Cybill Shepherd’s comedic sheen, Robert Berlinger’s crisp direction and creator/writer Chuck Lorre’s tangy script give a buoyant liftoff to the premiering CBS sitcom “Cybill.”
Shepherd, one of the multiple exec producers, is sitting pretty as a comedienne if the show’s frequently racy, bicoastal axis (wisecracks about lesbians and deported Latina housekeepers) doesn’t switch off the nation’s breadbasket of viewers.
Much of the humor is ripe, notably a cocktail-glass sight gag inspired by seismically challenged Los Angeles and several double-entendres (“Come on, I’ll make you a stiff one,” snaps Cybill’s pun-intended girlfriend after Cybill’s date fails to satisfy in the sack).
Of course, “Murphy Brown” as a lead-in doesn’t hurt prospects. But it’s Shepherd’s beguiling, sexy, klutzy charm as an actress always “looking for validation” and hitched to a ferris wheel of an eccentric extended family on which the show rides.
Shepherd, whose timing and deceptive sophistication here are reminiscent at times of Carole Lombard, lives in an upscale cafe society on a fledgling, stop-start actress’s income. You wonder how she can afford that gorgeous house with a wide view of the Hollywood Hills. It’s as a ticklish actress that Shepherd comically opens the show, playing a vampire victim who succumbs to helpless laughter every time the count sinks his teeth into her neck. This wacky working actor motif is cleverly repeated in another soundstage episode featuring the uncredited Robert Wagner.
But Cybill’s real persona is a fortysomething about-to-be grandmother –“a pre-crone,” as she mockingly calls herself. Typical of the writing is Cybill fantasizing that her “body is the temple of the soul” and then cynically adding, “But guys don’t make passes at crones with big asses.”
Embellishing the unwed Cybill’s personal life are two festering ex-husbands (Alan Rosenberg and Tom Wopat), two unlike daughters (Dedee Pfeiffer and Alicia Witt), a guest appearance by Tim Matheson as a flirt on the freeway, and an archly tongued rich-by-settlement divorcee of a girlfriend and failed alumna of the Betty Ford Clinic (brassy Christine Baranski), Cybill’s anchor in the storm.
The lickety pace of the show is a blitzkrieg of short, two-three-minute scenes, almost like dramatic soundbites. Structurally, the creators have packed 11 distinct scenes and locations into the show. Even for a sitcom, that’s too many adjustments until you get comfortable with the characters.