Diane would always dress to downplay her best features, which meant for Shelley Long long skirts, which was really too bad.

Alley had the curves up top, but Long had the better legs, and I've always been a leg man.

And that, folks, explains more about the physical type I'm married to than the hair color.


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