Cheers is, without a doubt, one of the best-known and best-loved sitcoms of all time.
Running from 1982 to 1993, the series made it 11 seasons and 270 episodes. However, even after its cancellation, the show lived on in the form of its popular spinoff, Frasier, which went on for another 11 seasons and some 264 episodes.
Set in Boston, Massachusetts, the show focuses on the trials and challenges of the regulars at a bar named, appropriately, Cheers. At the center of the show is Sam Malone, a former baseball player and recovering alcoholic who owns the bar. Sam is flanked by a menagerie of eccentric employees and customers that managed to get into a variety of weird situations.
Other characters include Carla Tortelli, a cynical cocktail waitress at the bar, bar regular Norm Peterson, postal worker Cliff Clavin and Woody Boyd, a dunce of a bartender.
However, it would be Sam’s off again, on again relationship with waitress and aspiring writer Diane Chambers that would bring plagiarism to the bar where everybody knows your name.
While it might seem like an odd topic for a TV show about a bar, that’s exactly what happened in episode 10 of season 5 of the series. The episode, entitled Everyone Imitates Art, actually ended up being one of the most interesting and unique looks at plagiarism on TV.
The episode begins with Diane feeling upbeat with a letter she received from a poetry magazine she had submitted her work to. Though it was a rejection letter, Diana said that it was so polite and encouraging it meant that they were practically begging her to submit more work.
Sam, however, says that the letter is just a form and claims that he could submit a poem and get a similar letter just as easily. Diane accepts the challenge and tells Sam to write something and send it in.
Three weeks later, Diane confronts Sam wondering where his rejection letter is. Sam says he hasn’t gotten one but shows her the latest edition of the publication. In it is a poem published under Sam’s name.
In shock, Diane almost immediately assumes that Sam plagiarized the work and makes it her mission to prove it. She spends the next week riffling through books and magazines trying to find where Sam copied from.
But after a week of living off coffee and cigarettes, Sam takes pity on Diane and pulls her into his office. There, he explains to her that he did copy the poem but not from a published source. Rather, he copied it from one of her old love letters to him (one she had clearly forgotten about).
This causes a strange series of emotions in Diane including being happy that something she wrote was published, even if not under her name, and kissing Sam saying that it’s sweet he kept her old love letters.
To Diane, this is a sign that Same really does love her despite his protests the contrary and the episode ends with Sam arguing that he keeps a lot of things that have no meaning to him, even as Diane continues to brush his claims aside.
Understanding the Plagiarism
The plagiarism in this story is fairly straightforward. Sam, unable to create a poem of his own submitted one of Diane’s under his name.
The plagiarism here is a bit confusing. If Sam’s goal really was to prove that any piece of garbage poem could receive the same rejection letter, then it doesn’t make sense to submit a good one. He could have simply written a piece akin to the one featured on Leave it to Beaver and made his point much more effectively.
However, it’s not the plagiarism that’s really interesting in this episode, it’s Diane’s reaction. Once she’s convinced of Sam’s plagiarism (and, to be fair, she wasn’t wrong), she goes on a week-long hunt to find the original source.
This episode aired in 1986, this was nearly a decade before the Internet would be widely available and 14 years before the launch of Turnitin.
This, in short, is what plagiarism detection looked like before the Internet.
While obviously the episode took some liberties for the sake of comedy, it did hit upon the challenges of trying to find the source of a suspicious work. Diane was wading through a sea of books, trying to nail down the era the original poem was written in and narrow down her hunt in any way possible.
Before digital searches, that was a lot of the process. This is one of the reasons why, before the Internet, plagiarists were largely caught by accident, with one person knowing both works. Even experts in a field would struggle to find a source in the sea of published works.
Still, it’s a bit frustrating that the plagiarism didn’t have a solid conclusion. Once he admitted to the copying, Sam made no efforts to make things right. He neither agreed to tell others at the bar about his misdeed or correct the matter with the magazine.
Diane, too caught up in Sam’s supposed feelings for her, lets the actual plagiarism drop completely. Instead, she chooses to focus on the fact something she wrote was published, even if it wasn’t under her name.
It’s not often we get a look into what it was like to try and detect or prove plagiarism before the Internet. It’s really amazing to think how technology has changed this issue forever.
However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the emotional impact plagiarism can have. In this episode, the plagiarism nearly drives Diane to a mental breakdown.
Not only does her obsession with spotting the plagiarism push her to live a week of coffee and cigarettes, but the defeatist feeling of trying so hard while Sam succeeds with ease causes her to stop writing and feel like an abject failure.
While this is certainly an exaggeration, it shows the harm that can come from plagiarism. When plagiarists take limelight away from legitimate creators working hard and producing new material, it just causes many potentially great artists to give up.
Diane’s emotional struggles may have been exaggerations, but many artists and writers can find a reflection of themselves in it, making this episode even more poignant.
So, while the episode itself may not have had an interesting plagiarism case or a good conclusion to it, it was still a relevant and unique look at the aftermath of plagiarism, especially at the way it was dealt with before the Internet.
Want more plagiarism in pop culture? Check out the other installments in this series below:
- The Facts of Life
- Leave it to Beaver
- The Waltons
- Jane the Virgin
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part One)
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part Two)
- Boy Meets World
- WKRP in Cincinnati