How ‘Cheers’ Invented the Will-They, Won’t-They TV Romance

by Suzanne Halliburton

The creators of Cheers, the most classic of TV comedies, figured out the perfect way to do romance between two major characters.

Basically, they established the first rule of TV romance — you don’t let them stay together. There needs to be an element of will he/won’t she. Rhoda, the Mary Tyler Moore spinoff from the 1970s, showed us that. The funny, quirky Rhoda, Mary’s best friend, finally met Joe, the man of her dreams. America fell in love with the couple as evidenced by the 52 million who tuned in for the couple’s wedding in season one. It became the most-watched TV episode of the 1970s, and second-highest overall, until the mini-series Roots broke the record in 1977. Eventually, Rhoda and Joe divorced and the series ratings found their basement.

So welcome in the 1980s, when Cheers learned from the past and subsequently redefined the TV romance. When Cheers premiered in 1982, fans could sense the sexual tension between two unlikely characters. There was bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the womanizing, sometimes pig-headed former pro baseball player. And there was Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), the over-educated, snooty feminist who was waitressing at Cheers as she went to grad school.

“The core of the show is Sam and Diane,” Long said in a 1983 interview when Cheers debuted. “The relationship has a wonderful chemistry, although they try to resist each other. The producers don’t want things to happen too quickly. Yes, Sam and Diane are attracted to each other, but will it last?”

Original cast of Cheers (NBC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images)

The love-hate between the two was intense. And we found it all so delicious. Long stuck with Cheers through 1987. The season four finale featured a big cliffhanger. Sam and his then-girlfriend, Janet, broke up. So Sam picked up the phone. An unidentified someone answered on the other end. Then Sam proposed.

How’s this for will he/won’t she. The season five premiere addressed the phone call. Sam asked Diane to marry him. But Diane insisted that a phone proposal was too informal for this sort of momentous moment. So Sam planned a night of romance on a yacht. Again, Diane turned him down because she thought Sam wanted to marry her as a rebound move from his Janet breakup. Sam proposed to Diane two more times that season. The fourth unfolded during a trial. Diane filed suit against Sam. She injured herself after Sam chased her down a street after the third proposal. But at trial, she said yes.

However, in the season five finale, Diane rejected Sam again. An ex-boyfriend sent her manuscript to a publisher. So Diane wanted to pursue a career in writing. She asked Sam for a six-month delay on their wedding plans. But if you follow Cheers, you know what happened. Long left the show. There was no more will she/won’t he between the two.

Kirstie Alley and Ted Danson (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

But the Cheers writers still embraced storylines that fit the will he/won’t she dynamic. Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe was a romantic mess. She loved a married man, who also happened to be quite rich. Sam and Rebecca slept together in Sam’s office. In season 10, the two even explored the idea of having a child together. But the two put each other in the friend zone. Rebecca married Don, a plumber, it the Cheers finale. Diane returned for the finale and the two decided to get married. But as the show ended, guess what happened? They broke up, keeping Cheers fans pondering about the couple until eternity.

She is mentioned in Frasier when Sam tells Frasier that Don Santry made a fortune developing a new toilet, and dumped Rebecca. Don later died in a plumbing-related accident, and shortly afterward, Rebecca married an Air Force officer by the name of Will Stanton, who happens to be related to Cliff Clavin. She now hangs out at Cheers as a regular.