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 — and now a single mother. 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.
As we started this in-depth look at Murphy Brown several weeks ago, the two things I wanted to explore – aside from which years and episodes were the best (always my raison d’être) – were the style of its creator Diane English and the possible explanations for why the series has not remained as popular as its other long-running and critically celebrated contemporaries. In both cases, the discussion points toward Season Five, which is the first year without English (who left to helm Love & War – which we’ll be discussing over the next three Wildcard Wednesdays) and therefore represents our first glance at what her work looks like without its auteur. Not surprisingly, individual styles of writing – that even make ample room for pinpointable flaws – are better when they have their primary propagators around to anchor the proceedings with the ingrained knowledge of both premise and character, while consciously and subconsciously alleviating known flaws. (We explored a very similar concept last year with Night Court and its creator, Reinhold Weege.) So for many reasons, including the absence of English alongside the flawed foundation that she cultivated, Season Five finds the series in its first considerable reduction in quality, and while I’m inclined to believe the series has been in a gradual decline since the peak represented in Season Two – where novelty met understanding – the series has never before, based on its own metrics (which its important – I’ve been overly critical, but never with the intent to undermine what’s been working) disappointed like it does here. This year braces the series for an inability to sustain its quality (frankly, we’ve got one great year, two adequate years, and two outright disappointing years ahead – not necessarily in that order) – and that’s one of the things that I posited weeks ago as perhaps contributing to the series’ lack of current exposure and reduced fondness: no quality control. It’s all here in Season Five.
But before we talk quality, let’s get to the meat of Season Five – the Quayle debacle. We entered this series’ coverage knowing that Murphy Brown’s topicality (which marries itself to earned charges of “datedness”) was the most discussed and recognized reason for its now-irrelevantly politicized reputation, and thus, diminished post-run success. In the past two weeks, we explored how English gradually elevated the series’ political discourse alongside its critical and commercial ascent in Season Three – generally keeping the material premise-based and character-connected; this all got dialed up in Season Four, as the eve of a national election seemed to justify an increase in the show’s narrative reliance on the subject matter, but now with more “dated” references and, most disastrously, an accompanying sanctimoniousness that found the show – through Murphy – preaching to its audience and seeming to have an agenda. All of this (including some unmotivated story mechanics regarding the two men in the title character’s life) made the seasonal arc, Murphy’s pregnancy, ripe for political contextualizing. And, indeed, Vice President Dan Quayle, whose infamous speech on May 19, 1992 — the day after the fourth season finale was broadcast — cited Murphy Brown‘s use of a storyline about a single mother as an example of, well, here’s the quote: “Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong and we must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice. I know it’s not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it! Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV and the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think most of us in this room know that some things are good and other things are wrong.”
As many readers know, Quayle’s comments sparked a national debate, with Democrats decrying his citation of a fictional character in an otherwise serious speech as ludicrous (especially because Quayle jokes had been common on the series for years — “was he just being vindictive?”), while Republicans tried to refocus the attention back onto Quayle’s underlying point about the role of the media and entertainment in shaping cultural trends. The politics themselves are immaterial to our discussion of Murphy Brown… well, except that the show decided — as a result of the massive wave of publicity that kept coming throughout the summer during that election year — that it had no choice but to offer a rebuttal to the Vice President. So new showrunners Gary Dontzig and Steven Peterman, who I suggested last time as being English’s natural successors, opened the new season with an hour-long episode that deals with both the aftermath of Murphy giving birth and the aftermath of Quayle’s comments, which were used in full (save the one tiny reference to “a character”). The results? Critical and commercial acclaim, a sense of inflated self-importance, and a drearily unfunny two-parter that would set the tone for the rest of the season – in which the show’s politics, which one could argue had always been a part of its identity and indeed proved itself to be a notable part of the show’s make-up in Seasons Three and Four (which, as I pointed out, opened itself up to being political, regardless of intent), became the show’s whole identity. Or…if that’s perhaps too hyperbolic for your tastes, then it’s at least the show’s chief guiding force, for Quayle’s “attack” on this character’s character gave the show perceived permission to over-preach its messaging, particularly when presenting the ever-so-noble plight of a working single mother, who now, very meticulously, had to be crafted to represent all working single mothers.
No longer was this just about Murphy Brown. This was about what Murphy Brown represented. And as English would have it, Murphy Brown now represented politics – all the show had to do was lean in to Vice President Quayle’s comments to actualize its politicized position forever, thus forsaking all claims to being The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s character-driven successor – two working women, yes; both character-centric, no. Sadly, this season, and all it embodies, is what first comes to mind when most people think of Murphy Brown. And that’s not just devastating because of the show’s topical and inevitably outdated reputation – which many feel (and justifiably so) has limited syndication and home video releases – but also because this “leaning in” to the show’s chiefly political identity finds every single script, particularly those with heavy material for the leading lady, bearing in mind the social implications, thereby sidelining its already tenuous humor, relatable but unevenly conceived characters, and, in some cases, its general merit (which can no longer be bolstered by novelty). Sadly, just as story-driven material doesn’t satisfy like character-driven material, issue-driven material doesn’t either, and furthermore, now we’re dealing with a baby – a live, actual baby – and no matter how truthful or humane the show treats the story, it’s still contending with an entity that’s not generally conducive to good humor, for it enables the encroaching dominance of unearned sentimentality. (Indeed, the baby would eventually prove to be the scapegoat for the series to claim for why Season Five was less well-received, and for the first time, won no gold at the Emmys.) And of course, as already noted, Murphy Brown also suffers because it’s a flawed Diane English project without Diane English to help attenuate the flaws. So, as a result of these many factors – with politics being number one (because it’s allowed to be number one) – Season Five disappoints.
And yet, while I was ready – weeks ago – to lambast this year for its weaker quality, my study has found it necessary to emphasize two points that may temper the sting. One, the year only disappoints so much because it’s the first significant drop; by the time we get to Nine, our investment has diminished and we’re more prepared for failure. Additionally, I think Season Five’s staff of writers – Dontzig and Peterman, Tolan, Palmer, King, and Siamis (English’s former right hand) – makes for the series’ strongest, as they all, by and large, have a credible understanding of comedy. They still struggle because of the precedent that’s been set by English and how the players have been designed, making the excessively broad installments seem conspicuously unmotivated and far less funny entries appear tonally faithful, but they do a fine job of utilizing the workplace ensemble as a singular source for laughs, while nobly trying to motivate comedic stories through each of the individual characters. This, interestingly, is the strategy that’s employed as the season realizes – post-election – that it’s become too political and must pivot away from the reputation being formed. Obviously, it’s not successful, mostly because the premise still necessitates it deliver on behalf of Murphy, which means more baby and more politics (or more sentiment and more gimmicks – like in the well-liked season finale “One,” which serves as a nice capper to the character’s seasonal arc, but must embrace some of the year’s worst — albeit, in this case, apolitical — instincts). And yet, these writers fight like heck to inject humanity into the Murphy character, and Bergen, who now has a firm command on her part, actually keeps the material from dipping any further, which means that the best episodes featured below actually work and delight almost like those from prior weeks, setting the stage for a semi-comeback in Season Six. (Some of the year’s unmentioned episodes, however, really reek…) So, 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.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember: installments originally aired in a one-hour block are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 105: “Black, White & Brown” (Aired: 10/05/92)
Murphy realizes that she has a problem with her new boss’ skin color.
Written by Michael Patrick King | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Julius Carry makes his first appearance as Mitchell Baldwin, Kinsella’s replacement and a new recurring character for the season. His identity as a black man forms the crux of this story, as the show’s now firmly established “we are relevant” aims necessitate that the concept of racism be explored in a decidedly ’90s way. To the show’s credit, this episode — written by King — actually does a commendable job (especially in comparison to other issue-based stories from around this time) in keeping the laughs earned and uncontrived, while exploring Murphy’s racism logically and believably. In fact, the episode draws legitimate comparison to Lear’s Maude, in the way that both protagonists’ biases are exploited for the sake of big laughs.
02) Episode 107: “Night Of Living News” (Aired: 10/26/92)
Murphy and Frank host the inaugural broadcast of a late night news show.
Written by Lee Aronsohn | Directed by Peter Bonerz
As mentioned in my thoughts on the first season, I’ve never been completely satisfied with the relationship between Murphy and Frank, because I don’t think his character is as well-defined as the show needs for him to be as one-half of this core friendship. However, while Frank’s episodes remain hit-and-miss, the characterization has gotten tighter and more identifiable as the seasons progressed (particularly during and after the third). In fact, this year actually finds several offerings in which Frank is a key deliverer of our episodic enjoyment — including this entry, in which he and Murphy anchor a late night news show in which they get slap happy and fear that they’ve made fools of themselves. It’s funnier than the record otherwise indicates.
03) Episode 113: “I’m Dreaming Of A Brown Christmas” (Aired: 12/14/92)
Murphy’s family visits during baby Avery’s first Christmas.
Written by Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman | Directed by Lee Shallat
There’s no getting around the fact that I struggle with this episode. Not only is it a holiday themed entry that makes major use of the new tot (thus granting the opportunity for rampant unearned sentiment, in which the show can’t help but dabble), it’s also overtaken by the strong, theatrical, and very broad performance of Marian Seldes as Murphy’s Aunt Brooke, the late Avery’s sister, who clashes with Murphy’s visiting father Bill (Darren McGavin). It’s, structurally, a retread of the prior Avery vs. Bill outing, but without Dewhurst’s appealing nuance, as the talented Seldes just pushes so hard to make the episode funnier. Yet, ultimately, it’s a fine Murphy outing — politics free — and does prize humor over its saccharine. So it works.
04) Episode 114: “Games Mothers Play” (Aired: 01/04/93)
Murphy tries to head a group for moms with babies.
Written by Steven Peterman & Gary Dontzig | Directed by Peter Bonerz
My choice for the strongest episode of the year, it’s partly because, even though the baby storyline is a complete vacuum when it comes to comedy, we nevertheless crave high quality offerings that make use of its presence comedically, because that would therefore give solid material to our protagonist and also help to justify why this darn development happened in the first place. This installment, for which Bergen was nominated for an Emmy (but lost to Roseanne Barr), does the best job of using the baby in ways that are both humorous and character-developing (for Murphy). The script, by the two gentlemen currently serving as showrunners, makes time for several delicious comedic moments — I love all of Murphy’s attempts to sing the “kiddie” songs — and grows the bond between mother and son without any of the faux sentimentality that’s plagued all the prior Murphy-Avery outings.
05) Episode 116: “Back To The Ball” (Aired: 01/18/93)
Murphy’s friends try to find her a date for the Inaugural Ball.
Written by Dinah Kirgo | Directed by Lee Shallat
You can tell this episode was written by a freelancer not on the regular staff — Dinah Kirgo, best known for some work on Lear’s One Day At A Time — because there’s a freshness to both the storytelling and the humor, along with a sense of specificity with regard to the character depictions. In other words, the characters are distilled into their core identities, which (as long as there’s no cheap-laugh driven reduction of substance) often makes it easier for the audience to relate to the players comedically and emotionally. Also, this is another solid offering that puts Murphy directly at the center, and although her behavior isn’t always so believable, there’s enough humor and heart (yes, I wrote it — but it’s earned) that we can focus on the positives.
06) Episode 117: “The Intern” (Aired: 02/01/93)
Corky hires a new intern who turns out to be an elderly woman.
Written by Tom Palmer | Directed by Lee Shallat
This is one of those episodes that derives much of its humor by utilizing a funny premise — one of those “Victory in Premise” shows that we’ve discussed before — without really adding anything substantial to its execution. However, the installment certainly gains points for the casting of Maxine Stuart, a quirky women whom we last saw on this blog in an episode I shared of the short-lived Susan Harris sitcom Hail To The Chief (1985, ABC). Here Stuart plays an intern that FYI has hired because she’s a sorority sister of Corky’s; the comedy comes from the fact that the staff is expecting a college kid and, as such, is unprepared to see a woman of her age. Again, it’s a better idea than execution — and funnier than other guest-heavy outings here.
07) Episode 118: “Trickster, We Hardly Knew Ye” (Aired: 02/08/93)
Jim’s friends try to help him grieve over the death of his dog.
Written by Michael Patrick King | Directed by Lee Shallat
The only Jim-centric entry to make the list, this is another episode with a premise centered around death. We’ve discussed quite a bit on the blog why this topic is such great fodder for situation comedy; the short version: we laugh because we’re afraid. This installment involves the staff trying to help Jim properly grieve for the death of his dog, the beloved Trickster, by staging a memorial service (a.k.a. intervention) to get Jim to deal with his feelings. The humor is broad while the story is simultaneously uncomedic, but everything seems to balance itself out — especially when filtered through the characters — to create a fairly satisfying installment. Murphy walks away with the best material, as it should be, but the ensemble shines.
08) Episode 120: “Bump In The Night” (Aired: 02/22/93)
A jealous Murphy accompanies Frank to the Letterman show.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Lee Shallat
It’s important to note that this episode was written by Peter Tolan, who several months before had written the pilot and joined the staff of The Larry Sanders Show (which we’ll be discussing here later this year). One can clearly see where his mind was, for this installment involves Frank being asked to appear on a late night talk show — in this case, Letterman’s — and bringing along Murphy, who’s jealous of Frank getting all this attention, and thus decides to act a general nuisance. This is one of those cases where her behavior isn’t totally believable, but the underlying emotion is relatable. And because this show does well when it engages in the “real world” of television, we’re glad to have this atypical offering. Teri Garr guest stars.
09) Episode 121: “To Market, To Market” (Aired: 03/01/93)
The FYI gang goes to the grocery store.
Written by Tom Palmer | Directed by Lee Shallat
A well-liked outing, this entry has been likened by some to early Seinfeld (which, of course, is coming up here right after we finish Murphy Brown), for it’s a low-concept idea that takes all the regulars and puts them in one location for a bunch of small, essentially inconsequential stories. Truthfully, this entry isn’t as hilarious as I wish it to be, but the simplicity is not only appreciated in its own right, but it’s also both evident of the latter half of the season’s emphasis on the ensemble as a tool for navigating those murky Quayle waters, and is conducive to more emotionally focused, revealing, and motivated storytelling on behalf of the characters. Everyone shines here — especially Corky, who has the best episode of her Season Five divorce arc.
10) Episode 123: “Murphy And The Amazing Leaping Man” (Aired: 03/22/93)
Frank’s friends are shocked when he makes a commitment.
Written by Michael Patrick King | Directed by Lee Shallat
For the third time on this list, I’m featuring an episode in which Joe Regalbuto’s Frank Fontana is a vital ingredient to the story and its viability, and this installment, unlike the two above, doesn’t just give him material that’s comedic and, as a result, enjoyable for its entertainment value, but it also decides to develop his character a little more — thank goodness. This installment finds Frank deciding, after a late night chat with Corky, to essentially grow up and make a commitment. He decides to move in with a woman (Amy Aquino) that he barely knows, and invites his friends over to see their new co-habitat. There is the requisite amount of laughs, but it’s really the implications this episode has for Frank that make it ultimately worthwhile.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Two For The Road,” another simple outing for Murphy and Mitchell that clearly poises them for the possibility of romance in Season Six (and has moments of humor — but not quite enough), “I Never Sang For My Husband,” a recommendable Jim episode that gives Doris (Janet Carroll) the opportunity to sing (and helps set up the Lou/Edie stuff that they’ll get later), “Ship Of Phil’s,” a popular entry written by future showrunners Bill Diamond and Michael Saltzman that’s too narratively involved for my tastes, and “Me Thinks My Parents Doth Protest Too Much,” which guest stars Kelly Bishop and Richard Libertini as Miles’ activist parents (and is a fine episode for Shaud). Special mention must be made of “The Egg & I,” where the show attempts to return to the days in which it could use politics as episodic narrative fodder while deriving its source of humor from Murphy’s flaws (the way she’s alienated herself from the White House); it’s meant to depoliticize the show by illustrating that Murphy is just as incorrigible with a Democratic administration as a Republican one, but because Quayle is fresh, the novelty of this story type has worn, and the action is rendered too broad, it doesn’t work as well as the ten above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Murphy Brown goes to…..
“Games Mothers Play”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!