Film & Television

Murphy Brown is Back with Trump
in its Crosshairs

As hard as it is to believe, the original Murphy Brown, created by Diane English, premiered on CBS almost exactly thirty years ago. It ran for ten seasons, a total of 247 episodes. It was smart and funny, well-written and well-acted. It was topical and broke ground whenever it could, famously including storylines about women in the workplace, alcoholism, the tobacco industry, and single motherhood. The show was remarkable, not only for tackling these subjects but for influencing its audience’s behavior in a significant way. When Murphy (five-time Emmy winner and always wonderful Candice Bergen) battled breast cancer in season ten, she used medical marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of her chemotherapy and conservatives across the country boycotted the show. On the flipside, the informative and candid treatment of Murphy’s battle is credited with a 30% increase in mammograms that year.

Like many working women of the 80s and 90s, I was a big fan. In the days before DVR, Murphy Brown was the only show that I made it a point to be home for every week. I remember her sarcasm; I remember her shoulder pads. I remember her colorful cohorts. I remember a scene when she burst into a focus group to confront a woman who had complained about how Murphy dressed on air (“What about your outfit?” Murphy demanded, “Did you come here straight from clown college?”). And, I remember her first moments alone with son Avery, when she softly serenaded him (“You make me feel like a natural woman.”).

I remember Murphy. What I don’t remember is a laugh track.

I’m sure there was one, but for some reason, in my memory, I’ve elevated the series from what it was, a 30-minute sitcom, to something with more gravitas. It wasn’t just entertaining; it was significant. It challenged what was going on in our country and provided TV viewers with an intelligent alternative to the prime-time soaps (Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Dallas) that had dominated the airwaves through the 80s.

Today’s viewers have exponentially more choices than we did back then. Traditional networks don’t just compete with each other; they have to lure audiences away from subscription services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others. The average cable subscriber has more than 200 channels to choose from, and that’s before you add in pay services or archived on-demand programs. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing so many network series reboots.

Each of the three major networks has at least one revival on its fall schedule. ABC’s Roseanne is returning (without controversial matriarch Barr) as The Connors; NBC has brought back Will and Grace for a second season of its reboot; and CBS has dusted off Murphy Brown, just in time to take advantage of the myriad issues (and absurdities) of our current administration.

If there was any doubt at all as to the show’s attitude toward our current president, it’s resolved in the very first scene of the very first episode of the new series. Images from the 2016 election are edited to the Rolling Stones’ classic “Sympathy for the Devil.” In fact, it’s Murphy’s shock and outrage at Trump’s unlikely victory that creates the premise for the show. She decides to abandon her retirement and launch a new version of her old program “FYI,” called “Murphy in the Morning.”

“There’s such insanity out there that I was becoming this nut job yelling at the TV,” she explains. “I’d rather be in the TV yelling out.”

Recruiting her former colleagues, on-air talent Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) and Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), plus producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), Murphy sets out to be a voice of journalistic reason, but quickly finds herself in a Twitter war with @realDonaldTrump. (It will be interesting to see if and how the president reacts to the new show. If episode one is any indication, Murphy and company won’t be pulling any punches.)

The new series effectively picks up on the central characters where we left off. I was happily surprised by how quickly and seemingly effortlessly Bergen, Ford, Regalbuto, and Shaud channeled their roles from decades ago. Charles Kimbrough, who was Jim Dial, Murphy’s co-anchor in the original series, chose not to rejoin as a regular, but will appear as a guest in a handful of episodes. There are promising new cast members as well. Original barkeeper Phil (the late Pat Corey) has been replaced by his sister Phyllis (Tyne Daly). And, two younger actors, Nik Dodani and Jake McDorman, respectively play  director of social media and now grownup Avery Brown.

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  • Alexis Rhone Fancher October 2, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    I was rooting for this one, but sadly, I found the reboot dull and formulaic. The only bright spot was when Hillary Clinton applied to be Murphy’s secretary du jour. That Hillary could the the bright spot anywhere says more than I ever could.