"Hysteria is a woman's problem," says a brutish male colleague of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Jessica Lange), the psychologist treating the main character in the CBS remake of "Sybil." My hysterical laughter during most of the film is proof that it's a man's problem, too. I'm not an insensitive guy. I recognize the horror in the story of Shirley Ardell Mason, the woman whose personality fractured into 15 parts as a result of merciless childhood sexual abuse (assuming the story is true; both the diagnosis and the abuse are still under debate). But it would be difficult to intentionally match the unintended comic value of the scene in which Sybil (Tammy Blanchard) rebuffs her new beau, Ramon, after slipping into one of her alters, a boy named Sid. "Guys don't sleep with other guys!" says Sid. "Of course not," says Ramon, both writing off the comment as a non sequitur and failing to realize that his girlfriend's voice just dropped an octave. "Sybil" has the infectious scrappiness of a community-theater troupe, one that isn't that great but has enough conviction to make up for its lack of self-awareness.
But this new "Sybil" can't possibly have the same impact as the 1976 original, for which Sally Field won an Emmy, because the made-for-TV movie has a reputation that precedes it. The term "made for TV" has become shorthand for hammy acting and frugal production values, which is why the glossy, competent original TV movies of today are labeled "television events." The made-for-TV movie served a distinct purpose back when entertainment choices were few. They provided a way for families to have a night at the movies without the hassle and expense of going to a theater. Later they became topical, portraying the hot-button issues of the day, like 1983's hugely watched "The Day After," which depicted the eruption of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now a movie night at home is as easy as opening the mailbox. And Dick Wolf, between his three "Law & Order" franchises, has the "ripped from today's headlines" market cornered. (This season's premiere of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" featured an appearance by Cynthia Nixon as a woman who—get this—fakes having multiple personalities.) Still, there's something charming about the made-for-TV movie, something adorable in its earnestness, something humorous in its humorlessness. This is why Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel have built brands around them; these movies are the purest form of guilty pleasure. And while I wouldn't watch "Sybil" a second time, it was raucous, nostalgic fun. I could say it's the worst movie I've seen in some time, but I'd prefer to say it's the best at being not good.