In the first new episode of Murphy Brown in 20 years, which airs Thursday on CBS, Candice Bergen’s legendary newscaster sits in her familiar, favorite bar, talking to her familiar, favorite friends, and lamenting her retirement, as the Trump protest march she was just participating in continues outside. “It’s hard being on the sidelines, especially now, with everybody screaming ‘fake news,’ ” she says. “Fake News” is the title of the episode and a preoccupation of the rebooted series, which, not content merely to be revived, wants to demonstrate its relevance. And so Brown, a few scenes later, retires from retirement. “There is such insanity out there that I was becoming this nut job yelling at the TV,” she tells her son. “I’d rather be on TV yelling out.” Brown may feel like yelling—who doesn’t—but is her yelling still worth hearing?
The original Murphy Brown premiered in 1988, created by Diane English , who is also overseeing the revival, and starred Bergen as a fierce reporter just out of rehab. English described her as “Mike Wallace in a dress,” though to be fair, Brown wore a lot of pantsuits. Early on, the show avoided terms like “feminist,” but that’s what Brown was. A fortysomething woman with an impressive career and no partner, and no particular angst about that lack of partner, Brown was cutting, imperious, tough, and prickly—in a running gag, she fired a secretary she found wanting every episode—staking out territory that has, in the years since, been more fully explored by all the imperfect and watchable heroines that Brown helped inspire.
Murphy Brown was set behind the scenes of a network newsmagazine show, FYI, and was exceedingly alive to contemporary politics. The show featured much running banter and wisecracks at current politicians’ expense, while sometimes lightly fictionalizing real news stories so as to feature them on FYI. But in the show’s most famous moment, its fictions became actual politics when Vice President Dan Quayle, on the campaign trail in 1992, accused the show’s portrayal of single motherhood of contributing to the disintegration of family values. Dizzyingly, Murphy addressed Quayle’s comments directly on FYI, a fictional character responding to a real politician’s comments on her fictional news show to make a real political point.
The reboot is after this same effect—but it can’t achieve it. We’re in a hall of mirrors for sure, but everything is upside down or stretched out. For her new cable news show, Murphy in the Morning, Brown assembles the old team: emo investigative reporter Frank (Joe Regalbuto), first seen wearing a pussy hat; perky Corky (Faith Ford), first seen in a pair of Ivanka heels; neurotic Miles (Grant Shaud), first seen paranoid and hiding out in his apartment, in recovery from being a producer on The View; old-fashioned news anchor Jim (Charles Kimbrough), now a retiree living on his boat. Eldin, Murphy’s housepainter and babysitter, has passed away (Robert Pastorelli, the actor who played him, died in 2004), but that baby is all grown up. At 28, Avery (Jake McDorman) is the newly minted host of his very own morning show, one with the same time slot as his mom’s, but on the Fox News stand-in “Wolf Network.” Avery’s the token liberal, not a conservative—and thank goodness. It’s a relief not to hear, a la Roseanne, patently watered-down conservative talking points doing phony battle with liberal overreach. So instead of being a foil to his mother’s political views, he’s a foil to her journalistic ones.
Murphy Brown’s political chatter has been reduced to a lot of Trump jokes. The reboot is much more interested in the current state of the media. The first three episodes are unsatisfying sitcom disquisitions on Conundrums in Contemporary Media Coverage. Take the third episode, in which Brown has to decide whether to interview the right-wing, multiple-shirt-wearing, former White House aide “Ed Shannon.” She ultimately decides against it: It would be a ratings bonanza, sure, but she would be making the news instead of covering it, while giving Shannon an opportunity to normalize his anti-“crimmigrant” message. But after Brown says no to the interview, Shannon finds Murphy at her local bar, where they proceed to conduct the debate her producer had been hoping to put on-air.
In other words, Murphy Brown, the show, argues that ethical journalists ought to take the high road and refuse to give coverage to Steve Bannon and the alt-right—while providing its own audience with the contentious debate that real news producers can only deliver if they interview challenging people on-air (and don’t forget to challenge them). Contra Dan Quayle, Murphy Brown may be a great role model, but Murphy Brown is very do as I say, not as I do.
There’s a whiff of The Newsroom about the rebooted Murphy Brown, not so much in the show’s sitcom bones—which are very, very creaky—but in the disconnect between all its highfalutin thinking about what the media can and should do and the fictional news programs that supposedly embody this better way. Avery’s America is, we’re told, a thoughtful sojourn to real locales—bars, bowling alleys—where real Americans share their views. In the one bit we see, this “real conversation” devolves into a bar fight. In the opening segment of Murphy in the Morning, Murphy and her co-hosts say it will be “a different kind of cable news program. … We’ll talk about politics like it’s not a sporting event.” Then the show’s very first segment is “Climate Change: Is It Real, or Is It a Hoax,” the quintessential example of giving two sides a chance to bat even when one side is utterly bogus.
Brown’s new show also promises to tell the news “without hostility”—as if hostility weren’t one of Brown’s most compelling qualities. From the show’s beginnings, Brown has freely lost her temper, sometimes on the air—watch her interview a bigot here. This, as much as anything, made her a kind of feminist fantasy: a woman of authority who regularly got to display her fury without losing her audience. In the new Murphy Brown, Brown still gets angry, but the show is less interested in that anger’s radical possibilities than in hackneyed ideas about how a well-functioning media would constrain it.