Tonight, Candice Bergen could bring home her third Golden Globe award for her title role in Murphy Brown. It’s a nice tip of the hat to a revival that had some brilliant moments, but didn’t quite live up to the promise of its past.
Fans of the original show had looked forward to a return of the halcyon days of Murphy skewering political figures. After all, there’s plenty to skewer these days. But poking fun at the political landscape wasn’t what worked best in this revival. The best topical subjects were treated very seriously. The best humor came from the relationships between the characters. If Murphy Brown gets another season (a decision still pending until spring), the writers will do well to keep that formula in mind.
The Brown Family
The combination of Jake McDorman and Candice Bergen as Avery and Murphy Brown was pure gold. The two of them played off each other magically. They really felt like a mother and son. These roles were written with humor, warmth and wisdom — not just Murphy’s wisdom, but Avery’s too. Each of them supported and advised the other, while still having plenty of zingers at the ready.
There are lots of sitcom families on TV, but I stopped watching many of them years ago. They simply didn’t feel real, or like people I’d like to spend time with. But I could hang out at the Brown household for years.
I’ll even bring Snausages for Benny!
Serious Examinations of Issues
While I was surprisingly underwhelmed by much of the political humor of this season, I did love the way the show poked at the institution of journalism. It tackled the question of why the White House press corps doesn’t just walk out of the daily fiction-filled briefings, the pressures some journalists at certain networks and stations experience to present a certain “spin” to their stories, and the consequences of just walking away from that spin.
The show also did a take on the #MeToo movement, with an episode that had older women like me questioning whether we let too much go when we were young.
And then there was the big, heartbreaking story of the season, when Miguel’s parents were picked up by ICE on Thanksgiving night and deported. This is an episode that should get some kind of award.
Phil’s was a fixture for the original series, and Tyne Daly did a wonderful job of filling the late Pat Corley’s apron while putting a different spin on the bartender cliche. Decades as a New York City cop made her tough as nails, but as the season rolled on, we got to see her softer side. We also saw her grow and learn. (Learning is not merely the province of the young, my friends.)
Back at the office, we met Diana, the new boss who reminded me far too much of one of my old bosses. And that is NOT a compliment. It was her job to embody all the things that have gone wrong with TV news over the past couple of decades, and for the most part, she did. It would have been nice to see a little more of her — just not in a liplock with Miles, please.
Murphy’s quest for the perfect assistant was a running joke throughout the original ten seasons. Hillary Clinton’s appearance as an applicant in the season premiere was the best assistant moment ever.
That's all for tonight's premiere of #MurphyBrown! Thanks for joining us, @HillaryClinton! pic.twitter.com/DlCsHOF2fc
— Murphy Brown (@MurphyBrownCBS) September 28, 2018
What Didn’t Work
All The Other Assistants
When you start with a former presidential candidate, everybody else comes up short. Sadly, the assistant gag became stale after Hillary Clinton walked off the sound stage.
It doesn’t seem possible that political jokes didn’t really work well on this show. But I really felt it in the fourth episode, when Murphy went into attack mode against a Steve Bannon analog. While everything she said was true, it was also everything I’d already read online or seen on TV.
The 24-hour news cycle plays against the show to a certain extent. We move on from subject to subject much more quickly now than we did in the 80s and 90s, when the original series aired. By the time the Bannon episode aired, the real Steve Bannon had sunk out of our consciousness under a wave of new outrages.
The funniest pieces of political humor in the season were brief little jabs. Like Corky’s observation that “there’s always another Tweet from the toilet,” or Murphy’s urging Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to stay out of drafts. (PLEASE!) The best politically-oriented line of the season, though, went to guest star Brooke Shields as her character learns all that’s happened while she was in a decade-long coma: “I want to go back in the coma!”
Can you blame her? #MurphyBrown pic.twitter.com/ciyBpEPYOf
— Murphy Brown (@MurphyBrownCBS) November 16, 2018
What We Wanted To See More Of
I’ll just give you a list for this:
- Murphy & Avery
- Artwork by Eldin (the mural in Avery’s room was MARVELOUS)
- Murphy’s friendships with her coworkers
- Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough was such a delight in his guest appearances)
What We Wanted To See Less Of
I hate saying this, but… Pat Patel. The character started out as wonderful fun, and the show needs LGBTQ representation. But Pat became irritating as the season went on. By the finale I wanted someone to smash his weird records over his head. I’m sure there are folks who found him funny, but I admit I’m not one of them.
11×09 “Thanksgiving And Taking.” The episode starts out as a fairly typical messed-up family dinner, then veers into a ripped-from-the-headlines immigration story.
11×10 “Beat The Press.” Another “message” episode, leavened by the scene between Avery and his “Uncle Frank,” sharing the sugary goodness of cannolis. Once again, this was a chance for Jake McDorman to shine, not just with his TV mom but also with one of his extended “family.”
11×06 “Results May Vary.” It’s a bold choice to write an election show about a vote that hasn’t even happened yet. This episode avoids prognostication by instead focusing on the long slog that Election Day can be in the news business, and poking a lot of fun at FOX News through their stand-in, the Wolf Network.
Least Favorite Episodes
11×04 “Three Shirts To The Wind.” The attempt to make fun of Steve Bannon via a surrogate just didn’t have the fire you’d normally expect. (The same holds true for other episodes featuring Trump supporters — we just don’t find anything to laugh about when their party line just inspires anger.)
11×13 “Happy New Year.” The season (and possibly series) finale was a letdown. If CBS does not renew the show, it’s not the way I want to remember these characters.
I will dispense with the “Season Finale Impression” and “Next Season Speculation” that we usually include in these season reviews. I’ve already told you what I think about the finale. And until we know what CBS will do, speculation seems futile.
But re-reading three months worth of reviews reminds me there was so much more that I liked than disliked in this revival season. The show really hit its stride in most of the later episodes. If Murphy Brown gets another season, I hope the writers will lean in to what really worked.
And I hope we’ll see less theatre of the absurd out of Washington.