One thing that can be said for certain about the return of “Murphy Brown” tonight is that the timing could hardly be better.
For a decade starting in 1988, the CBS sitcom starring Candace Bergen as a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners TV journalist was a weekly forum visited by millions for an informed, off-the-news, comedic exploration of gender, power, politics and media in American life.
Now comes the revival in the midst of another major culture-wars moment with all those forces fully at play in the battle over the nomination of Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court, on the very same day that he would answer in sworn testimony to allegations of sexual assault when he was in high school and college.
Creator Diane English, one of network TV’s keenest political satirists in the 1980s and ‘90s, drives this revival straight into the cultural madness we have been living with since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
The pilot opens with a deftly-edited montage from Trump’s campaign and that mind-blowing election night in 2016 when he seemingly came out of some place beyond nowhere to upset Hillary Clinton. The soundtrack behind the images is “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.
Like many baby boomers, Murphy, long retired from the network news business, fell asleep on her couch watching cable coverage only to wake to the nightmare of Trump as her new president as the montage ends.
Nice opening. And we’re off as Murphy soon gets a call to saddle up once again in front of the cameras for a cable news morning show on CNC.
This stretch of the pilot is a little obvious and heavy-handed. At one point, Murphy actually says, “The band is getting back together,” as if the audience needs to be told what it’s been seeing for the last few minutes as she rounds up the gang from her old “FYI” show: Corky (Faith Ford), Frank (Joe Regalbuto) and Miles (Grant Shaud).
I know network TV is not high end cable or streamed when it comes to storytelling. Madison Avenue wants TV that’s literal and obvious and leaves no one behind. But this is too obvious. You don’t need to show and tell with as well-worn a story line as this in 2018.
The conservative network Murphy & Company will compete against is the Wolf Network — just in case no one knows it’s supposed to be Fox. (At least, no one said, “You know, like Fox.”)
But the dialogue here still has topicality, edge and bite. It might not be laugh out loud stuff anymore, but there are still smiles to be had.
“The Wolf Network, where all the male anchors are conspiracy theorists and the women are dead behind the eyes?” Murphy asks incredulously when she finds out someone very close to her is going to take a job there.
When the new Fox show host says he’s taking the job because he believes he can be a “voice” for “good people who care about this county, who drive pickup trucks, have children in the military, save coupons and go to church on Sunday,” Murohy says, “They’ve got one. It’s orange, lives in the Oval Office and is Facebook friends with Putin.”
Oh, yeah, this series is steeped in references to Trump.
Because of that and the fact that it’s a revival, it is inevitable that the show will be compared “Roseanne,” which blew out the Nielsen ratings roof earlier this year on ABC before its star blew her career up with racist tweets.
With its lead character an arch-liberal, “Murphy Brown,” is from the other side of the political spectrum. I don’t think it will have the kind of ratings sizzle “Roseanne” did because at its core it is a celebration of the very media elites Roseanne Barr and Trump denounced to the mass audience that drives network ratings.
I have great respect for the original “Murphy Brown.” Even though it didn’t hit the CBS airwaves until 15 to 20 years after the real women’s movement, it nevertheless offered millions a viewers a more independent, stronger model of feminine identity than was the norm in prime-time network TV.
The revival has a 13-week commitment from the network. Even if it never gains anything resembling the zeitgeist toehold of the original in that time span, I still welcome it back.
So, get out there, Murphy, and make some serious noise about what the Kavanagh nomination and Trump’s attack on the women who accuse the judge say about the ugly hold patriarchy still has on American life today.