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, JOE REGALBUTO as Frank Fontana, GRANT SHAUD as Miles Silverberg, and PAT CORLEY as Phil. SCOTT BAKULA recurs as Peter Hunt, with PAULA CALE as McGovern.
Following a sixth season that managed to be the only year aside from the second to actually improve upon its predecessor, Season Seven of Murphy Brown once again sees the series on the descent. With Siamis, Dontzig, and Peterman, the creative architects who’d been around since the beginning of the series and took over for English once she left for Love & War, departing themselves, this season finds the show entirely in the hands of writers who’ve each individually spent less than a year-and-a-half on Murphy Brown (including Co-EPs Diamond and Saltzman, whose first script came very late in Season Five, and Elaine Pope, fresh from Love & War), along with an entirely new executive producer overseeing the creative operations (Martin’s John Bowman). Their collectively diminished understanding of the characters — in spite of comedic ideas and/or the ability to turn out a decent script (as we saw last year) — proves corrosive, as the season suffers from a narrative-focused form of storytelling in which characterizations are subjugated in favor of weekly plots or semi-serialized arcs: a problem that Murphy Brown has always had, but previously been better able to hide or alleviate. We’ll discuss more of the year’s aesthetic particulars in a figurative moment. First, within our broader framework, it’s necessary to note this descent – the one that began between Seasons Six and Seven – as the slope that will continue throughout the next two years and ultimately prove fatal in shaping our overwhelming conception of the series’ quality. In other words, if the series’ inconsistent enjoyability is to be considered a deadly flaw, then this season, by not being able to match the nature of its “return to form” forebear, becomes recognized as the first confirmation of its weakened “big picture” standing, for it proves the fifth year wasn’t an anomaly; this lower quality has staying power.
Of course, Murphy Brown’s political reputation (which many believe is its prime flaw) had been cemented as a result of its encounter with Dan Quayle in early Season Five, during which the show’s ability to entertain was greatly reduced. But if the series had been better able to disassociate itself from Season Five – not just in tone, but also in quality – then charges of politicization would have had a better chance of losing their sting; because Murphy Brown can’t even maintain a higher quality, it isn’t able to redeem itself from any prior complaints. Season Seven, therefore, is the beginning of the very-drawn-out end. To this end, it may be a surprise to note that Candice Bergen won her fifth of five Emmys for playing Murphy Brown following this year of work. In past weeks, we’ve noticed that a good season for the character generally means a good season for the actress (because the two are inseparable), explaining most Bergen wins as, really, wins for the character. Yet here in Season Seven, it’s difficult to make the same argument, for one of the year’s most troublesome facets is its usage of Murphy, whose characterization is forced to contend with broader and more comedically high-octane beats, within inevitably less character-driven stories. As we’ve seen, Bergen, who has come to embody Brown in total, can’t motivate radical ham-fisted swings in temperament that are based upon the demands of the weekly narrative. Furthermore, when she plays broad or overly manic, Murphy becomes an unlikable pest, lacking the logical accelerant that justifies the switch, making it palatable — and, ultimately, when Bergen can’t pull something off, that means, as far as we’re concerned, that it wasn’t right for her character. But while Bergen’s last win – on the start of this fatal descent – seems to make no sense, the aforementioned characterization struggles are really part of a trend to have the show become more comedically robust.
That is, while Murphy Brown has never been a consistently hysterical property – only earning guffaws when the characterizations can transcend English’s imposed comedic handicaps – this new wave of writers, in a manner more overt than the prior wave (which “came of age” under English), wants to turn the show into a powerhouse of funny, rightly recognizing that, as a sitcom, earning big laughs is the main end goal and the only one that can justify the means used to get there. Yet, as usual, English’s utilization of character shackles the writing, even without her presence, to a form of comedy that can’t handle the broadness typically packaged to these laugh-abundant intentions. So the yearly mission misses its target as much as it hits it – albeit, nobly, for the recognizable obstacles that predate these writers, who only want to make the show better, has us wanting to be more forgiving… like when the season, during and after a midterm election, flirts with the idea of getting political again. Now, since none of these current writers were around in the fall of ’92, they don’t quite know the extent to which the show has struggled with the projection of a perceived agenda – and unlike last year’s leaders, they also don’t know how to “own” this reputation and use it for their benefit. So, while attempting to connect with this minimized part of the series’ identity, these green scribes tiptoe around old problems – more-than-hinting at a bias, but seldom getting preachy, and refocusing the political topicality within the year’s broad laugh-driven mission statement – using the politics for laughs. Again, the results are hit-and-miss, neither hurting or helping the show’s quality – nor truly connecting it to the destructive political reputation of years past. If anything, this development merely reinforces the show’s perhaps troublesome use of topical jokes and dated references… the kind to which some 21st century audiences can no longer passively relate, hampering their enjoyment.
But even more than increased topicality or elevated attempts at hilarity, I think Season Seven ends up ultimately being defined by the half-serialized arcs, structural changes, and story-heavy premises that make the year, even more than its many Victory-In-Premise filled antecessors, a narrative-driven enterprise in which the characterizations play second fiddle to requirements imposed by either the weekly episodic plots or the larger seasonal arcs. Although this represents a functional problem (character should be paramount – the only viable tool for getting the desired big laughs), not everything in this narrative-driven category is bad. Let’s start with some big structural changes – casting. Eldin departs the series early in the year after Robert Pastorelli scores the lead in a new Diane English series, the short-lived Double Rush (1995, CBS). As a poorly integrated member of the ensemble, the show, which had already become myopically office-based following the disastrous Year of Baby, doesn’t miss him. (At first, it seems like Anne Meara as Eldin’s mother will become his replacement, but despite being set up as a potential recurring character, we only see her twice.) Meanwhile, the workplace finds itself expanding towards the end of the season, as Christopher Rich’s Miller Redfield comes back in a recurring capacity to bolster the laughs (which he does) and complicate the Corky/Miles development (which he also does), and the show introduces McGovern (Paula Cale), a single-dimensional parody of MTV’s Kennedy — designed to open up the aging shows (both FYI and MB) to a more youthful affiliation. As you can guess, one works (and stayed on); one doesn’t (and didn’t). Additionally, there’s more of Garry Marshall as the network president, whose presence feeds into the show’s broadening trend – again, working only situationally.
As for the seasonal arcs, the show continues Murphy’s relationship with the recurring Peter Hunt (Scott Bakula). The year ends with her illogically agreeing to marriage and then logically changing her mind – an unnecessary and soapy development that nevertheless eases Bakula out of the series and ends the two-year Peter arc, which wasn’t great for laughs, but gave Murphy a personal dimension that could be independent of the politicized tot. More interesting than Murphy/Peter, meanwhile, is the romance that starts to develop between Miles and Corky. Now, a series’ late-in-life pairing of two original cast members is a tried-and-true gimmick that can’t be called anything else. However, to the writers’ credit, if they were to pick any two characters for coupling, they chose the best – and perhaps, only viable – pair, for the duo truly has chemistry, and based on interactions of the past, doesn’t seem to be a terribly forced romantic combination. Yet, a big problem with this development – which never works or does for the series what it theoretically could – is that the plotting is a mess, with the pair developing feelings for one another early in the year but not actually uniting until, predictably, its conclusion, following a few clichéd and half-hearted obstacles (of which Miller is the most effective). Even worse: the season only addresses their feelings in fits-and-starts, when the weekly narrative demands them. Thus, aside from the believability problem that stems from the lack of continuity regarding this pending development, the romance is only used for story — not for character – and represents the very issue that defines not just the series, but this year especially… But still, we’re not yet in devastating territory; so on this semi-positive note, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 152: “Brown Vs. The Board Of Education” (Aired: 09/19/94)
Murphy tries to impress the board members of a prestigious pre-school.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Peter Bonerz
With the baby being seen as one of the reasons for the series’ obvious decline in quality, both this season and the one prior have seen a significant underplaying of Murphy as mother to Avery. This is good for the audience’s ability to be legitimately amused, but questionable for the title character, who found more humanity as a result of the baby — a development that goes into remission when he is pushed into the background. This installment, which is otherwise story-driven and unspectacular (and only here because this is Season Seven, not, for instance, Season Three) benefits from its utilization of Murphy being proactive for her kid, which helps support some of the story’s too-broad strokes and the script’s mediocre edges.
02) Episode 154: “Loose Affiliations” (Aired: 10/03/94)
Murphy is punished for badmouthing the network’s new line-up.
Written by Elaine Pope & John Bowman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Here we have one of those episodes that works for the first three-quarters of its run, only to derail in the last few minutes with a gag that’s too far beneath any series that wants to claim that it’s intelligent and character-driven. I’m thinking of the show’s use of a monkey and its upstaging of Murphy at an affiliates event. This is one of the lowest moments in the entire series. (Did these folks learn nothing from mid-era Here’s Lucy?) However, before this climactic sequence, this episode delights with a premise that makes fun of the television industry and features jokes that actually work because they’ll never not be relevant. We also get to see more of Garry Marshall’s character, introduced last season. Very funny — until it’s not.
03) Episode 160: “Prelude To A Kiss” (Aired: 11/14/94)
Corky and Miles have different perceptions of a shared dinner.
Written by Bill Diamond | Directed by Alan Rafkin
I suppose this is an important episode for the series’ overall narrative trajectory, for it first introduces the idea of Miles and Corky as romantic partners — an arc with which, as expressed above, I’m willing to get on board. Both this script and, I’d argue, the entire series unconsciously thus far, have made a great case for their compatibility, so any qualms I might ordinarily have about the contrivances necessary to get these characters intertwined are considerably relaxed. And again, because the premise is relationship-driven, it’s more interested in the characters than a lot of the season’s other non-highlighted entries. It’s not hysterical, and I have problems with Murphy’s depiction, but for Corky and Miles, this outing is well-executed.
04) Episode 164: “The Best-And-Not-So-Brightest” (Aired: 01/02/95)
Former FYI regular Stuart Best has been elected to Congress.
Written by Michael Saltzman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
This episode is the season’s most directly political, and as expected, it therefore contends with proven dangerous subject matter. While connected to the series’ premise, this popular outing is nevertheless the one with which I struggle most on today’s list — because, although the show only uses the politics in this entry for the procurement of laughs (chiefly through the comedic presence of Wallace Shawn’s Stuart Best, who was introduced last season), the year’s broadening humor makes the comedic climax — the exposition of Stuart as being beholden to extreme lobbyists (the partisan nature of which reveals a bias) — a stretch to common sense. The outing’s inclusion here involves a noted reduction in my standards regarding logic.
05) Episode 165: “Rumble In The Alley” (Aired: 01/09/95)
Murphy has Peter set Frank up on a blind date.
Written by Bill Barol | Directed by Peter Bonerz
For a script written by a freelancer, Bill Barol (best known for contributing to Anything But Love), this excursion is one of the most enjoyable of the entire season, with character exploration the top priority. In addition to the ongoing evolution of the Murphy/Peter dynamic, which is clearly building to something greater in time for May Sweeps, the outing also continues the Miles/Corky situation, which had been strangely back-burnered since its introduction. Additionally, there’s some fine material for Frank, both as Murphy tries to get him to be closer to Peter, but also in an odd double date with one of Peter’s old flames, played by Leann Hunley (whom we’ve been discussing on our Dynasty posts). Fresh and well-designed. A hit.
06) Episode 166: “Requiem For A Crew Guy” (Aired: 01/16/95)
Murphy is asked to eulogize a crew member she doesn’t remember.
Written by Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Candice Bergen won her fifth and final Emmy award as Murphy Brown for her work in this episode, which is narratively reminiscent of a first season entry in which Murphy is asked to give the eulogy of a journalist she despised. In this installment, the gang plays a practical joke on Murphy, culminating in her having to give the eulogy for a crew member whom she refuses to admit she doesn’t remember — not knowing that he doesn’t actually exist. It’s a bit story-heavy, as are all of these prank episodes (and there’s another entry like this in Season Seven), but it connects to a consistent part of Murphy’s personality — her general disregard for anyone she doesn’t deem important. I think the Season One outing is better, but this works well too.
07) Episode 169: “A Rat’s Tale” (Aired: 02/13/95)
FYI moves to a new studio and contends with a rat.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Although the show’s move to a new studio seems like both a futile attempt to serve as a revamp to the aging Murphy Brown (with the introduction of McGovern, two episodes later, being another) and then a purely story-driven decision for the climax (because the scene requires a window), this is a surprisingly entertaining excursion. With guest appearances from past Sitcom Tuesday regulars David Garrison (of Married… With Children) and John Ratzenberger (of Cheers) — the latter as an exterminator — this debatably conceived installment becomes especially memorable. As for my enjoyment, I appreciate that Murphy, though engaged in broader behaviors, is otherwise in character the whole time. Another hit for Bragin, the year’s MVP.
08) Episode 170: “It’s Miller Time” (Aired: 02/20/95)
Miles splits his time with another news show, which features Miller Redfield.
Written by Michael Saltzman | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Christopher Rich’s Miller Redfield, whom we haven’t seen since he and Corky almost had a liaison in Season Four, returns in this episode, ostensibly as a cast member in the new show that Miles is producing, The Next Wave. But as we quickly see, he’s really going to be a pawn in the year’s sudden ratcheting up of its half-hearted Corky/Miles rom-com angle. Although I usually find such manipulations not worth praising, the Miller character is good for comedy and has always been well-defined — and while none of his episodes have been featured here in the past, I consider him one of the best of the series’ recurring presences, and it was therefore a smart decision to use him as part of this storyline as opposed to an ill-conceived new character.
09) Episode 172: “The Good Nephew” (Aired: 03/13/95)
Murphy’s new secretary is fiercely loyal — too fiercely.
Written by Bill Diamond | Directed by Alan Rakin
Paul Reubens, forever remembered as Pee-wee Herman, guest stars in this episode as Garry Marshall’s character’s nephew, whom Murphy reluctantly takes on as her new secretary. Of course, in the appropriately comedic twist, Reubens’ character turns out to be the best secretary Murphy’s ever had, with a competency and sense of loyalty that drives him to go above and beyond in his attempts to please her, sometimes at the expense of others. The script, like so many here, isn’t phenomenal, but the entry easily works as a result of both the amusing premise, which clicks because of the turnaround rooted in the series’ history, and the casting of Reubens, who is great in the role and has a nice chemistry with Bergen. His best outing.
10) Episode 173: “FYI Of The Hurricane” (Aired: 03/20/95)
Murphy thinks she’s pregnant while the crew is on assignment in Florida.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Peter Bonerz
My choice for the best episode of the season, this entry benefits from being designed as the oft-mentioned miniature one-act, with the bulk of the action taking place in a tiny Florida hotel room, where the FYI staff (in a bit of a contrivance) along with Peter and Miller, have been sent to cover a hurricane. With all of these characters in the same place at the same time, the episode is allowed to play with the relationships (like the triangle between Miles, Corky, and Miller) and focus specifically on how the players can be bounced off one another for organic story points and deserved laughs (just as it should be every week). The episode is also decidedly focused on an in-character Murphy, who is concerned she may be pregnant again — a comedic development that reinforces the show’s best known storyline, delivers moments of great humor for each member of the ensemble, and allows the show to further the Peter/Murphy storyline.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Be Careful What You Wish For,” which is a solid Corky story, “The Secret Life Of Jim Dial,” which is a solid Jim entry, along with “Reporters Make Strange Bedfellows,” a focused outing that utilizes the combative similarities between Murphy and Peter for a tight story that I wish was more unpredictable, “Model Relationships,” which guest stars Vendela as herself and continues the year’s two big romantic arcs, and “Make Room For Daddy,” which works in the moments when it’s just characters relating (and has some really funny moments with Miller especially).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Murphy Brown goes to…..
“FYI Of The Hurricane”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!