What makes “Cheers” so special? It’s right there in the opening song: you want to go where everybody knows your name. It’s a show about camaraderie, relationships, and above all, shooting the shit. The more you watch “Cheers,” the more you feel like you just hung out with your best friends.
Before “Cheers,” most sitcoms took place in someone’s house or workplace. Here was a show set at a bar where most people were just having fun with their buddies. It made a statement that seems obvious now but was revolutionary at the time: one’s social life is equally as important as one’s familial or professional lives. The gang at Cheers, as they became known, was a motley group of characters: ladies man and recovering alcoholic Sam Malone (Ted Danson) was baffled by his feelings for the egotistical academic Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) was always ribbing regulars like Norm Peterson (George Wendt), Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), and Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger). Ernie “Coach” Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto) and his replacement Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) churned out naive one-liners whenever the script needed a laugh, and after Season 6, Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) seemed to bring stability to the establishment, but she soon revealed herself to be the most unstable character of them all. As individuals, they’re not likely to remind you of your friend group – but their loving, lived-in conviviality certainly will.
There are some ‘80s plots and punchlines that have not aged well, but with the context of the era in mind, “Cheers” is still a deeply charismatic show. Its jokes hit hard, its characters worm their way into your heart, and it has an intangible feeling of “safety” that makes it a superb comfort-watch. Every modern show about friends mucking about owes a debt of gratitude to “Cheers,” so get your bum off the couch and onto the barstool with these 15 best “Cheers” episodes of all time.
15. “Home Is the Sailor” (Season 6, Episode 1)
“Cheers” faced an incredible challenge with Season 6: how to continue the series without Diane Chambers when it had been built around the Sam-Diane dynamic. But it stepped up to the plate with “Home Is the Sailor.” After his relationship with Diane falls apart (Season 5’s “I Do, Adieu”), Sam sells the bar to a corporation, buys a boat and sails around the world. Months later, when the boat sinks, he returns to Cheers looking for a job and the chance to come home again. That’s when he meets his new foil, Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe. Impervious to his famous charms, Rebecca is an excellent match for Sam Malone, opening the door for “Cheers” to become more of an ensemble show in its later seasons.
Fun Fact: This first entry is the most tightly wound we ever see Rebecca. Alley unexpectedly made the studio audience laugh when she fumbled opening the office door, and the writers quickly learned the no-nonsense character could do more for the show if she had a hapless, chaotic side as well.
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14. “Don Juan Is Hell” (Season 4, Episode 11)
In a moment of clarity, “Cheers” finally addresses the elephant in the room: Sam’s skirt-chasing antics aren’t always as cute as he thinks. When Diane uses Sam as a case study for her Human Sexuality class, he sees the paper as a testament to his unrivaled sexual prowess. He crows and brags and insists on introducing himself to her class, blissfully unaware that they all pity him as a textbook example of “Don Juan syndrome.” It’s a smart and welcome take on Sam’s behavior that modern viewers will appreciate, and it’s the first time Sam begins to think a little more critically about his actions. But as this is a sitcom, rest assured that “Don Juan Is Hell” is still funny as hell, and a much-needed entry in the “Cheers” canon.
13. “Coach’s Daughter” (Season 1, Episode 5)
Ernie “Coach” Pantusso is an intensely lovable character. A former baseball coach who’s been with Sam since his days on the Red Sox, Coach will be the first one to tell you he’s been hit in the head with a few too many fastballs. But we think he’s perfect. Sure, he never understands what anyone is talking about, but he’s chock full of one-liners and light-hearted cheer. So when his daughter arrives with her new fiancé, a rude, sleazy, door-to-door suit salesman who treats her like garbage, everyone (including us!) is aghast. We can’t stand to see Coach upset!
“Coach’s Daughter” all comes down to an impossibly touching father-daughter moment in its final act. It’s a sweet little episode that sneaks up on you — and then stays with you forever.
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12. “The Days of Wine and Neuroses/ Wedding Bell Blues” (Season 9, Episodes 15)
Most of Rebecca Howe’s storylines involve rich men because that’s a defining characteristic for Rebecca Howe: She’s a gold digger. In the ridiculous two-part roller coaster that is “The Days of Wine and Neuroses” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” she finally admits it.
Rebecca has been chasing aloof British millionaire Robin Colcord (the incomparable Roger Rees) for two seasons. Now, after a stint in jail for various financial crimes, he gets parole and proposes to Rebecca. She’s getting the man of her dreams at last — unfortunately, he’s now penniless. Conflicted, Rebecca gets hammered in “The Days of Wine and Neuroses,” declares her unhappiness, and drunkenly hits on Sam in an unparalleled triumph of physical comedy.
The next day, in “Wedding Bell Blues,” she wakes up and readies for her impending nuptials with no memory of her confession. Sam has to remind her of her true feelings before she walks down the aisle, or… as she’s walking down the aisle if it comes down to it. This is an excellent Kirstie Alley showcase, whose Rebecca Howe made being a hot mess funny before the term “hot mess” even existed.
11. “It’s Lonely on the Top” (Season 11, Episode 22)
When Carla subs in for Woody at the bar, she gets the Cheers gang absolutely blasted. The next morning she wakes up knowing she slept with one of the guys, but she’s not sure who — and she’s not sure she wants to find out. “It’s Lonely on the Top” is a great send-off to the Sam-Carla best friendship that’s stayed true for so many years. He helps her get to the bottom of the mysterious secret, and when she’s feeling low, he lets her in on a little secret of his own. This whole episode is a hoot, but the third act conversation between Sam and Carla is both heartwarming and hilarious, with a legendary confession you won’t see coming. An outstanding, late-Season 11 shocker.
10. “The Heart Is a Lonely Snipehunter” (Season 3, Episode 14)
In Season 3 we meet the inimitable Dr. Frasier Crane, who, years from this point, will go on to helm his own successful spin-off. But at this moment in “Cheers,” Frasier is just the stuffy psychiatrist Diane dates after she and Sam split (for the first time). “The Heart Is a Lonely Snipehunter” is an entertaining, gregarious watch that marks Frasier’s initiation into the close-knit crew at Cheers and serves as a welcome opportunity for him to show his playful side.
When Diane asks the guys to include Frasier on their trip to the woods, they begrudgingly agree. They return a few hours later, however, sans Frasier and gleeful at their ability to dupe him into squatting alone in the woods waiting to catch a snipe (an animal that doesn’t exist). Diane is mortified, until Frasier returns, seemingly enchanted with the sport of “snipehunting” and hungry for another chance to catch the wily beast.
9. “Pick a Con… Any Con” (Season 1, Episode 19)
An unverifiable but widely repeated Hollywood tale is that “Cheers” began adding the disclaimer “Cheers’ is filmed in front of a live studio audience” because viewers were claiming the “laugh track” was too loud. But there was no laugh track. And with unpredictable episodes like “Pick a Con… Any Con” eliciting such a strong reaction from the studio audience, it’s a wonder anyone could possibly have been confused — that kind of response is only possible through the magic of live theater, baby.
When the gang discovers a hustler has conned Coach out of $8,000, they call up local grifter Harry the Hand (“Night Court” star Harry Anderson) and ask him to take a break from swindling Norm and Cliff to help them get their money back. Harry agrees, and they invite Coach’s scam artist over for a friendly game of poker. What follows is surprisingly thrilling for a sitcom, with a knock-out ending that audibly shocked the live viewers.
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8. “I Do, Adieu” (Season 5, Episode 26)
If there’s one thing “Cheers” does right, it’s weddings. This is one of three wedding episodes on this list, all of them hall-of-famers — but this is the only one with an extra layer of poignancy. This episode also serves as a farewell to Diane Chambers.
In a nice parallel to the pilot, “I Do, Adieu” features the man who started it all, Sumner Sloane, Diane’s former fiancé who stranded her at the Cheers bar and kicked off the entire series. Now, Diane and Sam, after multiple close calls and a truly insane lawsuit, are finally getting married. But Sumner’s return and subsequent announcement that a literary friend of his wants to publish one of Diane’s manuscripts threatens to throw a wrench into the long-awaited ceremony. This is a really lovely episode that’ll make you laugh as much as it threatens to bring a single weepy tear to your eye.
7. “What Is… Cliff Clavin” (Season 8, Episode 14)
If you’ve ever seen Toy Story, or honestly any animated movie, you’ve heard the recognizable voice of John Ratzenberger (Hamm in Toy Story, Mack in Cars, Fritz in Inside Out, the list goes on). For years now, he’s been playing one version or another of his original “Cheers” role because it was so dang memorable: Cliff Clavin, know-it-all who knows absolutely nothing. But finally, in Season 8, he gets a chance to prove himself, to show his haters he’s not full of crap: He’s going to be a contestant on “Jeopardy.” It’s one of the most iconic episodes, in part because this is the moment Cliff Clavin has been waiting for his whole life, but also because Alex Trebek totally nails it.
The A-plot of this episode is also a charmer: someone steals’ Sam’s black book of names, makes fake dates with all his paramours and ruins his reputation. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is — multiple shows have since copied the storyline (like in the Britney Spears episode of “How I Met Your Mother”), but this is where the classic sitcom bit got its start.
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6. “Abnormal Psychology” (Season 5, Episode 4)
When Frasier Crane agrees to go on a television show that engages local doctors in a respectful debate, he doesn’t anticipate he’ll be matched up against Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), the ice-cold fellow psychiatrist with whom he’d previously gone on a disastrous date (Season 4’s “Second Time Around”). Diane, playing matchmaker, gives Lilith a makeover (!!!) before the debate and soon Frasier and Lilith, two cerebral professionals, are giving in to animal instinct on live TV. It’s a delightful episode that works flawlessly and remains one of Lilith’s most memorable episodes — which is saying something, given that Neuwirth eventually becomes a scene-stealing series regular.
5. “One for the Road, Parts 1, 2 & 3” (Season 11, Episodes 26)
Not a lot of shows can come up with a final episode that fully satisfies the fanbase, but with “One for the Road,” “Cheers” stuck the landing. It’s a beautiful farewell that sees Rebecca finally get her happy ending, as well as the first glimpse of Diane Chambers since her Season 5 exit. Her arrival sends Sam into a tailspin, and the two almost immediately fall back on their old pattern of toxic one-upmanship. So much for six years of growth, eh?
It’s a joy to watch our beloved characters retread the compulsions that launched the series in the first place, but there’s more to this series finale than meets the eye. It’s a thoughtful meditation on humanity’s search for meaning that helps our main character realize at long last who, or what, the love of his life has always been.
The last thing Sam does before walking off the set of “Cheers” forever is to straighten an old picture of Geronimo hanging on the wall, a loving tribute to Coach actor Nicholas Colasanto, who passed away between Seasons 3 and 4. The picture used to hang in his dressing room. The series that soared on its depiction of friendship went out of its way to make sure everyone was included in its final send-off. (We’re not crying — you are!) Wait to watch this one until you’ve got at least a few episodes under your belt so you can truly appreciate its bittersweet perfection.
4. “Thanksgiving Orphans” (Season 5, Episode 9)
“Thanksgiving Orphans” aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1986 and quickly became the stuff of television legend. The gang at “Cheers,” all without holiday plans, decides to spend turkey day together for the very first time. What follows is a masterclass in tension and release. Small annoyances like how to angle the TV and the turkey taking too long to cook begin to build on another, making this holiday a ticking time bomb that’s destined to erupt. And oh boy, does it erupt!
It’s no wonder “Thanksgiving Orphans” is one of the most famous episodes of “Cheers.” This is sitcom silliness of the highest order, culminating in one of the best food fights in television history. It’s also the only episode where Norm’s elusive wife Vera, oft-mentioned, never seen, appears on screen — though an errant pie obscures her face.
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3. “Show Down, Parts 1 & 2” (Season 1, Episodes 21 & 22)
The Season 1 finale “Show Down” is an extraordinary cap on an extraordinary season of television. After 20 episodes of Sam and Diane dancing around their feelings, trading barbs and insults when they’re obviously nuts for each other, television’s most famous game of love-chicken finally comes to a head. Sam’s handsome, worldly, and successful brother visits Boston and sets his eyes on Diane. Without any indication that Sam is willing to act on the unspoken tension between them, she decides to pursue a relationship with his brother, bringing both her and Sam to a point of no return.
Before there was Jim and Pam, there was Sam and Diane, and 40 years later, though much has changed about what audiences find romantic, Danson and Long’s chemistry in these early seasons still feels electric.The episode to finally break through the slow buildup of their stubborn, will-they-won’t-they courtship had to be spectacular, and thankfully, “Show Down” is exactly that.
2. “An Old Fashioned Wedding, Parts 1 & 2” (Season 10, Episodes 25 & 26)
A late-season farce that proved “Cheers” still had that magic touch, “An Old Fashioned Wedding” is a fast-paced juggling act that’s a joy to watch. The gang at Cheers is helping to cater Woody’s marriage to his super-rich girlfriend, Kelly Gaines, and very quickly they find themselves the only ones keeping the wedding from disaster. This episode takes place entirely in the Gaines family kitchen, and each time someone enters and exits, they bring with them a new fire Sam and crew has to put out. Woody and Kelly can’t keep their hands off each other, Rebecca angers the fancy chefs, and to top it off, there’s a dead body in the mix.
In “An Old Fashioned Wedding,” every character has their moment to shine, and everything that could go wrong, does — which is what makes this episode so very right.
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1. “Endless Slumper” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Funny and poignant, with an air-tight script, “Endless Slumper” is without a doubt the best episode of “Cheers,” bar none — pun intended. When a Red Sox pitcher (Christopher McDonald) comes to Sam for advice on his current slump, Sam loans him his lucky charm: a bottle cap. The pitcher soon finds himself on a hot streak, but Sam’s luck does a nosedive. Without his lucky talisman, he’s worried about falling back on the destructive behaviors of his past.
This episode of “Cheers” set the series apart from other sitcoms of its era with its ability to deftly pair laugh lines with deeply affecting human moments. You’d be hard-pressed to find another example of a half-hour television show letting a moment of silence breathe and grow for so long and with such suspense than as is done so superbly in “Endless Slumper.” When the laugh finally comes, it is made more meaningful by the range of emotions we’ve experienced on the way. A truly excellent episode of television that set the standard for comedy for years to come.
As an added bonus, this is the first appearance of Diane’s facial tic, a hilarious recurring “Cheers” bit that hits so hard thanks to Shelley Long’s indomitable physical comedy chops.
“Cheers” is streaming now on Peacock.
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