This may come as a shock to some fans of "Murphy Brown" who think the series is hip and cutting-edge TV. But this is a sitcom that has become very old-fashioned in format, message and values. And tonight's highly publicized baby shower show -- at 9 on WBAL-Channel 11 -- is a good example. It's also a good example, though, of why this show means so much to so many people.
Murphy Brown, of course, is having a baby. The actual birth happens next Monday nightin a funny, but also highly traditional episode -- so traditional the ending will make some viewers' teeth ache.
Tonight's big attraction is the five guest stars -- Katherine Couric, Mary Alice Williams, Paula Zahn, Faith Daniels and Joan Lunden. They are all real-life TV anchorwomen who have had babies, as if anyone needed me to explain that. They come to the make-believe land of "Murphy Brown" for a baby shower thrown for Murphy (Candice Bergen) by her colleague Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford).
Remember how shows like "I Love Lucy" in the early days of TV used to build episodes around guest stars playing themselves and interacting with the sitcom star? Bob Hope, John Wayne and William Holden come to mind in connection with "Lucy."
Well, that's how the five anchorwomen are treated tonight. Couric knocks on the door of Murphy's townhouse, and, when Murphy opens it to reveal Couric, the studio audience applauds, bringing the sitcom's suspension of disbelief to a momentary halt. The second half of the show is little more than setting up entrances and exits for the women to deliver -- with varying degrees of success -- their lines.
The humor in the punch lines, in most instances, comes from the women making reference within the context of the make-believe sitcom world to their real-life roles in TV news. When Murphy opens Couric's shower gift, for example, she finds a Size 10D golfing shoe.
An embarrassed Couric explains that she was so busy with her work at NBC's "Today" show that she sent her assistant out to get the gift. The assistant mistakenly switched Murphy's shower gift with Bryant Gumbel's birthday gift. "Oh, no, Bryant Gumbel is at his birthday party right now opening a breast pump," Couric groans.
Couric's delivery of that groan, by the way, is right up there in credibility with Zahn's overall acting performance, which will remind some viewers how truly electrifying Zahn was during the Olympics. Watching Zahn, you will wonder if it could really be that painful to have to play yourself.
There's yet another level of make-believe/real-life referentiality. The shower is mostly the real-life anchorwomen talking about how hard it is to be "super moms." In so doing, they refer to the real children they have given birth to as if we are all familiar with them. Mary Alice Williams, for example, talks about her baby, Alice, "crying across three time zones" in a discussion of trying to travel with babies.
But despite such celebrity self-importance, the shower scene is also a part of what makes "Murphy Brown" rightfully an important part of millions of peoples' lives. It is the show using the make-believe world of the sitcom to vent real feelings of real people about real concerns, which some people may not feel comfortable expressing in their real lives.
Such unbridled expression on non-polite feelings and thoughts has always been Murphy's trademark. Tonight's show is a good example. She only agrees to go along with Corky's shower out of greed: She wants the gifts.
But to be a hit, a show has to speak for larger feelings, and "Murphy Brown" does. On a deeper level, tonight's show is 22 minutes of wall-to-wall, baby-boomer, biological-clock-ticking, super-mom, career-and-family, I-want-a- baby, I-don't-want-a-baby, you-can-have-it-all, you-can't-have-it-all concerns.
It is the stuff of endless lifestyle stories minus a bit of the repression demanded in most polite dialogue.
Faith Daniels can talk about how unpleasant she finds changing a baby's diaper in a airplane bath room. Joan Lunden can talk about "obsessing" over her child's well-being. For all the glitzy phoniness of this crew, they are legitimately giving voice to a generation or more of women's (and to some extent men's) concerns.
Because "Murphy Brown" does this so well, many viewers literally measure their own lives and sense of worth against Murphy. Tonight, the measuring stick will include Murphy's glamorous guests, which is the reason for one last warning.
In the end, tonight's "Murphy Brown" sells the age-old promise of TV advertising: As the beer ads put it, "Hey, you can have it all." You can have children, a great career, great friends, an invincible support system including colleagues who almost never compete with you and so on and so on and so. The five visitors are proof of that. Aren't they?
But before you swallow that, ask yourself who wasn't at Murphy's shower. Meredith Viera, a woman who had to give up a coveted spot on CBS' "60 Minutes" to have a second child. Or Deborah Norville, whose pregnancy leave was used by NBC to ease her out of her co-anchor's spot on "Today" and replace her with Couric, who did so well while Norville was gone that now she's too busy herself to buy gifts for her dear friends, Murphy and Bryant.
MURPHY BROWN'S BABY SHOWER
Where: WBAL-TV, Channel 11.
When: Tonight at 9.