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.
Although Cybill is always mediocre, Season Three is the year that probably acquits the series at its most favorable, thanks to a collection of ideas that seem to make more meaningful links to what’s been established as part of the series’ “situation.” A lot of this has to do with the premise’s capacity for show biz satire — which Cybill is usually adept at providing — now sharing more of the comedic spotlight with the leads’ cultivated usages, particularly after a huge staff overhaul around episode seven, which culminates in embattled Roseanne scribe Bob Myer taking over the reins. More than any other headwriter, Myer appears to know how to pacify this star, supplying her with pie-in-the-face Lucy-esque comedy that doesn’t always work, but at least keeps her at the center of the comedic action. He also knows how to find ways for her to nudge along conflict despite her characterization not having any flaws (examples below). So, with Cybill generally well-featured — we even meet her mother this season — and thus mollified, scripts are then also free to nurture other elements of the “situation” too, like Maryann, whose personality remains diluted compared to Christine Baranski’s pre-Emmy comic boldness, but whose character is better utilized in story now, both as a capable sidekick for Cybill in affable “buddy comedy” offerings (which increase — to the show’s great pleasure), and also as a more dimensional figure in her own right. That is, she gets a new love interest this season — another doctor named Dick — and we also meet her parents… and her son, played by future That ’70s Show star Danny Masterson; he proves to be a boyfriend for Zoey, thereby tying together two aspects of Cybill’s wide-reaching premise. As for the other members of the family, they no longer intrude upon the parts of this series that work better — like Cybill’s bonds with both Maryann and Zoey — and while Ira gets a little arc with a pre-Malcolm In The Middle Jane Kaczmarek, it’s contextualized more through the other characters’ perspectives. In this regard, it seems like Cybill is finally figuring out how to maximize its strengths and work around its obvious limitations — its central character’s weakness with story first and foremost — and though this can’t make for greatness, it can at least make for more reliable goodness…
01) Episode 43: “Cybill Does Diary” (Aired: 10/21/96)
Cybill and Maryann try to write an erotic film for women.
Written by Michael Patrick King | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
The only script attributed to Sex And The City’s Michael Patrick King — who would be credited as Executive Producer for one episode amidst the chaotic transition from Howard Gould to Bob Myer — this amusing entry gains points for blending Cybill’s personal and professional lives, and doing so with a heavy dose of the “buddy comedy” fun between her and Maryann. This story finds the two ladies attempting to write their own erotic movie and accidentally sending a producer Zoey’s European diary instead — a tale that proves to be equally as sexy and therefore a revelation to her shocked mother. It’s a conflict caused by Cybill… but only accidentally, you see — and even though that renders it not totally character driven, by the standards of this series, it means her character is well-used within plot. (Jane Kaczmarek makes her debut as Ira’s latest love interest, and John Michael Higgins also guests.)
02) Episode 45: “Going To Hell In A Limo (I)” (Aired: 11/11/96)
Cybill gets cast on a major new sci-fi series, but her costar begins sleeping with the boss.
Teleplay by Maria A. Brown | Story by Elaine Aronson | Directed by Peter Baldwin
This is the offering referenced above — the one for which Michael Patrick King is credited as Executive Producer, before he too was axed and replaced with Bob Myer — and it’s the year’s winningest sample of show biz satire, introducing an arc that finds Cybill starring in a new sci-fi series called Lifeforms, a parody of The X-Files that also allows for allusions to Moonlighting. This story has Dinah Manoff (Empty Nest) playing the show’s headwriter, who is seduced by the hunky male lead (Jon Tenney) — a vindictive jerk who gets her to reduce Cybill’s role (following Cybill’s rejection of him). It seems a bit autobiographical (well, from Cybill’s perspective), and while the scheming climax is a little much, it’s in the spirit of Cybill’s ethos and is thus a strong affirmation of its identity. Part II is both narratively and comedically similar, but note that the idea is not as fresh or funny as it is here. (Dan Bucatinsky also appears.)
03) Episode 47: “Buffalo Gals” (Aired: 11/25/96)
Cybill accompanies Maryann to Buffalo for a high school reunion.
Written by Alan Ball | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Buffalo Gals” is the perfect example of how Season Three is better able to use aspects of this series’ “situation” by mollifying its difficult star, for while its story is ostensibly Maryann-heavy, it deliberately carves out room for Cybill to go off and be in the spotlight — with a musical number (one of her favorite things to foist upon the audience), when she pretends to be Maryann at the latter’s high school reunion — and this not only satisfies the “situation” by keeping its lead active, it also enables the rest of the script to be more interesting. Specifically, this installment introduces Maryann’s parents (Eileen Heckart and Dick O’Neill) and also reunites her with her son — played by That ’70s Show’s Danny Masterson, who’ll become a recurring character and a physical embodiment of Maryann’s capacity for emotional depth… beyond just being a purveyor of easy yuks. Now, as always with Cybill, I feel the need to qualify its successes relative to other series by saying this isn’t great, but it is strong by the standards of Cybill, and it emphasizes the show’s assets — Christine Baranski and her Maryann character. (George D. Wallace also appears.)
04) Episode 48: “A Hell Of A Christmas” (Aired: 12/09/96)
Cybill’s mother visits for Christmas and confronts her about her parenting.
Teleplay by Jane O’Brien & Michael Poryes | Story by Maria A. Brown | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
After introducing Maryann’s parents (and granting us Ira’s mother last season), this offering finally presents Cybill’s mom — played by Three’s Company’s Audra Lindley, who really is terrific casting, as her natural ability for comedy doesn’t get in the way of a perhaps surprising range and capability with dramatic nuance. What I like best about her inclusion here though is that she calls attention to other relationships within the ensemble — specifically, Cybill’s respective dynamics with her daughters, and how she shows a clear preference for Zoey over Rachel. This is fascinating because it’s not just true — the series also prefers Zoey to Rachel, so story has obviously explored her bond with Cybill better — but it also gives Cybill something close to a flaw… Of course, she’s not doing it intentionally, but it’s a negative attribute that causes conflict. And in this regard, it comes close to being laudable situation comedy.
05) Episode 51: “Little Bo Beep” (Aired: 01/20/97)
Cybill is targeted by animal rights activists after a televised incident with a lamb.
Teleplay by James L. Freedman | Story by Maria A. Brown | Directed by Jonathan Weiss
Cybill loses her job on Lifeforms in this outing that opens with the actress having trouble on live television with a lamb who bites her. Her exclamation of anger at the animal begets a reaction of outrage by activists (including Shari Lewis), and ultimately costs her the TV show. In other words, this is a conflict created by Cybill’s own actions — well, her response to being bitten, that is… It’s really not that she herself did anything wrong, you see (like when Murphy Brown got into a fight with the hand puppet on television); Cybill merely had an impulsive reaction to an unpleasant circumstance beyond her control. And yet, while this keeps Cybill from having to be a flawed character who makes flawed choices as a result, she is at least the cause of the consequences, and that’s good for Cybill. Meanwhile, Ray Baker debuts as the new Dr. Dick, and other guests include Matthew Glave, David Naughton, Arthel Neville, and Judith Baldwin.
06) Episode 52: “In Her Dreams” (Aired: 02/03/97)
Cybill has bad dreams while Maryann is nervous about a mammogram.
Teleplay by Bob Myer | Story by Bob Myer & Marilyn Suzanne Miller | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Truthfully, this is a subpar episode that combines gimmicky gags about Cybill’s dreams with a ham-fisted PSA about the importance of regular mammograms. It really has a lot of the worst of Cybill in it — an unfunny story that seems mandated by its difficult star, and attempts at humor that are hacky, clichéd, and divorced from character. However, I couldn’t exclude it from this list, for its script (credited to Bob Myer) also contains the most important scene of the entire series: a flashback that shows how Cybill and Maryann met. This added information emphasizes their characterizations by fleshing out a shared history and further cements their bond as the series’ most central relationship — a fact that Season Three, more than the two prior, wants to acknowledge in story. Accordingly, that one scene makes this whole half hour.
07) Episode 53: “Valentine’s Day” (Aired: 02/10/97)
Zoey overhears Cybill and Maryann talking about her.
Teleplay by Joey Murphy & John Pardee | Story by Michael Poryes | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Cybill’s Valentine’s Day show focuses on relationships but takes pride in being minimally romantic, for while it teases the forthcoming possibility of Zoey’s romance with Maryann’s son Justin, the story is really about Zoey overhearing Maryann and Cybill talking about her — not in a way that’s outrageously negative, but in a way that’s critical. It’s particularly exciting to have Maryann voice opinions about Zoey, as this is an underdeveloped dynamic within the core ensemble. Now, since Cybill can’t ever be fully wrong, it’s clear why the burden is split, but in this case, it makes sense, and I do appreciate the pains with which this script takes to keep the dialogue and emotional turns realistic. It’s all very natural — a sensibility that Cybill sometimes evokes, but then often forsakes for its broader, slapstick fare that strains credibility and pushes the show’s aesthetic realism farther away from this more authentic, relationship-based place.
08) Episode 55: “True Confessions” (Aired: 02/24/97)
Cybill stalks Maryann in order to study her for a new role.
Teleplay by Linda Wallem & Maria A. Brown | Story by Erin A. Bishop & Susan Nirah Jaffe | Directed by Jonathan Weiss
I’m not crazy about the whole centerpiece with Cybill acting in a play where she’s in the electric chair — it’s never as funny as it should be — and, in general, I think her character’s behavior in this excursion feels especially Lucy Carmichael-like, in that it’s excessively broad and un-self-aware without a strong enough objective (or characterization) to warrant it (like Lucy Ricardo had). However, I’m willing to overlook all that for the comic notion of Cybill trying to imitate Maryann, who is this show’s funniest character — a fact that gets affirmed and accentuated by this very story. Additionally, I appreciate Cybill stalking Maryann as a reversal of Maryann’s penchant for stalking others (namely Dr. Dick), and, as such, this narrative is rooted in the particulars of this series and these regulars — it’s a segment only Cybill could do.
09) Episode 58: “All Of Me” (Aired: 04/07/97)
Cybill is upset when a picture of her body is altered for a billboard campaign.
Teleplay by Maria A. Brown & Linda Wallem | Story by Steve Young | Directed by Pamela Fryman
There are a handful of episodes this year that seem reminiscent of The Lucy Show, in that they contrive slapstick beats that evoke memories of that classic series. This is one of them, as it climaxes with the two leading ladies doing physical, visual comedy with a billboard (“Lucy Goes Into Politics”) — and yet, it’s better than most in this category, for not only is the teleplay more steeped in conventional notions of literal realism, but Cybill’s motivation for wanting to make her billboard look more like she naturally appears (less artificial) feels congruent with the way this star has allowed her character to be presented. (However disingenuous the proclaimed feminism, it has some continuity.) And the subplot that launches Zoey’s relationship with Justin plays well, culminating smartly when she joins the ladies up on the billboard to confront Maryann for meddling. So, with that arc continued, and the show’s identity reiterated — as a slapsticky “buddy comedy” — this was an MVE contender. (Linda Kash and Boti Bliss guest.)
10) Episode 62: “Mother’s Day” (Aired: 05/12/97)
Cybill insults her visiting mother.
Teleplay by Michael Langworthy & Michael Poryes | Story by Alan Ball | Directed by Jonathan Weiss
Audra Lindley returns as Cybill’s mother in this installment that proves how much this year has learned about the series and its storytelling. Beyond just taking advantage of a newly introduced recurring character whose sheer presence is additive to our understanding of the lead, this entry also employs a conflict that stems from somebody overhearing one of Cybill’s conversations — a way for her to be the cause of the ensuing consequences, without having any major character flaws or actively doing something wrong. Yes, her saying she doesn’t want to be like her mother is a negative expression, but it’s presented as justifiable and relatable…. And, at any rate, it allows for relationship drama created by her, and that’s a step up. Oh, plus the script grants Cybill another chance to clown in old lady garb, which she loves to do. (Joan Van Ark also guests.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “From Boca, With Love,” where Cybill has a bad date and Maryann passes off Ira’s mother as her own, and “It’s For You, Mrs. Lincoln,” where a ringing cell phone ruins Cybill’s big turn in a play, along with “Cybill Get Your Gun,” which guests Vicki Lawrence, “Sex, Drugs, Catholicism,” where Maryann and Cybill go to confession, “The Little Drummer Girls,” where Cybill’s new-age spirituality is gently mocked again, and “Let’s Stalk,” which celebrates the characters’ well-known habit of stalking the old Dr. Dick. I’ll also take this space to cite “Bachelor Party” and “There Was An Old Woman,” which feel especially Lucy-like with Cybill donning outrageous disguises. (I’m not crazy about a sitcom character attempting to fool somebody who knows her with a silly costume — it strains aesthetic realism in most series, since it is seldom buyable that anybody would ever consider this a viable scheme.) Oh, and of course there’s also “Going To Hell In A Limo (II),” the second half of the memorable two-parter highlighted above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Cybill goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!