Perhaps it's my decades' long research and debunking efforts about Golden Age icon Frances Farmer that have given me such a soft spot for Cybill Shepherd. Like Farmer, Shepherd is a glamorous blonde goddess probably too smart for her own good, unable to keep her mouth shut when things don't according to her imperious demands. The curious thing about Shepherd is how she's regularly reassessed by the showbiz cognoscenti. Every three or four years, she's branded as impossibly temperamental (maybe just "mental," a la Farmer), and then, what do you know, suddenly she's springtime and roses again, everyone's "new" favorite. That strange dichotomy was in full flower with her mid-90s sitcom Cybill--reviews were initially pretty rapturous, the show did reasonably well in the ratings, and then by the third season, the gossip columns were full of negative stories about Shepherd and costar Christine Baranski, and the show quickly faded from view.
Cybill came from the Carsey-Werner sitcom mill, then the reigning masters of the genre. They wisely cast Shepherd as a struggling aging actress and surrounded her with a bunch of eccentric Angelinos, notably Baranski as her clearly AbFab inspired neighbor, Maryann, usually one vodka shy of falling over in an alcoholic coma. There were also not one, but two, ex-husbands, nerdy author Ira (Alan Rosenberg) and strapping hunk Jeff (Tom Wopat), as well as one daughter by each husband, newlywed Rachel (Dedee Pfeiffer) and angst-ridden teen Zoey (Alicia Witt). The show ping-ponged back and forth between Cybill Sheridan's middle aged career lowlights and family issues, as well as her frisky interchanges with best friend Maryann.
The show was decidedly too smart and smug for its own good, probably an apt reflection of its star. While its insider's view of what an actress "of a certain age" has to go through to get work was frequently amusing if not laugh out loud hilarious, my sense is that aspect of the show probably left most viewers cold--who can feel very sorry for an actress, struggling or not, who lives in a designer hillside manse with an expansive view of the valley, and who has sufficient funds to buy one designer outfit after another? And while Cybill is notable for its focus on women's issues (the show famously had to fight to use such previously verboten words as "period" on the air), it's actually the interplay between the characters, most often Shepherd and Baranski, where the show finds its unique, catty humor and plays it for all it's worth. Baranski's lush Maryann is a singular creation, albeit one obviously modeled on Joanna Lumley's Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. When Baranski spits out one of her many witticisms about her ex-husband "Dr. Dick" you know you're in for a Margo Channing-sized bumpy night. Shepherd nicely underplays her scenes with Baranski (and how, relatively speaking, couldn't she?), something she should have done in some of her other one-on-one scenes with others. Some of her interchanges with Rosenberg, especially in the early episodes, are just patently silly and seem overly forced, with Shepherd as Sheridan simply over the top in reactive fury as Rosenberg stares helplessly on. I suppose it was written that way, but it falls absolutely flat (not fab), comedically speaking.
Rosenberg and Wopat make an appealing dichotomous pair of exes on the show, with Wopat especially revealing himself to be a very apt light comedian. Witt tends to steal the show more than Pfeiffer in the daughter department, with Zoey's activist extremely politically correct bent the source of a lot of humor (when Cybill is picked up by a Russian taxi driver who recognizes her from a short-lived series that never actually even made air in the U.S., the driver spirits her, Zoey and Maryann away for an evening's dinner with her family, whereupon Zoey plays a proletariat version of "Old McDonald" on the piano, replete with an anti-Communist lyric). Cybill does benefit from some fun star turns, including lots of offbeat little cameos from such people as Elliott Gould and Zsa Zsa Gabor to such guest star turns as Kevin Sorbo and Jane Kaczmarek.
This "Collector's Edition" gives a smattering of all three and a half seasons of the show. The show really hit its comedic stride in the mostly excellent second and third seasons, but there are still gems to be found throughout the run, and if, like me, you have a soft spot for Cybill Shepherd, you'll find a lot to enjoy here.
The full frame television image is nicely sharp with little sign of aging or degradation (though a clip from the pilot in one of the extras does show considerable grain, strangely). Colors are excellent (though what's with Witt's almost green complexion in some episodes?), with good detail. There are very occasional compression artifacts on some of the busier costumes.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is perfectly fine, with no noticeable dropouts or hiss. Separation is pretty minimal but all dialogue is clear. Once again, we have music replacement issues--Cybill's wonderful rendition of the Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It" as the opening theme has been replaced with her singing a pretty lackluster gospel piece with a large choir. No subtitles are available.
This is a pretty slim package overall--10 episodes on the first disc, then, billed as an extra, 3 more on the second as part of "Cybill's Favorite Episodes." There are also two brief featurettes with Shepherd being interviewed intercut with scenes from the show.
Cybill may not have been the totally groundbreaking series that Shepherd insists it was in her interviews, but it's nonetheless a very appealing and gynocentric show with a very unique focus that makes it unusual in the 90s sitcom oeuvre of Carsey-Werner. The supporting cast is what really makes this show click, with Baranski the standout. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet