A Multi-Cam Hero: James Burrows and My Favorite Episodes

On Sunday, NBC will air a two hour special honoring a man that not many may realize has had a hand in creating some of the most beloved sitcoms over the past 40 years: James Burrows.

The Internet has been freaking out since the Television Critic’s Association meet-up in January, where NBC announced it. It’s not that everyone is crazy about James Burrows, at least not consciously. No, it’s because news sites used misleading headlines… like “A FRIENDS Reunion is Finally Happening” or “Will & Grace Reunion Special to Air on NBC Next Month.” That’s what made the Internet lose its damn mind. And yes, many of these casts got back together. But not for us or for themselves. For one man. The man who had a huge part in their careers.

Mr. Burrows is THE multi-camera sitcom director. Starting on such hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Laverne & Shirley, he found his first moment with a little show called Taxi, where he directed 75 episodes. A few years later, he co-created Cheers, directing 237 (out of 271) episodes. He favors pilots, giving him the opportunity to help a fledgling show find its voice. NBC is honoring him for directing his 1,000th episode of television.

James Burrows has been an idol of mine for 15 years now. Not long, considering his massive career. But his style of directing multi-camera comedy cannot be matched. He knows good writing and respects the theatricality of filming in front of a live audience. Since Mr. Burrows is behind 3 of my all-time favorite shows, I decided to put together my own list of my favorite episodes of those shows, in no particular order, directed by the man of honor.

The BIG episodes: Pilots, Season Finales, Weddings, and Break-Ups:

You know the ones. They’re important to a series structure, sometimes an arc that writers have worked on for months. And networks know they usually could bring in big ratings. No pressure, there.

Cheers

Give Me a Ring Sometime (S1.E1): Most likely the greatest pilot of all-time, and a constant threat to my own attempts at penning a pilot, this episode set the stage without feeling like it. The actors instantly own their roles, nailing delivery, many times in a subtle way, setting the tone for Cheers’s natural, bar-banter humor.

Show Down Pts 1 & 2 (S1.E21-22): The season one finale that gave us all that we wanted from Sam and Diane – a memorable fight culminating in a passionate kiss we’ve been waiting for. And though it could’ve been easy for the rest of the cast to allow Ted and Shelley to carry the entire thing on their own, they give it their all with the subplots: their love for Sam’s (unseen) brother, Coach’s attempt at speaking Spanish, even the ladies ordering their drinks (“I haven’t had a beer since I don’t know when”). It feels so effortless for such a big moment. There would certainly be more moments, but none that top this one.

I’ll Be Seeing You, Pts 1 & 2 (S2.E21-22): A brutal break-up episode, we see the dissolution of Sam and Diane’s relationship. Sam’s ego and vanity and Diane’s impossible expectations where never a match – we love them apart, but they’re a terrible couple. They had to crumble. Christopher Lloyd, whom Burrows worked with extensively on Taxi, plays an aloof artist infatuated with Diane. It was almost too easy. The arc’s pinnacle moment is the difficult argument between Sam and Diane, that begins with childish slapping and nose pinching, but quickly delves into the seriousness of their emotions. The weightiness of their relationship is powerful. There’s a long silence between Diane walking out and Sam opening the painting, giving a simple, sincere “Wow.” That one word held so much, and was an impactful way to end the season.

An Old-Fashioned Wedding (S10.E25): A classic farce that could pay well on stage,  it has everything a farce needs: a wedding, a dead body, a drunk uncle and a jealous German husband. The revolving door of issues means timing is everything, from Sam’s exits and entrances to Carla’s unfortunate dumbwaiter trips. While it seems absurd that so much can go wrong on one day, the actors never miss a beat, so you don’t get too caught up in one story.

Frasier:

My Coffee with Niles (S1.E24): Not always ranked high on usual best lists, I always loved this episode because of its dark underside: Frasier may not be happy. It’s a deep topic, particularly for a sitcom character, and both Grammer and Pierce pull it off brilliantly. The entire episode takes place in the coffee shop, practically in real time, as Roz, Daphne, and Martin come in and out, bringing out different sides of Frasier during their interactions, along with the poor barista attempting to get his coffee order correct. For a series that so often looks at others’ internal psyche, it’s a rare meta moment of introspection and a quiet way to end the first season.

Friends:

The One with the Prom Video (S2.E14): An instant classic, and the reason why so many sitcoms afterward delved into character flashbacks. Monica and Rachel, in typical ’80s fashion, are preparing for prom. Unbeknownst to Rachel, a nervous Ross was ready to step in as her date, at the encourgement of his parents. When Rachel’s date shows, they leave Ross heart-broken, holding the flowers he just pulled from a vase. The killer moment is Rachel’s long, slow walk from the living room to the apartment door, as she realizes what Ross did for her, all these years later.

The One with the Morning After (S3.E16): This one is tough. I have to really gear myself up to watch it, but that’s because it makes me feel so strongly. The episode wisely puts us in the position of the rest of the gang, trapped in Monica’s bedroom, unable or unwilling to interrupt this blowout. Ross and Rachel were at an impasse, and their hours-long argument feels real and painful for both sides.

The Regular episodes that left a mark:

Season openers and closers, big break ups, and wedding episodes naturally lend themselves to good TV, if all the players are present, of course. But it’s the middle of season episodes where it’s harder to stand out. So when they do, they’re even more impressive.

Cheers

Diane’s Perfect Date (S1.E17): What seems like a typical sitcom set-up (two characters who are obviously into each other deflect by setting each other up with somebody else) plays with hilarious consequences here. Sam’s sly cockiness that Diane is setting herself up with him is both dumb AND revealing. When he sees he was wrong, we’re introduced to the unassuming, homicidal creep that is Andy Andy. The double-date that ensues is comical and terrifying. The final scene, where Sam and Diane engage in school yard “I’ll say I like you if you say you like me” tells us all we need to know about this relationship.

Pick a Con… Any Con (S1.E19): Harry Anderson plays Harry the Hat as a smooth if geeky conman, at once a throw back and completely relevant. He’s a known swindler, but when it looks like Coach is being taken advantage of, Sam knows who to call. This episode is wrought with tension, as the gang is trying their damnedest to win back not only Coach’s money, but his dignity. When Harry reveals how he pulled the ultimate con, it’s a testament to the directing that we in the audience are just as shocked as the gang.

The Triangle (S4.E15): Frasier has lost his mojo. Diane and a reluctant Sam scheme to help him out, but their assists result in an unexpected emotional explosion from Frasier, where he calls the pair out for their infantile, petty relationship. As a teeny-tiny subplot, there’s Norm and Cliff’s argument over Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, which is brilliantly executed by comically punctuating the very serious situation happening with Sam, Diane, and Frasier. Though Kelsey Grammer’s monologue is one of my favorites, it’s the following scene that shines. Sam and Diane sit in awkward silence, sneaking glances at each other. Diane fidgets, Sam leans back, then they tepidly discuss what the good Doctor has revealed. It’s yet another moment that’s heavy with emotion, and it’s what makes Cheers the sitcom by which all should be judged.

Abnormal Psychology (S5.E4): At five seasons in, it’s good to see Cheers wasn’t afraid to create a budding new relationship. With Sam and Diane on a clock, it was time to find a new pair to exchange testy banter. Enter Lilith. Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier was already well-developed, but Bebe Neuwirth matches him line for line, heated glance for heated glance. To frame their contested conversation within the bounds of a TV screen at the bar makes the sexual tension even more palpable.

Thanksgiving Orphans (S5.E9): Crescendoing to an epic food fight, this is episode takes the cake. One of the original “friendsgivings,” the Cheers gang ends up spending the holiday together because they all have no where else to go. They prove, however, that friends ARE family, complete with family-sized arguments over football, turkey, who’s really thankful. The food fight is just plain fun.

Everyone Imitates Art (S5.E10): A personal favorite, because it reveals a side to Diane we don’t often see: intellectual inferiority. Shelley Long brings a manic obsessive energy to the episode, while Ted Danson perfectly underplays (as usual), giving Long the power to control her scenes. Diane goes through a whirlwind of emotion here, and we, like the rest of the bar gang, just sit back and watch.

Frasier:

The Innkeepers (S2.E23): An episode that highlights the delusions of grandeur the Crane boys suffer from, it’s so fast-paced, you don’t really have time to consider just how unrealistic it might be. David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves are particularly great here, working together in the kitchen.

The Show Where Diane Comes Back (S3.E14): Again, a personal favorite because of how much I love Diane Chambers. She’s written a play that’s being produced in Seattle, which she convinces Frasier to help support. Frasier thinks he might actually be falling for Diane again, and it’s interesting how the series handles Frasier’s past here, recognizing how painful it was for him to be left at the alter. The slow-build during the first act, where Diane admits her troubles leads to a brilliant pay-off, and an epic rant performed by a still-bitter Frasier. Considering Long left Cheers nearly 10 years prior, she falls right back into her role easily, as does Grammer with her.

Friends:

The One with the Blackout (S1.E7): A standout for Matthew Perry, as we get to see his nerdy awkwardness without nerd-stereotyping. The rest of the gang is huddled in Monica’s apartment, doing what you do in a black-out – swapping stories, having singalongs, and getting attacked by stray cats. It’s also one step forward and three steps back for the Ross-and-Rachel relationship, an episode that brought “friendzone” into the pop-lexicon.

The One Where Nana Dies Twice (S1.E8): Death and comedy can go hand-in-hand. This episode handles the death of Ross and Monica’s Nana with poignancy and laughs. Ross helping pick out his grandmother’s burial clothes, Monica’s difficulty with her mother, and Joey sneaking in the football game all make the funeral events feel believable.

The One with All the Poker (S1.E18): A fun episode with a basic premise, it’s chock full of quoteable lines. Even though it’s tad bit sexist that none of the women know the game, it lends itself well to some great comedy and the girls finally do come around to playing with some skill. The final showdown between Ross and Rachel is incredibly revealing, since unlike Rachel, we as the audience know how Ross really feels. Did he let Rachel win? Maybe. “But look how happy she is.”

 

“Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows” will air Sunday, Feb. 21st at 9pm on NBC.

 

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