Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Disappearance of Murphy Brown

There is no pre-set formula for achieving classic TV status. But when a series stays on the air for 10 years, earns praise for the quality of its writing and ensemble cast, wins numerous Emmy Awards, and impacts the popular culture in a way that merits reference in nightly news broadcasts, that series almost inevitably qualifies as something special. 

So why has Murphy Brown, which did all of these things, not endured like, say, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a series with very similar DNA?

I used to watch Murphy Brown every week. I looked forward to the recurring bits and gags, from Murphy’s love of (badly) singing classic Motown to her never-ending quest for a competent secretary. I enjoyed the visits from her mother, played by the wonderful Colleen Dewhurst, and the way the series blended fiction and reality by casting several prominent television journalists (Connie Chung, Linda Ellerbee, Joan Lunden) as Murphy’s antagonistic colleagues.

I remember the milestone episodes, such as when Murphy gave birth to her son, an event that generated headlines when Vice-President Dan Quayle questioned the wisdom of glorifying single-parent households. This inspired a brilliant episode in which Quayle’s comments were incorporated into the story, along with a few shots at the politician’s inability to spell “potato.” 

This was a show that seemed at home in the classic TV universe, never more so than when Marcia Wallace reprised her role as Carol Kester from The Bob Newhart Show. Finally, Murphy had capable help, at least until Bob Hartley (Newhart) arrived to entice her back to Chicago.

And yet, I have no desire to revisit these episodes. And I’m apparently not alone; the first season was released on DVD in 2005, but sales were so low that subsequent seasons are still not available. 

Why is that critical “re-watchability” factor that defines the Comfort TV era missing from this once popular and esteemed series? After pondering this question for a while I’ve come up with three possible answers.

1. It Came Along Too Late
The original run of Murphy Brown (1988-1998) emerged at a time when viewers were no longer embracing sitcoms the way they had in previous decades. While many of the series’ characters had real-world counterparts that were immediately recognizable, the Murphy Brown dramatis personae never became archetypes. Today’s cable news channels have no shortage of attractive blonde females, some with dubious journalism credentials, yet no one would ever refer to one of them as a Corky Sherwood (played on the series by Faith Ford). Despite 10 years and nearly 250 episodes, the characters introduced by the series never penetrated the pop culture as deeply as Ted Baxter or Lou Grant.

2. It Was On Too Long
Speaking of which – even the diehard Murphy Brown fans out there would concede that the show lost its mojo somewhere around season 5 or 6. Series creator Diane English left, as did reliable supporting players Pat Corley and Grant Shaud. The addition of Lily Tomlin probably seemed like an inspiration but it weakened the chemistry of the newsroom scenes. The final season presented a story arc in which Murphy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Several sources report that these episodes triggered an increase in mammograms, so it’s hard to disparage shows that may have actually saved some lives. But would you want to watch them again?

3. It Was Too Current
Name-dropping was a rich source of humor on Murphy Brown. But how many people today would laugh at a Strom Thurmond joke? Combine that dated quality with a stridency of one-sided political opinion, and the result is a series that may have played well in its day but now offers the same experience as reading an old newspaper. Contrast this with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a newsroom-centric show that aired 20 years before Murphy Brown but resisted taking strong positions on the issues of the day. Back then, the first rule of situation comedy was to entertain, not proselytize; why alienate half of your audience?

Another 15 years have passed since Murphy Brown left the air, and television has since become even more hostile and more divisive. That inspires many of us to return to the Comfort TV of past generations. But where some shows age like fine wine, others sadly spoil like whole milk.

Murphy Brown deserved its praise and its Emmys. I’m glad Candace Bergen finally found a place to stretch her comedy skills after hosting several memorable Saturday Night Live episodes in the ‘70s. But if it’s all the same, I think I’d rather watch Chuckles bite the dust one more time. 


  1. "Murphy Brown" is playing on the Encore Classic cable channel, and we eagerly watched the first two or three seasons at our house (having been big fans of the show during its first run), but we find ourselves less and less inclined to watch the episodes piling up on the DVR. The show is dated, as you indicate--a lot of the jokes are very topical, as are the references to TV personalities (Faith Daniels, Kathleen Sullivan) who have long since vanished.

    But the biggest problem I have with it on a rewatch is that Candice Bergen is either not a very good actress, or she's chosen to play her role as if she were shouting to the back row of the theater. Every other member of the cast is capable of generating huge laughs with little character beats (Grant Shaud and Robert Pastorelli are brilliant at this), but Bergen seems to think she has to get them by being as big and loud as possible. You can watch a half-dozen Mary Tyler Moores in a row and be comforted by the friendliness of it. Three episodes of Murphy and you find yourself wanting to flee to a quieter place.

  2. Excellent points. Could not agree more.

  3. No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but as far as the absence of later "Murphy Brown" seasons on DVD is concerned, why didn't you bring up music clearance issues?

  4. Perhaps they played a role, but as we see with the pending releases of The Wonder Years and WKRP, shows will eventually get released as long as the potential for profit is there.

    1. I'd like some fan-favorite episodes of "Santa Barbara" to get legitimately released on DVD myself. That show utilized a LOT of licensed songs, especially adult-contemporary ballads. Unfortunately, it's my understanding that problems with music clearance prevented "Santa Barbara" from being rerun on SOAPnet. Sixteen episodes of "The Bold and the Beautiful" from 1987 were legitimately released on DVD, but none of them contained licensed songs.

    2. To avoid confusion, I will say that none of the sixteen "B&B" episodes of '87 that were legitimately released on REGION 1 DVD contained licensed songs.

  5. I really liked (not loved) the show during its original run. While I can't totally disagree with those who say Bergen often shouted her lines, I loved her anyway and she was gorgeous. I was glad to see her get some fame and awards. I never was crazy about the whole FYI crew though (except for Miles, who was a great foil for Murphy), and always enjoyed Murphy's scenes with Eldin much more. The show went on too long; it should have stopped after my favorite season, number six, which had such gems as Martin Sheen playing a former radical, Murphy unwittingly absconding with the Clintons' cat Socks, and Murphy appearing (disastrously) on a "Sesame Street"-type show. In fact the last episode of season six would have been a great episode to go out on, as Murphy realizes anew how special the people in her life are to her, and smilingly ascends her townhouse stairs. Also, the show has dated with all of its topical references (this hurts the first few seasons of THE GOLDEN GIRLS, as well). But it WAS often very funny, and I liked the parade of secretaries and the musical openings, and certainly Candice Bergen. I would love to see seasons 2-6 out on DVD (I have season one). Here's hoping....

  6. I used to love the MTM show, but I was 6, when it premiered, so what do I know. Kidding. I used to watch it in syndication, but can't be bothered to watch it now on METV. I tried to watch it, but the ads for catheters on METV ruin the comedic pacing. It's sad when the commercials are funnier than the program.

  7. I've been revisiting the first season on DVD, and I still love it. I love the friendships between Murphy and Frank, Murphy and Jim, and the relationship of respect she eventually has with Miles. I find all of that very endearing. I loved the smart, oftentimes hilarious political questions arisen and the zingers and pointed stories that reflected some actual goings-on of the time.

    On top of that, I have a huge soft spot for this show because it was a groundbreaker for women (or at the very least another step forward). To have someone like Murphy say what was on her mind, not give a damn what other people think, and to be career driven and sarcastic and smart... I loved her character so much.

    And I can't watch season 1 on DVD forever. I mean, I can and will, but I want more. Come on, Warner Brothers and whatever other company needs to sign off on the music rights and get more seasons of this show out there! If you can put out shows like Emergency! surely there's still an audience interested in revisiting Murphy Brown.

    My bookshelf is waiting, ever-so-patiently.

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    2. I agree! I've started rewatching it again and found out that it actually holds up REALLY real. There are some cultural references that are dated but even current shows make pop culture references that don't resonate with all audiences! I've been dying laughing but also shocked at the fact that not much has changed. The social issues then are the same as now! That's sad. But I LOVE the show and all of the characters (Gary Marshall is aweaome)! I'll buy the DVDs as soon as they become available!

  8. I've been rewatching the first season on DVD recently, and I still find it quite funny and entertaining, but I agree, it has a certain "You had to be there" quality, that would probably make it hard to translate to today's audiences. And I'm not necessarily referring to the fact that the show was topical. "All in the Family", undoubtedly the most topical sitcom of all time, is still hugely popular today, despite being riddled with references to Nixon, Watergate, Vietnam, inflation, the energy crisis, etc. But those references and the humor were broad enough to make it transcend merely being just another kitsch period piece. MB, on the other hand, has a certain "Inside the Beltway" feel that, along with its slew of late '80s/early '90s political references probably make it a bit of a hard sell to those under 30, who don't remember the time. Also, the show has a very definite left-leaning, liberal political feel (which was due to Diane English's own political leanings). Not necessarily a bad thing, but now, in a post-9/11, Blue State/Red State reality, we look at things a bit differently, and even many of us who originally watched, and agreed with much of MB's political content have evolved in different ways. (Personally, I identified as a liberal Democrat at the time, and now would classify myself as a bit more of a libertarian). I'm particularly thinking of one episode from season one, where Murphy is interviewing some Army General on Pentagon spending, and he is portrayed as a stereotypical (for the time) one-note, hawkish blowhard, and Murphy ultimately makes him look like an imbecile on the air. The scene was funny (mostly due to Candice Bergen), but I don't think that kind of a scene would go over the same way today, with our current sensibilities, in these days of ISIS and mass shootings, where we appreciate and admire our military in a way we maybe didn't 30 years ago. That's just one example, of course. So while I personally enjoyed the show during its network run (and wouldn't mind seeing more seasons released on DVD), it would probably not do well, among younger viewers.