'Murphy Brown' Returns, With Familiarly Defiant — And Heavy-Handed — Humor

Sep 27, 2018
Originally published on September 28, 2018 12:56 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Tonight CBS revives a comedy series that's been dormant for 20 years, "Murphy Brown," which won five Emmy awards for Candice Bergen in the role of the broadcast network news star. Diane English created that series and has teamed up with Candice Bergen to revisit the character and her story. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The original "Murphy Brown" character and series were on CBS for 10 years from 1988 to 1998. The sitcom was famous for several things in addition to earning Candice Bergen a handful of Emmys as the outspoken, defiantly liberal newsmagazine anchor. It made room in one episode for a guest appearance by Walter Cronkite, the most celebrated actual CBS News anchor of his era, playfully blurring the line between news and entertainment.

And the lines between fiction and news were blurred even more in 1992, when then-Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech objecting to the fictional character of Murphy Brown and her decision to have a baby as an unmarried single mother. Murphy, Quayle said, was, quote, "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice," unquote.

Soon afterward, the fictional Murphy responded to the real-life vice president by saying on her pretend show within a show on "Murphy Brown" that, quote, "families come in all shapes and sizes," unquote. That was some 25 years ago. That out-of-wedlock son of Murphy Brown is a grown man now, and we meet him shortly into the premiere episode of the new "Murphy Brown" relaunch.

Diane English, the original creator of the first "Murphy Brown" series, wrote the opening script and continues the storyline as it might have progressed. Avery, the son, is 28 years old, and he's followed in his mother's footsteps, becoming a liberal TV news reporter. Murphy, for her part, has retired, which gives her time to attend a protest rally, then drop by at Phil's bar, now run by Phil's sister, played by Tyne Daly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MURPHY BROWN")

TYNE DALY: (As Phyllis) My brother Phil would have loved these marches. It's great for business. Angry women drink a lot of chardonnay.

(LAUGHTER)

CANDICE BERGEN: (As Murphy) Oh, you know, I still can't get used to being at a protest march without reporting on it.

DALY: (As Phyllis) That probably feels weird, right?

BERGEN: (As Murphy) Totally. I've been off FYI for a few years, and I still haven't gotten the hang of retirement. People say, why don't you travel? Well, I've been everywhere. Take up gardening. It would not be fair to the plants.

BIANCULLI: Before long, both generations of Browns get a surprising job offer. She's been asked to host a new morning news show on the equivalent of CNN, and he's been asked to host a similar show, competing in the same timeslot, on the equivalent of Fox News, which in Murphy's universe is called Wolf News. Jake McDorman plays her grown son, Avery.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MURPHY BROWN")

JAKE MCDORMAN: (As Avery) All right, listen. For the past two years, I've been covering the campaign in every single state. And I have met a lot of people, good people who care about this country, you know, people who drive pickup trucks and have kids in the military and save their coupons and go to church on Sunday. They deserve a voice.

BERGEN: (As Murphy) They've got one. It's orange, lives in the Oval Office and is Facebook friends with Putin.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: The battle lines are drawn. But this new "Murphy Brown" series isn't a generational war of ideas like "All In The Family." Based on the first three episodes available for preview, the real targets this time around are the media and the politicians and the way each group deals with the other. Murphy refuses to chase ratings by booking interviews with controversial figures and insists on dealing in and reporting facts.

And if you're wondering as I am whether our current real-life president will echo history by bothering to respond to the fictional character of Murphy Brown, the premiere episode throws out what might be some very tempting bait. In a scripted make-believe scenario, it imagines President Trump watching the premiere of "Murphy In The Morning" and live-tweeting his disapproval, especially on the subject of alternative solar and wind energy sources. Murphy of course has dealt with this sort of thing before and is more than ready to return fire. Her staff puts his tweet on live TV, and she responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MURPHY BROWN")

BERGEN: (As Murphy) Are you kidding me? The president is tweeting at us.

(LAUGHTER)

BERGEN: (As Murphy) Old Murphy doesn't know what she's talking about - turbines bad, kills all your birds. I'm against wind.

(LAUGHTER)

JOE REGALBUTO: (As Frank) Congratulations, Murph. He gave you a nickname.

BERGEN: (As Murphy) Who is he calling old? I'm younger than he is.

NIK DODANI: (As Pat) OMG, he's trolling her. Feed that troll, Murphy. Feed him.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT SHAUD: (As Miles) Are you crazy? Keep it together, Murphy.

BERGEN: (As Murphy) Oh, and by the way, if I had your hair, I'd be against wind, too.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: To me, the humor there seems a little heavy-handed. But on "Murphy Brown," it always did. But I always liked Candice Bergen in the role and the show's defiantly outspoken sense of humor. If you don't like what you just heard especially because of its political message, you're not likely to warm up to the rest of this relaunch either.

But the core surviving members of the original cast are back, and so is the show's proudly liberal spirit. If you're in tune with that, then "Murphy Brown" once again is for you. And as a sitcom remake goes, it's a lot more satisfying out of the gate than such recent reboots as ABC's "Roseanne," NBC's "Will & Grace" and - do I even have to say it? - Netflix's "Fuller House."

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like our interview with Jon Batiste, the music director and bandleader on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" - Batiste was at the piano for our interview - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH'S "THINK OF ONE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH'S "THINK OF ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.