Those who had predicted that “Murphy Brown” would go to pot in this, its 10th and presumably final season, are proven right tonight — but only literally — in a poignant, quietly revolutionary episode that finds Murphy (Candice Bergen) and the rigid Jim (Charles Kimbrough) sharing hits from a marijuana joint. The surprise is that the half-hour is more touching than wacky, continuing to prove that this series hasn’t stuck around too long at the dance after all.
In “Waiting to Inhale,” Murphy undergoes the first chemotherapy treatment for her bout with breast cancer. She shuffles around in the grip of perpetual nausea due to the chemo, earning the emotional support of Corky (Faith Ford), Frank (Joe Regalbuto) and Kay (Lily Tomlin), but not Jim, who keeps a curious distance. He even refuses to drive Murphy to her doctor’s appointment.
But we soon learn that Jim isn’t insensitive to Murphy’s pain, merely scared out of his wits that he might lose his best friend. To ease her discomfort, he gets the bright idea to hit the streets in search of a little medicinal reefer in the hope that smoking some grass will curb Murphy’s symptoms.
The idea of jittery Jim sticking out his neck to purchase illicit narcotics is funny enough. More amusing still is his decision — after talking Murphy into sampling a joint rolled by Joe — to take a few hits himself. He admits that it’s his first time (duh), holding the joint between his index and middle fingers as he might a filter king.
Once Murphy and Jim actually sit down and do the deed with the weed, magic happens. They bond. They get the munchies. And they really do inhale, unlike some presidents we could mention. But neither Bergen nor Kimbrough overdoes it. The tightly woven script from Tom Seeley and Norm Gunzenhauser is neither preachy nor mushy, and Steve Zuckerman’s smart direction keeps the action from being forced.
It would have been easy to have Murphy and Jim stumble around, stoned out of their minds. Yet that wouldn’t have been in keeping with the season’s emotive focus, with the cancer storyline arc surprising many critics with its ability to recharge the show’s comedy battery even as its lead character wages a battle to save her life.
With Diane English now credited as an executive consultant pushing buttons behind the scenes, “Murphy Brown” has accomplished some impressive envelope-pushing of the sitcom form even as “Ellen” steals the headlines. For one thing, Bergen has never been better, fostering breast cancer education without being overzealous and while retaining her deft comic touch.
“Waiting to Inhale” sounded on paper like a nice sweeps gimmick. It plays instead like another smart, sassy chapter in an improbable creative comeback for Candice and Co. — an improbability nearly on a par with, say, a political resurgence for Dan Quayle, just to throw out a name.