The Ten Best MURPHY BROWN Episodes of Season Three

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our coverage on Murphy Brown (1988-1998, CBS). Only the first season has been released; check it out soon on Antenna.

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An investigative journalist at a D.C. newsmagazine show faces all the trials and tribulations of being a career woman. Murphy Brown stars CANDICE BERGEN as Murphy Brown, FAITH FORD as Corky Sherwood, CHARLES KIMBROUGH as Jim Dial, ROBERT PASTORELLI as Eldin Bernecky, JOE REGALBUTO as Frank Fontana, GRANT SHAUD as Miles Silverberg, and PAT CORLEY as Phil.

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When most fans examine Murphy Brown’s qualitative arc, the first major era is often said to conclude at the end of the fourth year with the departure of series creator Diane English. This makes a lot of sense – not only are we contending in Seasons Four and Five with the difference between a show that has its singular voice-giver and one that doesn’t, but there’s also a drastic drop in quality between the two years that is likely correlated (in part) to English’s absence. (Of course, we’re also dealing in Season Five with a baby and a Quayle, both of which bear significant responsibility too, but we’re not quite there yet; stay tuned…) Personally, however, I think this show’s initial era ends sometime before English dumped Murphy Brown for Love & War – and a case could be made for either the end of Season Two or the end of Season Three serving as the first significant demarcation. I think exploring both theoretical frameworks in this commentary will help us understand the latter’s unique nature, which can ultimately be defined as liminal, or even transitional – either as the end of one cycle or the beginning of another. Okay. So, let’s start with the notion that Season Three is the launch of a new era, and begin with one of the more tangible arguments: this is the first time we have a notable change in creative personnel. Gone are Russ Woody (Becker) and Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser (Newhart); in are Tom Palmer (Coach) and Peter Tolan (The Larry Sanders Show). New writers always mean new voices, and in this case, the additions help create the season’s more laugh-focused trend, with the show pushing harder to be palpably hilarious. This means bolder jokes, broader characterizations, and – true to English’s form – grander stories. Comedically, Season Three is in different territory than its predecessors, making this the first notable aesthetic variation.

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Another differentiation between Seasons Two and Three was mentioned last week: following the second round of approval from the Television Academy – and scoring the top honor as the year’s Outstanding Comedy – Murphy Brown could no longer be an underdog. (How can one be an underdog when one’s peers vote it the year’s best?) While critical attention was slowly heaped upon the series throughout its first two seasons, audiences didn’t pay much attention until Season Three, when the show found its yearly rating finally jumping into the top ten (at #6). The favorable critical response (and the accompanying support from the network) was finally translating into commercial success, and as with many shows we’ve explored here, this begets changes – most of them coming from English, who’s seemingly been emboldened to imbue her work with more of the socially conscious themes in which she – based on the series’ premise (which engages The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s legend) – always had an interest. In years past, these objectives were tempered by a claimed reverence for character and the limitations packaged to an underdog status. Now that English has a hit, these emerging – and conflicting – intentions serve as one of the core dichotomies of her personal style, for while adhering to the MTM playbook’s fidelity to character (or attempting as such), English’s natural wont has also been to produce work with some cultural relevance. And while she’s never actually been as good for character as she’s been for story, she’s also never achieved the big laughs needed to serve the social topicality (the kind Norman Lear’s shows, at their best, could secure with ease). In Season Three, it seems, English is moving further from MTM and closer to Lear…

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There’ll be more on the breakdown of English’s MTM intentions – along with a discussion that includes Lear’s work – next week, when the evolution becomes crystal clear. In the meantime, let’s note that Season Three is the link between those first two essentially non-political years, in which Murphy Brown’s presence on the airwaves alone was enough of a cultural statement (and wasn’t controversial), to those upcoming years in which the show will become explicitly political (because, folks, perception is reality – and when the show is largely perceived as political, there’s usually a good reason; stay tuned…) Since we’re exploring the notion that Season Three constitutes a new era, let’s focus on how the year accelerates this soon-to-be uncapped political trajectory, which it actualizes through stories predicated on lofty subject matter (like free speech, an easily preachable topic that feels like sermonizing for sermonizing’s sake — see: “Brown And Blue”), episodes comedically based upon the idea of liberal characters mocking the then-current Republican administration (thus making the show appear to have an unbalanced political agenda — see: “The Last Laugh”), and then by introducing a season-ending cliffhanger to guarantee that Murphy Brown becomes politically symbolic forever. (We’ll save that discussion for next week…) Needless to note, little of this was present in the first two seasons, so the clear embracing of elements that are intentionally meant for social significance – even if character and/or comedy are the claimed motivators – means the show is at the start of its politicization, therefore making Season Three the start of this new, and ultimately, destructive era. However, what exactly do the year’s growing stylistic trends mean for our ability to find enjoyment?

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Well, this flips us from examining the third season as the start of a new era into viewing it as the end of another, for in these pre-baby days (and yes, I include Season Four’s pregnancy in those “baby days,” because they’re all working towards/with the same narrative conclusion), Season Three looks a whole heck of a lot more like Season Two than Season Four. And with regard to the series’ slow adoption of explicit politics, English’s decision to situate Season Four upon an ostentatious narrative arc with political implications (there’s really a lot to be said here – but next week, friends) renders the show itself political in a way that Season Three, with its situational and joke-driven politically-inclined beats, simply isn’t. Furthermore, I maintain that the series’ use of politics is navigable here in Season Three, for the premise requires news-based topicality and insists upon national politics as episodic fodder. These stories still feel like a reinforcement of the series’ identity – and they’re alienating only when the show appears to have an agenda that supersedes the characters. While the baby will signify this very principle, these liberal sensibilities are largely filtered through the lenses of the players who themselves are, unsurprisingly, liberal – especially Murphy. It’s when she seems to become a mouthpiece for some higher force (like English) that we’ll have a real foundational problem… As in weeks past, the only trouble here in Season Three is that issue-based stories are, by definition, not driven by the characters – and because Season Three is attempting to ratchet up its humor quotient (aided by those aforementioned new writers) and can only go so far in how they marry laughs to character (because of English’s basic nature), the year contains a lot of Victories in Premise: shows that are funny because of the story, not the characters. Once again, this was always a concern, but with the season pushing harder for laughs, this disconnect is more noticeable.

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The more obvious disconnect between story and character is why I prefer Season Two to Season Three, although I must mention that Season Three’s “hits” are, indeed, funnier than those found in Season Two. They’re riskier, and when they work, they generously reward. Unfortunately, there are more “misses” this time around too (like the surprisingly well-liked “Rootless People,” which I find story-heavy and credulity-stretching), creating a more qualitatively volatile year than its two predecessors. However, the ratio is still so favorable, and the enjoyability that can be derived from these good episodes – of which there are many – strikes one as being closer in sentiment to those found in previous years than those that’ll be found ahead. In fact, the best argument – aside from being pre-baby – for Season Three being closer to Two than Four is an abstract one relating to the lingering sense of novelty that (for reasons discussed last week) enhances the entertainment value and excuses small missteps. It’s a positional benefit of which Season Four, naturally, has less. As for other tangible changes between Seasons Three and Four, writers Sy Dukane and Denise Moss (Frasier), who’d been around since Season One, leave and make way for Michael Patrick King (Sex And The City), who feeds into the upcoming comedic evolution and makes the creative team very different than it was at the start. Also, this is the last year with resident director Barnet Kellman at the helm, and while the show has always had textual problems, he’s helped give it the rhythm needed to transition between tonal variations – comedy and drama – and navigate pacing issues. Without his presence, such fluctuations are more jarringly felt, as proven in years ahead.

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So there’s enough evidence here to support the theory that Season Three is both the end of the show’s first era, driven by notions of more comparable quality, and also the start of its second, driven by the adoption of English’s lofty intentions. However you choose to perceive this season – and maybe you’ll ultimately decide that there’s more of a difference between Seasons Four and Five (when English takes her leave) than any of these prior years – it’s clear that a lot is happening, with competing narrative goals and varying creative success. As for what I think, the show is still healthy enough to be recommended without hesitation – and judging by the year’s five Emmy wins (including statues again for guests Jay Thomas and Colleen Dewhurst, along with one for a script discussed below), the Academy seemed to agree… as did the expanding audience… So if everything was still working well, and the series was a perceived success in every direction, why did English feel the need to jolt her show with one of the most powerful sitcom cliffhangers of the ‘90s? (Did she too believe the show’s quality was descending?) We’ll explore next week… In the meantime, let’s just enjoy this mostly solid season of a series that is, at this point, mostly solid, but now changing and soon to change even more. As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.

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Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember that 24 of the 26 episodes produced this year are directed by Barnet Kellman — any selected outings that aren’t will be noted below — and installments that originally aired in a one-hour block are considered two separate entries.

 

01) Episode 50: “The 390th Broadcast” (Aired: 09/17/90)

A consultant decides to change FYI‘s image.

Written by Diane English

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Connections to The Mary Tyler Moore Show persist as the third season of Murphy Brown, much like the former, opens the year with an episode about the news show attempting to lighten up its content (see: “The Good-Time News”), with guest star Harry Shearer playing the consultant who tries to do a makeover for FYI. This series takes the idea and makes it especially broad, which itself is somewhat of a surprise given the early seasons’ lack of success with such comedy. While this episode would seem to point toward the aforementioned (and perhaps unfortunate) changes in the show going forward, it must be noted that the results — here, anyway — do indeed yield some of the funniest stuff this series has ever produced, making this an easy choice for the year’s MVE. Laughs are a must, and English’s script delivers them smartly.

02) Episode 54: “The Gold Rush” (Aired: 10/22/90)

Jerry Gold is hired for FYI and rekindles a romance with Murphy.

Written by Steven Peterman & Gary Dontzig

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Jay Thomas’ Jerry Gold returns in this episode as FYI hires him to do a weekly debate segment with Murphy. Their combative energy in the studio soon combusts into romantic chemistry in the bedroom. It’s the classic antagonists-turned-lovers construct made especially popular by a marvelous ’80s sitcom (that we’ve discussed in the past), and also hints at some of the screwball farce roots (think: Grant and Russell in His Girl Friday) that English and company aimed often to invoke. Actually, of all the Jerry Gold episodes, this is probably the most strong when it comes to the comedy, and although much of its success comes from the idea itself, it nevertheless manages to excite. (Note that Thomas won another Emmy for this episode.)

03) Episode 55: “Bob & Murphy & Ted & Avery” (Aired: 11/05/90)

Murphy goes on a double date with her mother.

Written by Diane English

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With hindsight, we know this to be the last episode with Emmy winning Colleen Dewhurst (who won a second of two statues for her work on Murphy Brown for this offering) as Murphy’s mother Avery. While this is probably my least favorite of Dewhurst’s appearances — mostly because the bar had been set so high in her earlier outings — there’s no denying the supremely complex, believable, and humorous relationship that Bergen and Dewhurst share. Essentially, the success of this episode, which is also scripted by the series’ creator (and therefore has a fidelity to both tone and theme) rests on the presentation of this interesting relationship, the interplay between two wonderful performers, and our simple fondness for Dewhurst.

04) Episode 60: “Jingle Hell, Jingle Hell, Jingle All The Way” (Aired: 12/17/90)

The crew’s plan not to exchange gifts is dashed at the last minute.

Written by Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman

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Murphy Brown won yet another Emmy for this script, which earned its two writers an award for Outstanding Writing. Although I’ve already made my selection for the year’s MVE (and it’s obviously not this one), I must admit that this is also among the year’s funniest showings. The premise is ensemble-focused, the script is laugh-filled, and more miraculously, it’s a holiday episode that isn’t saddled with a forced and cloying sentimentality (the kind that shows use in place of character comedy because they think the nature of the holiday gives them a pass). In fact, were I to make another list of classic sitcom Christmas episodes, this would be a very likely contender — it’s a credit to the genre, not to mention both season and series. Great fun.

05) Episode 61: “Retreat” (Aired: 01/07/91)

The FYI crew goes on a team-building retreat.

Written by Tom Palmer

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Truthfully, I think this episode is basically one big gimmick and its presence on today’s list wasn’t as assured as most of the others. The team-building group outing premise isn’t something that we could define as being unique to Murphy Brown or even consider organically developed from the action. In fact, it’s clear that this is one big excuse to get all the core players (at least, all the regulars from FYI) into a single place at a single time for a single story. And yet while the episode’s premise is therefore very functional, the fact that its goals are such do work to its comedic benefit — for we want to see all of the core players in a single place at a single time for a single story. As a result, the end justifies the means, with laughs to boot.

06) Episode 64: “Hoarse Play” (Aired: 02/04/91)

Murphy gets laryngitis before an encounter with the President.

Written by Steven Peterman & Gary Dontzig

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If the above episode wasn’t original enough for my tastes, than I have to give credit when its due by noting how unique and clever this offering — and its premise alone — manages to be. This is a story that’s perfect for Murphy Brown. The incorporation of real press conference footage of President George Bush with the show’s own footage of Murphy attempting to ask her question is delightful lunacy — visually jarring, but all part of the joke. And while the series’ political sensibilities will soon become counterintuitive to its comedy, it’s nevertheless a fundamental part of the show’s identity, so the engagement of this premise is thematically pure and welcomed. Not a terrific showing, but quintessentially Murphy Brown in ’91. Also: note how the entry’s comedy is driven by Murphy’s foibles, not a Bush joke (as in “The Last Laugh.”)

07) Episode 68: “On Another Plane (II)” (Aired: 02/25/91)

Murphy and Frank are witnesses to their joint funeral.

Written by Diane English

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Airing as the second half of a special one-hour episode, this popular entry was one of the most nominated and critically lauded offerings of the year. Frankly (and that is a pun), the first half — with Murphy and Frank reliving moments from their past when their plane looks to be crashing is dreary, self-indulgent, and neither funny nor revealing. However, the second half, in which Murphy and Frank are witnesses (à la Our Town) to their own funerals is a riot, with dark comedy — more of this series’ attempts to invoke the spirit of “Chuckles” — and character laughs for all involved. It’s a Victory in Premise, yes, but it tries to be good for character, and while I still struggle with the Murphy/Frank dynamic, this entry showcases it nobly. Solid, funny.

08) Episode 69: “Driving Miss Crazy” (Aired: 03/04/91)

The FYI crew carpools to work.

Written by Tom Palmer

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As with “Retreat,” the primary strength of this episode is that it puts all of the core characters (again only the folks in the newsroom) in a single space (a car) at a single time (on their way to work), and derives all of the comedy from their interactions. While one might define the car construct as a gimmick, I find it considerably different than, say, the retreat angle, for the set-up of having these characters in a car, no matter the explanation, is itself very simple and thus has the effect of mitigating all that seems contrived (which most gimmicks often seem). Furthermore, the simplicity allows both the show and the audience to focus on the characters, which is always a show’s greatest asset. Unlike “Retreat,” this has more character than story.

09) Episode 71: “Corky’s Place” (Aired: 04/08/91)

Corky asks Murphy to appear as a guest on her first television special.

Written by Tom Palmer

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Faith Ford’s Corky is one of the most undersung members of the ensemble, for not only is she good for laughs, she’s also good for story, as the juxtaposition of her character off the others (particularly Murphy) is usually a strong foundation for all types of material. One of the regular tools in the series’ arsenal is the “turnaround” with regard to Corky; that is, the show secures a lot of its humor by inverting our expectations for the character. We see that here in this installment, as we’re anticipating a lighthearted interview between Corky and her subject, Murphy, only to be delivered an intense, hard-hitting exposé that leaves Murphy exhausted. It’s a classic sitcom design, but it’s character-centric and often works. Here, it definitely does.

10) Episode 72: “Small” (Aired: 04/29/91)

Murphy gets in trouble for making a joke about short men.

Written by Denise Moss & Sy Dukane | Directed by Peter Bonerz

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A Victory in Premise, this very funny outing is predicated on the comedic idea of Murphy getting in trouble by the media for making a joke about short men, which turns into a brouhaha in which she goes to a meeting of short men and attempts to put out the fire. This series generally succeeds when it turns on Murphy — either by showing her as nasty and unlikable, or pounding her with extreme obstacles — and this installment is a great indication of why this is such fodder for comedy. It’s easily among the third year’s wisest outings because it simply has the right idea with regard to how to get its laughs. Additionally, this is the first episode helmed by future in-house director (and former Bob Newhart regular) Peter Bonerz. Also: note how the entry makes a point about free speech through character (unlike “Brown And Blue.”)

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Novel,” a tight ensemble show that delivers some fine laughs, but struggles with a a believability gap (specifically Jim being latently attracted to Murphy; I only half buy it), “Q&A On FYI,” which is a simple Victory in Premise that utilizes the classic game show technique (and isn’t as funny as “Retreat” or unique as “Hoarse Play,” the two story-heavy outings that could have been bumped to make room for this one), and “Strike Two,” in which the news anchors go on strike, Miller Redfield returns, and Miles is caught in the middle. Others of more honorable mention quality include: “The Bummer Of 42,” in which Frank hires a woman (Christine Ebersole) to pretend to be Murphy’s sister for a day, “Trouble In Sherwood-Forrest,” an ensemble episode that has the right idea but lacks a certain comedic spark, and “Everytime It Rains… You Get Wet,” a simpler outing that feels like a return to some early season sensibilities. I’d also like to mention the guest appearances of Barney Martin and Rose Marie as Frank’s parents in “Loco Hero.”  

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Murphy Brown goes to…..

“The 390th Broadcast”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!

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