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 single mom. 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. SCOTT BAKULA recurs as Peter Hunt.
Now that we’re past the series’ halfway point, let’s check in on our two prime areas of exploration. First, as we’re entering our second year without Diane English’s involvement, we’re ready to drop our look at her personal style and the effects it had on Murphy Brown – at this point, it should be inherently known that she bears much responsibility for the show’s evident problems, all of which led to a terrible (but foreseeable) descent in Season Five, when the show lost its creator, added an unfunny baby (thanks to the prior year’s story-driven pregnancy), and dealt with a public feud with all the self-righteousness of a show with a political bias – thus confirming the charges to which the series had been subject by its detractors. The year, therefore, housed the first substantial reduction in quality, and because the series’ contretemps with Vice President Dan Quayle became a culture war, the show’s handling of this development would come to define the series’ reputation in total – shutting out the better stuff that had come before and, maybe, the passable stuff that would come ahead. This brings us to our second topic of discussion: the reasons for the show’s poor post-run success. If political topicality is the most recognized explanation for the show’s lackluster performance, then we needn’t look any further than what we saw last season. But if you, like I, think this dilemma has something to do with quality, then the discussion need continue. We already saw the burdens that the series’ use of political topicality – specifically that politics could graduate from being part of the show’s identity to being its whole identity (which suggests a further subordination of character – already an English problem) – placed upon its ability to deliver a quality product. So it stands to reason that if such reduced efforts were but a blip in the series’ trajectory, then the Quayle debacle could be easily forgiven – at least, in the same manner that we excuse, for instance, Married… With Children’s final years in deference to the better majority of its run.
Unfortunately, I’ve already suggested that last year’s quality would not be an anomaly, and this, as much as anything else, would prove to be a reason for the show’s currently weakened repute… But when discussing Season Six, that theory seems temporarily false, for the year is a palpable improvement over its predecessor, making the previous season seem merely an aberration. I think we have to be clear-eyed though – with or without hindsight – and recognize the role that big initial disappointments play in our further conception of a series’ quality. In other words, we have to be mindful of whether we’re celebrating the improved year’s quality or whether we’re celebrating the simple fact that it’s an improvement. (Example: Season Four of The Cosby Show is an improvement over the third… but it’s still far below the first two.) In this case, I think we’re more celebrating the improvement than the quality (mostly because we’ve been on a downward slope for a while), but at the same time, it’s important to recognize that the show did turn itself around – even for this one year – after a legendary descent. And in fact, this restorative bounce may indeed be large enough, if you ascribe to the line of thinking that puts the series’ peak in either of the first two seasons, to place the year on par with the end of English’s tenure (especially Season Four, which was immensely popular but had some big problems), making this potentially a better season than the last two. How? As teased last week, by using lessons learned during Season Five; we noted that the show attempted to reverse course in the middle of last year and pivot away from its recognized over-politicization by emphasizing the strength of the ensemble and laboring to make the baby storyline more about Murphy’s character than any unneeded agenda or unearned sentiment. That year, because of the way it started, couldn’t be saved, but this one, with those above ideas in play, was ripe for the official pivot.
We also mentioned last week that the show – headed again by Dontzig, Peterman, and Siamis (note that the rest of last year’s group – Tolan, King, and Palmer — have all vamoosed, making way for the next wave of writers, including Scovell, Saltzman & Diamond, Heline & Heisler and Bragin) – would come to use the baby as the scapegoat for all of Season Five’s problems, letting this notion be a jumping off point for the image rehabilitation that was needed in Season Six. Their resolve this year, from the beginning, was to return the series’ focus onto Murphy in the workplace, with little Avery Brown now resigned to occasional appearances and usually just one weekly mention. This is, frankly, good – regular readers know how I feel about tots in sitcoms — and although some blanch when a baby is introduced and seemingly forgotten, I think last season suggests that the less we see the kid, the more likely the show can focus on its strengths. Of course, although I have always been staunchly against the use of babies as gimmicks designed to bring humor to faltering sitcoms (because babies do exactly the opposite — allowing sentiment to override laughs), Murphy Brown‘s main issue has never been the baby itself; the problem is what the baby represented: the physical manifestation of the series’ politics and the overbearing way it used its intentional messaging as a means of bolstering — but in actuality, supplanting — increasingly more laboriously conceived character comedy. So the show’s focus on what had become, both thanks to external forces (Quayle) and an internal momentum (supplied from the start by English), a politicized vessel, destroyed the series’ ability to exist as a satisfying situation comedy. Moving away from said vessel then became necessary, and in Season Six’s recognition of the baby as a hinderance comes the implicit nod that the politics, specifically the liberal “agenda” attached to the baby, have hurt the series as well.
This non-admission admission is the first time that the show attempts to take back control of its identity from the external forces, exuding a self-awareness about its missteps that could then be used as an advantage. Since the show recognizes that it’s been deservedly perceived as liberal, it can now find laughs in either lampooning that reputation or inverting expectations by playing against it. This is especially effective when it comes to Murphy, as the show’s own foibles can be depicted as her own (which makes sense; one of the big complaints had been the way a political agenda was reflected through the character), yielding conflict, complexity, and comedy. Here in Season Six, politics are still addressed – detractors may argue that the show had no reason to be political now that it had a Democrat in the White House, but it’s good that the series didn’t completely drop the subject: this is part of its thesis – and, as always, there’s a lack of subtlety that would have been a welcome and all-along mitigating factor (for instance, the attempts to make Murphy seem just as incorrigible with the Clinton administration as she was with the Bush administration are too compulsory), but the conscious effort to keep the politics good for the show… good for the characters… makes it noble and, for the most part, enjoyable. (There are still a few moments of nasty over-preaching, but those are outliers.) And while I’ve made it plainly known that I don’t believe the boost in quality that these changes help foster in Season Six will manage to transcend the upcoming years, never again does the show’s politics come close to being as troublesome as last year’s; there will be episodic instances of sanctimoniousness, sometimes with a socially conscious edge, but those become framed alongside any other entry that’s poorly conceived. So, the show’s identity is no longer actively political – even if its reputation forever will be. And with the baby and the politics pushed aside, Season Six can put its emphasis back where it never should have left: the characters.
With this focus on the characters, specifically at the workplace, comes the show’s calculated decision to introduce a new recurring cast member, brief FYI regular Peter Hunt, played by Scott Bakula, who appears in seven episodes produced throughout the season. His addition is not only an attempt to inject new life into the tiring construct, but also to re-introduce Murphy’s love life as an avenue of narrative exploration — replacing the baby as the primary source of personal drama. However, just as last season’s unfunny, unlikable baby episodes were nevertheless essential due to their concentration on Murphy and her individual arc, the installments that further the Murphy-Peter romance (here in Season Six, specifically) are exactly the same: must-watch due to the implications for Murphy and her characterization, but not as entertaining as most of the non-Murphy-Peter episodes. (There is a single notable exception on today’s list — my MVE, in fact — to be discussed below.) There are two main reasons why I don’t think the Peter arc works as well as most. First, although the storyline is focused (just like Season Four’s pregnancy and Season Five’s work/motherhood balance), it’s entirely too functionally obvious. That is, we’re aware right from the beginning that the series has added him as Murphy’s new beau, and there’s therefore no dramatic tension to be gleaned — with his initial connection to Corky an unbuyable diversion. Second, and even more concerning, is Peter himself, who exists not as a fully-formed character, but solely as a presence. Yes, he’s a charming, masculine, tension-begetting love interest played by a name actor, designed for the clear intention of fulfilling these narrative demands, but because a needed characterization is ignored in favor of easy story-obligation-meeting platitudes, the source in the character from which comedy should derive is, at best, one-dimensional, and at worst, nearly nonexistent. So, without a solid depiction, the arc must turn to situations engendered by the relationship, and as always when stories/constructs trump character, we’re not getting the best results.
You see, some of the same ol’ English-ingrained problems of story vs. character still exist, even on the episodic level where Victories in Premise are too easy for the show to ignore. But the Peter issues (specifically regarding comedy) are only a concern for the seven episodes in which he appears – and as previously mentioned, at least one of those offerings is so strong that it’s my MVE, proving that there’s an exception to every rule. And just as with the prior years’ pregnancy and baby arcs, while we may struggle with some of the non-character-driven motivators or contributing factors, this romance nevertheless does deliver some meritorious material on behalf of character – not Peter, who has nothing to get or give beyond the ways in which he can service the lead, but Murphy, who gains more dimensionality and is allowed to be at the series’ forefront without getting bogged down by a Quayle or a baby, both of which have represented the unfortunate use of political topicality that the show is now trying to reduce. In fact, this year is such an improvement for Murphy that Bergen won another Emmy – her fourth. Now, as previously mentioned, her wins this late in the series’ run may indicate a lack of competition in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category, but because Bergen’s portrayal (which has, so far, gotten smarter every year) is inseparable from Murphy’s characterization, a good year for Murphy is a good year for Bergen. And a good year for Murphy is also a good year for the show – this is probably its last truly good year. So, on that note, I have, as usual, 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember: installments originally aired in a one-hour block are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 128: “Angst For The Memories” (Aired: 09/27/93)
Murphy interviews a counterculture hero from the ’60s.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Martin Sheen won an Emmy Award for his work in this episode as an icon from the counterculture of the 1960s who surprises everyone — particularly Murphy — when he reveals that he’s become incredibly conservative since his time away from the spotlight. The scene in the studio in which Murphy realizes on-air that her former hero shares absolutely none of her political beliefs, some of which he once inspired, is great for laughs, but more importantly, it illustrates just how aware the series has become of its own political identity. And with the show seemingly in acknowledgment of this fact, this can now be used to bolster the laughs instead of hinder them — especially when the joke isn’t on Sheen, but on Murphy and her liberal co-horts.
02) Episode 130: “Political Correctness” (Aired: 10/11/93)
The staff is in need of cultural sensitivity training after an on-air incident.
Written by Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman & Korby Siamis | Directed by Peter Bonerz
I want you to note something that’s proven itself to be significant: this is the only episode on this list written by the three executive producers, the staff holdovers from Season Five. This takes on added meaning because not only does this entry engage directly with the kind of explicit identity rehabilitation that could only come from lessons learned (ex: to drop any moral condescension and try being irreverent equal opportunity offenders) on the battlefield that was last season, but this is also the only outing here with which I struggle. Yes, I know it’s popular, but it’s so ridiculously unsubtle that the climactic Politically Correct show harms the sanctity of the characters, as some reverse-preaching damage control nearly takes precedent over logic.
03) Episode 136: “Reaper Madness” (Aired: 11/22/93)
Murphy’s friends help her through a fixation on death.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Regular readers of this blog know how attracted I am to installments that operate with a simple premise, for in the absence of knotty story entanglements, we get more time for breathable character moments. This offering is particularly Taxi-ish, with a premise that might be subtitled “variations on a theme,” as the script is constructed with Murphy visiting each of the regular cast members and discussing with them their thoughts about death and the afterlife. With the premise essentially being the topic of death, all the script has to do is motivate the dialogue through the established characterizations. Fortunately, this episode manages to do just that — and wonderfully too, with many really funny moments, particularly with proudly religious Corky.
04) Episode 137: “It’s Not Easy Being Brown” (Aired: 11/29/93)
Murphy’s publicist suggests she go on a children’s show.
Written by DeAnn Heline & Eileen Heisler | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Analogous to the first season’s finale (my MVE for the year), “Morning Show,” in which Murphy is plopped into an environment that’s completely foreign to her — where she has to be warmer and nicer — and fails spectacularly, this outing has Murphy appearing on a Sesame Street knock-off at the behest of her new publicist, played by Jane Carr (Dear John). The premise is inherently amusing and the execution doesn’t disappoint; however, in comparing this entry to that first season classic, one can see just how much the series has changed — for all its political problems of the past few years, the series really is troubled by the same issues facing all long-running shows: the unyielding broadening of the show’s chosen storytelling. More soon…
05) Episode 139: “Sox And The Single Girl” (Aired: 12/13/93)
Murphy accidentally absconds with the Clintons’ cat.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
I’ve always noted in this series of posts that Murphy Brown needed to use politics in its weekly stories because, while that wasn’t its whole identity (or even the most important part of its identity), it still was a fundamental component. After all, this is a workplace sitcom about newspeople living in the nation’s capital. Thus, any story that makes good use of the series’ environment is more connected to the core premise than those ideas that could be found in any other sitcom. In this regard, I appreciate that this installment centers its story around the First Family’s pet, Sox (or Socks), and unlike the similarly evocative “The Egg And I,” this entry actually boasts the necessary amount of humor in support of the ostentatious premise.
06) Episode 142: “The Deal Of The Art” (Aired: 01/17/94)
Murphy arranges an attack on modern art and a pair of its defenders.
Written by Lisa Albert | Directed by Lee Shallat
This is a particularly interesting episode in that it’s fairly atypical fare for this series — and not surprisingly, the script was penned by a freelancer, who didn’t contribute anything else to the show beyond this entry. The episode automatically gains recognition for the guest appearances of two wonderfully funny character actors, Harriet Sansom Harris and Ian Abercrombie, both of whom we see all over the place in sitcoms of this era (particularly on Frasier and Seinfeld, respectively). But the idea delights as well, for it taps into Murphy’s own impish irreverence for anything that she deems to be B.S. — in this case, modern art — and there’s much humor to be had when she attempts to prove her point in the outing’s ridiculous art show climax.
07) Episode 146: “The Fifth Anchor” (Aired: 03/07/94)
For a retrospective, Miles brings back one of the original hosts.
Written by Nell Scovell | Directed by Lee Shallat
Wallace Shawn makes the first of his four annual appearances in this episode as Stuart Best, the original fourth anchor of FYI whom his co-workers (Murphy, Jim, and Frank) quickly had fired. Like all of Shawn’s outings, the bulk of this installment’s appeal comes directly from the work of the guest actor himself and the ways in which he clearly aggravates the rest of the ensemble. There aren’t really any particular moments of extreme note, nor is this episode as electrically rendered or laudably brilliant as most of the others on this list, but it’s consistently crafted and represents the series focusing on the ensemble in the workplace, while delivering a level of quality that’s clearly an elevation from the inferior status quo we saw too often last week.
08) Episode 147: “Anything But Cured” (Aired: 03/14/94)
Frank leaves therapy and Murphy gets a great new secretary.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Lee Shallat
There’s no better way to introduce this episode than to note that it’s the one guest starring Marcia Wallace as Murphy’s new secretary, Carol, who used to work for a shrink in Chicago. Yes, this episode is one big in-joke about The Bob Newhart Show (covered here back in 2015), as Newhart himself shows up at the installment’s conclusion as the Bob Hartley character. Of course, it’s a delight to see them, and although the gag seems like one giant unnecessary gimmick, we’re in an age of television shows using an institutional knowledge of the medium as a source of both story and comedy, and since the results here are rewarding, there’s no need to complain. Also, the Newhart connection ties in nicely to the Frank-Murphy A-plot. Strong.
09) Episode 148: “The Tip Of The Silverberg” (Aired: 03/28/94)
Murphy accidentally gets a look at Miles’ privates.
Written by Nell Scovell & Rob Bragin | Directed by Lee Shallat
One of the funniest episodes of the season, this installment is once again predicated on a simple idea — one that we’ve actually seen (or rather, will see) on other sitcoms from around this time, like Friends — as Murphy accidentally sees Miles’ genitalia while helping him pick out new clothes. That’s all story stuff and it works reasonably well; the great stuff comes later as the rest of the office learns about the incident and can’t keep the laughter contained, as everything Miles says is a double entendre that reminds of the situation. Once again, it’s a very comedically charged entry — from conception — and the execution of these laughs is as worthwhile as we need them to be. A mild series classic and a sixth season hit; great for fans of Miles’ character.
10) Episode 149: “It’s Just Like Riding A Bike” (Aired: 05/02/94)
Peter comes back into town and consummates his relationship with Murphy.
Written by DeAnn Heline & Eileen Heisler | Directed by Lee Shallat
In my above seasonal commentary, I noted that there was one installment about the Murphy-Peter romance that was an exception to their otherwise substandard level of quality. It’s, of course, this outing, which surprisingly manages to be my pick for the best episode of the season. In addition to benefiting from the natural excitement that comes from the season having built to this development — Murphy and Peter sharing their first night together — the situation itself is so comedically inclined that we forgive shortcomings in the Peter character for the expert laughs being delivered, especially when they come from Murphy and what we know of her characterization. The bedroom scene, in which she can’t stop thinking of Harry Truman, is outstanding, topped only by the ensuing reveal to the rest of the staff, who comes over for the ritual car pool, that Murphy and Peter have just spent a night together. Nothing on this list is as comedically rewarding, and because it represents the sixth season (including the Peter arc) in the strongest way possible, it’s my MVE. (Also, this entry won Bergen her fourth Emmy.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Thrill Of The Hunt,” which first makes the mutual attraction shared by Murphy and Peter explicit (it has a few top notch moments, but generally isn’t spectacular), and “The Anchorman,” an amusing Jim-centric outing that was the closest to making the above list. Also, this strong(er) season features a bunch of outings that boast a single truly great scene, like “I Don’t Know You From Madam,” in which Murphy literally fights another reporter for a bag of garbage, “All The Life That’s Fit To Print,” which has an interesting story and a wonderful dream sequence in which Murphy imagines her contemporaries discussing her, “Crime Story,” which guest stars Barbara Billingsley and Tom Poston in a stellar scene in which Murphy meets with her neighbors, and “My Movie With Louis,” which has an ostentatious and not enjoyable premise, but guest stars Bergen’s real life husband as himself, and introduces Garry Marshall as the head of the network (and there’s a great scene where Murphy and Frank visit his office). Solid, all of ’em.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Murphy Brown goes to…..
“It’s Just Like Riding A Bike”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!