If we really must live in an era where every popular TV show from 20 or 30 years ago is going to get brought back on the air, at least CBS’ venerable journalism sitcom Murphy Brown actually makes sense to revive in the era of Trump and Fake News. But does this comedy still have any bite, or have its teeth given way to dentures?
After a very healthy run of ten seasons, during which star Candice Bergen won five Emmys and the show itself won the Outstanding Comedy Series award twice, Murphy Brown left the air two decades ago, in May of 1998. Original creator Diane English is back in charge of the revival and wastes little time making her intentions known. The premiere episode opens with a montage of real news clips from the 2016 Presidential race, culminating in Murphy screaming in horror at her TV when Trump wins the election. I guess CBS isn’t overly concerned about courting those Red State viewers that made the Roseanne revival on ABC such a hit earlier this year.
Having stewed in retirement for a few years, Murphy’s outrage at the current political and media environment stirs her to get the old gang back together and reunite for a new TV show. This time, they’re moving to cable, on the fictional CNC network, for a news roundtable program to be called Murphy in the Morning during the breakfast hour. Former co-stars Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) sign on immediately, but producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) suffered a nervous breakdown after working on The View and has to be coaxed out of his apartment and back to work.
Missing from this episode is co-anchor Jim Dial. (Actor Charles Kimbrough is still alive, but is currently 82-years-old and may be either unable to return or simply uninterested in doing so.) Murphy’s longtime on/off love interest Eldin is name-checked. (Robert Pastorelli died of a drug overdose in 2004.) Pat Corley (who played barkeep Phil) likewise passed away in 2006. That role is now filled by Tyne Daly as his sister, Phyllis.
Most of the half-hour premiere is spent welcoming back the old friends, with a lot of expected, easy jokes about their advancing age. Corky suffers a hot flash on the air. Frank asks the network’s young social media director how to make the font on his phone larger. Murphy has to give up her old flip-phone and learn how to use Twitter.
Murphy’s son Avery is all grown-up (now played by Jake McDorman from the Limitless TV spinoff). Naturally, he followed in his mother’s footsteps and is a journalist as well. Murphy reacts with a mixture of both pride and dismay when he informs her that he’s been tapped to anchor his own show on the Conservative-leaning Wolf Network (subtle, that). What’s more, his show will air in the same time slot as hers. It’ll be a friendly rivalry of Brown vs. Brown in their household.
After repeatedly swearing that her show will focus on serious journalism and present viewers with the unvarnished truth, Murphy winds up triggering a Tweetstorm of heckles from our Commander-in-Chief during her first episode and responds by ridiculing him and picking a fight live on the air. “Hashtag Dan Quayle. You bring it!” she challenges.
Murphy feels bad about this afterwards, as if she let down the respectability of her profession, but is secretly pleased to learn that the episode got great ratings and beat the pants off her son’s show.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
Personally, I’d prefer to see a new journalism sitcom wade into these waters rather than the revival of an old one, but I can’t deny that the return of Murphy Brown feels very comfortable. It’s nice to see these characters again, and if the show had been on the air the whole time at about this level of quality, I’d probably still be watching. The multi-cam sitcom format with laugh track feels dated but also warmly familiar at the same time.
The writing isn’t quite as sharp as I had hoped. A bit where Hillary Clinton cameos as a secretary named “Hilary” (with one L) to interview for a job with Murphy is a little too coy and back-patting. The premiere doesn’t really hit its stride until near the end, when Murphy interviews the dipshit director of the EPA, whose only previous job experience was managing the gift shop at Trump Tower. That part and the feud with POTUS are gold. Future episodes will need more of that fire.