Working writers in TV, especially showrunner-creators, often have to deal with people who watch their shows a couple of times, blink, gulp, and then take to the interwebs to announce, “They stole my series! That’s mine, I tell you! Mine!”
Although sometimes the complaint can be real, most of the time it’s what the biz calls “parallel development” caused by the temper of the times causing more than people to come up with similar notions. We here at TVWriter™ have no special knowledge about the situation described in the Boston Magazine article below but present it as an interesting case study now gaining some traction. Of course, if you know more about the situation than the article describes, we’d love to hear about it, so please let us know if you’re a believer in:
The Cheers Conspiracy
by Dan McCarthy
A few days after the official start of fall in 1982, the headlines were a bleak reflection of life in Ronald Reagan’s America. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were on the rise again, the nation’s economy was still dragging itself out of a recession, the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” topped the Billboard Hot 100, and the top-rated TV programs included The A-Team and Falcon Crest. Few knew it yet, but a new show was about to debut at the end of September on NBC. In time, an adoring fan base (especially in Boston) would lionize it as a new classic—a hallowed place on Thursday nights where everyone knows your name.
Cheers would go on to earn a special spot in the collective pop-culture consciousness, winning 28 Emmy Awards, lasting for 275 episodes spanning three presidential administrations, and seriously pissing off at least one late-night talk-show host when the cast showed up drunk for a live taping of The Tonight Show after the series finale (25 years ago this spring). It’s hard to think about a world where Cheers didn’t exist, and most people with any kind of connection to the show’s legacy, or to Boston, for that matter, wouldn’t want to try.
But three years before Sam, Diane, Frasier, Carla, and Norm, there was another group of quirky barflies on the airwaves around Boston. September 1979 marked the debut of Park St. Under, a show (stop me if you’ve heard this one) about a Boston neighborhood bar, led by a Red Sox player turned bartender; a short, dark-haired employee with attitude; a world-weary civil servant working for the local government; an absent-minded old-timer offering comic relief; and yes, even a local psychiatrist turning the show’s barroom into a regular place of both business and play. Produced in Needham on a modest budget, it has been touted as the first local, independent weekly sitcom ever made, and during its short run it revolutionized ideas of what an independent broadcast TV station could do. Perhaps most important, it was a hit with Boston audiences before it faded into the pop-culture ether.
While the world has all but forgotten Park St. Under, a few true believers remember it as a novel, hyper-local show—and insist that its legacy, to the extent that it has one, is as the sitcom that inspired (or was possibly ripped off by) a bunch of out-of-towners who made Cheers, the most famous show ever about Boston. The tale has persisted as a nugget of local trivia, an urban legend stoked by hometown pride that gets dredged up every so often, or gets posted on Reddit. It’s the “story that will not die,” sighed the Globe in 2001. Even the official history of Channel 5, which produced and aired all 36 episodes of Park St. Under between 1979 and 1980, reads: “WCVB is the first station in the country to produce a weekly half-hour sitcom. The program is said to be a precursor of Cheers.”