Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown in "Murphy Brown" (Jojo Whilden/CBS)

"Murphy Brown" returns revived, but not refreshed

Candice Bergen and the cast are back and same as ever. That's the good news. It's also the not-so-great news


Melanie McFarland
September 26, 2018 8:00PM (UTC)

Now, more than ever — what a hackneyed phrase, right? — the world needs Murphy Brown.

Whether today’s world needs “Murphy Brown,” the iconic newsroom comedy returning to CBS 20 years after it first left the air, is debatable. This doesn’t mean reviving one of television’s greatest series and Candice Bergen’s whip-smart journalist, a staunch feminist known for snarling back at power, doesn’t make sense. It makes perfect sense.

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None of us need reminding that the fourth estate is under constant attack, bearing unceasing assaults led by the president himself. Standing up to the perilous insanity by using as large a platform as possible is imperative, and the revival telegraphs its intent to fill that role with the premiere's title: "Fake News."

But please, for the love of all that is good, do it well. Is it too much to ask for nuance? A grain of realism? And maybe channel the spirit of the original run to give us the occasional break from Donald Trump’s insanity.

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It’s easy to understand why “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English would use her heroine to take on the orange monster. The comedy’s grand comeback, kicking off Thursday at 9:30 p.m., might have never come to pass if not for a loud, conspiracy-theory shilling wingnut weaseling her way onto the national stage and into the cultural conversation.

English credits Sarah Palin for inspiring her initial thoughts about bringing “Murphy Brown” back in 2012.

Were you thinking Roseanne Barr is the reason CBS resurrected the title? Surely the successful resurrection of the “Roseanne” (and the “Will & Grace” comeback, to a lesser degree) lit a fire under the network. But its executives announced the return of “Murphy Brown” in January, and by then the new “Roseanne” was well into production.

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Jump ahead to March: the new “Roseanne” killed in the ratings while stirred up ire and passion by adopting a Trumpian tone. Critics groused that its new half-hours bore little resemblance in spirit to the old episodes, but never mind: the ratings remained decent. A few months after that, thanks to Barr’s addiction to social media trolling, “Roseanne” was done and its star was fired.

English and Bergen pose none of the negative publicity risks to CBS that Barr always did to ABC. Even so, this revival has its own set of negatives to overcome, foremost being its outdated comedic tone.

But that’s more bearable that the reasons certain segment will take joy in watching these news episodes, which is the show’s consciously adversarial strain of anti-Trump humor.

Catharsis is a blessing, don’t get me wrong. Many of us are starved for it. But what we need even more is a comedy that stands for something instead of against something, that is concerned with more than answering the antics of the clown living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a tongue lashing. After a point feels less like a comedy than a lecture.

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“Murphy Brown” never shied away from the eponymous character’s political views, of course. That’s one of the character’s greatest assets, along with her fearlessness. Those who remember the old series are most likely to recall the show’s spat with former vice president Dan Quayle, who attempted to use her choice to be a single mother as a campaign ploy to stir up the right-wing family values brigade.

But that was one exchange; it wasn’t everything. Politics shift and change, and the political stagecraft of the day didn’t expressly steer the show’s plots. That enabled “Murphy Brown” to ride the rapids of changing administrations and remain relevant for a decade.

An episode may purport to be about an older woman’s concept of feminism crashing against how a younger generation interprets it (as in "The Feminine Critique," one of the episodes available on CBS All Access, the network’s streaming service), but ends up being about a longing for youthful passion and an acceptance of maturity.

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Episodes hooked to voting, misogyny or other concrete issues listed in their loglines deliver that promise while tightly focusing on to the individual quirks of each person on the “FYI” team and their loyalty to one another.

Members of the gang who have returned, including Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and their producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), pretty much look and behave the same as they always did save, perhaps, for a little more gray around the temples (Charles Kimbrough makes three guest star appearances as Jim Dial within these 13 new episodes, his first in episode 3).

Corky remains perky as ever, teetering her way through menopause in her Ivanka Trump heels, purchased on sale (“a dollar a shoe!”). Our first glimpse of Frank has him stumbling into their beloved haunt Phil’s sporting his pink “pussy” hat — ever the hound, even in his advanced age. It’s the day of the post-inauguration Women’s March, after all, and could there be a more fertile prowling ground for a old single guy?

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Miles, meanwhile, has matured from a nervous young whiz kid into a late-middle aged wreck, because what else was he going to do.

Murphy, however, decides that the unwelcome turn in the political tide means it’s time for all of the to get back on the air. “O.J. is out! Nazis are in! But you can’t hide from the world,” she declares. “You’ve got to try to change it.”

Thus, “Murphy in the Morning” is born at the Cable News Channel — oh happy day! However, Murphy’s adult son Avery (Jake McDorman) has gotten into the family business and accepts a job helming his own show at CNC’s competition, the unsubtly named Wolf Network. Twist!

All of this glides our way via a thick stream of political references, tossed off mainly to win hoots and applause from the audience. Murphy joins Twitter, and her first tweet baits the thin-skinned president!

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In the second episode Murphy brings a White House press conference to a theatrical standstill by grandstanding in defense of the press, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders (or inserted footage of her) looks on in silence. As Sarah Huckabee Sanders is known to do!

“Murphy Brown”: Now, more than ever!

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We tend to be hardest on the ones we love. I’ll admit that. And please keep that in mind while viewing these new episodes, because technically, English and her writing staff have done everything they can to preserve the style of the “Murphy Brown” of yore.

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As such, these new episodes aren’t terrible, or even middling. But they’re not outstanding, either.  That’s the painful part. The “Murphy Brown” from way back was appointment television; the version we’re getting feels less current and in the now and a lot more like a step into a wayback machine.

Murphy’s bottomless well of retorts are perfect. Maybe too perfect. The show’s set-‘em-up, knock-‘em-down style of sitcom banter hasn’t changed with the times, and while that specificity of style works for a show like “Will & Grace” it feels stiff and stilted here.

That said, there’s still a tinge of satisfaction in seeing Bergen bring back the woman who always knows just the right thing to disarm and destroy. This is especially in an upcoming episode when she takes on an adversary meant to serve as a Steve Bannon surrogate (played by “Billions” star David Costabile). But here’s the thing – Costabile’s menace isn’t all that hard to destroy in person. The best he can do at one point is call Murphy a cuck which, to the Grand Dame of verbal sniping, is less than nothing.

On cue the audience laughs at every retort, peppering in some applause for good measure.

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What happened here? Lots, obviously, since the series went off the air 20 years ago. Sitcoms themselves evolved greatly, transforming our tastes along with them. And while other revivals benefit from airing in repeats and being absorbed by viewers who would have been too young to remember them when they originally aired “Murphy Brown” has, for the most part, languished in mothballs.

Due to ponderous music rights conflicts — Murphy’s Motown addiction is an endearing trait, but costly — only one season was made available on DVD, and the show’s been nearly absent from syndication. Even now, only 18 of the original episodes are available to stream on All Access which, if you want to catch some of the old show’s vibe, you should watch.

In those episodes you’ll see Murphy in top form, so masterfully personified by Bergen, a woman owning her power and flexing her huge ego, both of which sustain frequent tests of internal fortitude to keep her (somewhat) humble.

Murphy’s encompassing warmth and kind personality overpower that ego, allowing us to laugh with her whenever she trips out and to celebrate its power when Murphy wields her confidence to serve a higher good. The good news is, thanks to Bergen, that Murphy is still there even though the world around her has transformed.

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Bergen’s scenes with McDorman coax forth the character’s best qualities, lending a fresh chemistry to a show too heavily reliant on the nostalgia for the old Murphy Brown, for the name as opposed to her noblest traits. The series makes the most of what their mother son bond brings to the formula, which is what it needs — more newness to this worn format.

But any series designed to be reactionary as opposed to revolutionary doesn’t get far with audience. Any entertainment built to scream about our anxieties as opposed to soothing them with some version of a higher purpose offers thin entertainment indeed.

Maybe people who feel this way are simply exhausted and unreasonable to yearn for “Murphy Brown” to raise us up. And maybe, as season 11 develops, eventually the writers will realize the “Murphy in the Morning” crew has greater potential than merely clapping back at the deafening political clamor wearing us down all day.

“I wanted to do a show that didn’t stoop to all the blaming and the name-calling, and instead I became exactly what I despise,” Murphy laments at one point. I couldn't help but nod in agreement.

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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