Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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, CHRISTINE BARANSKI, ALICIA WITT, and ALAN ROSENBERG as Ira. With DEDEE PFEIFFER & PETER KRAUSE.
Season Two is funnier than One — not only because of the added studio audience (which elevates the material’s laugh-out-loud objective), but also because the show is taking more risks, offering bolder episodic notions and opportunities for its star to clown. And since Cybill doesn’t have the character work to be anything other than idea-driven, more comedic ideas simply lead to a more enjoyable show… Speaking of character though, this year phases out Jeff and doesn’t lose much, while also moving away — thankfully — from the possibility of an Ira and Cybill reconciliation. But the replacement arcs aren’t any smarter. For instance, the second half of this year explores the potential coupling of Ira and Maryann, the latter of whom remains the show’s best defined and therefore funniest lead, even as she’s diluted a bit following Christine Baranski’s Emmy win. Pairing her with Ira doesn’t do Maryann any favors, as his comic capabilities are muted (and further mute hers), and his emotional stakes as a regular don’t really exist when not directly opposite Cybill. Similarly, this year offers more stories about both daughters and their romantic tribulations with husband and boyfriend, respectively. These plots feel mostly clichéd and unnecessary, primarily when Cybill is not explicitly involved, for as the anchor of the show, her inclusion in story is vital to our feeling that the “situation” is well-utilized… Of course, that’s not to say Cybill has any more of a character this season than before. No, she’s still not allowed to have flaws and be decidedly wrong — she can make relatable mistakes and get mocked because of her age and career, but she’s pretty much perfect. Thus, she doesn’t really drive story, and Cybill remains mediocre situation comedy. And, for the record, there’s no major difference in style between the work of showrunner Chuck Lorre, who was fired after the first five episodes of Two, and his successor, Home Improvement’s Howard Michael Gould; Cybill’s shortcomings are consistent. But with regard to Season Two in particular, this year’s show biz satire is sharp — it’s still new enough to be novel — and while macro arcs related to the family may not be great, some of its individual ideas are fun, especially when they’re fearless. Yes, there’s not enough Cybill/Maryann “buddy comedy” here, but what we do get continues to make for Cybill’s funniest, best moments. And there’ll be more of that in the years ahead…
01) Episode 14: “Cybill Discovers The Meaning Of Life” (Aired: 09/17/95)
Cybill takes Maryann on a spiritual retreat in the desert.
Teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Elaine Aronson | Story by Chuck Lorre | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Cybill allows her new-age spirituality to be mocked — gently, as a quirk not a flaw — in this amusing season opener that mines humor from the differences between Cybill and Maryann, who act as a classic pair of opposites when they go into the desert on a quest of spiritual reflection. As usual, offerings that focus on the “buddy comedy” aspect of this series’ “situation” tend to be among its finest, largely because Christine Baranski’s Maryann is the show’s breakout character — the best-defined, and the funniest. She is on figurative fire here, and that’s primarily what makes it worthwhile (as Two observes an overall reduction in her character’s outrageousness, particularly after Baranski’s September 1995 Emmy win). Also, Rachel gives birth to her child, officially turning Cybill Sheridan into a grandma.
02) Episode 17: “Cybill With An ‘S'” (Aired: 10/08/95)
Ira’s new girlfriend has multiple personalities.
Teleplay by Michael Langworthy & Linda Wallem | Story by Howard Michael Gould | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
One of the most popular episodes of the series, this half hour traffics in a bold comic idea — one that, for better and for worse, actually has little to do with the regulars. That is, it’s centered around a guest — Ira’s new girlfriend, played by Wendie Malick (then in the last season of HBO’s Dream On), who seems perfectly charming when the ladies first meet her… only to reveal a shocking multiple personality disorder whenever she hears running water. It’s a gimmicky concept that earns easy laughs, but Malick is an excellent sitcom presence and she pulls it off, and in this series where the character work is never great, memorable comic ideas enjoy an outsized value. Meanwhile, Zoey falls for a waiter, her future boyfriend Sean (Jay Paulson), and she and Cybill have a terrific scene in her bedroom that elevates this whole entry.
03) Episode 18: “Cybill’s Fifteen Minutes” (Aired: 10/15/95)
Cybill gets embroiled in scandal thanks to her Oscar date.
Teleplay by Russ Woody | Story by Lee Aronsohn & Howard Michael Gould | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
With the comic conflict coming from the idea that Cybill’s career in Hollywood — a place with a reputation for scandal and moral decay — could negatively influence her personal life (like her family’s privacy), this installment predicates itself on a story that involves its lead’s “situation” but doesn’t have anything to do with her characterization. Indeed, the whole setup for this outing (the last with credited involvement by Chuck Lorre) is that Cybill is engulfed by bad press because of her proximity to another celebrity, her Oscar date who went out and solicited a hooker. It’s an amusing notion, and it reveals a basic Cybill reality: this show must concoct drama for its star to exist in, but not meaningfully cause. (Leeza Gibbons appears.)
04) Episode 22: “Local Hero” (Aired: 11/26/95)
Cybill gets an ego boost by visiting an immigrant family that idolizes her.
Teleplay by Linda Wallem & Howard Michael Gould | Story by Elaine Aronson & Russ Woody | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Although Cybill Sheridan is really not permitted to have the kind of negative traits that cause conflict and therefore tie this series’ central characterization to story, the star of Cybill does allow her character to sometimes be the butt of a joke — usually with regard to her career, which the show treats as far less successful than that of Oscar-winning Cybill Shepherd. It’s not a commensurate trade-off narratively, but beggars can’t be choosers with this series, for it’s merely welcome to see comic action revolving around Cybill herself — like here, when she’s so desperate for validation that she goes to visit the family of an immigrant cab driver who considers her a big star. It’s a funny idea — something unique to Cybill and this character — and helps earn a climax for some percolating relationship drama. (Jim Rash has a small role.)
05) Episode 23: “The Odd Couples” (Aired: 12/03/95)
Ira studies Maryann for inspiration, while Cybill tries to bond with Sean.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
The seeds of the ultimately misguided Ira/Maryann romantic arc are planted in this otherwise enjoyable entry, which finds the writer joining in on the divorcée’s vengeful maneuvers for creative inspiration. It’s fun because it utilizes a known aspect of Maryann’s characterization and accentuates her persona against someone so comparatively low-key. Theoretically, their romance should have done the same, but those stories don’t allow Maryann to display her definition as actively as this one. Additionally, there’s another uncommon pairing when Cybill bonds with Zoey’s boyfriend Sean and ropes him into her own feud with a neighbor. This plot works because it also emphasizes Cybill’s relationship with Zoey — an important part of the series’ “situation.” (Christian Clemenson, Reno Wilson, and Joyce DeWitt appear.)
06) Episode 27: “Where’s Zoey?” (Aired: 02/04/96)
Zoey stays with Maryann while Cybill is out of town shooting a show.
Written by Maria A. Brown | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Zoey is the strongest character in Cybill’s family because she’s given a unique perspective that, if this were a better written sitcom, would more explicitly clash against everyone else’s. But this excursion is fun, for it grants her the chance to play opposite Maryann, with whom she stays while Cybill is out of town shooting a show (with an actress who’s “method”), and this pairing of the series’ two funniest regulars makes for a winning setup, relative to Cybill’s baseline. Of course, there’s so much more that could have been done — if this were a better written sitcom, again — but there are enough laughs here to say it’s worthy of inclusion, like in the subplot, where Ira hires a hooker (Claire Stansfield) to play his girlfriend. (Lee Arenberg also guests.)
07) Episode 28: “Lowenstein’s Lament” (Aired: 02/11/96)
Cybill doesn’t get the part based on herself when Ira’s book is made into a movie.
Written by Glenn Gers | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
This is the year’s best narrative sample of how Cybill can smartly represent its “situation” in story by intersecting its title character’s personal and professional worlds. In this installment, Ira’s book is being turned into a movie and Cybill is up for the role based on herself. Naturally, she doesn’t get it — a comedic choice that’s in-line with this series dumping on Cybill’s career as a replacement for being able to actually dump on her character. Nevertheless, this opens the door for some hilarious industry satire, as Paula Abdul is cast in the part. Meanwhile, Maryann starts pursuing Ira in earnest here, launching an arc that will persist throughout the rest of this season. (This entry contains a crossover appearance from Nancy Travis of Almost Perfect.)
08) Episode 29: “Wedding Bell Blues” (Aired: 02/18/96)
Cybill and Maryann crash Dr. Dick’s wedding to Cybill’s rival.
Written by James L. Freedman | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Wedding Bell Blues” sees the return of Morgan Fairchild as Andrea, Cybill’s rival from last year’s MVE (“As The World Turns To Crap”). This time, she not only steals a job from Cybill, she also steals a man from Maryann — Dr. Dick, the spiteful divorcée’s ex. So, these two women scorned join together for a classic display of Cybill’s capacity for “buddy comedy” in the grand tradition of Laverne and Shirley or Lucy and Viv, as they crash the couple’s wedding and guarantee a ruckus — climaxing in a food-throwing fest. It’s a funny — if familiar — example of how this show uses physical comedy as a venue for its star to showcase her comedic chops (again, in place of a brilliant characterization), and while this often makes the series’ sensibility feel regressive for its era (and genuinely not comparable to Lucy, where there was a strong character there — at least at first), it’s also a sincere showcase for what uniquely defines Cybill. What’s more, it’s a perfect reflection of the show in Season Two, which has become more comedically bold now that it’s often shooting in front of an audience. Thus, all in all, this is the best (and funniest) projection of the series’ identity here — and that’s why it’s my MVE. (Adam Arkin also appears.)
09) Episode 30: “A Who’s Who For What’s His Name” (Aired: 02/19/96)
Cybill promises her agent’s widow that she’ll throw him a great funeral.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
There’s plenty of show biz satire in this popular, well-liked outing that finds Cybill having to throw together a funeral for her recently deceased agent, in an effort to assuage her guilt for having just fired him. Now handling the event herself — and trying not to shatter the illusions of a widow who believes her husband was a bigger deal than he was — Cybill invites a parade of celebrity lookalikes. It’s essentially a string of gags that, as usual, adds laughs that have nothing to do with the regulars, but it’s an accurate demonstration of Cybill’s storytelling and the “situation’s” natural room for parody. And with a memorably bold Lucy-esque idea, I would miss it if it wasn’t on this list. (Brian Keith, Marianne Muellerleile, and Kenny Rogers guest.)
10) Episode 31: “Romancing The Crone” (Aired: 03/10/96)
Cybill accidentally injures a famous actress and then invites her to recuperate at her home.
Written by Bruce Eric Kaplan | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Shirley Knight guest stars in this installment as a famous actress who takes advantage of Cybill’s hospitality after Cybill accidentally injures her on a set. It’s the old Man Who Came To Dinner shtick, enlivened here by a fun performance and a more specific industry parody — oh, and cameos by a bevy of delightful old sitcom broads, including Isabel Sanford, Phyllis Diller, and Alice Ghostley. Meanwhile, I also appreciate the subplot where Maryann is back to her vengeful ways now that Dr. Dick has remarried — it offers a perfect climax, as Maryann, Cybill, and Shirley Knight’s character go to destroy his swimming pool. Though never great, it’s another sample of how Cybill’s “situation” invites affable show biz stories with appropriate guests.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “To Sir, With Lust,” a funny entry where Cybill is attracted to her acting teacher… until she learns he’s a terrible actor, and “The Big Apple Can Bite Me,” which is never great but at least knows to pair Cybill and Maryann together like the “situation”-validating duo they are, along with “Zing!,” where Cybill falls for her date’s father, causing the conflict, but not in a way that’s framed as wrong, “Mourning Has Broken,” where Cybill and Maryann again scheme as buddies, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” which introduces Florence Stanley as Ira’s mom, “Pal Zoey,” where Cybill and Zoey bond, “Three Women And A Dummy,” where Cybill helps out the waiter (Tim Maculan), and the finale, “Going Out With A Bang,” which guests Tim Conway.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Cybill goes to…
“Wedding Bell Blues”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!