[This story contains spoilers from the Dec. 20 season finale of CBS’ Murphy Brown.]
CBS’ Murphy Brown revival wrapped its first season Thursday with an episode that saw the titular news anchor’s son, Avery Brown (Jake McDorman), in grave danger while reporting a story in Afghanistan — and Murphy (Candice Bergen) not quite able to cope with the stress.
While she tried to distract herself by celebrating Christmas and New Year’s with the Murphy In the Morning crew at Phil’s Bar — and spending time with her adorable new charge, a disabled French Bulldog and Boston terrier mix — Murphy’s stress didn’t fully leave until she came home on New Year’s Eve to find Avery home from his trip, safe and sound.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Murphy Brown creator Diane English about the episode, which was always intended to be the season finale (the series remains in contention for the 2019-20 TV season), and what she learned from the first season of the revival.
Is there any world in which you thought about killing off Avery?
We need our Avery, so, no, I don’t think so. But I know from looking at social media that there are a lot of viewers who, after our Thanksgiving episode and “Beat the Press,” don’t know what kind of right turn we might be taking on the show. So there was some concern that we were going to kill him off, or something would have happened to him. But we wanted him to be able to experience what his mom and what Frank [Joe Regalbuto] had been talking about in [“Beat the Press”], and he went over to Afghanistan — as many journalists do on a regular basis — and came back with the goods. So, no, it was never a plan to put him in any kind of danger. We did that once with a character this year, so it’s not going to be a running thing.
That’s also a very dark way to end a holiday episode.
It would be terrible. “Merry Christmas. Avery’s been shot!” No, no. We’re not going to do that.
Looking back on the season as a whole, how do you feel about the arcs that you were able to create for these characters?
We had this planned out from the beginning. We never wanted to do any episodes that were all soft and cuddly and rather meaningless. We had a reason why we came back — we wanted to shine a light on some things; we wanted to get people talking. But our mission was always to be funny, so hopefully we accomplished that as well as at the same time illuminating certain hot-button topics for people. We never planned to start off soft and gradually get stronger. We always had this kind of arc in mind and we did it on our own terms and our network never said, “Oh, too much.” They were incredibly supportive of us — it surprised me a little bit. We all feel very satisfied with the quality of work that we did and we feel like we accomplished what we set out to do.
When you started the season, you and the writers made a list of issues and topics you wanted to tackle, and it seems like you were able to get to many of them. But because the news cycle moves so quickly, not to mention the pace of a TV production schedule, did you feel like people had already moved on?
Well, we knew that we’d be getting into some sticky situations if we tried to be topical on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis because we just wouldn’t be able to stay ahead of the news cycle that way. But if we stuck to topics that were hot-button issues that we knew the country was very much talking about, like immigration, like #MeToo, like attack on the press, those issues are, in this current climate that we’re in, evergreen. So there was no lack of them also. It’s not since 1968 that I remember the country being so engaged in debate with their government, with each other — but even moreso now because it’s not just about a war in Vietnam. It’s about pretty much everything. It’s culture wars. It’s all those topics that I just mentioned. And it’s daunting, but there was certainly no lack of material.
We covered an awful lot of territory in 13 episodes. But it’s what we had planned to do. There was nothing that came up in the 13 episodes that we went, “Oh, now we’re out of date,” except for one little tiny thing in our midterm election episode, where we had made a joking reference to Dennis Hof in Nevada. He was up for a congressional seat and he’s a brothel owner. And then he died [just] before the election, so we had to go in the couple days before we were on the air and pull it and had Joe Regalbuto voice something else in there. It was still a Dennis Hof reference, but it was a dead Dennis Hof. He did win the election, so … that was the only time we had to do that.
Did you ever feel constricted by only having 22 minutes to deal with a certain topic?
I always wish I have more time. I envy the cable and streaming shows who have 30 full minutes, sometimes 31, to tell their story. I don’t think that it hurt us in terms of covering a topic, but it doesn’t give you any breathing room to do some more character development. There’s a whole bunch of stuff we had to leave on the cutting-room floor that I’ve been supplying to CBS Interactive and they’re going start hosting it — little runs between characters and that sort of thing that I think is really the icing on the cake of a comedy. Some of that just really had to take a back seat to getting the story out. I’m not used to that. I’m used to writing a show that’s 24 minutes long back in the day. Now it’s 21:15. It is the way it is on broadcast, but I know that all the broadcast networks are really thinking about their business models now. People are used to watching television without commercials, and they’re used to watching a more relaxed pace of the story. But that’s not where we are right now. So we give our best to make it work.
Do you think that Murphy Brown would work on a streaming service?
If it gave me more minutes, sure. I don’t think I would change the show necessarily, I can’t really see our sister suddenly using a lot of four-letter words. Seems really out of character for them. And I think it would be jarring for the audience, and, for instance, Fuller House just went from a broadcast show to Netflix. And they didn’t change the tone of their show. I would appreciate more time. It’s like slitting your wrist when you have to cut stuff that you really labored over and thought was important and you have to make these Solomon choices. It’s hard. I still love broadcast, though. I feel at home there because we’re reaching a bigger tent and more viewers. And I enjoy the feedback that I get from people who write to me on social media. It’s been very gratifying. I think we did a pretty good job, and we can certainly do better — and that’s why I always ask people, “What would you like to see next season? What would you like to see change?”
What have you learned over the course of the season?
That the country is just as divided talking about Murphy Brown as it is about anything else. One of the things I wanted to do with our finale was to create that space in Phil’s Bar with some memories where there was a time when people reached across the aisle and were able to get things done. One of the things we had to cut from our script was the reference to how Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia would go to the opera together and then come in Phil’s and drink and talk about the opera. We had a whole bunch of those examples, but we couldn’t afford to do more than one. I think going forward into a second season that I would like to try to use the show to try to bring people together a little bit more.
Would you want to get more political in a potential season two?
It depends on what’s going on. If there’s a season two for us, we wouldn’t be back in the writers room until May. That’s six months from now, so who knows what kind of situation we’d be in. I don’t think I would want to be more political, but certainly the show has always been flinty and sharp in its approach to things. Our main thing is, can we make it funny? Can we make people laugh and at the same time get them to think about something? Especially in this era of Fox News when so many people are just getting their information from one source, and that source is so biased. And the same with CNN.
This is how people are getting their information now. I think I’d like to do something revolving around the whole bias situation. I’ve already got a yellow pad going with a ton of stuff I’m interested in pursuing, and not all of it is political. There’s a lot of real personal stories I think I’d like to tell, and I think we hinted at some of them in the finale — a lot of fun stuff and some new stuff for Avery. There’s just a lot of stories to tell on that level, too.
What kinds of personal stories do you want to tell?
I want bring the characters forward. I want them to, even at their age, be able to grow and change how they live a little bit. I think that would be really great for us and for the actors and for our audience. If you stop growing you’re done, and I think that they need to continue to move on in their lives and do things that might surprise us.
Avery’s life after leaving the Wolf Network looks very different. What do you want to see for him in season two?
I haven’t talked to David Nevins [who was promoted to chief creative officer at CBS] yet, and I’m going do that on Jan. 7, so I think I better tell him before I tell you.
How did you feel about the reports a few weeks ago that the series was canceled, when you were simply ending after your initial order as planned?
It was an incredibly misleading headline, and these days that’s all people read is headlines. And then, of course, the Fox people and Sarah Palin and Brent Bozell and all these right-wingers all jumped on it and went “yay.” Laura Ingraham did a whole panel on it. Now you know that you’ve arrived when that’s happened — you know you were on their radar, which is good. But that was really unfortunate. And then for the better part of the day our actors were walking around thinking we were canceled, and that I wasn’t telling them anything. Definitely not the case. We’re in a tough time slot, opposite football, and at 9:30. It’s kind of tough for comedy, but we’re doing better than what was there before. We win our time slot in entertainment programming almost weekly. And so I think it bodes well. I’m optimistic. I haven’t been told anything yet, but I’ll learn more very soon.