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The bizarro real world of CBS’ Murphy Brown revival is a complicated place.
Politically, it’s precisely our world, right down to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and a press conference orchestrated by the real Sarah Sanders in a cameo-via-archival-footage.
Air date: Sep 27, 2018
In terms of media, though, it’s very different. There’s no Fox News, but there’s an ultra right-wing Wolf Network (really subtle, eh?). Instead of CNN, there’s CNC (get it?). It’s a culture in which journalists are beset upon by accusations of fake news and “enemy of the state” name-calling. If the three episodes sent to critics are any indication, it may be a world without Rachel Maddow or Ronan Farrow or John Oliver. It wouldn’t surprise me if that turns out not to be the case and if, at some point, all three of those figures make cameo appearances, but even if they turn up eventually, one thing is made clear: The world within the show is in desperate need of Murphy Brown and her kind of fearless truth-telling.
Our world is not. At least not desperate. In our world, part of why the president has decided to slander the media as the resistance is that there are reporters out there in dogged pursuit of difficult stories, reporters who can be read, seen online or on one of many cable and broadcast news outlets. And if incredulous, comedy-infused outrage is what you crave, each and every night features multiple comics telling Trump jokes in late-night, with another half-dozen doing those duties on a weekly basis.
Perhaps that’s why the new Murphy Brown represents both the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario for this current wave of brand resurrections. My instinct is to feel like there’s more of the positive than the negative, but the rough patches are very rough indeed.
The oversized premiere begins with a helpful recap of the 2016 election, culminating with Murphy’s (Candice Bergen) horrified reaction to Trump’s victory. Cut forward two years and Murphy is in uncomfortable retirement from her time as a decorated investigative reporter, still meeting old chums Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), who are even less ready to have been put out to pasture.
After admitting that she misses the platform, Murphy decides the time is right to return to television now with a morning show committed to real reporting, simultaneously a panel show with Frank and Corky. Leaving aside the realism of what network in 2018 would turn over two valuable hours of daytime programming to three reporters last relevant in the mid-1990s, Murphy is determined that only way they can make this show happen is if they get Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) back as producer, an idea complicated by Miles’ recent mental breakdown.
If that’s not enough intrigue, once Murphy in the Morning is ready to go, it will be head-to-head with a new Wolf Network show anchored by one Avery Brown (Jake McDorman), the network’s lone liberal voice. Yes, that would be Murphy’s son Avery, last seen looking much more like the kid from The Sixth Sense than the hunk from Limitless. It’s gonna be Brown versus Brown, and our world will never be the same!
With Diane English, creator of the original Emmy-winning incarnation, leading the way, Murphy Brown returns with all of the continuity one could hope for. The clearest and best thing the new show has going for it is that it instantly has a core group of characters and actors with established voices, an established collection of quirks and established relationships with each other that are built on history. Now whether you’re still amused by Miles’ neurotic barely-on-the-safe-edge-of-anti-Semitic Jewish quirks, Corky’s stories about her outsized Louisiana family and horndog Frank going to marches to pick up women, it’s almost impossible to dispute that Shaud, Ford and Regalbuto slip back into their familiar characterizations and patter with ease. Murphy Brown had totally slipped off the creative rails by the time it ended and several characters had become unrecognizable, but after the passage of 20 years, the show is able to give them what amounts to a factory reset, older and wiser.
There also isn’t that Roseanne problem of bringing back child actors who had fallen out of the business for good reason, though there’s no real season why Haley Joel Osment shouldn’t have returned as Avery, since he has more than proven his comic chops in recent years. As it stands, McDorman isn’t a total natural with the multicamera format, relying a little heavily on projecting out, but the scenes with McDorman and Bergen work well and bring a welcome warmth to a show that is unquestionably driven by a lot of anger and frustration about … well, mostly about Donald Trump.
In its original form, Murphy Brown was a show that got its dander up about a wide assortment of things. In its current form, it’s a monomaniacal show with one thing and one thing only on its mind. Fortunately, English and company’s writing is fairly sharp and Bergen’s barbed tongue is still impeccable. Some people are going to come away from these episodes wondering why Murphy Brown has become so political, and those people are strange and never watched the original show.
A more legitimate complaint, though, is that even with a production window reportedly tightened to allow the show to be more timely, it can’t begin to keep up with the genuine news cycle and the best the show can do is be specific, which isn’t the same as being current. The references are in the vicinity of correct, they’re just two or three or 20 stories behind, and when Murphy makes a joke about having once dated Trump and Frank says, “Murph, he didn’t grab anything, did he?” I dare you not to cringe in utter embarrassment for the show. I also couldn’t find much use for the flimsy straw man decimation of a Steve Bannon-esque figure, played by the always wonderful David Costabile, part of a totally hollow bit of failed righteousness that the old Murphy would have had no use for — or would, at the very least, have done with more panache.
In a world devoid of angry people with public platforms, Murphy Brown’s anger is vital. In the real world, she’s making jokes the late-night comics made weeks earlier and that your Twitter feed made days before that.
Speaking of Twitter, it must be sadly addressed that the show’s “Man, aren’t these old fogies perplexed by modern technology” undercurrent is pathetic and unfunny. Introducing Nik Dodani’s Pat as the new show’s social media and technology guru isn’t an inherently bad idea, what with the ridiculous lack of racial inclusivity in the show’s original run, which isn’t the same as giving him a single funny thing to do. If the idea of Murphy still having a flip phone is hilarious to you, does this series have secondary plotlines for you! It’s a bit of a relief that this all-too-predictable ageism even from a network that critics mock for being the old people’s network is rarely front-and-center, and it doesn’t take long for Murphy to be sufficiently skilled to instigate a Twitter war with @RealDonaldTrump.
I’m still waiting for Tyne Daly to have anything funny to do as Phyllis, new proprietor at Phil’s and reason to frequently pay tribute to the late Pat Corley. The first episode also honors Robert Pastorelli’s Eldin and if you wait long enough, nearly every former character or running joke from the original series is likely to be acknowledged, though not always successfully. The first three episodes only offer one of Murphy’s famously disposable secretaries and if they can’t find a more inspired approach going forward, they don’t need to bother with the pandering.
I offer that criticism without denying that having guest star Charles Kimbrough appear and call Murphy “slugger” brought a big lump to my throat. There’s no doubt that I have some Murphy Brown nostalgia, and the new version both fed that and gave me reasons to be happy that the show and its often well-placed annoyance are back. The agitation this Murphy Brown generated is familiar from many or most of the recent remakes and reboots, but this one has pleasures and purpose that very few of them can equal.
Cast: Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud, Jake McDorman, Nik Dodani, Tyne Daly
Creator: Diane English
Premieres: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)
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