Some Brief Thoughts on the MURPHY BROWN Revival

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday, or a new Sitcom Tuesday on a Wildcard Wednesday! This week’s entry is something of a formality, for I promised several years ago that I would go back and cover the recent “reboots” of several ’90s series previously discussed on Sitcom Tuesdays — particularly Murphy Brown, Mad About You, and Will & Grace. So, after yesterday’s look at the return of Roseanne, where I shared some general thoughts on all of these revived efforts, I wanted to just officially dedicate a post to CBS’ 2018 13-episode run of Murphy Brown, which I’ve heretofore called the weakest of these four aforementioned “reboots.”

As noted, the central problem with this series is that it was initially built (in 1988) to be an ensemble workplace comedy in the MTM vein, but it sadly devolved — around Seasons Four and Five — into an unpleasantly political show, where stories and comedy were predicated on metatheatrical interactions with then-contemporary politicians (most notably, Vice President Dan Quayle). This took the emphasis away from the characters, and made the sitcommery far less satisfying, for the pre-established elements of the “situation” — again, the characters — were not the main source of value: the messages, in response to topical stimuli, were. The original series then spent the latter half of its run trying to move itself back towards a more ensemble, or character-based place, but it was never again able to do so as capably, in large part because the leads weren’t ever strong enough to sustain such figurative neglect. Thus, when I first heard that the 2018 revival’s entire raison d’être was spawned by the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, I knew that the new Murphy Brown was off on the wrong foot, leaning into the aspect of its identity that, essentially, accelerated its creative decline.

Now, I have to reiterate from my initial coverage that these characters’ ideologies are indeed part of who they are, especially in the Washington D.C.-set political news business, so there is room for politics as a means of fleshing out their personas and informing some of the narratives, but when entire episodes are literally built for ideas like “Murphy gets into a Twitter war with Donald Trump,” or “Murphy tells off Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” or “Murphy encounters ICE agents,” then it’s not really about the character of Murphy Brown; the laughs and stories are all designed to create opportunities for scripts — through “Murphy Brown” — to respond to current events and figures. Like a sketch series, or a late-night show. And, as we know, that’s not good situation comedy, for sitcoms should be about their pre-established elements, not topical externalities… which in this case, exist only in this world for self-righteous sermonizing that, frankly, is always predictable and uncomedic. Accordingly, it goes without saying that the new Murphy Brown ends up being just as unideal in terms of situation comedy as the fifth season of its original run, for the storytelling in the 2018 series is decidedly NOT character-driven, instead propelled by idea-led, often political gimmicks, from which it’s deriving way too much value.

Of course, as with all of these reboots, nostalgia is strongly enforced as well — particularly by the recurring appearances from Charles Kimbrough as Jim Dial, and the heavy involvement from the only other cast members joining Candice Bergen from the original series: Joe Regalbuto’s Frank, Faith Ford’s Corky, and Grant Shaud’s Miles — all of whom are just as funny as ever. In fact, if there’s anything positive to say about the 2018 version of Murphy Brown, it’s that all of those characterizations are better defined than they were in the first (and best) seasons of the first go-’round, for hindsight has crystallized their depictions and allowed their unique voices to settle inside a multi-camera format that, now, is maybe even jokier and more laugh-filled than it was during the ’90s. What’s more, most of the new characters — namely, Tyne Daly’s Phyllis and Nik Dodani’s Pat — are well-positioned themselves. Now, there is a bit of a divide between the old-timers and the younger players that really emphasizes just how, well, mature the majority of the cast is, creating a bit of dissonance when they try to tackle current events, as it feels try-hard — the grandparents trying to be “hip” — much more so than it did in the original run. But part of this is also because the show is mostly written by its former staffers, including creator Diane English, Tom Palmer, Norm Gunzenhauser, Gary Donzig & Steven Peterman, Tom Seeley, Marc Flanagan, and Russ Woody — and thus the aesthetic of this series doesn’t feel fresh… for better (nostalgia, continuity) or worse (predictability, clichés).

As for the characterizations, it’s a shame that, even though they seem well-defined, they’re not used to propel story. Most emblematic of this problem is Avery (Jake McDorman), Murphy’s grown-up son who’s now a reporter at a rival cable news channel… a conservative outlet imaginatively called “The Wolf Network.” Okay, if this reboot is going to use Murphy’s political ideology as a way to define her in story, then giving her an oppositional force within the regular ensemble is a great way to do that, for it creates a character/relationship conduit for these nevertheless unideal ideas, thereby giving them some situationally approved support. Heck, that’s exactly what Norman Lear did on All In The Family — creating strong characters with rich relationships that could then foster and give emotional depth to his sociopolitical arguments. But, unfortunately, Murphy Brown decides not to have Avery actually be a conservative foe. Instead, he’s merely the token liberal at the conservative network, which means that he and his mom have very little to be in conflict about — even the notion that they’re timeslot competition is never maximized for drama — and that means there’s no character-based tension arising from the choice to have Avery work at “The Wolf Network.” It’s just an excuse for English and her crew to make jokes about Fox that validate this show’s ideological bent and misguided reason for existence. In other words, it’s idea-driven. Not character-driven.

Another thing that’s interesting about this revival is what it picks and chooses to exclude from the original — the most glaring omission being the whole relationship saga of Corky and Miles, who, here, are rendered as if they never were together. Regardless of whether you think their pairing was a good choice or not, additional relational history between these leads could have been fodder for story that better centralized their depictions. That is, it’d be smart to lean into an already known (and complicated) relationship, both for continuity, and for story that is more rooted in these pre-established elements, which should be inspiring all the comedy and drama. But, once again, that’s par for Murphy Brown’s course — ignoring character opportunities for cheap idea-based rewards that are gimmicky at best and damaging at worst. In fact, because so much of the reboot’s 13-episode run is dominated by this kind of storytelling, I can’t pick a list of favorites. The only non-idea-led entry that’s actually somewhat comedic and employs narratives that emphasize the characters is the seventh aired, “A Lifetime Of Achievement,” in which Jim is honored with an award and the crew goes to the ceremony, where Avery worries about his mom meeting his new girlfriend, Murphy flirts with a judge, Corky reignites her rivalry with Katie Couric, Miles learns Pat is gay, and Jim is uncomfortable on his first date with Phyllis. Those are all character concerns. Not politics. Not familiar jokes about Trump or Fox News. Actual situation comedy…. I wish there was more of that in the new Murphy Brown, for the original series, especially in those early years (One, Two, and Three), had so much potential.



Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for 2019’s Mad About You!