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 LILY TOMLIN as Kay Carter-Shepley. CHRISTOPHER RICH recurs as Miller Redfield.
By 1996, Murphy Brown had incurred a lot of scars – from its use of politics, from its story-focused sensibilities, and lately, from its inability to satisfy on a consistent basis. Season Eight was a flawed year – maybe more flawed than any prior (because even the fifth, with its suffocating and reputation-defining tone, had better episodes) – and if an argument for the show’s reduced and still-reducing quality as being its biggest post-run inhibitor hasn’t already been granted enough evidence, then Season Nine is here for support. But let’s not beat around any figurative Bushes (or Quayles) – this year is the epitome of mediocre. It is the one that inspires in me, and I’d imagine a good many, the least desire to revisit, and, therefore, stands as the series’ least enjoyable. This shouldn’t be a surprise; with Grant Shaud’s departure at the end of the turbulent season prior, the show had a natural stopping point that it chose to ignore. Now, we’re in a post-Miles era – an era where the show, obviously, doesn’t look like it used to look, structurally or qualitatively. A creative revamp is now essential given the ensemble change, but blind faith in the series’ ability to now improve its quality would require ignoring the fact that Murphy Brown has been granted the opportunity to reset itself every season following Quayle’s comments and, with the exception of the sixth year, has not seen an upswing. Of course, improvement is not impossible. It’s not even impossible when the big fix is a “big name” replacement gimmick, for when the “big name” replacement gimmick is Lily Tomlin, frequent laughs seem highly probable… that is, if she’s given an actual character. (Spoiler alert: she isn’t.) For narrative purposes, Tomlin plays Kay Carter-Shepley, FYI’s new executive producer, who’s going to serve as a comedic antagonist to the seasoned ensemble, and particularly Murphy, who never reacts well to authority – let alone new authority in the guise of an equally strong female.
But… it doesn’t work, for while it’s wise to use this major personnel transition as fodder for story — and any combativeness between this character and Murphy’s is partially rooted within our understanding of the latter’s established characterization, making it premise-rooted — the show falls into a trap we see too often when new regulars are introduced on long-running series. In an attempt to flesh-out how a new presence can narratively be used in relation to the other characters (this is, after all, an ensemble that wants to claim MTM roots), the year focuses on the story constructs provided by Kay and neglects to give an actual characterization to its new regular — essentially crafting an empty vessel who fulfills storytelling needs without propelling anything (specifically comedy) from herself and what we, the audience, know of her personality. Throughout the entire season, it’s a struggle to find in Kay any traceable persona — is she kooky? Kind? Devious? Embittered? She seems to be all those things individually at various times over the course of the year, when a story’s conflict or a scene’s easy joke needs her to be, but her photo’s figurative ink never dries, and she remains out of focus. Our familiarity with Kay’s presence will make her slightly more enjoyable next season, but she’s never going to exist as a well-defined character. This is a particular shame, for not only are we inherently inclined to like Tomlin and thus hope that she gets strong material, but the rest of the ensemble members (even the developmentally challenged Frank) have come to be well-defined (yes, in spite of the show’s story-heavy leanings), making her thin rendering painfully obvious. Kay’s yet another consequence of using story to create character, instead of using character to create story. It’s sad that the series is still having this problem over four years post-English.
Meanwhile, the personnel swap in front of the cameras is mirrored by several big changes behind them. Saltzman is out, leaving both Bill Diamond and Rob Bragin (who each joined in the early and later parts of 1993, respectively) as the Executive Producers. Consultants John Bowman and Korby Siamis are also out, as are David Sacks and Douglas Wyman, both of whom proved to be one-year wonders. In their place comes three more one-year-wonders, Daphne Pollon (Married People, My Adventures In Television), Bill Kunstler (The War At Home, Mom), and Bob Stevens (Night Court, Dear John), the first of whom contributed one script in the eighth year and was added to the staff for the following. Meanwhile, the year also sees the return of several veterans – Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser, both of whom departed after the second season, and Tom Palmer, who worked on the series from its third through fifth seasons, standing as a stoic force in a bumpy era. This infusion of creative blood associated with the show’s inception (or in Palmer’s case, simply its healthier existence) reflects the season’s own need to refresh itself and see if the writing can return to the basics upon which the series was founded: concept-connected character-centric contemporary comedy. (I couldn’t resist the alliteration.) But unfortunately, this new (old) energy can’t do anything to jumpstart enhanced quality within the confines of this stalling vehicle, whose characters only existed in peak form for a relatively short period of time (when novelty still had bearing). In fact, I’d argue that this staff, especially its veterans (from whom we’re all anticipating some magical fixes), does nothing notable for the season beyond keeping it from failing miserably, which, between you and me, may have been the more merciful option. (I kid – in fact, Season Ten made for a better swan song than Nine ever could have, so once this season happened, it’s good Ten did too.)
Yet, this penultimate year didn’t have to be mediocre. In fact, these writers are clearly trying. Aside from the struggle of having to deal with the introduction of another regular, there are many noteworthy attempts to pursue new sources of story and help keep the show relevant to the times. Everyone finds change: Murphy sports a new hairdo, Jim separates from Doris (à la Lou and Edie Grant), Frank gets a recurring love interest, Corky deals with a long-distance marriage, and Phil, who was bumped down to recurring last season, is killed off entirely (we don’t miss him; he was never good for laughs or plot — just atmosphere and routine). All of this suggests genuine evolution of premise and character, but as with the past two seasons’ romanticizing of Miles and Corky, it all fails to reflect anything actually supported by substantive exploration; once again, too many of the ideas here are rooted in their story interests over their character interests — and although this year does a better job than the last of better utilizing the players and forming a healthier relationship between them and the episodic narratives, it generally stands that this is, once more, a season of concepts: if you like the premise upon which an episode is situated, there’s a greater chance you’ll tolerate the episode itself. (The opposite is also true. For instance, I hate the season finale, for it’s just an excuse to build to a cliffhanger that we’re sure will be quickly resolved in the fall. There’s nothing else there besides story, rendering the whole outing unnecessary.) The foundational quality of the writing? Well, again, in the context of this aging titan, it’s too close to mediocre to matter. Thank goodness better changes were made for Season Ten; but I’m getting ahead of myself… 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 Nine. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 203: “Power Play” (Aired: 09/16/96)
Murphy tries to lead a power play against Kay.
Written by Bob Stevens | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Bob Stevens, who joined the series for this year only and whom we’ve seen before on this blog during Night Court, writes his first of two scripts — this being the season’s second episode and the most direct and uncomplicated examination of the conflict between the staff (led, obviously, by Murphy) and their new executive producer Kay. Because the show is still introducing both the characters and the audience to this new presence, this episode benefits from a sense of mystery with regard to her presentation, and in the case of this story, in which she seems to outmaneuver Murphy at every turn, we begin to see the formation of a first potential character trait: she’s a master manipulator. The characterization is still too ill-defined, and hindsight will prove this conclusively, but here, we’re glad to see the new dynamic explored.
02) Episode 205: “Son Of Dottie” (Aired: 10/07/96)
Murphy tries to distance herself from Dottie.
Written by Daphne Pollon | Directed by Peter Bonerz
After the success of last season’s “Dick And Dottie,” in which Shelley Long guest starred as a perky Kathie Lee knock-off who enters into an on-air feud with Murphy (it was my MVE for the year), this episode attempts to recapture old magic, and doesn’t quite get there. But the association between the two episodes does give this one more of a comedic leg on which it can stand (especially in comparison to the other entries here). Long is great at playing this kind of terminally upbeat and seemingly clueless role and the teleplay does find plenty of moments for Murphy to do her usual shtick — particularly when she and Avery crash Dottie’s son’s birthday party. It’s really not great, but it’s good for the standards set by Season Nine.
03) Episode 206: “Office Politics” (Aired: 10/14/96)
Murphy has to get permission from a neighbor to expand her bedroom.
Written by Bill Kunstler | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
Tom Poston (best known to sitcom fans for his work with Bob Newhart) guest stars in this episode as Murphy’s crotchety neighbor, whom we met back in Season Six’s “Crime Story.” This installment has Murphy, at Jim’s behest, trying to jump through all the correct legal hoops so that she can expand her bedroom into an office, which includes getting permission from the man next door. The humor is very situational and, as anticipated, he doesn’t make it easy for her, but because Poston is such a welcome presence, some of the episode’s inferior construction issues (by yet another writer who only lasted this one season) are mitigated by our appreciation for what he brings and how well he’s able to play off of Bergen’s Murphy.
04) Episode 209: “Defending Your Life” (Aired: 11/04/96)
Murphy is ambushed by a support group of all her former secretaries.
Written by Kirk Savell | Diected by Peter Bonerz
As with so many of the episodes featured last week, this is an installment that, on principle, I really dislike. I don’t appreciate that the show is turning to self-referential easy gimmicks to craft weekly stories — I don’t care how seminal or amusing the revolving door of secretary gags has been for the show, because this story really makes little sense; all of these former secretaries have united? Really? But in a season of inferiority all around, my standards have to be lowered in order to pick favorites, and this episode is elevated due to its clearly comedic intentions (which is more than I can say for some of other laughably earnest, but substantively unsupported serio-comedies, like “Separation Anxiety”). Memorable; not commendable.
05) Episode 210: “Underdogs” (Aired: 11/11/96)
Murphy schemes to get Miller fired when his TV Q ratings go down.
Written by Daphne Pollon | Directed by Peter Bonerz
We saw this a lot last season — a story’s strong utilization of Miller begets a higher probability of being comedically satisfying and offers more of a chance for the other characters, and usually Murphy, to be presented in their full unadulterated glories. This installment functions exactly with that same idea, as Murphy’s attempts to get Miller fired are perfectly in keeping with the characterization that has been established for her and comedically delights because the recipient of her maneuverings is such a comedic presence himself. There are a lot of little moments in this otherwise good-but-not-great outing (but, heck, I don’t think any episode on this list is really great), so its inclusion was one of the easier decisions to make here.
06) Episode 216: “Who Do You Truss?” (Aired: 01/13/97)
Frank and Murphy both want to do the commentary in Jim’s absence.
Written by Bill Kunstler | Directed by Peter Bonerz
At best, this is another solid episode in a season where we long for something a little more exciting. But because it does nothing wrong (and, as always, there are many this year that clearly miss), it easily manages to stand out. The A-story has Frank and Murphy fighting over who gets to do Jim’s commentary as he’s in the hospital with a hernia; the story works because it plays up their competitive nature as reporters and also incorporates Kay, who passes off the choice to them. The B-story for Corky also provides some laughs as her attempts to hone a protege (played by Christine Taylor, best known for Nick’s Hey Dude) don’t go exactly how she planned. A (fairly) quiet, enjoyable entry that actually has laughs. Passable, affable.
07) Episode 217: “You Don’t Know Jackal” (Aired: 01/20/97)
Murphy and Frank hire an imposter to pretend to be her source.
Written by Daphne Pollon | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
I suppose this excursion could best be classified as a Victory in Premise, as the idea of Murphy and Frank each hiring separate imposters to play the role of Murphy’s confidential source, whose information Kay refuses to approve unless she meets him, allows for as many laughs as anticipated, while also making some use of the latter’s character (through which we’ll hope she’ll somehow manage to derive more of a definition). Once again, I appreciate that this installment aims to actually make its audience laugh, and because humor is clearly the super-objective, I am able to appreciate the victorious premise without being too nitpicky. One of the season’s most memorable — again, not stellar, but clearly among the year’s least mediocre.
08) Episode 218: “Blind Date” (Aired: 02/03/97)
Murphy’s attempts to arrange a date for Jim go awry.
Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
This is yet another episode that I think works because the premise works — but in this case, I think it’s even more character-focused and concerned with this ensemble than a lot of its competition — and features a respectable amount of humor in the process. The premise has Murphy attempting to arrange a date for Jim, now separated, with the “Raven-Haired Receptionist” he’s been admiring. But the woman mistakes Murphy’s invitation on behalf of Jim as coming from Miller — cue the misunderstanding on which this episode is founded. Meanwhile, there’s a decently complementary subplot that attempts to utilize Frank’s status as being in a committed relationship (a valiant, but unfulfilled attempt to show his growth).
09) Episode 221: “And That’s The Way It Was?” (Aired: 02/24/97)
Murphy desperately wants to know what Walter Cronkite thinks of her.
Written by Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser | Directed by Peter Bonerz
The only other MVE contender, and therefore one of the few entries here that I might actually recommend in a broad look at the whole series, this is really the only installment from the ninth season that builds itself around a cameo. (This gimmick was more common in years past. Remember Aretha?) But the appearance of Walter Cronkite is less sensationalistic than one by, say, Elizabeth Taylor, or JFK. Jr,; Cronkite is not politics or entertainment, he’s news — exactly what this series has been focusing more upon in its last few seasons, meaning that this is a cameo that actually feels motivated. Additionally, the story has Murphy right in character — relentless to get her “story” (in this case, seeking validation from a legend).
10) Episode 224: “Mama Miller” (Aired: 05/12/97)
Miller tries to impress his visiting mother by claiming he’s Murphy’s friend.
Written by Bill Diamond & Rob Bragin
My choice for the year’s best episode, this is one of those entries that devolves into a predictable sitcom story after having set itself up to be different (which was something this show could often do well in its early English-led years), but I actually find that the adoption of a trope — the “let’s pretend we’re married when a relative comes to visit” gag — nevertheless allows for the kind of humor that the series so feverishly needs at this point in its run. Additionally, I can’t pretend that my sentiments regarding this episode aren’t buoyed by the appearance of Rue McClanahan as Miller’s mother, for although her inclusion is not enough for me to simply write this episode up as a winner, I do appreciate the nuances she brings to what could have been an oddly designed character, and I think she aids the excursion immensely. Enjoyable.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “That’s The Way The Corky Crumbles,” a story-led thematic continuation of “Power Play” (and a close contender), and “Nobody’s Perfect” a great Frank script by Tom Palmer that derails in its second act and dashes all its character-focused charm. Of more honorable mention variety are the Frank-centric “A Comedy Of Eros,” the overly broad “Montezuma’s Retreat,” and Stuart Best’s final appearance, “Hero Today, Gone Tomorrow.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Murphy Brown goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!