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, and GRANT SHAUD as Miles Silverberg. PAT CORLEY recurs as Phil, with CHRISTOPHER RICH as Miller Redfield.
After a middling seventh season that failed to further the creative upswing fostered in the sixth, Season Eight sees the series continuing its descent – despite an attempted rejuvenation. While the series’ one-time Executive Producer John Bowman (who had never worked on Murphy Brown prior to assuming this top position) drops down to a consultant, the year finds the writers with the most seniority — Saltzman and Diamond, who came aboard at the tail end of the fifth season, along with Bragin, the hit-maker who joined in the sixth — taking a crack at steering the figurative ship, hoping to give the show a better year than the, at best, good-but-not-great one that came before. Meanwhile, additional reinforcement was provided in the form of Korby Siamis, who worked on the series for its first six seasons and returned here as another consultant, giving the show a credible connection to its palpably superior origins. With this team, along with a sweep of new folks in the writers’ room, the season positioned itself for a fresh start, making the best of its available resources and ready to breathe new life into the aging series. Unfortunately, we find the old problems of story-over-character persist — and to an overwhelming degree — although, unlike last season, the issue isn’t Murphy; she’s solid and consistently defined, spared of the inorganic vacillation between earnest narrative-driven relationship developments and caricatured mania in weekly stories, both of which dogged her in Season Seven (for which Bergen, surprisingly, won a fifth Emmy). The problem now exists for the ensemble at large, as most of the characters become not only party to story-heavy hijinks in which their characterizations play the figurative second fiddle – a problem we’ve seen the show grapple with for a while – but they also find their depictions varying based on the chosen happenings. And worse: the characters each devolve into a succession of different one-note portrayals, hampering their believabilities and our faith in their consistencies.
Although a good season for Murphy usually means a good season for the show, she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; as the wannabe Mary Tyler Moore successor, Murphy Brown’s ensemble has always been vital, and while plagued by whatever problems the show was currently having, the cast has not been the issue. Here in Season Eight, the extent to which they are defined by the year’s problems makes the above distinction more difficult to recognize, even though, as usual, the core issue remains elsewhere: story. Since Day One, English designed this show in such a way that, while revering character, there were always too many Victories In Premise, where comedic ideas had episodic precedence – not the characters. (We’ll see this unideal design even in better written shows… like Seinfeld, coming up here at the end of the month.) So this isn’t a new or unique issue, and as has been usual with Murphy Brown, it generally stands this year that if you like a story, you’ll like the episode, because that’s the foundation upon which so much of what we see here is built. However, what makes Season Eight’s storytelling less excusable than its predecessors’ is the increased reliance on narrative gimmicks – the two most repeated examples being stunt casting and serialization. To the first point, an appearance by John F. Kennedy, Jr., or Elizabeth Taylor does nothing for the show’s characters or its sense of humor. (The audience may scream and the network may squeal, but I’ll forever be waiting for the character-driven laughs.) An extension of this problem is the year’s heavy usage of Garry Marshall as Lansing, the network president, and Paul Reubens as his scheming nephew Andrew. They’re both broad, monopolize their scenes, and come packaged to heavy story – a little of each goes a long way — and their inclusions, aimed to give the series new meat on which it can figuratively chew, appeal only situationally – when an episode has other ample charms on which is can depend.
In terms of the year’s reliance on serialization, there are three big arcs designed to open up new story avenues – and when I say that they’re serialized, I really mean semi-serialized, as the stories themselves are episodic, but the exploration of the developments aren’t (this is the most common and healthiest kind of sitcom serialization). Now, regular readers know that I consider this a gimmick that isn’t inherently character-driven unless it can actually prove the point. In each case, I’m not thoroughly convinced. The first arc is the sudden marriage of Miles and Corky, whose attraction to one another, despite making actual sense, was half-heartedly concocted last season and therefore not a total success. The same general problem persists here — for in spite of the narrative contrivance of a sudden marriage, the possibility for character exploration does exist. And yet, with very few exceptions, none of these opportunities are capitalized upon in a worthwhile way, for their dynamic is so tied-up in story that the development never asserts itself as being anything other than Writer-Imposed. Meanwhile, the second serialized arc, and the one that most consumes the year, has Jim departing FYI for a small news program following a stand-off with CBS regarding an exposé of the Tobacco Industry that the network has squashed due to fear of a lawsuit. Aside from making use of the show’s newsroom setting and the series’ never-quelled need for social relevance (which is wisely apolitical now), nothing is actually provided from this ostentatious story beyond the bait-and-switch departure of Miles at the end of this year (when Jim returns). These episodes aim to be good for the characters (especially Jim’s), but they’re too concerned with the narrative dramatics and story maneuverings. Worse: they’re laugh-starved, falsely believing the nobleness of the journalistic pursuit justifies comedic inferiority. (Psst. This is a sitcom. We need laughs.)
The third “arc,” if you will, is another attempt to give the tired series a whole new angle, but despite both functional obviousness and a story-heavy development, the results are more rewarding. I’m writing of the decision to pair Murphy in a new show alongside the airheaded Miller Redfield (Christopher Rich), the annual guest whose recurring presence last year bolstered the show’s laugh quotient, making him an easy holdover. This new show is the justification for Miller’s continued presence – which proves doubly helpful once the Jim arc is enacted and a replacement is needed. The reason these episodes work well, when they can be wrested from unfunny story machinations, is that they play up the relationship between Miller and Murphy, who understandably can’t stand her new co-star, yielding anticipated humor. Furthermore, Miller is a comedically broad character designed for big, obvious laughs, which means that when he’s put alongside Murphy, she doesn’t have to engage in some of the cartoony yuk-seeking behaviors of years past; she’s allowed to remain within her characterization, piercing Miller with her motivated, believable lack of respect for him. It’s the funniest, least contrived development to arise out of the eighth season, and even though our emotional investment is far greater with the others than with him, earned character laughs – from both Miller and Murphy – make him valuable. And yet, in the grand scheme of Murphy Brown, Season Eight is less about content than it is symbolism: the finale’s departure of Grant Shaud marks the end of Murphy Brown‘s ability to pretend that it’s even close to the same show it was in ’90, the year it won its first Emmy as Outstanding Comedy Series. A wrap here would have been respectable, but Bergen and CBS wanted more. So the only hope for any creative renaissance now requires an even bigger shake-up. It will come… but will it help? That’s for next week. In the meantime, I have 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 Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 181: “Murphy’s Law” (Aired: 10/09/95)
Murphy is assigned to community service after a traffic violation.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Peter Bonerz
I hate having to start off this list with one of the weaker entries here, but c’est la vie. I think this is a story-driven installment with humor too situational to be enjoyed alongside others that find more of their figurative meat and potatoes in the characters. However, the reason for its inclusion here is actually due to the characters — specifically, Murphy, who in spite of the ostentatious story, actually exists within a more grounded, relatable, and connected-to-her-roots presentation than many of the similarly designed episodes from last season. So, for this entry’s ability to use Murphy in a way that’s comedic and believable inside the story into which it wants to shoehorn her, I actually consider it a veritable success — by this year’s standards.
02) Episode 182: “Sex Or Death” (Aired: 10/16/95)
Miles is caught between Murphy and Corky, with whom he wants to consummate his marriage.
Written by David Sacks | Directed by Peter Bonerz
This is probably the only offering on today’s list (and by proxy, from the entire season) that makes good use of Miles, Corky, and the storyline they’re supposed to be exploring. After deciding to go back to dating following a hasty marriage in the season premiere, the time has finally come for them to be physically intimate — plenty of laughs from this scenario, right? Well, the situation is complicated by a news story that Miles has promised to both Murphy and Corky, and he’s afraid if he gives the story to the former, he will be denied his conjugal privileges. And if he gives the story to Corky, then he faces Murphy’s wrath. (Hence the title.) It’s among the year’s most comedic and uses the natural arcs effectively. No qualifiers needed.
03) Episode 183: “Miller’s Crossing” (Aired: 10/23/95)
Murphy loses an interview on her new show to Miller.
Written by Alana Burgi & Marsha Myers
The strength of this episode exists within the dynamic between Murphy and Miller, both of whom have been paired in a new weekly show (courtesy of Andrew Lansing’s manipulations). So, as with the above, this installment already gains points for being able to connect to some of the season long arcs and being able to do so satisfyingly. In this case (and most cases), “satisfyingly” means believably and with an appropriate amount of humor; I find that episodes with a lot of Miller are generally able to do both handily, for he’s not only a comedic presence — especially when paired with Murphy — but the juxtaposition of the two characters brings out great definition for each, and that’s the case here in this strong showing for both.
04) Episode 184: “The Feminine Critique” (Aired: 10/30/95)
FYI visits Murphy’s alma mater.
Written by Michael Saltzman | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
An episode that works essentially in spite of itself, this offering suffers from being both too self-knowing and too prone to extremes — particularly in the scene in which Murphy and Corky sit in on a women’s studies class. But the show’s attempts to reconcile its own feminist identity alongside a broadly situated claim that feminism has changed (perhaps an excuse to explain why they’ve been creatively struggling?) feels very self-serving — made only less enjoyable by the cartoony writing afforded to the entire sequence, undermining any potential integrity. The real strength of this outing exists in the scene that the ensemble shares in Murphy’s old dorm room where they talk about life; it’s simple and focused on the characters.
05) Episode 186: “The Ten Percent Solution” (Aired: 11/13/95)
Murphy signs with Jim’s agent, sparking a rivalry.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Although I find this to be an interesting premise that promises strong potential moments for the characters (and indeed delivers them), I’m frankly disheartened by the show’s gimmicky use of The McLaughlin Group as the setting for the comedic centerpiece, for this perfectly embodies this season’s misplaced focus on gimmicks to distract from the places it should be finding the bulk of both its story and its laughs. However, despite my dislike of the episode’s design on principle, I actually think the teleplay does a fairly good job of keeping it focused on the characters — Murphy and Jim — and ensuring that its gaze always remains on them. Additionally, the show functions well when it riffs on TV, so McLaughlin is excusable.
06) Episode 187: “The Humboldt Doldt” (Aired: 11/20/95)
Miller wins a Humboldt but doesn’t thank the staff who helped him.
Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
Functioning a lot like the other Miller episode highlighted above, this installment once again takes its success from the comedic usage of Miller and the way he’s pitted against, not just Murphy, but the entire FYI staff, after he wins an award for a story that they all broke and developed for him at the last minute (and on Miles’ behest). It’s already a fine plot that makes use of the characters, their relationships, and story structures (the Humboldt awards) that have been previously established. But the real laughs come into play when the staff eagerly awaits Murphy’s retaliation against Miller, which eventually comes when the two of them are on the air; it’s somewhat predictable, but nevertheless satisfying and amusing. Memorable.
07) Episode 188: “Dick And Dottie” (Aired: 11/27/95)
Murphy is forced to apologize to a perky daytime talk show host.
Written by Bill Diamond | Directed by Peter Bonerz
My choice for the strongest episode of the season, this outing has the most laughs, the most rewarding depiction of Murphy’s character, and the best utilization of the show’s television industry premise. In a clear parody of Regis And Kathie Lee, this offering has Fred Willard (Dick) and Shelley Long (Dottie) playing daytime talk show hosts — the latter of whom gets into a rivalry with our title character following a comment that Murphy made on TV. After Murphy’s goaded into an apology, Dottie believes that the two are friends, only to be taken aback when she finds ketchup on the back of her white pantsuit (from an accident), which reignites the feud and leads to an on-air contretemps between Murphy and the terminally cheerful Dottie. Long is great in this role — it’s a less intellectual, even more optimistic Diane — and the laughs, particularly from Murphy, are first-rate. And adding to the starry cast (in keeping with this season’s cameo trend) is Dom DeLuise playing himself. Closest to a classic.
08) Episode 192: “Old Flames” (Aired: 02/05/96)
Murphy dreams that Peter puts her on trial for her past relationship misdeeds.
Written by Rob Bragin | Directed by Peter Bonerz
With a high-concept premise that reminds a lot of the 1941 musical Lady In The Dark (which is one of my favorites — covered here many years ago in Musical Theatre Monday’s initial Ripe for Revival series), this installment sees the return of Peter Hunt, and a lengthy dream sequence in which he puts her on trial for all of the crimes she’s committed in her past relationships. All her old flames are there — Jake (her ex-husband and baby daddy), Jerry Gold (played by former Love & War star Jay Thomas), and Mitchell (her boss — the, gasp, black, one). It’s clearly gimmicky by design, but this is a gimmick that is actually the easiest to forgive, because it’s entirely dependent on her character and these relationships. So it’s got the right idea.
09) Episode 196: “All Singing! All Dancing! All Miserable!” (Aired: 03/04/96)
Murphy is in charge of coordinating the annual Press-capades musical revue.
Written by Adolphus Spriggs | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
Oh, look — another gimmicky episode! Who’s guest starring this time? Newt Gingrich, Paula Zahn, Wolf Blitzer. (Need I say more?… I will anyway.) This ostentatious episode is another one whose existence I dislike on principle, even though actually, the excursion itself is pretty hilarious. While I’m generally against the guest stars, the idea of Murphy putting on a musical revue for journalists as they spoof present politics is both humorously conceived and perfect for the series’ identity. Furthermore, the teleplay makes time for a lot of great little bits — like Murphy’s desire to play Hillary Clinton in a sketch she’s written about the president — and the hysterical musical number that Miles and Corky put together as the Gores. A time capsule.
10) Episode 197: “The Bus Stops Here” (Aired: 03/11/96)
The team’s bus breaks down while on the way to a primary campaign stop.
Written by Marsha Myers & Alana Burgi | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Along with the first episode on today’s list, this last entry is another whose position here was among the least assured. While I had issues with the former’s story, this installment suffers from being a little too forgettable (in comparison to the flashier entries being highlighted above). But I actually appreciate the premise of this entry — it’s related to current politics without being too wrapped up in any messaging (and thus, a good fit for the show), and manages to be a strong showing for the ensemble. Also, I tend to like that this is a relatively quieter outing than a lot of the competition, and that’s a rarity for this season. So although this is far from a classic, by this year’s standards, it’s easily passable (and better than the honorable mentions below).
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “All In The Family,” likable only for the guest appearance of Jean Stapleton as Miles’ grandmother, “My Fair Miller,” a solid story for Miller and Jim that was the closest to making the list, “Trick Or Retreat,” which suffers from the gaudy cameo by Elizabeth Taylor and the teleplay that uses a story we’ve already seen (the crew goes on a team-building retreat), the season premiere “Altered States,” which has to deal with heavy Miles/Corky story stuff and drops in an unearned-but-memorable cameo by JFK, Jr., and two of the three Andrew Lansing (Paul Reubens) shows, in which he overwhelms the otherwise fair stories: “The Awful Truth” and “When A. Lansing Loves A Woman.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Murphy Brown goes to…..
“Dick And Dottie”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the ninth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!