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COMMENTARY : Here’s Lookin’ at You, ‘Cheers’ : Television: The long-running saga of a Boston saloon and its patrons has won 22 Emmys and the No. 1 spot this season. Two reasons why: its actors and writers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How did “Cheers” get to be America’s favorite watering hole, our irresistible TV stopover on the way home, even though we’re already home when we check it out?

Reputedly based on a real Boston saloon, it’s like no bar that ever existed, in fiction or real life. There’s no barnstorming Hickey rousting the torpid regulars at Harry Hope’s from their pipe dreams to go out and face the Iceman. No one ever got his teeth bloodied there. No one ever bellowed the liquor-loosed Gorgons out of his subconscious before lurching miserably into the night. No one smokes, or seriously argues a political or social issue, or welshes on a bet. No one even gets a buzz on. Some joint!

But nobody’s cooked the books on “Cheers’ ” success either. Nine years ago, when the show first came on the air, it languished in the ratings cellar, a hard-luck spot ready for a closing notice. Now, after going neck-and-neck with “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne” for several years, it finished the season No. 1, having picked up 22 Emmys on the way. Obviously this show engages a lot of people.

To ask its fans what they appreciate most is to hear the response, “the writing” and “the characters.”

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“Most sitcoms run their course in three or four years,” said one observer. “But with ‘Cheers,’ people come and go, and you watch the changes in the ones who stay. That’s what keeps it fresh. Now we’re seeing how Sam is beginning to feel the need for a kid, after watching Frasier and Lilith with their baby. He wants to have it with Rebecca, even though he still doesn’t want to get married.”

Sam is the recovering alcoholic and former Red Sox pitcher who bought the place after he hung up his spikes, and has made a new career of chasing women. (When Carla the barmaid said that she’d had twins, referring to her kids, he gazed out nostalgically and said, “I’ve had twins myself.”)

As bartender, Sam (played by Ted Danson) is also first among equals in a gallery of regulars who include the bar’s manager Rebecca (Kirstie Alley); the tubby, chronically unemployed Norm (George Wendt); Carla (Rhea Perlman); mail-carrier Cliff (John Ratzenberger); Woody, the assistant bartender (Woody Harrelson); Frasier and Lilith (Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth), two smug psychiatrists who overcame a very vocal antipathy toward each other to become wary spouses, and Robin (Roger Rees), the corporate raider who may or may not come back to reclaim Rebecca’s heart.

“Cheers” has more fun with language than any other show in recent memory, even if it telegraphs its punch lines--as all sitcoms do. The lines at least belong to the people who speak them. “Cheers” also plays to the obvious--particularly in the dumb-down jokes that come from Harrelson and, before him, from the late Nicholas Colasanto’s Coach--and it steadfastly confuses Carla’s hammerhead rejoinders with sarcastic corrective, unless you find charm in someone who answers a customer’s insult by spitting in his beer, or telling him, “Why don’t you upchuck and die?”

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How did “Cheers” manage to pick up major trade? Several reasons.

One has to be the chemistry between Danson and Shelley Long, who played Diane, a pseudo-intellectual research assistant (“bred and educated to walk with kings”) hired on as a cocktail waitress. From a technical standpoint, Long was the best comedic actress to play a TV role since Lucille Ball. Lucy had more emotional volume--she was brass where Long played woodwind section. But Long had an amazing capacity for complicated and delicate expression--particularly for TV, which tends to flatten out performance and discourages physical nuance.

Everyone in the bar enjoyed sniping at Diane’s intellectual hauteur, with justification. But it was Long’s emotional transparency (her feelings seemed to riffle up through her clothes and out her face) and the way she played under her lines--even her slippery voice betrayed her illusory attempt at control--that made a smug character endearing. When she walked up the cellar stairs for the last time in 1987, it was like watching a bit of love walk out of your life. And what was Sam’s reaction? Where you might’ve expected smugness or pique, he just watched her pridefully and softly said, “Have a good life.” That was the moment when “Cheers” gained class.

“Cheers” came along too at a historic moment when the baby boomers were moving into their thirtysomething phase and the “cocooning” phenomenon began taking shape. The narcissism of the ‘70s--in tandem with the ‘80s deterioration of the public sector--had exacted a toll on public civility. It was a hassle to get anywhere, and the streets were beginning to fill up with panhandlers, and worse. If you missed the camaraderie of the saloon, now you could watch one on TV, with a cast of characters as large and sketchily defined as the old “Mary Tyler Moore” gang. And it was a yuppie bar too, a venue for protracted adolescence (and still is; a relatively recent episode had Sam and Woody competing for a kiss from Rebecca. A kiss ?).

James Burrows, one of the show’s creators (along with Glen Charles and Les Charles) made a telling point when he said in an interview, “Comedy is (about) losers.” He did not mean that disparagingly. The joke is almost always a device to conceal pain, or a sense of imbalance. The theme song for “Cheers” sums up the show as well as anything, when it tells us that the world is rough and it’s great to be able to go someplace where everybody’s glad to see you and everybody knows your name--and there’s no familial or job requirements. It may be an oversimplification, but we take our nostalgia where we find it these fast-forwarded days.

In the end, Burrows’ remark is amplified in our tacit knowledge that everyone in the “Cheers” gang goes home alone. A lonely country looks in, not just for gossip and amusement, but for an update on how we’re getting through.

The run has been so good that a lot of fans and people associated with the show wonder how long it can last. If, as we’ve recently heard, 80% of the new AIDS cases in 10 years will have been transmited heterosexually, how long will Sam’s skirt-chasing continue to earn a chuckle and a wink? Will Norm ever get a job? Will Rebecca’s ambition take her elsewhere? Will Frasier and Lilith decide that their child fills the emptiness once assuaged at the bar, and wind up staying away?

Some feel the bar itself is the hero and will carry the show indefinitely. Maybe the saloon will survive the millennium (with some ferns, perhaps, and New Age music?). But chances are, once the last of the regulars has downed his beer, tallied up and said good night forever, we’ll know what it is to feel old.

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