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.
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.
Let’s not waste any time: the second season of Murphy Brown is the series’ strongest. Bouncing off a first year that locked into a routine of producing satisfying excursions relatively early – around or slightly before the halfway mark – Season Two is an extension of its predecessor: the situational beneficiary of the writers’ enhanced understandings of the characters, alongside the lingering novelty of premise and intent, all of which make laughs more rewarding and stories easier to motivate or justify. This relationship between story and character is something we discussed last time at length, for it’s a never-fully-allayed weakness with which I charged the series and creator Diane English. (Because she reveres and claims to understand the importance of character utilization and development within the situation comedy machine, English forever struggles with how to use her players comedically, fearing that she’ll sully their integrities with cheaply gotten laughs; the irony, of course, is that, laughs must always be attained in this medium, so the characters’ integrities are inevitably sullied anyway – not because of the laughs, but because the laughs are now improperly motivated through characters who’ve too long been abstractly alienated to their humor by story-based scripts.) Now, there’ll be plenty of time to air grievances in the weeks ahead – an understatement – and because the second season doesn’t deserve or benefit from the critical derision that will be necessary when discussing future years, I’d like to divorce ourselves from this gloom and doom by noting that, while cracks regarding how stories are built even appear evident during the series’ best season, they’re overshadowed by the year’s situational perks — the meeting of understanding and novelty.
Never underestimate the power of novelty, for not only is it easier for a new show to engage with ideas that make good use of its premise – in this case, the life of a career woman in a D.C. newsroom – without fear of creatively running dry, but it’s also harder for a young comedy to make mistakes regarding character when the characters are still new enough to exist more in the collective mind of the writers than in the collective mind of the audience. You see, the show is at exactly the right age – old enough to start getting laughs based on the audience’s expectations of how the players might behave, but young enough that the audience doesn’t feel betrayed by forced and seemingly unmotivated narrative (or due to the strained relationship, comedic) moments, because, theoretically, we still don’t know them as well as the show does. It’s only natural that this ideal dynamic would represent the series – any series – in its best light; in fact, many of the “best seasons” that we’ve discussed here have somehow benefited from being at this neither-too-old-or-too-young age, although, as always, a show itself is responsible for earning the audience’s respect (usually during that first year), which then gives it license to exert this authority. Also, in Murphy’s case, its second season’s superiority transcends beyond these positional benefits, for ultimately, the reason why this year deserves to remain impervious to most critical assaults is that in addition to a favorable ratio of “hits” to “misses,” the operational base level of quality – running through every episode, and defining the mediocre ones especially – is at its highest. This isn’t just the result of fortunate positioning; this is due to stories that indeed support the premise and characterizations that mostly ring true.
Speaking of characterizations, as discussed last week, the conscious template for Murphy Brown was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in addition to the similar structure (we went through and compared them) and premise (our heroines are both career women in the news business) that English used intentionally to showcase evolutions in both the medium and culture, her regard (not utilization, but regard) for character mirrors one of the hallmarks of the MTM shows: the brilliant reinforcement of character as the guiding force for all sitcoms. I believe this legacy is the superseding aesthetic intention throughout Murphy Brown, and particularly the years helmed by English. It’s no surprise, then, that part of this premise-connectivity involves the invocation of motifs reminiscent to those found on Moore’s show, and that this, the strongest year, would make these associations often (and thus derive success in doing so). In addition to the subliminal similarities ingrained from inception, this season, along with its two neighbors, makes explicit narrative connections between the two – the Humboldt Awards for the Teddy Awards (“And The Whiner Is…”), going to jail for refusing to reveal a source (“Subpoena Envy”), dealing with striking crew members (“The Strike”), etc. These help to give Murphy Brown a sense of narrative legitimacy (if we’re to accept that it’s a worthy successor to the aforementioned – and I’d argue that, by this point, many critics did) and temper English’s inherent socio-relevant – and soon enough, political – aims, which we know will end up being the most ostentatious roadblock in this series’ attempt to actualize MTM’s same reverence for character.
We’re going to shelve the rest of this discussion about English’s inability to successfully be an MTM successor, due to conflicting ever-present objectives that mounted as the series grew in popularity (and then made some bad decisions), for a later date; all that’s evident on this topical front in Season Two is the occasional story – environmental issues, censorship on TV, etc. – that is culturally politicized, but nevertheless feels appropriate given the show’s news-based premise. These, despite not satisfying comedically or as character-driven outings, do not cross the line of making the show itself political and, while they could seem foreboding (especially as an indicator of where English went – and was always poised to go – wrong) and do exist amidst an undercurrent of politically liberal sensibilities, the stories are more important than the issues. In other words, any intended message is overshadowed by the mechanics of the premise, meaning that, regarding the potentially destructive nature of the show’s political topicality, Season Two, as a whole, does not further this narrative. (Rest assured, that’ll come over the next few weeks; stay tuned…) Actually, if there’s anything troubling indicated here about Murphy Brown’s future, it’s that even when the show clearly wants to be character-driven and has the most potential to be as such, it’s often story-driven. (Exhibit A: the plot-heavy two-part season finale in which Corky gets married… sans motivation.) This would seem to support the notion that quality control, predicated on the use of character, is a likely contributor to Murphy Brown’s lack of post-run durability. But again, these are big picture observations, not innately suggested by this collection, which earned the series its first of two Emmy wins as Outstanding Comedy Series.
We’ll be exploring in coming weeks how the show’s critical popularity, which then translated into commercial popularity in Season Three, helped to embolden some unfavorable developments, but for now, let’s note that Murphy Brown’s recognition from the Television Academy was a boost to both critical and commercial favor, and if there’s anything that illustrates the disconnect between the stature this series seemed sure to maintain post-run and the reality, it’s in the fact that with so many Emmy Awards – two of which were as the Outstanding Comedy, including this season’s – the show has still not been released on DVD in full. In fact, Murphy Brown’s two top-honored years (Two and Four) are the only unreleased Outstanding Comedy seasons since 1970’s My World And Welcome To It (which will be discussed on this blog in July). Surely the music is not the sole hold-up; even The Wonder Years got a release. This lack of commercial interest may be explained by the many weeks ahead; stay tuned… Anyway, following wins last season for Diane English’s pilot script and guest star Colleen Dewhurst (not to mention one for Editing), Jay Thomas was recognized after this year for his work in an episode discussed below, alongside the series itself as the season’s Outstanding Comedy. Both times, star Candice Bergen won; these would be her first two of FIVE Emmys for playing the role. At this point, before the second round of wins, the show is invigorated by the support, but still somewhat of an underdog when it came to the public – barely cracking the season’s top 30 (at #27). As we’ve seen (and will especially see soon with Seinfeld), some comedies make better underdogs…
Perhaps it’s inevitable that winning as the Outstanding Comedy Series of the ’89-’90 season would render asunder Murphy Brown’s “underdog” identity, but I think it would have also been dishonest to ignore this year’s success, which I believe was the best of the nominated choices – Cheers and The Golden Girls, though better shows, were past their best years and no longer had novelty – and this season likely constitutes, flaws and all, the most satisfying collection of episodes we’ve explored on this blog for the ’89-’90 season. (The only rival for my favor is Married… With Children’s fourth year, which is certainly funnier, but difficult to compare alongside the obviously mainstream Murphy Brown.) However, quality is subjective and I don’t use the Television Academy as a metric for what I think works or doesn’t; rather, these award stats simply serve as insight into what the Academy, which shapes trends within the medium, wanted – for whatever reason – to recognize. (This is one factor in why it’s difficult, at face value, to fathom why Murphy Brown didn’t spark any successful stylistic imitators beyond English’s work.) Its decision to honor the show this season probably isn’t controversial, but its decision to award Bergen five times, this being her second, strikes many as over-laudatory. The simple answer for repeated performance wins is often a lack of genuine competition, and that will prove truer in later seasons (when Bergen’s final recognitions seem more surprising and can’t be attributed to novelty), but these awards, aside from not being an actual indicator of quality, also aren’t a science, having more to do with the voters than the voted. However, I promised last week to share my thoughts on Bergen’s work on this series, so here goes…
I don’t think she’s funny. I don’t think Candice Bergen is a naturally comedic performer, and because Diane English is not a naturally comedic writer, the pairing exacerbates the show’s character-driven humor problems. Laughs that Bergen gets are often a result of the material itself and not her delivery, meaning that she is not in possession of the single trait that makes good performers great: the ability to elevate material. Bergen gets smarter over time, but never do laughs come naturally for her – they come for the character. She and English both have better luck with some of the more dramatic moments – not because Bergen is a great tragedian, but because they’re easier and she tries less. The ability to play drama as it’s written – without scenery-chewing – gives her performance perceived substance. But, this comes mostly from the page… What Bergen herself contributes is the presence. She quickly comes to embody Murphy Brown in total — creating the stilted cadence, hammy mania, and unshakable emotional distance — so that complaints about her performance become complaints about the character. It’s a brilliant portrayal, because it’s impossible to separate the two women. (That’s ultimately, I think, why Bergen was celebrated; the character, flawed construction and all, is inherently fascinating as the Mary Richards descendant/antithesis – the imperfect performance is part of that unique package.) Bergen’s skills are such that she can’t play anything false without revealing it to the audience, so unmotivated material remains unmotivated; yet, the foundation of the character, which Bergen helped make, is so strong that these constructional errors seem not the fault of Bergen, but of the writers who didn’t do right by Murphy. It ends up being a great performance, for the performer’s shortcomings are accepted as part of the characterization and the onus is shifted to the writers. All they have to do is “get” Murphy, and here, they do… So let’s get to the list. 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 may be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this year is directed by Barnet Kellman and installments that originally aired in one-hour blocks are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 23: “The Brothers Silverberg” (Aired: 09/18/89)
Murphy is attracted to Miles’ older brother.
Written by Diane English
Season Two opens with a high-octane play for big laughs, as Grant Shuad’s Miles is able to do his already proven manic shtick when Murphy begins dating his brother. One of the show’s funnier characters, Miles will often be relied upon to deliver when the others can’t (and, eventually, his powers will be overused). This installment, launching the year with pride, benefits from the cultivated dynamic between Murphy and Miles, which grounds some of the frenzy. Also, I’d be remiss for not mentioning how delightful it is to see future Frasier regular Jane Leeves (who originally auditioned for Corky) making her debut as Miles’ recurring girlfriend Audrey, and that The Closer‘s Jon Tenney plays Miles’ brother. Great start to the year.
02) Episode 26: “TV Or Not TV” (Aired: 10/16/89)
A sitcom star comes to study Murphy Brown for an upcoming role.
Written by Craig Hoffman
Morgan Fairchild guest stars in this episode as a sitcom actress who comes to Washington to research a part she’s playing in an upcoming show — essentially, as a fictionalized version of Murphy Brown. Of all the installments on today’s list, this premise is the most theatrically engaged, not just because it predicates almost the entirety of its humor on self-referential gags that take their cue from the burgeoning metatheatrical trend that we saw in shows like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, but also because it’s one of the broader conceptualized episodes. Murphy Brown being a terrible actor, while comedic, is such an easy source of laughs that it’s almost too easy. This isn’t a favorite of mine, but it’s enjoyable, and among the more memorable.
03) Episode 32: “Brown Like Me (I)” (Aired: 11/27/89)
Murphy’s parents unknowingly come into town at the same time.
Written by Diane English
This is my choice for the season’s MVE (and it wasn’t easy, because the level of excellence here is too consistent to find a hierarchy), which originally aired first in a one-hour block. The premise has Murphy inviting her father and his new wife (and baby) to come into town to see her accept an award. They’ve been estranged for years, so there’s naturally plenty of character-drama for English to explore. Additional conflict comes from the surprise arrival of Murphy’s mother, Avery, played with perfection by Emmy winner Colleen Dewhurst. Entirely based on these peoples’ history, the relationships they share, and the elevated awkwardness of them all being together, this is easily among the series’ strongest showings in terms of character. Part I is much funnier than Part II, which has more serious aims, but I enjoy them both, and even though I’m featuring the latter below only as an honorable mention, I recommend Part II too.
04) Episode 34: “The Strike” (Aired: 12/11/89)
The show is in a panic when the crew goes on strike.
Written by Steven Peterman & Gary Dontzig
I’ve mentioned before how satisfying it is when the show — any show — utilizes stories that make good use of the premise, for that means it’s fulfilling the initial promise made to the audience regarding intention. For Murphy Brown, newsroom stories, which prominently feature the ensemble but keep Murphy in the center, fit this premise-fulfilling bill exactly, and this installment, which employs a story we’ve seen before on Moore’s similarly designed series, feels like a great application of the show’s thesis. However, what really makes this one worthy of highlighting is the hysterical sequence — probably the season’s funniest bit — in which the temporary crew causes havoc in the control room when they fail to blur a confidential source.
05) Episode 35: “Here’s To You, Mrs. Kinsella” (Aired: 12/18/89)
Miles realizes he had a one-night stand with the boss’ wife.
Written by Russ Woody
Last week we highlighted several installments that I called Victories in Premise, in that the chief source of their appeal came from the stories themselves — either the originality, or the easy opportunities suggested for laughs. This is another entry in that genre, for the idea of cloistered Miles letting loose one night and unknowingly having an affair with his boss’ wife is very funny, particularly when it leads to a party sequence in which this revelation first occurs. As mentioned above, Shaud’s Miles is one of the more potent comedic presences on the show, and episodes that give him plenty to do often get their laughs. This outing, which also features plenty for recurring Mr. Kinsella (Alan Oppenheimer, a.k.a. Murray Mouse), is no exception.
06) Episode 36: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” (Aired: 01/01/90)
Corky throws a dull New Year’s Eve party.
Written by Diane English
A boring party. On which show have we seen that before? At any rate, this episode, written by series creator Diane English, isn’t among the most comedically rewarding installments highlighted on today’s list. But it’s here for several reasons. One: it makes terrific use of the ensemble, which is all together at a specific place and a specific time (an easy “recipe” for success). Two: it’s a holiday show that doesn’t get too cloying, which is essential for every sitcom holiday episode that actually wants to be amusing. And three: English uses the episode to revisit Murphy’s sobriety, a theme made to define her in the pilot, but with which we’ve never really seen her struggle throughout the series (unlike Sam Malone). So this one is dramatically vital.
07) Episode 41: “Bad Girls” (Aired: 02/19/90)
Murphy and Corky pose as hookers to help uncover a story.
Written by Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman
As with the above’s “TV Or Not TV,” this is a fairly broad episode for the second season, and another outing that gets most of its jollies from the campy premise, which has Murphy and Corky dressing up like hookers so they can get information about a potential oil company scandal. (Hey, it’s Sweeps Month — both for Murphy Brown and FYI.) But once we can excuse the unapologetic ridiculousness — with which the script actually does a good job of justifying — we can appreciate the elevated nature of the comedy. We’ll never see Murphy pretending to be a hooker ever again, so that’s something (major) and unique that this installment offers — and by the way, this is one of the funniest installments of both the season and the series.
08) Episode 42: “Heart Of Gold” (Aired: 02/26/90)
Murphy starts dating Jerry Gold.
Written by Russ Woody
Jay Thomas makes his second appearance in this episode as sensationalist TV host Jerry Gold, who was conceived last season but not formally introduced until earlier this year (after Thomas’ Cheers exit) in a not-so-funny episode about Gold challenging FYI on being environmentally conscious. This installment takes Gold from being a purely story-oriented presence and turns him into a construct-driven one, for his relationship with Murphy, who shares none of his beliefs, allows the show to comedically engage with the opposites-attract motif from which many excellent shows (including Thomas’ prior) have scored magic. It’s not hysterical (no surprise there though), but it’s entertaining and well-composed.
09) Episode 43: “On The Road Again” (Aired: 03/05/90)
Murphy and Jim are snowbound together in Kansas City.
Written by Sy Dukane & Denise Moss
Here is a rare example of the series — before it got explicitly political — hewing close to Norman Lear aesthetics (more so than its foundational MTM’s), for its almost exclusive focus on two regulars (Murphy and Charles Kimbrough’s Jim, an undersung, but late-blooming presence here) is reminiscent of some of those classic All In The Family episodes that took specific view of characters and their relationships in a way that was highly theatrical (in the living, breathing sense of the word) and introspective. This offering is designed similarly (but again, note that it’s character-focused and not issue-focused), and is among the season’s most delightful. The duo’s rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” is a personal highlight.
10) Episode 47: “The Bitch’s Back” (Aired: 05/07/90)
Murphy is laid up in the hospital with a bad back.
Written by Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman
This is simply a very solid episode from a very solid season. The story has Murphy entering into the hospital for an extended stay after injuring her back during a mandatory stress reduction class that Miles has forced the company to take. The reason this otherwise ordinary installment manages to become another Season Two classic is both in the outstanding guest performances, particularly by the hilarious Loretta Devine as a nurse who is convinced that Murphy is undercover to do a story on the hospital, and the script’s expert usage of nasty Murphy, whose irritability is heightened as a result of her being on bedrest and unable to work. The show is usually fun when Murphy is unbearable, and this episode takes this idea hilariously.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “And The Whiner Is…,” a strong entry for Corky, who wins a Humboldt Award (I really wanted to be able to highlight this entry above with the others), and “Subpoena Envy,” one of those MTM-related stories that finds enough originality to be enjoyable. Others of more honorable mention variety are “Roasted,” in which Jim is the subject of a roast by his co-workers, “Brown Like Me (II),” the heavier continuation of the installment featured above, and “I Want My FYI,” another memorable episode, featuring a pre-Blossom Mayim Bialik.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Murphy Brown goes to…..
“Brown Like Me (I)”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!