Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on Cybill (1995-1998, CBS), which has been released on DVD in Region 2, and often pops up on streaming platforms.
Cybill stars CYBILL SHEPHERD as Cybill, CHRISTINE BARANSKI as Maryann, ALICIA WITT as Zoey, and ALAN ROSENBERG as Ira. With DEDEE PFEIFFER & TOM WOPAT.
Cybill is my least favorite of all the shows we’re spotlighting in this second Sitcom Tuesday sweep back through the 1990s. I hate to start on such a negative note, but my analysis on this blog is about finding the best of each series — measuring it against itself — and then also determining where I think it resides in the genre, measuring it alongside others (especially from the same era). And I’m afraid that I think Cybill is weak by comparison. In fact, the primary reason I’m covering it is not because it needs to be here, but rather because I wanted to highlight at least one ‘90s effort by Chuck Lorre — the man most responsible for maintaining the multi-camera format in the 21st century (for better and for worse). We have previously seen Lorre’s work on several seasons of Roseanne — after which he went out and started creating his own shows, including the short-lived but equally blue-collar Frannie’s Turn, and then his first hit, Grace Under Fire, which, like Roseanne, built a domestic blue-collar sitcom using autobiographical details about its star, a standup comic who had a penchant for firing writers (Lorre included). Fate would repeat itself again for Lorre with Cybill Shepherd, another difficult diva who sought a show based around her life — only she wasn’t a standup comic, and she wasn’t at all blue-collar, for she was a middle-aged movie star living in a fancy house in the Hollywood Hills. Together, she and Lorre decided to make her character (Cybil Sheridan) not as famous or successful as Shepherd herself, but a working actress in this glitzy business nonetheless. That would yield stories about her career and the difficulties she faced as an aging performer. Even more of the actress’ reality was reflected in her family life, where Cybill had two daughters from two different ex-husbands, and therefore the potential for unique domestic plots as well. Less autobiographical, on the other hand, was the show’s central relationship — the “buddy comedy” between Cybill and her best friend, Maryann, a hard-drinking divorcée (of the evil Dr. Dick).
We’ll talk more about everyone else later. First — the leading lady, an alum of the 1980s dramedy Moonlighting, where she proved that she could indeed play comedy. However, as Cybill reveals, a capacity for playing comedy isn’t enough in the sitcom genre, where character is paramount — the element of a “situation” most necessary for sustaining and upholding premise-affirming story. And this is where Cybill — largely because of its star — gets stuck being subpar sitcommery. By all accounts, Cybill Shepherd had specific ideas about the material she received and played — just as previous stars for whom Lorre had written did — but unlike a, say, Roseanne Barr, whose primary pursuit was premise-validating realism (and thereby beneficial for the projection of her show’s identity), Shepherd’s personal ideals often weren’t in the direction of Cybill’s best interests, particularly as a situation comedy. The trouble stems almost entirely from Cybill Sheridan and the way her portrayer wanted to be depicted — as fundamentally good and very seldom wrong. That is, she’d allow the Cybill character to be overly silly and carry out seemingly ridiculous schemes with Maryann, and maybe even make small casual mistakes that anybody could make from time to time, and, of course, she could frequently be the butt of the joke as far as her place/age in the industry is concerned. But she would NOT permit Cybill to have any actual, definable character flaws herself, and most importantly, never would she be able to actively do things that were wrong. Now, this is dreadfully limiting for a sitcom character who should be driving her show’s laughs and story. And let me be clear: it’s not as if Cybill had to be an unlikable mess. No, we’ve seen likable protagonists before, such as Rob Petrie and Mary Richards — they don’t lead with major flaws as the engine of their characterizations, but they’re not perfect and they face consequences for their actions (like when Rob is jealous, or Mary is non-committal, or they both go overboard people-pleasing). Story is able to erupt from decisions they make that directly produce conflict.
That’s not the case with Cybill on Cybill, where conflict comes from other characters, generic misunderstandings, or circumstances over which the lead has no control. Accordingly, Cybill Sheridan tends to feel not only protected, but false — like a sanitized version of a human being — and more to the point, she’s not a strong sitcom character, because she can’t propel story like the best in this genre. And since showcasing her is also the main goal of Cybill, that means the show is centralizing an incredible weakness. Again, it’s not the performer or her capabilities; it’s what she allows on behalf of her character, and, specifically, how she allows her character to exist in comic story. Naturally, Shepherd’s self-imposed limitations made it difficult to work for her, as Chuck Lorre found out when she fired him five episodes into the second season. (And the entire writing staff would re-learn this lesson the following year when there was another mass exodus amidst rising tensions.) So, given Lorre’s limited presence on Cybill, this sitcom ends up not even being the best display of his sensibilities. Actually, Dharma & Greg — for which he stayed four seasons — would probably give us a better indication of his comic style as a writer. But you all preferred Cybill as a source of discussion when surveyed last year, and because the autobiographical nature of this show’s setup also reflects the lessons he took from Roseanne and applied similarly on Grace Under Fire, it does feel like a revealing example of his early work, even if his actual involvement is only felt fully in this 13-episode first season, which was shot with multiple cameras but no live audience. (A live audience would be added in Season Two). As per his design, there’s a work aspect to the series, a domestic/family aspect, and a buddy aspect — and, collectively, they make for surprisingly fertile ground. In fact, if the Cybill character was better defined, I would go ahead and say that this setup was primed for success.
Cybill’s career in show business permitted ever-popular industry satire, which was becoming clichéd by that point in the 1990s, but this show was able to concoct a variety of solid spoofs (like in the cold opens), and since it’s one area where the star allowed herself to be mocked, it makes for some of Cybill’s funniest scenes. As for the family component, the best is Alicia Witt as Cybill’s rebellious younger daughter Zoey, whose sheer personality suggests dramatic tension — making her more conducive to sitcommery than the elder, pregnant daughter, who only exists narratively in predictable plots related to generic developments. Meanwhile, the two-ex-husbands — Tom Wopat as dim stuntman Jeff and Alan Rosenberg as neurotic writer Ira — are contrasted well against each other, but neither really has a comic spark, especially with Cybill. Even though this first season relies on the potential reconciliation between Cybill and Ira as a narrative arc, it’s always difficult to invest in his placement on the show. After all, he’s her ex — past tense — and while Jeff’s usage diminishes significantly after Season One, Ira’s always around, and never well-suited for big laughs. However, the best part of the show — by far — is the element that lets it most seem like a “buddy comedy.” I’m referring to Cybill’s best friend Maryann, played by the material-elevating Christine Baranski, who accentuates hilarity. She is, without a doubt, the highlight of Cybill, for she is its boldest, best-defined character. This first season (for which Baranski won an Emmy) already looks to regard their friendship as the most prominent bond, but it takes until the final two years — when other regulars have been reduced or weeded out — for them to really thrive as a duo of scheming cohorts, à la Lucy and Viv. Indeed, the Lucy comparison is obvious — primarily due to Cybill’s reliance on physical comedy in the absence of a strong characterization — but references are also made to the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. I find the latter link generous and overstated, for, again, Cybill lacks a clear story-pushing persona, and although Maryann is bold in relation to her, she’s muted ultimately (and certainly in story) because she NEVER gets as much to do as she should.
There’s been much scuttlebutt about the ways in which Cybill Shepherd regarded the popularity of Christine Baranski’s Maryann and how she allowed her “friend” to exist on the show, particularly after that 1995 Emmy win. Whatever is true, the show doesn’t lie: Maryann is Cybill’s best character, but seldom is she the focus of comic story that she drives. Her usage is probably at its best in the Bob Myer era (of Seasons Three and Four), which more often spotlights the “buddy comedy” aspect of the premise, but it’s never enough. As such, Cybill seems to actively avoid being a great character-driven sitcom — even when it could be — and, in fact, it is more decidedly idea-driven. Sometimes it’s overly broad, sometimes it’s trying to be realer (like here in One), but it’s always relatively uninspired and gimmicky, with stories and set pieces that naturally can’t compensate for weaknesses with character and relationships. In terms of the best episodes, I think the series most satisfies its identity when it’s able to intersect Cybill’s career, and the comic ideas generated from it, with her personal life — especially by way of Maryann, given her strong(er) characterization and Baranski’s elevating performance. And yet, while there are good episodes by Cybill’s standards, nothing rises to the level of the gems we just saw on 3rd Rock From The Sun — nor is the show ever as goofily fun as Martin or The Nanny. This is mid-‘90s mediocrity — a “C” sitcom — the ambassador we chose for the Chuck Lorre brand, and while one could argue that such middling efforts are indicative of his ethos overall (even in the 21st century), I must insist that Cybill’s character work, specifically as a result of Cybill herself (because the issue lasts longer than Lorre’s tenure) is lesser than his baseline. It’s been a while since I’ve covered a show primarily out of obligation like this, and I can’t pretend; there’s only a little bit of gold here, and a lot of surrounding muck. Thank goodness this is only going to be a four-week commitment — and thank goodness for Christine Baranski (the gold).
01) Episode 3: “As The World Turns To Crap” (Aired: 01/16/95)
Cybill competes with a rival actress, while her daughter’s conservative in-laws visit.
Written by Elaine Aronson | Directed by Tom Moore
Cybill’s personal and professional lives collide in this amusing offering that introduces Morgan Fairchild as the title character’s long-running nemesis, who’ll recur a few more times and make for a couple of the series’ most comedic half hours, thanks to their precise relational dynamic. This installment not only benefits from some choice show biz satire, but also the way the plot intersects it with a visit from pregnant daughter Rachel’s conservative in-laws (Christina Pickles, Ken Jenkins), who are aghast at the Hollywood lifestyle that Cybill isn’t able to suppress when she’s visited by Maryann, along with the writer she’s trying to schmooze and the rival with whom she’s feuding. It’s a good show of the “situation” that unfolds largely in a unity of time and place like a play, and it packs some of the bigger laughs of the series — with the earthquake climax an external gag, but one that comedically reiterates how awful this Hollywood place is to the New Englanders. So, since it’s a satisfying reflection of Cybill’s premised particulars — with hahas to boot — I’m selecting it as this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode). Other guests include Neal McDonough, David Clennon, Genie Francis, and Patricia Belcher.
02) Episode 4: “Look Who’s Stalking” (Aired: 01/23/95)
Cybill dates Ira’s former therapist; Maryann befriends Dr. Dick’s new girlfriend.
Written by Dottie Dartland | Directed by Tom Moore
The leading lady’s professional life takes a backseat to her personal life in this outing that sets up Cybill’s forthcoming attempted reconciliation with Ira when she unknowingly begins dating his former shrink (Bruce Davison). She then sabotages things with the doc in a centerpiece that, yes, we could say is Cybill’s fault, but is clearly motivated by her feelings for her ex-husband (thereby excusing her bad behavior). It’s a mildly comic A-story that really is secondary in value to the subplot, where Maryann befriends Dr. Dick’s new girlfriend (Ellen Greene), and while stalking him — a running gag for her character, especially in this first season — learns he’s cheating on her new “pal.” It’s hilarious — a wonderful early showing for Maryann.
03) Episode 5: “Starting On The Wrong Foot” (Aired: 02/06/95)
Maryann goes on her first date since the divorce but frightens him off with a weird gift.
Written by Howard Michael Gould | Directed by Tom Moore
Christine Baranski — Cybill’s not-so-secret weapon — won an Emmy Award for her work in this particular entry, which gives her character, Maryann, the hard-drinking and vengeful divorcée, more emotional depth than she’s heretofore received, courtesy of a story in which she goes out on a date for the first time in several decades. Her comic nervousness makes sense given her “situation,” and the funny idea of her sending the man (played by NewsRadio’s Stephen Root) shoes afterwards — and then not hearing from him — is a lot of character-revealing fun, allowing for a climax that’s probably the funniest moment of this entire first season. A great Maryann show — an MVE contender. (Jonathan Frakes also guests.)
04) Episode 12: “The Big Sleep-Over” (Aired: 05/08/95)
Zoey’s parents meet her boyfriend, while Cybill must stop Maryann from a hasty marriage.
Teleplay by Dottie Dartland & Howard Michael Gould | Story by Chuck Lorre | Directed by Robert Berlinger
The best episode of this season for the Zoey character — the most comedic figure in Cybill’s home-life — “The Big Sleep-Over” boasts the amusing notion of the parents (Cybill, Ira) meeting her terrible, goofy, stupid boyfriend… or so they think, for she’s really dating his much older brother, who’s smarter and more sophisticated… but older. It’s a clever teenager scheme that jibes with her characterization, and it pairs nicely with a B-story where Maryann goes to Reno with her boyfriend and almost gets drunkenly married to someone else. It’s up to Cybill to halt the proceedings — a use for her character that Shepherd would come not to prefer, where she’s a mediator in plot for someone more outrageous (read: funnier).
05) Episode 13: “The Cheese Stands Alone” (Aired: 05/15/95)
Cybill’s career stands between her and Ira, while Maryann plans to ruin Dr. Dick’s party.
Written by Lee Aronsohn | Directed by Alan Myerson
Season One ends with an encapsulation of the show’s identity — for better and for worse. In the good column, there’s some fine Maryann material, as she and Cybill scheme to ruin Dr. Dick’s party by putting stinky Limburger cheese in his vents. With the pair working as a Lucy/Viv-esque duo, the “buddy comedy” aspect of the “situation” is satisfied. Meanwhile, there’s movement on the relationship/family front, as Cybill and Ira give up the prospect of reconciliation after arguing about her career — since she’s now been cast on a cheesy sitcom: a chance for some hacky but premise-affirming show biz satire. What’s more, the entry also makes room for Cybill to sing a duet with Jeff — a gimmick that she’ll frequently trot out on this series, even though it’s not great sitcommery. Neither is the big physical brawl that breaks out at the end, but such slapstick (in place of character) is another hallmark of Cybill, and its inclusion therefore fully solidifies this as a rich display of the show. (Oh, and Burt Reynolds, Lyle Waggoner, Joe Piscopo, and Hal Needham have cameos.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Virgin, Mother, Crone,” Lorre’s pilot — where Cybill becomes a grandma and her age is erroneously positioned as a defining trait, “Death And Execs,” which officially starts Cybill and Ira’s attempted reconciliation, and “The Last Temptation Of Cybill,” where Kevin Sorbo guests as a scene partner and potential love interest for Cybill. I’ll also take this space to cite “The Replacements,” simply because it’s one of the rare instances of Cybill being allowed to display a negative and unpleasant emotion, when she feels left out now that Maryann is dating, and “Call Me Irresponsible,” which pairs Cybill and Maryann together as best friends but doesn’t maximize much character value.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Cybill goes to…
“As The World Turns To Crap”
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!