Brow Beat

CBS Is Reviving Murphy Brown 

Candice Bergen arrives at the American Film Institute's 45th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to Diane Keaton, June 2017.
Candice Bergen arrives at the American Film Institute’s 45th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to Diane Keaton, June 2017.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Turner

CBS announced Wednesday that they will be bringing back their classic sitcom Murphy Brown, with the series’ original star Candice Bergen reprising her role as the title character. The show, in which Bergen played an anchor and investigative journalist at a network news show, ran for ten years and 247 episodes between 1988 and 1998. Original series creator Diane English is also returning, and she and Bergen are executive producing. CBS has ordered 13 episodes.

Murphy Brown became ground zero in the culture wars of the 1990s when vice president and one-time Major Dad guest star Dan Quayle railed against the show in a May 19, 1992 speech in which he blamed the Los Angeles riots on “the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility, and social order.” Murphy Brown, Quayle suggested, was also at fault, for glamorizing single parenthood. The show’s fourth season had revolved around Brown’s unexpected pregnancy; over the course of the season, she made the decision to keep her child, but not marry the father. The night before Quayle’s speech, CBS aired the season finale, in which Brown gave birth to her son. According to the vice president, this fictional event was too much to bear silently:

It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown—a woman who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly-paid, professional woman—mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

The Rodney King trial got the same amount of space in the speech as Murphy Brown: one sentence, and it was a shorter sentence. (The LAPD didn’t even rate a mention.) It’s worth watching Quayle deliver this, if only for a reminder of how smarmy and horrible the culture wars of the Reagan era were.

By the time Quayle’s remarks made the papers the next day, series creator Diane English had responded, “If the vice president thinks it’s disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child, and if he believes a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then he’d better make sure abortion remains safe and legal.” CBS seized on the promotional opportunity over the summer, announcing in July that the season premiere that September would be a special hour-long episode responding to the vice president directly. That episode, “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato,” transposed Quayle’s speech into the fictional world of Murphy Brown, allowing the character to address the issue on her in-show news program:

The episode drew 70 million viewers—the season finale of Friends only drew 52.5 million—and Quayle and Bush went on to electoral defeat a few months later, for mostly unrelated reasons—although the chain of causality is a little stronger than the one connecting Murphy Brown to the Los Angeles riots. Brown’s return to television, CBS said in a statement, will be set in “a world of cable news, social media, fake news, and a very different political and cultural climate.” Wait till she finds out who the president is.

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Matthew Dessem

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.