Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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 LILY TOMLIN as Kay Carter-Shepley. HALEY JOEL OSMENT recurs as Avery Brown.
Well, we’ve finally reached the tenth and final season of Murphy Brown, and following the continued qualitative descent we’ve tracked over the past few weeks, this year feels like the best we’ve seen in a while. After all, in the history of Murphy Brown, I’ve posited that there’ve only been two other years that improved upon their direct predecessors, disrupting what’s otherwise been a straightforward downward slope – the second, which I believe is the strongest (when character knowingness met novelty), and the sixth, which took pains to reverse course after a disastrously unenjoyable and problematically political fifth season that came during the peak of the series’ popularity and, sadly, got to define its post-run reputation – of being both “dated” and “good-but-not-great.” One of the primary themes that I wanted to explore in coverage of Murphy Brown – mostly because, while I love the series in spite of its flaws, I needed some kind of angle to help contextualize my otherwise harsh, unrelenting critiques – is the reasons why the series hasn’t stayed as popular as its other long-running sitcom contemporaries. For instance, Married… With Children (which we’ve just covered), left the FOX airwaves in 1997 after an 11-season run — but it remains beloved by a large fan base. Of course, this is both because and why the series, unlike Murphy Brown, is heavily syndicated and can be purchased in full on DVD. Ditto for Seinfeld (coverage of which begins next week), which ran for nine seasons and also concluded, like Murphy Brown, in the spring of ’98. Now, it may seem odd to compare Seinfeld to Murphy Brown from our current vantage point – one is often credited as a classic, and the other seldom is – but they’re contemporaries, and, actually, the latter was recognized twice by the Television Academy as the Outstanding Comedy, while Seinfeld only got that honor once. (Okay, that’s not exactly a fair metric; Frasier proved to be a durable dynamo — stay tuned for January 2018…) So whatever happened to the, at the very least, once popular Murphy Brown?
While many contemporary critics have decried Murphy Brown’s topicality – both political and general – as the series’ primary deterrent, I’ve tried to use these posts (especially the last few years’, which were below the typical Sitcom Tuesday level) to examine why quality may be the superseding interest-killing factor. In this study, we’ve seen how the writing was affected by the topicality, which represented the most ostentatious example of a long-time faulty reliance on non-character centric motifs: a quality-based concern. You see, I believe, by itself, topicality – which locks an episode into a specific time and place – doesn’t have to be a problem. That is, it’s one thing to make a Dan Quayle joke and ask 25 years later that confused viewers Google the name. They’ll make the effort if they deem it worthwhile. It’s another thing to make a Dan Quayle joke in an episode that’s sanctimonious, unfunny, and not driven by character. Too often, Murphy Brown did the latter – specifically at a moment when, thanks to both Quayle and the show’s own political sensibilities, most of the country was watching. And, sadly, the series’ quality never truly recovered; Season Six proved an anomalous respite, but it’s been downhill ever since… well, until now. Here, even though the figurative horse is already out of its stable on the series’ general quality, this last year is an improvement over the few that came before, allowing the series to go out with more dignity than it would have, for instance, in ’97. It’s not reputation-saving, but it’s worth some celebration. However, I also think it’s easy to overpraise the season simply for being an improvement, and while I do intend to be positive, that’s only after it’s first understood that this is in relation to Murphy Brown’s back half, and not its first. In other words, we’re not close to where we were in the first handful of seasons – too much figurative water under the figurative bridge and all that; frankly, what’s good about Murphy Brown’s final season is good because we’ve seen the show be a lot worse. And because increased effort has yielded something positive in return, I’m more willing to see the good. It’s something.
The main thing the year offers, and the reason people who appreciate the final season do so, is a narrative focus: Murphy’s battle with breast cancer, a storyline with dramatic substance that is topical and socially relevant without being politicized or alienating to some based on its partisan point-of-view. Now, I think many viewers tend to overstate the benefits of a serialized arc (and this season begins with perhaps the most serialization the show has ever seen, as Murphy is diagnosed and begins treatment) without adjudicating a story’s appropriateness for and utilization of character; narrative constructs alone are not enough to propel quality storytelling – that has to come from character. In fact, too much story often serves as a distraction from both character and comedy, meaning that while a plot itself may be captivating, it can’t fulfill a series’ principle objectives in a healthy, sustainable way. In the case of this season’s use of serialization, I think it is actually decent for several reasons, including that the past few years were relatively aimless; there’d been an increase in narrative serialization, but not since Season Six decided to steer away from the baby by supplanting him with Peter Hunt as the main conflict in Murphy’s personal life have we seen such a solid thematic focus. Additionally, the cancer storyline is, as mentioned above, a relevant arc — and therefore in keeping with English’s foundational, female-focused socially conscious aims — without being political (thank goodness). And, while some have cited this story as being far too dramatic for a situation comedy (a view with which I can’t disagree), I can see the benefits. I’d usually be dissatisfied with the adoption of such an emotionally wrought arc on a show that has to make its audience laugh with regularity… but, really, I think the season does a fine job — on the whole — of delivering laughs, while also being respectful to the truth this subject requires and, even better, evolving the Murphy character in the process. When Murphy benefits, the show benefits.
Meanwhile, the year’s ability to be funny in the face of such tragedy indeed makes the laughs stronger than they would be without that dramatic support — thus reinforcing what Norman Lear’s shows, when they were functioning at their peak, taught us: drama can be an asset to comedy… if it’s character-centric and properly balanced by the required laughs (it’s different in each case). Diane English could never find this balance – she could never get these Norman Lear laughs – and she still can’t. But she knows the characters and, here, finds a better balance… Yes, that’s right: this season marks the return, for the first time since Quayle, of series creator Diane English as a Creative Consultant (an arc-shaper, script-puncher-upper, and finale writer). She and Korby Siamis, who’d been around since the beginning (absent only during Seasons Seven and Nine), bring a plainly felt narrative gravitas to the storyline and the season (even going so far as to reintroduce Avery — now played by Haley Joel Osment — as a source for drama), helping to restore an enhanced dignity in all of the characters’ depictions, particularly Murphy’s. Also, this season has almost an entirely new creative team that, for once, can evolve the characters (and make the show more contemporary — see the new set) while keeping them true to their histories. In addition to Tom Seeley and Norm Gunzenhauser, who worked on the first two years and then returned for the ninth, this season features the likes of Janis Hirsch (Frasier, Will & Grace, ‘Til Death), Bill Masters (Seinfeld, Grace Under Fire, Caroline In The City), Jhoni Marchinko (Ink, Will & Grace, 2 Broke Girls), and Mike Flanagan (The Tracy Ullman Show, Love & War, Grace Under Fire, Ink), the latter serving as Executive Producer. This crew is probably the strongest collective force the series has been blessed to have since the departure of English’s underlings in ’94. Without knocking any of the talented folks who served in the three following years, this is a particularly top-notch lot, and they can sometimes even save ideas that are improperly or tenuously conceived. For a show like Murphy Brown, this capability is vital.
Now, as I’ve mentioned above, the show is too far gone to be rescued from its reputation or honestly be praised alongside the stronger seasons that came under English’s initial tenure, but there’s still enough here to like. The only thing I actively dislike is something familiar: the self-indulgent, self-referential, and self-important treatment that starts to invade the scripts in the latter half of the year, once the cancer storyline is mostly finished and the paramount goal becomes giving closure to all the characters. We’ve seen this “let’s right the ship” attitude often when long-running sitcoms reach the back half of their final seasons (most notably, lately, on Cheers and The Golden Girls), but instead of translating this self-reverence into honest looks at how the characters have grown (as those shows did — to great success), Murphy Brown, true to form, gets too mired down in stunts and ideas: a parade of guest stars and celebrity secretaries (most of whom do absolutely nothing for me; a gimmick alone is not enough upon which I can predicate enjoyment), along with the smug self-importance with which the series has had to contend ever since it lost its Underdog Status and English went hog-wild in her topical, foolishly anti-MTM intentions. It’s in these moments of self-indulgence that the most corrosive parts of Murphy Brown‘s identity rear their figurative heads, fighting with all the restored aforementioned strengths from both the returning veterans and the perceptive newbies to showcase why the series has always had such a tough time: too often ideas (stories or themes or politics) took precedence over character. We find this precise predicament in full force during the overly sentimental and predictable finale, which is too concerned with the grandness of its finality than the emotional trajectory afforded to its characters, rendering it a sanctimonious mess (and exactly what the cancer arc aimed to avoid) – although, to be fair, it’s an honest appraisal of what the series has truthfully held dear, in practice, throughout its run.
So, while I dislike many of the final episodes on principle, there’s something noble about the series indulging its lesser instincts at the same as rejuvenating and refocusing on its stronger ones, for it allows us one final unalloyed, warts-and-all look at Murphy Brown, which went into this final season knowing the end was nigh. In fact, CBS moved the show out of the regular Monday night slot it had always occupied over to Wednesdays, where its ratings further slipped — but predictably so, because the network no longer expected it to be competitive (hence the move) — until the final stretch of episodes starting in April, during which the show moved back to its original time for a farewell march. This awareness of an imminent end proves, as with most series, both good and bad. It’s bad in that it gives the show carte blanche to trot out any gimmick it wants in the name of “this is it.” It’s also bad because the series feels justified in being overly self-gratifying with its identity and the show’s importance in the television landscape (which, save this perhaps impactful cancer storyline, had become questionable by 1992, when a perceived agenda neutered its power). This awareness of its imminent end is good, however, in that the show can bring back a few of its original architects, like English, in the name of “full circle” closure. It’s also good that there’s a clear effort to make the show better than it’s been in a while — an energy reinforced throughout the cancer arc, but maintained in the (comparatively) elevated nature of many of these scripts. And, ultimately, I’m glad the show went out on this note. The damage had already been done — its post-run fate was sealed — but no new scars were added here. (That’s not something that can be said for most seasons.) So, as usual, 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 Ten. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 227: “A Butcher, A Faker, A Bummed-Out Promo Maker” (Aired: 10/08/97)
Murphy awaits the results of her biopsy while the team does investigative work.
Written by Mike Chessler & Chris Alberghini | Directed by Peter Bonerz
After a premiere that had a few laudable moments in spite of the Season Nine residue it had to clear, the second outing picks up where its predecessor concluded (a trend of serialization that persists through these first few offerings) and culminates in Murphy’s discovery of her positive diagnosis. That drama threatens to cast a pall over the episode, but as mentioned above, this socially conscious substance actually manages to enhance the comedy, most of which comes here from the gaudy story of the team going undercover to check on a grocery store they’ve previously busted for sanitation. This excursion is mostly about giving big block comedy to the previously underutilized Tomlin, who dons a disguise and puts on a wire; it’s cartoony and her characterization isn’t bettered, but she’s good at it, and the series benefits from using her thusly.
02) Episode 228: “Ectomy, Schmectomy” (Aired: 10/15/97)
Murphy must decide between a mastectomy or a lumpectomy.
Written by Janis Hirsch | Directed by Peter Bonerz
My choice for the strongest episode of the season, this nevertheless wasn’t an easy decision to make — for this entry, which immediately follows the above, often gets lost in this year’s shuffle of other more important outings. But I can think of no offering on this list that makes better use of the cancer storyline, all the while being terrifically funny and well-written in terms of the characters. There are some truly terrific scenes here, all of which work — although the others’ initial belief in a possible Murphy/Frank affair is a bit of a stretch, forgiven only by what follows — with my favorite being the conversation that the women have at Phil’s as Murphy struggles to make a decision about treatment. There are other episodes on this list on which I’ll heap more praise, for they may be more exciting or memorable, but none are as consistent or as capably crafted as this one — the finest embodiment of the season. (Also, Rita Moreno guest stars as one of Murphy’s doctors.) Not flashy — not gimmicky — just good.
03) Episode 231: “Waiting To Inhale” (Aired: 11/05/97)
Jim purchases marijuana to help Murphy get through chemo.
Written by Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Frankly, this episode, which would meet this season’s qualifications for being classified as a “fan favorite,” is really only liked for the exhibitionistic scene in which Murphy and Jim both smoke a joint, an easy source of comedy contingent on its concept and not due to anything that this script — by a pair of the show’s original writers, mind you — actively contributes to the execution. I’m afraid to say, also, that this scene is precisely why the installment makes my list; for in addition to being inherently comedic, the idea does indeed arise from the year’s chosen arc of exploring Murphy’s cancer. So, this is a logical premise for a character undergoing this treatment, and it therefore feels like worthwhile territory for this season to navigate.
04) Episode 232: “Petty Woman” (Aired: 11/12/97)
Murphy goes to a party at her rival’s house.
Written by Bill Masters | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
Joanna Gleason, the Broadway actress who was formerly a regular on Diane English’s Love & War (discussed here last month, as I’m sure you know), guest stars in this episode as a conservative author who, naturally, has a rivalry with Murphy. At a party that Murphy is goaded into attending, she discovers that Gleason’s character, Athena, is only using her presence to drum up publicity for a new book about turning 50… but Murphy discovers that Athena is much older than 50. The interplay between these two frenemies (although they’re much closer to plain enemies than friends) yields a lot of hearty laughs, and the atypical setting and story provides a freshness that aids the entire affair. One of the season’s most enjoyable.
05) Episode 236: “From The Terrace” (Aired: 12/17/97)
Murphy and company are locked out on the office terrace.
Written by Jhoni Marchinko | Directed by Peter Bonerz
With a relatively simple premise that traps all our regulars in the same place at the same time, this is an installment that regular readers know I’m bound to like. In addition to the uncomplicated story and the focus on the interactions between characters about whom we care, the story also plays theatrically like a one-act, which I believe is an aesthetic comparison to which the sitcom should strive. Additionally, Marchinko’s script is fairly amusing (as a personal note, I love that there’s a reference to Xena: Warrior Princess, then at its most popular), bogged down only by the need for some dramatic substance — a couple across the street — that feels a little forced. Nevertheless, it’s an ideal episode for this series and season. A favorite.
06) Episode 238: “Turpis Capillus Annus” [Translation: “Bad Hair Day”] (Aired: 01/14/98)
Murphy begins wearing a wig and attends a support group.
Written by Marilyn Suzanne Miller | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Marilyn Suzanne Miller, whose credits include The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Maude, SNL, and Tomlin’s Emmy-nominated special Lily (1975), wrote the script for this installment — probably the most sensitive and honest excursion of the entire run. As a breast cancer survivor herself, there’s a noted poignancy in her teleplay that’s reinforced by the casting of other cancer survivors in Murphy’s support group, including Wendie Jo Sperber, Marcia Wallace, Tracy Nelson, and Gail Strickland. As a result, this is the most dramatic outing of the season — and yet, thanks to the sincerity with which it’s rendered, the tone feels appropriate: not encroaching on the laughs that are there, but balancing them with incredible humanity. A gem.
07) Episode 239: “Wee Small Hours” (Aired: 01/21/98)
Murphy reaches out to her friends while suffering from insomnia.
Story by Bill Masters | Teleplay by Norm Gunzenhauser & Jhoni Marchinko | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Yet another of the season’s best, this relatively low-concept episode (which feels like something Seinfeld might do), has Murphy calling all of her friends during a sleepless night, cutting in on them while they’re busy: Frank’s on a stakeout, Jim’s reconciling with Doris, and Corky, now going through a divorce from Miles, is sorting through her storage locker. Each piece is character-related and indicative of the places at which they’ve all evolved over ten years. But the entry really is about the growing bond between Murphy and Kay, who stays up with Murphy and teaches her how to bake cookies. And while Kay, again, still doesn’t have a strong enough characterization to truly gel, developing her relationship with the lead is a wise idea.
08) Episode 240: “Then And Now” (Aired: 01/28/98)
Kay has the staff pick favorite FYI clips for a cable special.
Written by Adam Belanoff | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Using a premise that inherently forces the show to contend with the characters’ evolutions, this outing is a natural, rewarding entry in the second half of the final season. Written by Adam Belanoff, who makes his one and only contribution to the series following his departure at the end of the seventh season (after a two-year stint), this is one of those solid, does-nothing-egregious outings that paints all the regulars in a consistent light and sprinkles in some humor along the way. While the premise really is the main draw, the script then refocuses the action to make it more character-driven, as Murphy and Frank visit her childhood home. The laughs there aren’t fast and furious, but the character material is much appreciated. Solid, noble.
09) Episode 243: “Second Time Around” (Aired: 04/20/98)
Murphy’s friends reunite her with an old crush.
Written by Janis Hirsch | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
A fairly ordinary outing, I like the way Hirsch imbues the teleplay with a thematic cohesion; the episode begins with Murphy surprising the friend she made in chemo, Lisa, played by Tracy Nelson, by re-introducing her to an old crush, and culminates in Murphy’s friends doing the exact same thing to her: reuniting her with a boy she used to like in high school, when they were both in a production of The Music Man. The guy, played by Michael McKean, is now a goofy lounge singer. This mastery of plotting allows us to just focus on the script’s use of comedy — and as we see in Hirsch’s other efforts here (on the list and in the honorable mentions) and on other shows, this is one of her strongest suits. Surprisingly fine tenth year excursion.
10) Episode 245: “Dial And Substance” (Aired: 05/04/98)
Jim is detained at the airport when he’s caught with Murphy’s marijuana.
Written by Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
The penultimate installment of the series, this outing is basically the continuation of “Waiting To Inhale” (showing a heretofore unseen interest in continuity), as Jim is caught with the ganja he purchased for Murphy in that episode. At the risk of being another Victory in Premise — and nothing else — the script wisely re-centers its efforts away from the story and onto the dynamic between Murphy and Jim, which has been one of the more interesting relationships explored over the course of the series. This A-story itself isn’t hilarious, but it’s character-driven and memorable. The laughs actually come from the latest in Murphy’s parade of celebrity secretaries; this time it’s Don Rickles, the best of this final “let’s get a name” lot.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Operation: Murphy Brown,” which is one of the year’s heavier cancer-focused outings that tries to get its laughs in broad centerpieces that aren’t well-calibrated, “I Hear A Symphony,” a self-indulgent outing that’s overrated (and features a cameo from Olivia Newton-John playing herself), “Opus One,” which has a couple of good character ideas but devolves into a messy spectacle — the year’s most gimmicky excursion (aside from the finale), and “Seems Like Gold Times,” which features the final appearance of Jerry Gold and rests most of its appeal on this fact.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Ten of Murphy Brown goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first two seasons of Seinfeld! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!