“It’s a welcome anomaly to see a 72-year-old woman thriving professionally at the center of a show.”
Title: Murphy Brown
Episodes Reviewed: Season 11 (Revival)
Creator: Diane English 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Laura Krafft 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Tom Palmer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Gina Ippolito 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Skander Halim 👨🏽🇺🇸 (2 eps), Norm Gunzenhauser 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Steven Peterman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Gary Dontzig 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Tom Seeley 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Marc Flanagan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Russ Woody 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Directors: Pamela Fryman 👩🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Don Scardino 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Michael Lembeck 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Joe Regalbuto 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Barnet Kellman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Murphy Brown is back, and she’s not messing around.
Nearly twenty years after the show’s initial decade-long run, legendary reporter and titular nasty woman Murphy Brown (modeled after Diane Sawyer or Connie Chung-type trailblazers) gets shocked out of retirement by the election of Donald Trump. We find her on January 20, 2018, the day of the second Women’s March, as she steps through the door of Phil’s Bar—the same D.C. dive where she and her FYI news crew used to mingle with the rest of Washington’s press corps. She removes a pink-crested Roman helmet and tells bartender Phyllis (Tyne Daly) that pink knit hats were fine for the first march. But, Murphy declares, “we’re at war now.”
The crux of the revival hinges on just that: Murphy Brown didn’t come back because it was a financial sure thing. It came back because in this moment, Candice Bergen’s sharp-tongued Murphy Brown—and her creators—couldn’t simply stand by and watch the moral deterioration of our nation without comment.
While Will & Grace talked big about the renewed relevance of queer representation and Roseanne-turned-The Conners intended to play to the “disenfranchised” who continued to be overlooked—please read the latter with an inflection of sarcasm—neither show has done much to speak truth to power beyond a few Very Special Episodes that don’t really do justice to the topic at hand. But Murphy Brown, a show about journalism that has always confronted political issues, capitalized on its opportunity in a moment when real-world newsrooms are facing unprecedented challenges and finally being forced to reckon with a pattern of sexual misconduct and abuse.
With the constraints of a truncated, 13-episode order by CBS and no guarantee of a second season, the show does try to pack in more material in than there is time to tackle. (Brevity never was Murphy’s strong suit.) Much has changed since Murphy Brown launched in the late ‘80s, and the old sitcom beats now feel stilted. On top of that, thanks to a complicated mess of music and production rights, the original series isn’t available to stream and only one season exists on DVD. Without that historical context, callbacks to the show’s running gags can stumble, and the overtly political edge and high-profile cameos come off as desperate.
But for all its flaws, it’s a rare show that recognizes the gravity of the moment. Murphy Brown may be characterized as unabashedly liberal, but its themes are rooted in a full-throated call for justice that knows no partisan lines. For me, and I suspect a few others, it’s also an acknowledgement that 2016 left a lasting wound. Murphy is back because like so many of us, she’s too angry to sit down and take it.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? MOSTLY (8 out of 13 episodes pass)
The shirt Murphy sports in the revival’s premiere says it all. She was the original nasty woman—brazen, ambitious, smart, and unwilling to apologize for any of it. She was an icon, a successor to Mary Tyler Moore in the evolutionary tree of the strong female lead. In bringing actor Tyne Daly back to the small screen as Phyllis, sister to late barkeep Phil, we’re reminded of another branch of that tree: Daly’s Mary Beth Lacey of the groundbreaking buddy-cop duo, Cagney & Lacey.
The pairing permits the show to explore an area of #MeToo that has proven problematic in the past: bridging the generational divide between older second-wave feminists and the third- and fourth-wave women leading the movement today. Seeing Murphy and Phyllis confront the legacy of sexual assault reminds us of how many women are just now reckoning with past trauma.
“We both know what it was like back then,” Phyllis tells Murphy. “We flattered egos and laughed at lousy jokes, and if something happened, we didn’t talk about it. In those days, it wasn’t sexual harassment. It was a bad date.”
The show’s third episode, titled “#MurphyToo,” explores the lasting effects of not talking about it. After a seminar on sexual harassment dredges up some buried feelings, Murphy reveals to her son Avery (Jake McDorman) that she’d been assaulted by a professor during her college years. The two share a conversation that reflects a high point in onscreen discussion of #MeToo, reflecting a nuanced grasp of power dynamics, consent, and abuse. Describing his own view of the importance of consent, Avery tells his mother, “I would never want to make somebody feel the way you do right now.”
When Murphy finally decides to confront her attacker, taking back the journalism award she’d left behind when she fled so many years ago, it brings to the fore the sense of deeply ingrained trauma about which older women have stayed silent for decades. The show itself has always centered Murphy’s professional life, and in this moment, the audience is forced to realize the inexorable tie her assault has had on those career achievements and the stories she’d chosen to tell over the years.
Unlike many other revivals, Murphy Brown handles the problem of an all-white cast returning to air with significant updates. While The Conners makes an attempt at inclusion by marrying the youngest of the Conner kids to a Black woman, with whom he has a Black child, the characters are limited to a few lines per episode. Mostly they exist as scenery and DJ’s (Michael Fishman) wife often falls into the trope of a “sassy black woman.” Will & Grace handles its pale fail by adding several recurring characters of color, and while a few are compelling and force conversations about privilege and race, they remain little more than plot devices.
In introducing its newest regular, Pat (Nik Dodani), Murphy Brown seemed at first to be offering up its own tired trope: Pat Patel as the resident tech guy, and, yes, he’s Indian. But as quickly as the show sets up a cringeworthy stereotype, it tears it down. Pat doesn’t simply fix computers; rather, he drags a cast of characters into the modern era otherwise used to chasing down leads on foot and drafting copy on typewriters. His tech savvy helps bridge the temporal gap, making Murphy Brown relatable to a younger audience.
Better yet, Pat reveals depth beyond the parameters of his race or his profession. The show’s midterms episode marks the moment when Pat comes into his own: as the resident pollster, he finds himself helplessly stifled by the old-fashioned suit and tie he’s asked to wear, and his first on-camera segment is a complete snooze. When he’s given the go-ahead to express himself, he comes alive like a hipster Steve Kornacki.
“Without Pat,” Murphy in the Morning producer Miles (Grant Shaud) notes, as he points to the high-tech panels on set, “none of this works.” It’s true: Pat makes the live Twitter feed and interactive election day maps work. But the sentiment also applies to the revival as a whole. Without a more inclusive cast, Murphy Brown would just be (very) white noise.
Another character of color can be found in Phyllis’ barback, Miguel (Adan Rocha). He’s a Dreamer, and his DACA status provides the basis for some moving moments (as well as a handful of ill-advised attempts at #woke humor, which do fall flat). The Thanksgiving episode starts off as standard sitcom fare, sticking all of its characters in one place at one time as someone—in this case, Murphy—inevitably faces a turkey-related foible. Miguel’s parents, who run a food truck, join the gang at Murphy’s house and provide an opportunity for the show to remind viewers that immigrants, even undocumented ones, embody American values. His parents came to America looking to work hard and give their children a better future. It’s all very sweet, if a bit heavy-handed, right up until ICE shows up.
Where The Conners’ own deportation storyline unfolds offscreen, told through a voicemail, Murphy Brown takes the bold step of showing the actual moment of arrest. With it, visible anguish gives the story more weight. “We can do better,” a tearful Murphy tells her audience. “We will do better. I know we can.”
The show also adds two more recurring characters of color to its roster: the Miranda Priestley-esque Black network exec Diana (Merle Dandridge) and Black stage manager Julius (Andre Ward), whose handful of lines are delivered with flawless timing. Moreover, the newsroom reflects an inclusive slate of background actors in an intentional shift away from the overwhelmingly white workplace seen in the show’s original run. With people of color still vastly underrepresented in real-world newsrooms, the decision to depict an inclusive workforce in the show seems to echo Murphy Brown’s vow to do better.
When Pat’s ex-boyfriend approaches him at an awards gala, incorrectly assuming that producer Miles is Pat’s date, there’s a moment of surprise on both sides. Miles is just as shocked to learn that Pat is gay as Pat is to learn that Miles didn’t know. It’s a very nonchalant coming out, simply acknowledging Pat’s sexuality without making it a joke or a point of conflict. When the producer finds himself driving Pat and his ex home, the pair are shown in the backseat in a hot-and-heavy makeout session that serves as the most sexual moment of the series. The scene stands in defiant contrast to works like Modern Family that claim to champion representation, but that shy away from actually allowing gay couples to express physical affection.
Nik Dodani, himself an out gay man, told Out Magazine that finally playing a character who shares his sexuality felt like “coming home,” and that it was “pretty dope” that “the network to cast an openly gay actor to play an openly gay character.”
In addition, Julius (Andre Ward), stage manager of Murphy In the Morning, is never explicitly stated to be gay (partly due to his minor role and limited screen time) but he’s heavily coded as queer. There’s a moment of drunken flirtation between Julius and Pat in the season finale, but, thankfully, it passes. As Crazy Ex-Girlfriend points out in its hilarious meditation on “shipping,” being the only queer characters on a show shouldn’t automatically translate to fated love.
Bonus for Age: +1.00
The Murphy we met in 1988 found herself on the cusp of forty and at the top of her professional game as she kept one eye on Corky (Faith Ford), the former beauty queen who frequently rubbed her youth in Murphy’s face. But when the 2018 revival brings Murphy Brown out of retirement, she’s an older women in less demand—or at least given less consideration than in her heyday.
Rather than trying to pretend that thirty years haven’t elapsed by raging against the effects of time, no dye jobs or brutal celebrity workout routines immediately preceded the revival. The cast come as they are, worse for the wear, neither ignoring their physical changes nor poking fun at them. Bergen had a minor stroke in 2006, which she denied for years out of fear it would be a liability, and has had both hips replaced. The positive way in which the show references these changes are encapsulated when Murphy chases down a fleeing interviewee, shouting after him that she’s “bionic.”
The midterms episode offers a more direct look at the reality of aging. Murphy’s son, a star on the rise with the kind of energy only a twentysomething possesses, bets her that she won’t last the marathon coverage without nodding off, and Murphy realizes only a few hours into the broadcast that she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. Nor do her co-anchors, Frank (Joe Regalbuto) and Corky: Frank stockpiles energy drinks that leave him jumpy and inarticulate, and Corky, no longer the fresh-faced new girl lording her youth over Murphy, finds herself trying to hold it together as the effects of menopause threaten to overwhelm her.
For a show that almost didn’t star Bergen at all—the network wanted the younger Heather Locklear to play Murphy during its original run, rather than the 42-year-old Bergen—it’s a rare opportunity to show older characters as actual people. Even shows that are otherwise fantastic with respect to this demographic such as Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, or One Day at a Time tend to show them in the limited grandparent role, providing humor through their old-fashioned views, crankiness, and the occasional foray into romance that’s played for laughs. To see an older woman at the center of a show and thriving professionally is an anomaly, and a welcome one.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.38/5
A 1989 episode, from the show’s inaugural season, gives a prescient view of why Murphy Brown still feels relevant today. Murphy, unhappy that she’s unable to join her male coworkers for dinner at the last all-male club in D.C., launches a campaign to break the gender barrier. When she finally does, she’s greeted with a cold shoulder from members unhappy about “the woman” in their midst. When one member confronts her, Jim (Charles Kimbrough), who’d initially opposed her membership, stands up for Murphy and says that anyone who has a problem with her can leave. Not surprisingly, they all do. Sitting in an empty club, Murphy says to Jim, “I guess sometimes I wonder about a person who gets into her forties and she’s still pushing her way into everything, upsetting all the apple carts, wondering whether it’s worth the fight.”
Despite some execution flaws, and the difficulty of reconciling a revival with an original series that isn’t available to watch, Murphy Brown returns to a renewed fight in the face of enormously high stakes. And so, the answer to Murphy’s 30-year-old question of whether it’s worth the fight remains the same: It is. It is worth it.