Shined up with tweets about dating Donald Trump, fourth-wall-cracking quips and Roseanne implosion asides, the revival of Murphy Brown is very meta. Yet despite those lofty lunges, the CBS sitcom still led by Candice Bergen just can’t grasp the big-picture reality of 2018.
To put it another way, FYI, if you really don’t want to “tarnish” your legacy, to quote Bergen’s now-unretired TV journalist Brown in the first episode of this de facto 11th season, then hit the reset button on this revival ASAP before irrelevance comes knocking.
Even with a sideswipe of Charlie Rose that would have never shown up on a network show just a year ago, the revival of the Diane English-created series (returning more than two decades after its last season ended) has pretty much reduced itself to a one-note Don Quixote from what I’ve seen. With surprisingly tone-deaf digs at the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Steve Bannon misfires, it is a pursuit in which the Trump White House is the constantly charged windmill to the deafening exclusion of all else.
Directly up against Fox’s newly acquired Thursday Night Football opening game pitting the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, the long-scheduled English-penned “Fake News” premiere episode is now set to follow a media-saturated day of high-stakes, real-life drama in Washington D.C.
At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump, fresh from his UN-amusing turn, may still be preparing to either bear-hug or pink-slip his deputy attorney general Rob Rosenstein. Mitigating that, in what will be full-on coverage, former keg-imbiber and current U.S. Supreme Court hopeful Brett Kavanaugh and at least one women accusing Trump’s nominee of sexual assault are appearing on Capitol Hill.
Which means, no spoilers and no matter who that special secret guest is (bets = Hilary Clinton), that this new and slightly extended Murphy Brown is so caught up in being topically anti-Trump that it will surely be yesterday’s news before the end of the night.
It’s a devil’s bargain and, whether or not you think Trump is Lucifer walking the Earth, the fact is no scripted series — not even one with a show within a show — can match the reality show that is the Trump administration. As the new Murphy Brown displays to a fault, to try is a fool’s errand.
One of the things that always made the 1988-1998 multiple Emmy-winning run of Murphy Brown so skillful so often was the wonderfully flawed TV journalist character’s worldliness and unabashed self-involvement, propelled by Hollywood royalty Bergen’s absolutely shattering delivery and star power. Boosted unintentionally by a finger-wagging Vice President Dan Quayle name-drop, Murphy Brown was the role of a lifetime for exactly the right actor at the right time in television and for America.
Often nimbly blurring the line between real talking heads and the fictional world of its FYI network newsmagazine, the show-within-a-show series that starred Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud, Faith Ford, Charles Kimbrough and Robert Pastorelli also straddled the shifting media landscape of a post-Cold War America and its newly pitched culture wars.
Well, like that initially well-played and short-lived Roseanne revival and that other fairly recently unearthed blast from the past Will and Grace, most of the band is back together for this second kick at the can. Coming in from the East Coast cold of a rally against the current POTUS, Regalbuto and Ford are all gung-ho to begin making make-believe TV with Bergen’s still Aretha Franklin-loving Brown. So, at rapid speed, the whole shindig ends up in front of the camera in a fictional tweetstorm with Trump from the opening, literally and figuratively.
Murphy Brown is surely to be harshly compared to the kind of numbers it saw in its heyday, and there’s also a risk that Trump won’t do a repeat of his Roseanne response and take the obvious ratings Hail Mary bait from English and his one-time date Bergen to heart. If the President really does an online slam of “old Murphy,” as they have him doing in the Pam Fryman-helmed 9:30 PM ET tub-thumper, hate-watching could work in their favor. If not, well, not so much.
Narrative shortcoming aside, not so much is actually a fair encapsulation of this latest revival in a throwback-thick TV landscape, even with its seasoned cast. With Murphy in the Morning now on in the early AM on fictional cable, Shaud’s executive producer Miles Silverberg joins Bergen, Regalbuto, and Ford’s once-ingénue Corky Sherwood again, too, while Nik Dodani adds Millennial BTS comic relief as the social media director for the flip-phone-owning tech dinosaur host. A very different sort of odd duck for most of Murphy Brown 1.0, Pastorelli passed way several years ago and is sadly not part of this reunion, though his Eldin character is mentioned fondly throughout. Kimbrough’s stiff broadcast legend Jim Dial shows up for a bit in the third episode of the new season, with more appearances planned down the line.
Among the newcomers, six-time Emmy winner Tyne Daly is aboard as the salty sibling proprietor of the squad’s old watering hole, Phil’s. The Washington D.C. establishment also has another new face in college student and besieged DACA Dreamer Miguel, played with new-generation panache by Adan Rocha.
Perhaps literally and figuratively showing us how much time has passed since Murphy Brown was last on TV, CBS regular Jake McDorman is playing Brown’s now-grown son. A journalist like his mother, Avery Brown is also Murphy’s time-slot rival on the right-leaning The Wolf Network (aka Fox News), and positioned as the too-cute Millennial BFF of the White House Press Secretary.
As you can see, from top to bottom, there’s a lot of Trumpland in Murphy Brown’s world. Will it pivot away from the President to find other topics to attack, as Murphy in the Morning pledges to do?
Yet, much like fellow 1990s hangovers Hilary Clinton, Michael Ovitz and David Letterman, this Murphy Brown creaks along when it should have plugged in, or smartly stayed out of the game. So, unfortunately, don’t expect this leopardess to change her spots.