Murphy Brown. CBS. Thursday, September 27, 9:30 p.m.
When CBS first hinted last spring that it was considering bringing back its sitcom Murphy Brown after a 20-year absence, the initial response was respectful but puzzled.
The show, a workplace comedy that starred Candice Bergen as an inquisitorial reporter on a fictional 60 Minutes-type show, was a ratings monster in its early-1990s heyday. It was so widely watched that Dan Quayle, the actual for-real vice president of the United States, got into a public squabble with Bergen's character, who was a fictional construct of some probably not entirely sober screenwriters. A squabble about single parenting that—I am not making this up—led the front page of The New York Times.
But Murphy Brown died in 1998 after several years of declining ratings. Most of its characters would now be in their 70s, not too credible as members of a hard-charging cable news crew and even less so as participants in impromptu anchor-desk, a key plot point one 1990s season. Why on earth resurrect it?
The answer was revealed last weekend, when 60 Minutes (the real one) disclosed that the new Murphy Brown is not really a sitcom but a video weapon for the Resistance to Trump. ("So, if Hillary had won, you guys probably wouldn't be here?" a reporter asked. "I don't think so," replied Bergen.)
This was less of a scoop than it might seem, for Murphy Brown's weaponization is obvious from its first moments. The writers couldn't even be bothered to work up actual jokes, unless you consider Murphy referring to a fictionalized version of Steve Bannon as "Satan's sidekick" a punchline. Rather than a comedy, the show is 22 minutes of shrieked insults, childish name-calling and free-flowing venom. That is, pretty much a duplication of any cable-news talk show you see these days.
Stamping that onto the face of what was in its day a novel and multidimensional show seems more than just a bad business model, but something like a desecration. The original Murphy Brown colored well outside the political lines. Murphy herself was a feminist, of course, but also a redoubtable bitch whose personal assistants inevitably quit by the end of every episode.
She burbled with baby boomer hubris. "I just can't help thinking about the fact that while I was getting maced at the Democratic Convention in 1968, you were wondering if you'd ever meet Adam West," she once snapped at her youthful producer.
And as a reporter, she was Mike Wallace in a dress until she turned into the Grim Reaper in a shroud: Interviewing a corrupt judge, she browbeat him into a silence that turned out later to be death. She was banned from President George Bush's press briefing room, but also President Bill Clinton's.
In short, Murphy Brown was a lovably fractured mess and nobody's poster child for anything. Turning her into a geriatric Rachel Maddow-style Stalinist (Bergen is 72, around the same age as her character) does lethal damage to the heart of the show.
Murphy is not the only character to return for this go-round. Investigative reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) is back, as is beauty queen turned inane lifestyle reporter Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) and neurotic producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud). Even Cronkite-era anchor Jim Dial (82-year old Charles Kimbrough, retired the last 15 years except for an occasional voice role) is back, now a doddering pensioner whose major goal in life is peeing straight aboard his bouncing yacht.
Unfortunately, the show's new format doesn't work very well for them. The idea is that the old team from their evening broadcast-network newscast has been reconstituted as a cable morning show. The effect is something like CNN turning itself all-Wolf-Blitzer-all-the-time.
Almost as bad is the decision to retain some of the characters' fortysomething quirks well into their 70s. Frank Fontana's (largely unsuccessful) skirt-chasing was kind of funny in the pre-#MeToo era; the idea of him hitting on women in the Social Security line tends strongly to the creepy side. (Though I got a laugh out of Murphy's suggestion that he use a dating app called Silver Singles: "If you swipe left, you mean you're not interested. But if you swipe right, it means you can drive after dark.")
Yet it's Murphy Brown's ideological lockstep that renders it truly unwatchable. There were political undercurrents during the show's original run, too, and not just Dan Quayle's conviction that Murphy was the Whore of Babylon. Murphy and Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) were Baby Boomers still stewing in their collegiate political juices, seemingly unchanged since the invasion of Cambodia or the Watergate break-in, and their obsessions were usually played for laughs.
But they didn't get all the best lines or win all the arguments. One of the show's funniest episodes aired in its second season, when Murphy did a live interview with a Weather Underground-ish character (played by Martin Sheen) who was her hero in college but now turned out to be a David Horowitz-style right-wing revisionist. The resulting argument was fast, furious and funny, with plenty of punches landed on both sides.
There is simply no chance of that happening on the new Murphy Brown. It takes the show three full episodes to launch a single timid jab toward the left: Miles the producer reveals that the reason his friends haven't seen him much lately was that he had to placed in a sanitarium: "Two years on The View nearly killed me."
Interestingly, this doesn't seem to have been the plan. When the Murphy Brown revival was announced, it was said that her son Avery, a little boy when the first run ended, was now a TV reporter himself—on the conservative Wolf cable news network (remind you of anything?), where his show would be up against his mom's.
That's still true, but instead of Avery being a conservative himself, he's now a liberal mole at Wolf. The chance to strike some real political and culture sparks is gone.
But there's still one forlorn chance to save this mess: CBS has announced that a special surprise guest star will appear on the third episode. The identity is being kept secret and the screener copies the network offered to critics didn't include the guest star's scenes.
My guess is it's Hillary Clinton. But what an immortal TV moment if it turned out to be Dan Quayle.