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Revisiting the First 10 Seasons of ‘Murphy Brown’

Long before its standoff with Dan Quayle, the show proved female sitcom leads could be as irascible as Archie Bunker ever was. And the original ‘Murphy Brown’ remains startlingly timely in 2018—which is good news for its upcoming reboot.

Dan Evans

Back when TV shows had clearly defined endings, Murphy Brown wrapped up its run the way it began: with a woman kicking off her shoes and belting off-key Aretha Franklin. The late singer was almost an invisible cast member on the iconic sitcom, which creator Diane English conceived of when “Respect” came on the radio during a standard-issue L.A. traffic jam. By the time Franklin herself made an appearance toward the series’ midpoint, it was clear why her music had become such a core component of both Murphy Brown and its titular character. No one on TV demanded respect like Murphy, and no one felt less comfortable letting the mask slip except when she was at home, in song.

For a show one can’t easily find outside the obscure reaches of one’s channel roster, Murphy Brown casts a long shadow. These days, it’s hard to escape the feeling that history is cyclical—or worse yet, static—as we find ourselves once again mired in the issues Candice Bergen’s iconic broadcast journalist waded through 30 years ago. The image of a middle-aged, pantsuited blond remains a deeply polarizing one in our national consciousness. Issues surrounding women in the workplace dominate the news; awkwardly, the latest corporate culture to face the spotlight is Murphy’s (both the show and the character) native network, CBS. The White House is once again occupied by a gaffe-prone Republican who makes scapegoats out of fictional characters. Compounding the uncanny, our current president was even the butt of a throwaway line in what was then Murphy Brown’s series finale in 1998.

Now Murphy is back, literally as well as spiritually. Later this month, CBS will premiere its own revival of a classic sitcom, hoping to replicate the network trend’s successes (Will & Grace) and avoid its pitfalls (Roseanne). On its surface, Murphy is far from the cultural spotlight. The series isn’t available to stream anywhere, not even CBS’s pet service All Access. (In part, this is because CBS doesn’t “own” the show; the network originally licensed Murphy from Warner Bros. Television.) An enterprising competitor would have to purchase the exorbitant music rights to Murphy’s iconic Motown soundtrack, hence why none has. Even physical media enthusiasts are out of luck: Due to the unpopularity of a first-season DVD release back in 2005, Warners gave up on subsequent attempts to keep the show’s gang in circulation.

Yet Murphy Brown’s cultural imprint endures, even if its tangible one has faded. Thanks to some helpful archivists who shall remain anonymous, I’ve spent the past few weeks poring through episodes from Murphy Brown’s vast 10-season catalog. Like a lot of battlegrounds in America’s half-century-long culture war, there’s a bittersweet quality to discovering just how well much of Murphy plays in 2018. On the one hand, the country hasn’t moved forward as much as some of us would like to think. On the other, women like Murphy and English have fought for autonomy, sensibility, and so-called “unlikability” before—and won.

I’m about a generation removed from Murphy’s onetime target audience and a couple from Murphy herself. Before this year, my personal experience with the show was largely filtered through secondhand homages like 30 Rock’s “Murphy Brown Lied to Us,” a sixth-season episode in which Liz Lemon contemplates the single motherhood that once made Murphy infamous. As it turns out, this wasn’t a bad introduction: Writing for Vulture in 2012, Ruth Graham referred to Liz as “Murphy’s TV spirit-daughter.” Within minutes, the connections between two behind-the-scenes comedies fronted by workaholic women in a male-dominated industry are obvious. Murphy’s ditzy coanchor, Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), is a clear influence on two separate 30 Rock characters, combining Cerie’s guy-friendly femininity with Kenneth’s easy hick-from-the-sticks gags.

Murphy Brown is the first chapter in Vanity Fair correspondent Joy Press’s recent book Stealing the Show, a study of more than a dozen series helmed by female showrunners, but Press is careful to note that even Murphy was standing on someone else’s shoulder pads when it debuted in 1988: “Murphy wasn’t actually that far removed from Mary Richards generationally. … English saw Murphy as part of a continuum.” Before Murphy, there was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, another product of a husband-wife production team (English partnered with her spouse, Joel Shukovsky) about a female TV journalist; before Mary Tyler Moore, there was That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas as an actress trying to make it in New York as a single woman. “The Murphy Brown writers’ room even had the words THEY DID THAT ON MARY posted on the wall, a reminder not to recycle the beloved show’s single-working-woman-in-the-media storylines,” Press writes. Murphy debuted less than a year after Broadcast News, James L. Brooks’s iconic comedy about the rapidly shifting balance between TV news and entertainment, one of Murphy’s most common themes. (This was back when Walter Cronkite was the face of newscasting, not Sean Hannity.)

Still, Murphy was far from a cookie-cutter template for a sitcom hero, who in the late 1980s was more likely to wear a badge than a dress. In the season prior to Murphy’s premiere, just two of broadcast networks’ 22 new dramas featured female protagonists. And though Murphy and Mary shared some superficial circumstances, their personalities couldn’t be more different. Rather than a hapless everywoman laboring in relative anonymity at a local TV affiliate, Murphy is a bona fide celebrity headlining a nationally recognized news program, with the ego and sense of entitlement to match. The inciting incident of Murphy Brown’s pilot is the title character’s return from a stint at the Betty Ford Center for alcoholism. Plotlines revolve around Murphy hijacking an entire show for an interview that never comes through (“The Queen of Soul”), manipulating a colleague into catering to her every whim while she’s sick (“Florence Night-en Corky”), and strong-arming her way into an all-male social club less out of feminist principle than sheer irritation (“Soul Man”).

She is, to put it indelicately as Murphy might, a total asshole, and it’s a joy to watch her be one without the slightest nod to propriety. Selina Meyer, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Bergen-beating Emmy record, would not exist without Murphy Brown; neither would Nancy Botwin, Nurse Jackie, or Hannah Horvath. Thanks to factors beyond Bergen’s or English’s control, Murphy is best remembered as an accidental counterargument to family-values conservatism. Long before that unexpected twist, though, she proved female sitcom leads could be as irascible and difficult as Archie Bunker ever was. Murphy Brown could have easily been a classic on the strength of that innovation alone. It was only after history intervened that Murphy tried to speak for anyone but herself. If anything, it was just that brand of selfishness that made her stand out.

Murphy Brown didn’t set out to break any barriers, apart from the ones it did by simply existing. For a story about a take-no-shit reporter based in the nation’s capital at the height of the ’80s culture wars, feminist principles figure less consistently into the show than one might assume. Tracking Murphy’s adjustment to a world without alcohol, but with Corky and their 25-year-old producer Miles (Grant Shaud), the first season is peppered with references to Midol, the dreaded 18th of the month, and other neolithic allusions to the scourge of PMS. The dichotomy between Murphy, a serious journalist who interviews presidents, and Corky, a former beauty queen whose lightweight features about weight loss for pets and local restaurants are a regular punch line, feels distinctly second-wave; the uncomfortable implication is that Murphy isn’t one of those women, having earned her right to be taken seriously by embracing her dignified — i.e., masculine — side. English’s go-to description of Murphy’s essence was “Mike Wallace in a dress.” There’s never any doubt that Murphy exists in a man’s world and that she climbed to the top of it by playing a man’s game. The vicarious pleasures of her enjoying the spoils of victory are considerable, but the peers who didn’t, or couldn’t, go the distance remain largely unmentioned.

“You don’t hear feminist polemic coming out of her mouth,” English said of Murphy’s politics back in 1989. “She is what she is.” As befits her era, post-Friedan and pre–Lean In, Murphy is a poster child of post-feminism, the unstated assumption that, decades into the movement, women can shift their focus from activism to living in the world that activism enabled. Not that either Murphy or her creator didn’t walk the walk. On screen, Murphy regularly shattered glass ceilings. In one episode, it’s revealed that network brass were wary of taking a risk on a female anchor until Murphy’s soon-to-be-colleague, Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), put his weight behind her. She doesn’t necessarily pull other women with her up the ladder, but she shows that it’s possible to climb it by being the first to do so, placing her firmly in what one might call the Peggy Olson school of bar-setting born of self-interest.

Behind the camera, Bergen landed the role only after English went toe-to-toe with CBS president Kim LeMasters, who would have preferred a younger lead in Dynasty’s Heather Locklear—and a non-addiction backstory. Compared to modern multicams like Mom, Murphy Brown spends surprisingly little time on Murphy’s sobriety, apart from occasional references to her wild drinking days or complaints about wanting a cigarette. Still, the CBS suits thought a younger woman returning from a trip to the spa would be more relatable. English pushed back, even after Bergen blew her initial audition, and got her way. (A timely writers’ strike also helped keep the script as-is: Thanks to a work stoppage, CBS had to choose between ordering an unrevised Murphy Brown pilot with a 40-something woman with alcoholism in the title role or no Murphy Brown at all.) Decades before the concept of the showrunner as the TV version of an auteur became a widely accepted status quo, English worked to ensure that Murphy Brown’s confident style was also her own.

Like many in the post-feminist era, Murphy Brown learned the hard way the world wasn’t quite as enlightened as its writers thought. After spending much of its third season on a love triangle involving a talk-show host and an old flame, Murphy went into its summer hiatus with the cliff-hanger of a positive pregnancy test. A two-part season premiere then culminated with Murphy choosing to keep the baby, despite its father—Murphy’s ex-husband, a leftist activist with whom she’d had a one-night stand—making clear he wouldn’t be in the picture. By today’s standards, this might be considered something of a cop-out, or at the very least a clichéd way to introduce change into a female character’s life. It’s true that Murphy’s decision to forge ahead as a single mom isn’t quite as unprecedented as it’s remembered; two of the show’s contemporaries, Moonlighting and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, featured similar plotlines, and when the fourth-season premiere first aired, the development went over with a minimum of controversy.

Watching it today, I was mostly struck by how carefully writers English and Korby Siamis were to underscore that Murphy remained as adamantly pro-choice as she ever was; in this case, her choice just happens to be to proceed with the pregnancy. Abortion is seriously considered as an option, and Murphy offers legitimate, character-based reasons for not having one: “I’m resourceful, I never date lawyers, and I only own one television and it’s under 27 inches, so I don’t see why I can’t be a mother if I wanted to!” That Murphy’s actions didn’t have to influence or speak for those of others was part of the privilege Murphy assumed for both its namesake and her real-world compatriots—even the ones who didn’t share her exceptional wealth, beauty, or support network. Besides, in choosing one trope to spur a protagonist’s growth, Murphy Brown steered deliberately away from another. Murphy’s love interests, while still present, would never again dominate the plot the way they briefly did pre-baby. Work was already the great romance of Murphy’s life; now, she had another.

In a campaign trail speech from 1992, vice president Dan Quayle singled out the show and Murphy as “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” The sideswipe came across as a disarming left turn in an address otherwise dedicated to inner cities and welfare reform, though earlier Murphy episodes reveal that the remark may not have been as random as it seemed, filled as they are with one Quayle crack after another. (“You can’t let people get away with shoddy service. It starts with overcooked meat and ends with President Quayle!”) Quayle would later claim he had never watched the show before a makeup viewing party with a group of single mothers, placing him in a still-thriving tradition of GOP lawmakers attempting to score political points at the expense of cultural products they haven’t experienced. What still rankles is the sheer solipsism of the speech—the idea that Murphy and her real-life analogs’ choices were a direct attack on Quayle’s. That a woman could take an action unrelated to a man was inconceivable.

As resonant as fights over representation might be, Murphy’s unlikely seat at the center of a news cycle is partly a testament to a bygone monoculture. Murphy Brown began as more of a critical hit than a commercial one, but by the premiere of Season 5, the numbers were staggering. Joy Press reports that 70 million people watched Murphy sing an Aretha Franklin lullaby to her newborn son, Avery, a figure that translates into nearly half of all American network TV viewers. (The dialogue of Murphy Brown itself is littered with laughably outdated ratings figures, with FYI’s producers angling for “a 40 share” or complaining about “a measly 12 million viewers.”) All this was pre-Quayle, making it less absurd—though still absurd—for a sitting vice president to pick a fight with a fictional character than it would otherwise seem.

After taking a summer hiatus to craft a response in utmost secrecy, Murphy Brown returned with a forceful defense of the non-nuclear family, delivered straight into the camera from FYI’s studio within a studio. (English tells Press “even she didn’t know” how her successors, Gary Dontzig and Steven Peterman, would handle the situation, since English had departed as showrunner after Season 4.) “Perhaps it’s time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes,” Murphy intones. “And ultimately, what really defines a family is commitment, caring, and love.” Along with a Season 10 arc about breast cancer that increased the number of women getting mammograms by as much as 30 percent, the premiere was one of several occasions when Murphy’s massive popularity translated into real-world relevance.

As trailblazing as it could be, Murphy Brown was always an old-school sitcom, with a Cheers-like favored haunt in Phil’s Bar & Grill and a wacky sidekick in Eldin Bernecky (Robert Pastorelli), Murphy’s socially conscious house painter. (Murphy Brown’s D.C. was a strange place where the heroine could debate flesh-and-blood world leaders at work and require years’ worth of elaborate mural painting at home.) In later seasons, however, the broader side of the show’s comedy spectrum started to dominate, with shark-jumping gimmicks like casting Paul Reubens as one of Murphy’s many secretaries and Bergen’s real-life husband Louis Malle as himself.

Celebrity cameos might be a predictable consequence of a late-period sitcom starting to slip in the ratings, but Murphy’s struggles became existential when they took their toll on Murphy herself. “It’s a real risk when you change the molecular structure of something that’s working really well,” English reflected in an oral history. “Murphy was the ultimate single woman, and then to make her into a mom, there are all kinds of minefields you have to avoid”—minefields like centering an entire episode on a quest for baby food (“To Market, to Market”), a picture book (“Reaper Madness”), or a children’s birthday party (“Son of Dottie”). Adjusting Murphy to her new reality while preserving her flinty charm was always going to be a tightrope; without English to guide her, the balancing act proved too much.

“I wasn’t really very pleased with how the series was evolving, and I wanted to sort of get back to our roots and tackle a serious subject,” English told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. That subject was cancer, which prompted Murphy Brown to relive a miniature version of the Quayle debacle when a medical marijuana experiment attracted the negative attention of Clinton drug czar Thomas Constantine. In the finale, featuring cameos from no less than Bette Midler and Julia Roberts, Murphy learns she’s cancer-free, then jettisons a planned retirement to commit to FYI in perpetuity. Until its very last frame, Murphy Brown evangelized the fulfilling power of work.

As much as Murphy’s reproductive choices dominate her show’s reputation, Murphy Brown is firmly a workplace sitcom, not a domestic one. It’s refreshing how many of Murphy’s post-pregnancy story lines have nothing to do with child care, though it’s likely as much a reflection of having to generate enough stories to fill a 26-episode order as the writers’ beliefs about work-life balance. (There is, however, a star-studded episode in which the likes of Joan Lunden and Katie Couric regale Murphy with their horror stories at her baby shower, written by Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King.) Avery, played in Season 10 by a young, banter-fluent Haley Joel Osment, is a major part of Murphy’s life, and one she gets obvious satisfaction from as she ferries him to school and helps dye his hair. But it’s not the same as the satisfaction Murphy gets out of flying to Paris for a story or interviewing the president, and she never stopped pursuing that, either.

Twenty years later, Avery will be in his 30s, and Murphy an empty nester. I haven’t seen any of the new episodes yet, but it seems safe to say that motherhood won’t figure into Murphy’s story lines as much as it did when she was juggling a full-time job with an infant, or when single motherhood on TV hadn’t progressed to the time of Jane the Virgin and SMILF. But while she’s no longer a young mom, Murphy is still a newswoman—just as she’s always been, first and foremost. Some things never change, and some things never should.

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