For a show that’s centered around a world-renowned and hugely accomplished journalist, “Murphy Brown” knows less than it ever did about how the media works.
That’s the first mark against the rebooted “Murphy,” which returns to the air 20 years after its initial 10-season run concluded. Then, Brown (five-time Emmy winner Candice Bergen) was host of the TV newsmagazine “FYI.” When we meet up with her again, disillusioned by having retired at the very moment many Americans seemed to more deeply engage with the daily news cycle, she’s decided to start her own morning show, produced by and costarring all of the colleagues from her “FYI” days. And get this — her twenty-something son just got his own morning show on a competing network! And they’re living together!
It’s not necessarily that none of this would likely happen that nags at the viewer — after all, the reality of “Murphy” 1.0 was fairly elastic. It’s that the show urgently wants to make comment on the times in which we live, but plays it fast and loose with every particular on which it’s uniquely positioned to actually make a statement. Murphy’s son Avery Brown (Jake McDornan) has been given two daily hours of airtime at what we’re told is America’s pre-eminent conservative cable news network. And yet not merely is the show filling the space that’s occupied in our world by “Fox & Friends” with a sunny-to-the-point-of-pointlessness series in which Avery encourages frank debate between small-town Americans, but it’s not even depicted as Fox News. The show that once took specific news anchors — even ones from CBS! — to task now defaults to a portrait of “the Wolf network” so generic as to have no bite at all.
Murphy, meanwhile, uses her easily won platform as a morning-show anchor to deliver absolutely nothing that will surprise anyone. “Murphy Brown” is obsessed, for instance, with theorizing around Russia, with jokes about President Donald Trump’s friendship with Vladimir Putin and about Russian hitmen who might take Murphy out. And it devotes its second episode to an unflattering portrait of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and its third to a yet-more-unflattering and fictionalized Steve Bannon. The treatment of Sanders, who’s depicted through existing footage and the use of a voice actor as harboring a crush on Avery and as an obsessive object of fascination for producer Miles (Grant Shaud), is worse than shabby. Bafflingly, Miles fantasizes about Sanders in the shower, then announces “I have a thing for domineering women.” This is treatment that deserves the sort of opprobrium Michelle Wolf unfairly got after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; it’s a slackening of morals and standards simply because “Murphy’s” writers dislike Sanders so much. And even those predisposed to disdain Bannon may feel less invigorated than bored by Murphy refusing to interview “him” on-air. Shen then dismantles him in a private one-on-one conversation; a debate between two fictional characters, one at her best and the other at his worst, is many things, but it’s not a meaningful policy conversation.
We’re told that Murphy’s takedown of the Bannon-esque character, taped surreptitiously, ended up going viral, with Murphy being able to deliver the death blow no journalist has been able to in our real world and without having given her adversary undue airtime while doing so. It’s another instance of the show’s trend towards wish fulfillment. The comparisons to this year’s vexed and now-retooling “Roseanne” revival are clear on their face: Both shows center around a heroine whose willingness to state her beliefs plainly will make those viewers at home who agree with her cheer.
But Roseanne Conner and Murphy Brown, in their 2018 iterations, differ, too: Roseanne’s politics were entirely and unabashedly personal, focused as they were on an incoherent defense of Trump. She just liked him, and had reverse-engineered a worldview that allowed her to ignore the ways in which his policies were incompatible with her family bonds. Murphy, in this telling, is an equally familiar type, someone whose personal distaste for the President has allowed him to take up an increasing portion of her psychic real estate and intensify her rhetorical style, making her a righteous crusader but increasingly poor company. Bergen, who was so good this summer in the movie “Book Club,” seems ill at ease here, delivering dialogue that seems better-suited for the page than the rat-a-tat pace of the newsroom.
“Murphy Brown” 1.0 was a sitcom about what it took to make a good news show — the compromises that go along with that, not all of them journalistic. The supporting characters, once quirky and helpful pals to Murphy, now seem drained: They only pipe up when they have something to say about Trump. Character, meaningful conflict, and any concept of what the news might actually look like were it not single-mindedly devoted to coverage of the President and company goes out the window. In their place are Thanksgiving-table-from-hell arguments, ones during which anyone watching already will be on Murphy’s side. (If any conservative fans remain, they’ll have tuned out by the midpoint of the Sanders episode — a calculated risk on the part of series creator/showrunner Diane English, perhaps, and a strange one.)
“There’s such insanity out there,” Murphy says early in the series, as she prepares to return to TV news, “that I was becoming this nut job yelling at the TV. I’d rather be in the TV yelling out.” It’s the show’s only real acknowledgment, in its first three episodes, that some balance has been lost, that, as much as Roseanne Conner, she’s sacrificed everything she once was that wasn’t directly tied into her political crusade. On “Murphy Brown,” she’s applauded for it; her popularity and Twitter followers spike, and everyone in the White House Briefing Room gasps in a sort of horrified delight when she asks Sanders, “Why do you lie?” (Notably, a celebrity cameo in the first episode was redacted from the screener sent to critics; one assumes it’ll feature an unnamed A-lister lavishing more praise upon Murphy’s mission.) She’s not really doing the investigative journalism she once did anymore. She’s doing something much more popular: taking stands, then standing by her takes.
The only person who isn’t pleased with her, it seems, is the president, whose tweets enter the narrative of the show when he calls Murphy old and washed-up. Taking credit for getting a rise out of the president before it’s even happened is “Murphy Brown” 2.0 in a nutshell. For a show about journalists, the early episodes show a lack of interest about any phenomenon in our world unrelated to the president, whether those phenomena are foreign affairs or friendship and family life. In that regard, maybe it knows more about the inner life of many journalists, and what plays on TV, than it lets on. But that doesn’t make it much more than a painful reminder of just how little it takes to be regarded as boundary-pushing in 2018: Led by the insanity out there, Murphy’s making as much noise as the president she opposes, and shedding just as little light.
“Murphy Brown,” CBS. Comedy, 30 mins. Three watched for review. Thursday, Sept. 27, 9:30 p.m. E.T.
Executive Producers: Diane English, Candice Bergen
Cast: Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud, Jake McDorman, Nik Dodani, Tyne Daly