'Moonlighting' style isn't effective in Shepherd's 'Cybill'

January 02, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Cybill Shepherd is back in a new series that's mainly going to remind viewers of what a terrific comic actor Bruce Willis was in "Moonlighting."

Left to her own devices in the new CBS sitcom "Cybill," La Shepherd seems a little lost.

"Cybill," which premieres at 9:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13), is an easy sitcom to get lost in.

It stars Shepherd as Cybill Sheridan, an aging actress whose career seems to be mostly heading south. She has two ex-husbands, two daughters and a best friend who's a drunk.

We're not supposed to think of Maryann Thorpe (Christine Baranski), who drinks endlessly from a large plastic bottle filled with martinis, as a drunk. In terms of comedy, she's supposed to come across as a California version of the acerbic bachelor social commentators in English drawing room comedies.

In the hands of Noel Coward, writing for an upper-class English audience, Baranski's lines might be a howl. But in the world of prime-time American television, her jokes about maids getting deported and repeated trips to the Betty Ford Clinic come off as the bitter and depressing cracks of a drunk with too much money. I, for one, was hoping American popular cul- turehad moved past celebrating drunks after "Arthur."

As for Shepherd, she seems totally out of synch with the rhythms and tone of a prime-time sitcom.

She is playing Cybill one or two steps outside of the character, the way she played Maddie in "Moonlighting." That distance worked perfectly in "Moonlighting," because the show parodied or mocked the romantic comedy genre as it reproduced it. The distance made for a kind of knowing smirk from Maddie, much like the one David Letterman wears as he both creates a TV talk show and mocks it.

But prime-time network sitcoms don't seem to work that way. Roseanne isn't mocking Roseanne Conner, and Ellen DeGeneres isn't mocking her Ellen Morgan. The actress is the character, and audiences either come to care about her or they watch something else. Personally, I would rather watch just about anything else than Shepherd trying to carry a comedy.

As to whether audiences will watch "Cybill," that's another matter. CBS is giving it the primo spot following "Murphy Brown" on Monday nights. "Murphy" is getting creaky, but it still has enough ratings power so that its spillover should result initially in some big Nielsen ratings for "Cybill."

And the sitcom could improve in coming weeks. It is produced by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the folks who brought us "The Cosby Show," "Ellen" and "Roseanne." Just for balance, it ++ should be noted that they also brought us "Chicken Soup." Jay Daniel, from Shepherd's "Moonlighting" days, is involved in producing "Cybill," too.

But they are going to have to come up with more involving story lines than the one tonight, which finds Cybill fretting over becoming a grandmother. And, because Shepherd works comically only when she's reacting to something outrageous or funny, they better come up with someone better for her to play off of than the drunken Maryann.

And, while we're at it, how about finding better gags to end the episodes on than tonight's, which shows Cybill grabbing Maryann's jug of martinis and gulping away? This stuff was old when Dean Martin and Foster Brooks were doing it in the '60s.

But don't write "Cybill" off just yet. All the producers have to do is find the next Bruce Willis and then get him to carry the show.

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