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TELEVISION REVIEW

Not enough time to analyze this 'Sybil'

Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard star in the remake of the Emmy-winning movie.

June 07, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

For anyone older than 40, the story of “Sybil,” as told in the book by Flora Rheta Schreiber(book) and the Emmy-winning television movie that starred Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, is one of those semi-traumatizing pop-cultural touchstones -- like "Helter Skelter" or Watergate.

The horrific tale of a young woman so abused by her mother that her mind shatters into 16 separate personalities rocked 1970s America. The reality and consequence of maternal sexual abuse, a whole new category of mental illness and the inner-workings of the still mistrusted psychiatric profession were laid bare in one complex and disturbing tale.

So it would be natural to approach any remake, even one starring Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard, with extreme caution. And unfortunately, that caution is completely justified.

The new "Sybil," which premieres tonight on CBS, is told at such high speed that it becomes more psychiatric variety show -- for our next number, Sybil as a boy! -- than the careful excavation of a mind through the life-changing relationship of patient and doctor, which made the original so unforgettable.

Part of the problem is simple logistics. Long gone are the days of the television movie special, and apparently CBS didn't think the story warranted two parts. So director Joseph Sargent and writer John Pielmeier had the unenviable task of cramming what had originally been a three-hour-plus film into a time slot half that size.

So, after an updated and effective opening, Pielmeier just assumes that the viewer knows the basic story already, so we might as well cut right to the good stuff. Within minutes of the opening credits, here is Sybil Dorset (Blanchard), a troubled art student at Columbia University who gets very upset when she drops things and unaccountably winds up in Philadelphia for days at a time. Here's the sexist male school psychiatrist diagnosing her as a classic hysteric and foisting her on Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Lange), the one female shrink available. And here's Sybil morphing into Vicki, the French girl who acts as the "shepherd" personality who explains the whole setup to the imperturbable Dr. Wilbur.

There is a minor B-plot about the flak Wilbur took for diagnosing Sybil as a multiple personality, a category of mental illness that did not exist at the time. But mostly "Sybil" is a showcase for all the various personalities who pose and preen and lecture Wilbur while she dutifully takes notes and tries to get them to explain just what Mother did to make them necessary.

It's essentially a two-woman play, and these particular women do the absolute best they can with what is given them. Lange's Wilbur is unflinching and unflappable, with equal parts compassion and ambition, empathy and bitterness, while Blanchard is a marvel of physical and vocal elasticity, changing into 16 people, often several in the same conversation.

The problem is the almost breakneck pace which requires that all emotional nuance be jettisoned in favor of showing the range of the personalities. Lange is given approximately three seconds to deal with Wilbur's emotional reaction to the most extraordinary patient she, or anyone else, has ever met.

The viewer is left more giddy than disturbed, which leads to moments of unintentional hilarity: In one scene, two of the personalities are painting, one with the right hand, one with the left, while chatting away with the doc and commenting on each other's style.

There's also an unexpected Judy Garland issue. Blanchard, who won an Emmy for portraying the young star in “Life With Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows,” still bears an uncanny resemblance to Garland. So when one of the younger personalities emerges, speaking in a lispy Marilyn Monroe-like voice, it's like you're watching Judy doing Marilyn -- something not at all beneficial to "Sybil."

Especially since, in many ways, "Sybil" is a horror story, the flesh-eating monster still lurking deep in a young woman's ravaged mind. It is a difficult task to cope with the enormity of the abuse on film, and for the most part this "Sybil" handles it effectively, letting us see enough to understand but not so much that we are revolted.

There is, however, one scene of the young girl bound and gagged as her mother prepares an ice-water enema that could have been handled differently. I understand the filmmakers' desire to impart the magnitude of the force needed to break a person into 16 pieces, but you need a pretty good excuse to bind and torture a child on television. And this less-than-artful, YouTube-paced version of "Sybil" isn't it.

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mary.mcnamara @latimes.com

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'Sybil'

Where: CBS

When: 8 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14-DSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, sex and violence)

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