”New Year, New Show, New Rules” is the slogan CBS has come up with to promote both Cybill and Women of the House. Yes, it’s a new year, and these are indeed new shows, but the ”new rules” part — well, no. Proof that neither of these sitcoms is breaking fresh ground is the fact that you can get the best idea of what they’re like by comparing them to old material: Cybill is sort of Murphy Brown crossed with Absolutely Fabulous; Women of the House is Designing Women by way of the Kevin Kline movie Dave.
Cybill heralds the return of Cybill Shepherd to series television. She plays Cybill Sheridan, a small-time Los Angeles actress feeling the cruel pinch that Hollywood inflicts upon middle-aged women. Her best friend is Maryann (the terrific stage actress Christine Baranski), a substance-abusing divorcee who recently completed her third stay at the Betty Ford Center and celebrated by having three martinis. Cybill has a 16-year-old daughter who is (naturally) a sullen brat but, as portrayed by Alicia Witt, not altogether unlikable. She also has two ex-husbands, who in an example of delightfully disparate casting are played by The Dukes of Hazzard’s Tom Wopat and L.A. Law’s Alan Rosenberg.
This all sounds so promising — why isn’t it funnier? Cybill is the latest project from the Carsey-Werner Company (Roseanne, Grace Under Fire), and it attempts to transplant Absolutely Fabulous’ politically incorrect celebration of wretched excess. Baranski does her considerable best to be amusingly dissolute, but American sitcom standards won’t permit her to drink and drug in as devil-may-care a manner as Ab Fab employs to achieve its comic shock effects.
While Shepherd is to be commended for plunging so fearlessly into a topic U.S. television finds virtually taboo — showbiz’s prejudice against women who don’t look like 20-year-old she-cats — Cybill ends up making its central character look foolish by having her recite vulgar variations on Dorothy Parker, such as, ”Men don’t make passes/At girls with fat asses.”
If the star of Cybill is struggling to revamp her image, Delta Burke in Women of the House has caved in and listened to her fans: They loved her as the sassy Southern belle Suzanne Sugarbaker in Designing Women as they have in nothing else since. So she’s patched things up with Designing executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason and they’ve brought Suzanne back in a different format. Now Sugarbaker is freshly widowed and has taken over her husband’s seat in the House of Representatives. She moves to Washington, D.C., with her adopted daughter (Brittany Parkyn) and a brother, Jim, whom the proudly anti-PC Suzanne calls ”retarded.” He’s played by Wiseguy’s Jonathan Banks as an unsettling cross between Forrest Gump and Jerry Van Dyke.
Jim — who’s also called ”mentally challenged” — exists to make naive jokes; we’re supposed to coo over his innocence as if he were a puppy. (Have I begun to suggest how offensive Jim’s character is?) So far, however, the primary focus of Women of the House hasn’t been on Suzanne’s family but on the gals in her office: a press secretary played by Teri Garr, an aide portrayed by Patricia Heaton, and a receptionist currently embodied by Northern Exposure’s Valerie Mahaffey, but not for long — after four episodes, Mahaffey will vanish, to be replaced by Julie Hagerty.
When this week’s episode concludes with the spectacle of these three women plus Suzanne all tucked in together in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom (don’t ask), you can’t help but think of the wacky shenanigans of the ladies in Designing Women, an association Bloodworth-Thomason clearly intends. This quartet of performers struggles to make something original out of the roles, but they’re stuck reciting clumsy one-liners such as, ”No one tells the truth in Washington unless they’re in an underground parking lot and terminally ill.” The bland bipartisan political humor of House never lets you forget that Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband are chums with Bill and Hillary. I give Women of the House a month before Burke’s husband, Gerald McRaney, shows up as a loudmouth conservative radio star. Cybill: C+ Women of the House: C