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Cheers—The Ninth Season

(2008) *** 1/2 Unrated
629 min. NBC.

Time continues to be good to Cheers, the enduringly funny sitcom with a talent for psychological head games and nasty repartee. As dire as the character's frustrations could get, Cheers always maintained the inviting atmosphere of its fantasy neighborhood bar: a place where—as the theme song promised—"Everybody Knows Your Name." At least if your name is "Norm!"

In the intervening years since Cheers has gone off the air, the traditional sitcom seemed to go on life support (arguable exceptions: NBC's success with the generic Gen-X smash Friends and CBS' domestic hit Everybody Loves Raymond). Comedy connossieurs moved to postmodern sitcoms like Arrested Development and The Office, which don't always draw numbers a network programmer could love. But to watch Cheers today is to remember that vivid characters and steel-trap writing could make the traditional sitcom format a deeply satisfying latter-day vaudeville.

The show centers around Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the ex-alcoholic ex-Red Sox pitcher who owns and operates the bar Cheers. A notorious, preening womanizer, Malone ultimately locates his self-worth not in his fabulous hair or Corvette so much as in the bar itself. Having lost the bar to The Lillian Corporation in season six and waged a hard-fought battle to win it back, Sam became owner again in the eighth season finale. Meanwhile, corporate stooge Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) lost her job and wound up working as a waitress at Cheers. Undeterred by his unfortunate loss of fortune, Rebecca continued to pine for her "sweet baby": ex-Lillian Corporation exec Robin Colcord (Roger Rees), now serving a prison sentence for insider trading. Will their walk down the aisle together end in a lifetime commitment? Will Sam and Rebecca end up back in the sack together? Stay tuned.

The ensemble remained intact with barmaid and insult queen Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), sweetly stupid bartender Woody (Woody Harrelson), psychiatrist couple Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and Dr. Lillith Sternin-Crane (Bebe Neuwirth), and barflies Norm Peterson (George Wendt) and Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger (Paul Willson continued his slow ascendancy as adjunct barfly Paul). Season Nine also saw the first appearance of Sam's nemesis John Allen Hill (Keene Curtis), owner and proprietor of Cheers' upstairs neighbor, the seafood restaurant Melville's.

The ninth season continued to serve up funny situations for its characters. In "Grease," Norm works to save his favorite resaturant, The Hungry Heifer ("my home away from Cheers"), on behalf of its owner Sid (TV legend Sheldon Leonard). "Ma Always Liked You Best" finds Woody and Cliff competing for the attentions of Cliff's mother (Frances Sternhagen). Carla contends with her willful mother in one episode, and competes in a barmaid contest in another, which cleverly forces her to be nice to the man she most detests: Cliff. Norm and Cliff let a joke get out of hand, causing a temporary rift between Sam and Frasier. Throughout the season, Frasier and Lillith snipe at each other, predicting their eventual divorce. The running gag leads to this kind of typical Cheers exchange:

Norm: So what kind of punishment are you getting?
Frasier: Well, I'm not getting any.
Norm: Oh, you got off easy.
Frasier: No. (Pause.) I'm not getting any.
Norm: No. You're getting off easy.

The cast is among the best in sitcom history, but the pre-Frasier Grammer is a particular scene-stealer, whether purring, "You know, I have a yen for some cheese doodles" or showing off his singing voice in three episodes. Alley remains funny as a woman who always seems to find a new pathetic low, and Danson shows not only leading-man star power but a limber genius for physical comedy: he can really sell taking a punch or a slap, and watch him waddle about after a back-breaking fall in "Sam Time Next Year."

That episode features Barbara "Agent 99" Feldon, one of many memorable guests. In "Rebecca Redux," Bryan Clark plays the hilariously perfect bartender Earl. Real-life celebrities also join in the fun: Boston Celtic Kevin McHale allows himself to be the ringer in "Cheers Fouls Out" (the annual episode featuring a competition with Gary's Old Towne Tavern), and Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers and then-governor Michael Dukakis both show up later in the season. Finally, the jumbo-sized ninth season celebrates a milestone with "200th Celebration: One Hour Special," which cuts between clips and creepily robotic host John McLaughlin's Q&A panel with the cast and creators; in a historic moment for the show, departed star Shelley Long returns to sit on the panel.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 5

Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround

Street date: 4/28/2008

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment

Fans were beginning to despair that a delay of nearly two years might portend the end of Cheers on DVD, but Cheers—The Ninth Season arrives in a five-disc set thoughtfully packaged in a sturdy Amaray case no bigger than a one-disc release. The image quality is consistently strong, rendering the glossy 1.33:1 image in its familiar warm colors, with excellent detail; the Dolby Digital stereo track ably presents the original audio.

The set has two flaws, neither of which is a deal-breaker. One song has had to be replaced in the episode "Grease"—Sam plays something on the jukebox to taunt Rebecca about her jailbird boyfriend ("Jailhouse Rock"?), but whatever it was has clearly been replaced, by a generic rock tune (the packaging confirms "music has been changed"); all other episodes appear to be fully intact. And according to custom (and previous sales figures, no doubt), there are no bonus features in this set, but the show's the thing, and fans will be grateful to put Season Nine on the shelf—without taking up quite so much room as before.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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