7:00pm PT by Jean Bentley
Why 'Murphy Brown' Took on Trump's "Frightening" Stance Toward Press
[This story contains spoilers from Thursday's "Beat the Press" episode of CBS' Murphy Brown.]
Murphy Brown's revived 11th season has directly addressed Donald Trump's attitude toward the press — the titular character (Candice Bergen) got into a Twitter fight with the president in the season premiere — but the CBS show's Nov. 29 episode, "Beat the Press," took on the violence that has resulted from that attitude when Frank (Joe Regalbuto) was attacked while covering a right-wing political rally.
"We brought into the writers room back in May about 40 ideas that we were interested in, and we started narrowing them down. One that just kept making every list was the hostility that's been directed toward the press in a way that I have never seen before — [that they are the] enemy of the people and [citizens] being at these rallies screaming hate speech at CNN," creator Diane English told The Hollywood Reporter of the Murphy Brown' episode's genesis. In the months between the initial brainstorming session and filming the installment, things grew even more tense.
"Then we saw a journalist get body-slammed by a politician," said English, referencing Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte and The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs in May 2017 (Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault). "Then we saw the president encouraging this sort of rhetoric and heard him say recently that he admired somebody who could body-slam a journalist. We pushed our episode a little farther than I think we intended it originally, because the feeling was pretty much that if it continues like this, somebody really is going to get hurt."
In some respects, the episode is a cautionary tale for something that would have seemed improbable five years ago but seems very possible in 2018.
"This is what's going to happen if people are encouraged to look at journalists as people not to be trusted and people who are trying to bring down the president or people who make things up and are very bad people," English said. "It's really, very frightening to me, frankly, and I think that for us, this was a particularly challenging episode because there's nothing really funny about that, intrinsically. So we had to find the ways around the event where we could get some humor."
The episode's B-story, where Corky (Faith Ford) reveals that she owns a gun that she recently started carrying for protection, also touches on the issue of gun control — but only very briefly.
"We wanted to do something about gun control, but as we tried to break the story over and over again, we were just really concerned that there would be another mass shooting, and that the episode would seem insensitive or even wouldn't air. There's always another mass shooting," English explained, so they came up with the story about Corky's upbringing in a culture where guns are a normal part of life.
"I know people who own guns. They're not bad people," said English. "They either hunt or they enjoy skeet shooting, or they live in a very rural place where it would take 20 minutes for the police to come. There's a lot of reasons why people own guns. They aren't all AK-47s. So I think we, to be fair, wanted to distinguish that. We couldn't make a full episode out of it because it just would have been too focused on that area and, as I said, we were afraid that if there was another mass shooting close to the airing that it would seem very insensitive of us."
The episode also saw Murphy's son, Avery (Jake McDorman), begin to have a reckoning with the fact that he works at the Wolf Network, Murphy Brown's Fox News stand-in and the place that is fanning the flames of "fake news." That arc will continue through the Dec. 20 season finale.
"He felt like he could change the culture over there somewhat and that he was having some success as being the independent guy, the guy who would try to show both sides of a story fairly, and wasn't necessarily towing the party line," English said. But he's beginning to rethink working for a company that he sees as directly contributing to the climate that got his Uncle Frank badly beaten and sent to the hospital.
Another story that will play out over the course of the remaining episodes of the season: the deportation of barback Miguel's (Adan Rocha) parents in the Thanksgiving episode.
"As we were filming those couple of scenes at the end, no one was able to keep a dry eye and Candice was never able to get through her final speech without crying," English said. "She made a gallant effort in the last take in front of the audience, but we just did not want to put her through it again. I really love the end result of that. We don't just drop it. Miguel is in touch with his parents and we do hear things about that."
English is happy to accept the role as defender of the press — "Somebody's got to," she said — but her own relationship with reporters who write about her show is more hands-off.
"I don't read a lot about the show, actually," English said. "I just keep my head down and trying to do a show that I'm proud of, and as I said to somebody else, this is the first time I'm doing a show in the age of social media where everyone is a critic. But I've been pleasantly surprised at the feedback that I've gotten from our viewers, which is really so positive. Our ratings have been incredibly stable. ... That's been satisfying. Obviously we would love to have a bigger number, but it's just a struggle across the board, I think, for all broadcast networks right now."
The final three episodes of the season will continue to address current events and have a little fun.
"We are going to be dealing with the topic of war in Afghanistan, which people have not been paying too much attention to even though it's been going on for 17 years, and is recently in the news again because we've lost five American troops in the last month. People are still dying over there," she said. "So we've woven some of this into our last episodes. They're not all heavily political. I can vouch for that. We also have added a new castmember, our lovely little dog, who's a disabled dog, and is a genius. I'm telling you, this dog is stealing the show."
Murphy Brown airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. The revival's season will conclude with its 13th episode, as planned, on Dec. 20. The comedy remains in contention for a renewal.