Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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 DANNY MASTERSON.
Although Season Three is the most consistent thanks to a high number of good ideas with some kind of explicit (or even tangential) link to the series’ “situation” — meaning Four is therefore something of a comedown — the disparity between the best and worst of Cybill isn’t large. That is, the mediocrity here is not much different from the mediocrity of previous years. Only the particulars have changed — for instance, the main ensemble has been pared down so much that Cybill and Maryann get centralized even more obviously as the series’ core characters. This accentuates the “buddy comedy” part of the premise and highlights Maryann — Cybill’s best defined regular. However, scripts are not quite as bold with their comic ideas as they were in Three (and there are fewer Lucy-esque set pieces), and while that is sometimes for the best, stories remain idea-driven by necessity, for these characters (on the whole) aren’t strong enough to really drive and carry plot like they should. In other words, there’s still a need for funny ideas — and now with fewer leads in primary rotation, a lot of these funny ideas feel even less tethered to any facet of the “situation.” To that point, there’s also less of Cybill’s career — a major aspect of the series’ premise that it often emphasized because it was easy to get laughs from show biz satire. Naturally, we always prefer the leads and their relationships to be prioritized over such conceptual trappings, but again, Cybill’s character work can’t handle the narrative burden, and with the star’s job a big element of the “situation,” we still want it invoked regularly. In fact, as has been repeated, most of Cybill’s best episodes feature the intersection of her personal and professional worlds — a cohesive display of premise in the absence of strong leads. And, indeed, one of the reasons Three felt more successful is because it was able to balance idea-driven Hollywood stories with a rising focus on character and relationships. Four loses some of that equilibrium, and as a result, it’s generally less funny, with its chosen comic ideas accordingly less specific to the series itself. Oh, I can’t pretend this is any worse than the mediocrity that came before — especially with Cybill and Maryann so centered — but the year just reiterates how Cybill never truly found its own greatness. At best, it was good. And so many other shows were simply better, with fewer self-imposed limitations.
01) Episode 66: “The Big, Flouncy Thing” (Aired: 09/29/97)
Cybill tries to give Zoey advice ahead of her first big piano competition.
Teleplay by Linda Wallem & William Lucas Walker | Story by Dan Bucatinsky | Directed by David Trainer
Ostensibly a parenting show about Cybill’s relationship with Zoey, this installment boasts a comic centerpiece afforded to Alicia Witt — one of the funnier members of the ensemble, largely due to her dry delivery, which suggests a more comedic characterization than most of the regulars who’ve been on this series without much of a personality. Now, I could pretend that I think there’s value in this episode because of the mother-daughter relationship alone, but truthfully, I’m mostly including it here for the funny scene where Zoey plays the piano while contending with a terrible outfit that she picked out herself (despite Cybill’s protestations — and remember, mother is always right, especially on a show that she executive produces).
02) Episode 67: “Some Like It Hot” (Aired: 10/06/97)
Cybill struggles with menopause while her mother visits.
Teleplay by Michael Poryes & Kim C. Friese | Story by Linda Wallem | Directed by David Trainer
One of the areas in which Cybill Shepherd has allowed her character to be gently ribbed is with regard to aging, for she can stand on her soapbox in stories about how the world — and particularly, the entertainment industry — treats women as they get older. The subject of menopause has come up on the show before, and it’s back in this offering in a big way, as Cybill struggles with biological changes while refusing to take any hormonal help. It’s an idea that justifies her character having mood swings and being unpleasant — showing negative characteristics that the star usually doesn’t let her fictional proxy display. Because of this greater range, and for the fact that Audra Lindley makes her last appearance as Cybill’s mom, I highlight this segment. (Also, Mary Page Keller guests in her recurring role as Ira’s latest love interest.)
03) Episode 70: “Halloween” (Aired: 10/27/97)
Cybill hosts a Halloween Eve telethon.
Teleplay by Alan Ball & Mark Hudis | Story by Susan Nirah Jaffe | Directed by David Trainer
Halloween is a typical sitcom gimmick, for funny costumes yield easy laughs, and this excursion certainly secures an enhanced memorability just from the visual stunt of the characters wearing outrageous outfits. But it’s otherwise a friendship show about Maryann and Cybill discovering that their kids — who have been dating — are no longer exclusively seeing each other, and this mild conflict is predicated on ensemble dynamics… while also inherently mocking Cybill’s career, as she is the host of a lame telethon. As such, it’s a fine display of the show’s “situation” — with a unity of time and place that makes for good multi-cam theatre. (Interestingly, the back of Dr. Dick’s head appears in this entry — Season Four originally intended to finally cast the role, but no big-name would accept. Eventually, showrunner Bob Myer decided that he would remain off-screen, and the arc about Dr. Dick trying to win back Maryann was capped.)
04) Episode 72: “How To Get A Head In Show Business” (Aired: 11/10/97)
An obsessed fan steals a wax replica of Cybill’s head from a museum.
Teleplay by J. David Stern & David N. Weiss | Story by Kim C. Friese | Directed by Jonathan Weiss
This memorable offering mocks Cybill’s career in a very funny way, as her appearance in an old camp-classic horror film has earned her not only the appreciation of an obsessive fan (Paula Poundstone), but also a wax statue at Madame Tussauds. What I like most about this story is that it’s not just mining humor from Cybill’s established second-rate resumé — it’s also depicting her as something of a snob about her work. That is, she isn’t proud of her acting in this less prestigious subgenre, and that creates a conflict with her obsessive fan, who worships her for those movies. In this regard, Cybill is a little flawed and a bit responsible for the dramatic tension. Of course, the physical gag of Cybill replacing her own head in the wax museum is typical Cybill foolishness, but it doesn’t break the series’ aesthetic realism. In fact, it feels representative of the show’s comic sensibilities at large, and because of its success at employing amusing ideas while also engaging the Cybill character uniquely and in accordance with her premised “situation,” I have selected this outing as my MVE (Most Valuable Episode) — it’s simply this year’s most enjoyable. Also, Jeff Doucette guests, as does Mary Page Keller.
05) Episode 74: “The Golden Years” (Aired: 12/01/97)
In 2027, Cybill and Maryann argue over something Cybill wrote in her diary back in 1997.
Teleplay by John Pardee & Joey Murphy | Story by William Lucas Walker | Directed by Jonathan Weiss
With a gaudy story that presents Cybill and Maryann in 2027 (in corresponding old-age garb — something Cybill apparently loved to don to prove how un-vain she was about her looks), this atypical entry is intrinsically a gimmick. And yet, it also spotlights the friendship of these two women — and therefore that key aspect of the premise, which is also the most enjoyable (because of Baranski’s stellar work as Maryann) — so it feels like it’s deriving value from the series’ “situation.” And while the 1997 incident that causes this drama between the two buddies actually doesn’t feature Cybill in the wrong (she’s only passively agreeing with Zoey, who is the one making comments about Maryann), she at least has some responsibility in this conflict — and that’s more than we usually get from her on this show. Not terrific, but a standout.
06) Episode 76: “Bakersfield” (Aired: 03/04/98)
Cybill, Maryann, and Zoey go to Bakersfield to deliver a letter written by Cybill’s late mom.
Teleplay by Kim C. Friese & Mark Hudis | Story by Alan Ball | Directed by David Trainer
After a two-month hiatus, Cybill returned with this episode — airing before an outing that would have already set up Cybill’s mother’s death (as Audra Lindley had recently passed away). Its story finds the ensemble’s three women — Cybill, Maryann, and Zoey — going to Bakersfield to deliver an apparent love letter penned by Cybill’s mom. There, they learn that the note was really written to a son that Cybill’s mom gave up for adoption — a man who’s dead now but leaves behind a daughter. (I think the niece was introduced as a possible replacement for Zoey, as Alicia Witt was expressing a desire to exit the series herself.) It’s not a hilarious half hour, but putting the show’s ladies together for extended scenes — including the two best characters — makes for a script mostly specific to Cybill. (Paula Cale and Biff McGuire guest.)
07) Episode 81: “Whose Wife Am I, Anyway?” (Aired: 05/25/98)
Cybill and Jeff pretend to be married while she also agrees to pose as the gay waiter’s fiancée.
Teleplay by J. David Stern & David N. Weiss | Story by Erin A. Bishop | Directed by David Trainer
A farcical entry that won’t gain any points for originality, this installment — which aired after another two-month hiatus, as CBS was burning off the show’s remaining output — finds Cybill posing as Jeff’s long-time wife when he’s visited by his beloved grandmother (Maxine Stuart), unaware of the divorce. Again, it’s not an idea unique to this series, but it’s at least rooted in established relationships. What’s more, the script has the good sense to raise its comic stakes by having Cybill simultaneously agree to pretend she’s the fiancée of the show’s recurring waiter (Tim Maculan), who hasn’t yet come out of the closet to his visiting parents. This allows for familiar yuks with Cybill running back and forth between tables while also keeping up multiple charades. It’s not great — but it’s funny (for Cybill). Meanwhile, the subplot deliberately contrives a way to put Maryann in an uncomfortable position — milking a cow: a notion that highlights her characterization through the incongruity of this image. An MVE contender. (Guests include Beth Grant, Richard Roat, and former regular Tom Wopat.)
08) Episode 84: “Daddy” (Aired: 06/22/98)
Cybill’s father visits with news that he’s gotten her on a TV show.
Teleplay by Michael Poryes & Linda Wallem | Story by William Lucas Walker | Directed by David Trainer
Charles Durning guest stars in this outing as Cybill’s father, who visits and claims to be so proud of his daughter that he’s arranged to spotlight her on a local TV show about southern women who’ve made good. But when it turns out that he really wanted to use this TV show just to promote his local business, Cybill is hurt. It’s not an overly original or funny story, but it tells us more about the show’s central character by introducing us to someone important in her life — her father. Durning is perfect casting, and the impulse to dive more into Cybill’s family and history is a smart one. Dot-Marie Jones also appears. (Of note: this episode was meant to air before “Bakersfield,” to set up Cybill’s mother’s death, but it was held to run later.)
09) Episode 86: “Cybill In The Morning” (Aired: 07/06/98)
Cybill feuds with the co-host of her new morning show.
Teleplay by Erin A. Bishop & Linda Wallem | Story by Susan Nirah Jaffe | Directed by David Trainer
Despite Maryann only appearing in a few scenes by telephone (as Christine Baranski was out of town), this is a very solid example of Cybill, with a work-centric story that finds its lead feuding with her co-host (played by Linda Wallem, one of the writers) on a new morning show to which Cybill has been added as a regular. It’s a classic setup for jokey comedy related to an easily defined comic relationship — rivals (à la Cybill vs. Morgan Fairchild’s Andrea) — and it plays well, with the industry sufficiently satirized in the process. Also, there’s a personal angle too, as Cybill can’t fight an attraction to the show’s producer (Charles Rocket). Had the series continued — and this talk show not been cancelled in the finale — I think this could have been fertile soil for story next season. (Dan Bucatinsky and Clementine Ford also guest.)
10) Episode 87: “Ka-Boom!” (Aired: 07/13/98)
Cybill and Maryann blow up Dr. Dick’s house.
Teleplay by Mark Hudis | Story by Tiffany Zehnal | Directed by David Trainer
Cybill’s finale calls attention to one of the cleverest and most unique aspects of the series’ identity, via its funniest regular, Maryann, whose early habit of stalking Dr. Dick became a trademark of her character and the show itself. So, in this closer — which everyone was pretty sure would indeed be the end — the show returns to that gag and offers the grandest take on it yet, as Cybill and Maryann literally blow up Dr. Dick’s house (after they learn that he’s ruined Maryann financially). It’s a comic idea that works for these characters and also has a sense of finality to it. For that reason, I appreciate it as the last of a series that, frankly, didn’t deserve an emotionally overwrought, protracted goodbye. (Wallem, Rocket, and Ford guest again.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Like Family,” an autobiographical outing where Cybill acts as a mentor for the actress playing her daughter on a bad sitcom, “Where’s A Harpoon When You Need One?,” where Cybill tries to keep Maryann from falling back into the clutches of Dr. Dick, “Show Me The Minnie,” where Cybill’s crazy fan returns and Ira accuses Maryann of coming between him and Cybill during their marriage, and “Farewell, My Sweet,” where Maryann’s parents visit and the show thinks it’s really got a great comic idea in Cybill learning she’s allergic to chocolate. Speaking of comic ideas, these entries engage amusing notions with not enough of a genuine affiliation to character: “Once, Twice, Three Times A Lady,” where Cybill learns her old flame is a criminal, “Cybill Sheridan’s Day Off,” where Cybill is accidentally kidnapped in the ongoing war between Maryann and Dr. Dick, “Oh Brother!,” which includes Cybill’s new niece and contrives another very unnecessary kidnapping scheme (involving Ira), and “Dream Date,” where Cybill dates an obnoxious man who nevertheless keeps doing nice things for everyone else around her.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Cybill goes to…
“How To Get A Head In Show Business”
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!