Moments before the start of Murphy Brown’s return to the world of TV news — which comes late in Murphy Brown‘s return to the world of TV sitcoms (it premieres September 27th on CBS) — Candice Bergen’s eponymous heroine has a rare moment of self-doubt.
“What if nobody watches?” she asks. “What if it tarnishes our legacy?”
Murphy’s first concern proves unnecessary, as show-within-a-show Murphy in the Morning — which reunites Murphy with most of the old FYI team from the Nineties(*), including cocky Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), peppy Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) and panicked Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) — is an instant hit. But early episodes of the revival (I’ve seen the first three) find Murphy, Miles and the others in a constant debate about the nature and virtues of journalism in the age of “fake news” and the culture war. Murphy’s popular again, but mainly for picking fights with members of the Trump administration rather than for the kind of investigative journalism on which she once prided herself.
(*) Charles Kimbrough’s anchorman Jim Dial has retired, though he pops up in the third episode to offer Murphy some advice on journalistic ethics.
So yes, the revival, again run by Emmy-winning creator Diane English, is conscious that the world has changed in the 20 years since we last saw Murphy and friends. The problem is that Murphy Brown itself really hasn’t, and that does more to tarnish the real show’s legacy than anything else.
The original series was both a classic and very much of its time. Murphy — simultaneously glamorous and pugnacious, a recovering alcoholic who took on titans of industry and government without fear — is a Hall of Fame sitcom character(*). The show around her had its charms (particularly the late Robert Pastorelli as Murphy’s eccentric housepainter, and later the live-in nanny to her son Avery), but also a weakness for jokes dependent entirely on name-dropping famous political and media figures of the day.
(*) She was also, along with Dixie Carter’s indomitable Julia Sugarbaker of Designing Women and Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly as the cop heroines of Cagney & Lacy, emblematic of a very different creative vision of CBS than the one Les Moonves ran. Would Murphy Brown get on the air if it wasn’t a legacy title? Probably not, but for added throwback value, Daly joins the Murphy cast as Phyllis, sister of beloved bar owner Phil, who was played by the late Pat Corley.
The reference humor is still there in abundance (Miles, freaking out about one of Murphy’s illegal stunts, fears he’ll be sent to prison and become “Bernie Madoff’s bitch”) and it hasn’t aged any better than the show’s humor style as a whole. When Phyllis, reluctantly running her brother’s old bar, finds out a potential new hire is a DACA recipient, she quips, “So you’re a dreamer? Me too — as in, I never dreamed I’d be doing this.”
Worse than groaners like that — or playboy Frank struggling to attract women in his old age, or Corky going through hot flashes on-air — is the sense of preachy self-importance that permeates the entire revival. Murphy Brown comes out of retirement to try to save America itself, and Murphy Brown seems convinced it can do the same thing.
The season premiere climaxes with Murphy swapping insults with President Trump during a live broadcast (him via Twitter, her glaring at the camera). The second episode has her lecturing Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the fundamental dishonesty of her press briefings, while the third sees her verbally dismantling a barely-disguised version of Steve Bannon (get ready for all the jokes about wearing multiple shirts that you can handle, and then some!), played by Billions‘ David Costabile. At a certain point, the corny punch lines turn out to simply be a clapter delivery system.
We’re absolutely in the midst of a crisis of democracy, civility and belief in the value and trustworthiness of a free press. Murphy’s not wrong on much, and when she is, her now adult son Avery (Jake McDorman, whose easy chemistry with Bergen is the only part of the revival that really works) is there to gently mock her for it. But her (and the show’s) positions are laid out with such a smug, leaden hand that — like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom — it seems designed to alienate the people who agree with it at least as much as the Trumpists who won’t be watching in the first place.
Based on how well recent Nineties revivals like Will & Grace and Roseanne have done (or did, in the latter case, until one racist tweet too many from its star), I wouldn’t be surprised if Murphy Brown is as much of a success as Murphy in the Morning. Can these lousy new episodes really tarnish the legacy of the old ones? Well, we’ll always have Murphy singing Aretha off-key, or somehow getting into a real-life feud with Vice President Quayle, and the sheer force of will of Bergen’s performance. (She won five Emmys in seven years, and likely would have gotten more if she hadn’t taken herself out of the running to give other actresses a shot.)
But if a bad revival can’t erase memories, it can sometimes make you question them. I came out of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life so annoyed with Rory Gilmore as an adult that I began to wonder if she was just as awful as a teenager. It’s been a while since I watched vintage Murphy Brown (CBS All Access recently added a small sampling of episodes), but the revival left me with little appetite to revisit the good old days to see how good they really were, let alone stick with this tired new version.