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‘Murphy Brown’ Tackles #MeToo, but Falls Short of True Insight (Column)

After more than 20 years off the air, “Murphy Brown” has had to justify its rebooted existence in 2018. Murphy (Candice Bergen) has to grapple with the wild world of 24-hour cable news, while her son (Jake McDorman) tries to break through his conservative Fox News facsimile network with the power of reason (good luck, bud). And as creator and showrunner Diane English has said, the reboot’s goal is to remain as timely as the original run was, hewing as close to real world events as it possibly can.

So it was only a matter of time before the new “Murphy Brown” confronted the chaotic new reality borne of the #MeToo movement, which has proved one of the most lasting, consequential cultural flashpoints of this generation. “Murphy Brown” was always known for tackling issues head-on, especially from the perspective of a staunchly feminist career woman. It should be a perfect fit for this particular topic. But the resulting episode — which is literally called “#MurphyToo” — ends up feeling more like it’s working through a checklist than revealing much of any new insight.

The episode throws Murphy herself back into the recesses of her memory, where she’s long buried a traumatic experience with a professor who cornered her when she was 19 years old. “I put it in a drawer in the back of my brain and moved on,” she says to her son. “That’s what we did in those days; it was a different time.” As Murphy struggles to reconcile this experience with the narrative she always told herself to get past it — he was a celebrated figure who helped her career; she was a naive girl who unwittingly led him on — her male co-workers struggle to understand how to act around women in the workplace now that they may be held accountable for stepping out of line.

If that sounds like a whole lot for a broadcast network sitcom to get through in 22 minutes or less, well, it is. “#MurphyToo” tries to address so many different facets of #MeToo — the lasting effects of trauma, the survival instinct to bury it, generational divide of opinions, etcetera and so on — that only sporadically comes into focus.

The worst of the episode belongs to Murphy’s coworkers, whose half-hearted B and C stories try to provide some levity without shedding much light. Gruff Frank (Joe Regalbuto) becomes a willing guinea pig for their resident millennial (Nik Dodani), who thinks he’s developed an app that will literally stop people in their tracks when they cross an inappropriate line. But he quickly loses patience, since the app starts buzzing at him for even so much as thinking about looking at a woman with less than pure intent. From there, the conclusion that millennials are just being too darn sensitive about all this pesky sexual harassment stuff is barely a hop away. Meanwhile, nervous Miles (Grant Shaud) worries that his romantic interest in a hardworking subordinate might be inappropriate (good!), then sighs with hefty relief once she leaves the company and he can safely ask her out (uncomfortable!).

Neither storyline contributes much beyond Miles and Grant establishing that they don’t understand this cultural shift. Neither learns anything by the end, even with their peppy coworker Corky (Faith Ford) providing a constant stream of sexual harassment anecdotes from throughout her career (which constitutes her only contribution to the episode). Yes, the difficulty level of finding straight humor in sexual harassment is high, but to relegate it to such wacky sidebars ends up feeling too scattered and tone-deaf to ever land.

The episode is more successful with Murphy’s storyline, but it only has so much time and space in which to explore the ramifications of her revisiting a trauma — a dilemma the script tries to solve by defaulting to talking points that have become all too familiar. Murphy muses that her professor lands “somewhere between Harvey Weinstein and the guy on the subway with mirrors on his shoes” on the harassment scale. Murphy’s bartender friend (Tyne Daly) sympathizes with her by saying that “in those days it wasn’t sexual harassment, it was a bad date” — which, judging by some of the reactions to so many of the last year’s cases, isn’t nearly as outdated a viewpoint as “Murphy Brown” makes it out to be.

Within minutes, Murphy ends up back at the very house in which the professor assaulted her in order to confront him, and the power that scene might have had is already diluted by the episode’s glancing attempts to blaze through as many talking points as possible. The happy ending of Murphy stealing back the collegiate award she won the night of the assault ends up feeling more jarring than triumphant.

But that unsatisfactory ending, whether on purpose or not, is the strongest part of episode by a mile. Murphy didn’t go back to see her assailant because she wanted that trophy (even though, as she admits to him in one of Bergen’s better line readings of the episode, she “loves awards!”). No: As she tells him to his face with palpable frustration, all Murphy wants is “the truth, and an apology.”

That bare bones combination is what so many who have come forward against abusers have returned to time and time again: the mere acknowledgement that it happened, and the willingness to admit that it was wrong. That Murphy never gets either is the most realistic and revealing the episode ever gets.

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