Michael Vadon/CC 2.0
Skirting The Issue
Michael Vadon/CC 2.0
Can “Murphy Brown” Save TV News?
Amid the sea of TV retreads, the remake of this political sitcom feels timely, urgent, and possibly therapeutic.
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In the summer of 2015, Sara Murray got the shot of a lifetime. The relatively new CNN political contributor was assigned to cover longshot Republican candidate Donald Trump after he shocked the nation with his announcement to run for President of the United States. Surely this was a joke that would feed late-night TV for awhile, but fade out long before the primaries, many of us thought while crocheting “Madame President” throw pillows for our mothers. But within just a few months, Murray found herself in the eye of the Trump shitstorm. While doing her job as a journalist—checking facts, asking tough questions of candidates, and reporting on what they say and do—Murray became a target. Trump called her out by name in an interview on her own network saying, “I think she’s absolutely terrible.”
Her crime? Murray failed to devote much time to Trump’s latest book signing, and the crowds he claims it amassed. “If you listen to Sara Murray, you would think there’s three people standing in the atrium of Trump Tower,” he screamed, red-faced, at a dumbstruck Chris Cuomo. “I have the biggest crowds,” Trump went on. “Either she’s a very unemotional person or she’s not a very good reporter.”
We all should have seen it coming. And yet, in hindsight, after all we’ve endured from Trump so far—and, Sweet Lady Jesus, it’s only just been a year since he’s taken office—Murray’s story feels quaint, cliché even. Because it is. When I talked to her in 2016 for a story on the harassment many female journalists on the campaign trail were facing that year—and there were a lot of them; some even wrote books about it—Murray told me, “I don’t think you can take it personally. I just figured it was my turn.”
Nearly three years later—and even amid the current tornado of bigotry and obstructions of justice coming from the Trump administration—a reporter being harassed by a presidential candidate still feels surreal. This isn’t what happens in America. This is made for TV.
In fact, it could easily have been from an episode of Murphy Brown.
There are something like three dozen shows from your childhood, or even your parents’ childhood, currently in development for a comeback—some being recast, others swapping out male protagonists for female ones (that’s not how gender parity works, but okay), and some we forgot existed in the first place (Did anyone even watch the first Greatest American Hero? And isn’t the female version of this—the new take currently being shopped around—just Maxine Waters’s Twitter account?). Most of these remakes fall in the category of No One Asked For This. We don’t need The Office and Charmed to come back, especially since the stars of each don’t want to join their own remakes. Pass on The X-Files and Dynasty, too. And the only way I’m watching a reboot of MacGyver is if it stars Will Forte and is renamed MacGruber, and he dies at the end of the first episode … and fin. Even the buzz currently surrounding the remake of Roseanne will die off once people remember that they’ve already read Hillbilly Elegy.
But when CBS announced that it would resurrect Murphy Brown, with star Candice Bergen and creator Diane English attached, I felt a pang of excitement, and then panic. Here’s a remake that we actually need right now; one that could do what good television of the true Golden Age once did—All In The Family forcing White America to confront the racism it had grown so comfortably ignoring; Maude airing the first-ever abortion plotline on television, its showrunners risking everything to draw attention to an issue critical to every woman in America—they better not mess this up.
Murphy Brown is an opportunity to rewind on the insanity of the past year (at least), dig in, and spin comedy gold from the truths that have been making us cringe, cry, and resort to survival tactics such as screaming into jars or adopting emotional support peacocks. Not just any sitcom could do this. Not just any leading lady could carry the torch for the journalists and women who have been howling, arms flailing, since Donald Trump thrust his orange face, and all the word garbage that comes out of it, into our lives. But Murphy Brown was never just an ordinary sitcom. Murphy Brown was always as much about the politics of the time as it was about the quick-hitting jokes—at least five per minute, per sitcom rules. And today, we need that mixture of comedy and truth more than ever—and certainly more than we need to see Roseanne Barr legitimize the concept of “Real America.”
Airing for 10 years between 1988 and 1998, Murphy Brown was a politically minded sitcom centered on its eponymous leading lady, an investigative journalist for a fictional CBS news program in Washington, D.C. Murphy was a revolutionary character for many reasons—she was a gives-no-fucks alpha female in the TV industry, so tough that not a single assistant survived more than one episode. She was a 40-something woman with naturally grey hair portrayed as sexy. She had love interests, but never a husband. She was a recovering alcoholic who openly struggled with sobriety. And she became a single-mother-by-choice, a story arc that enraged then-Vice President Dan Quayle so much that he issued a public statement about it, saying the show was “mocking the importance of fathers.” When Bergen won her third Emmy for the role the next year, she thanked him.
What came next was the brilliance of English’s writing and Bergen’s delivery. In the 1992-93 season premiere, Murphy addressed Quayle’s attack on her morality in a special episode of her news program, FYI, by celebrating an array of diverse American families—single parents, mixed-race families, same-sex families, adopted families, blended families—with a definition of what they are: “What really defines a family is commitment, caring, and love.” But first, Murphy delivered one of the best narratives of the series’ run—a commentary on the hypocrisy of the Reagan/Bush administrations couched in a retort to Quayle:
“These are difficult times for our country and in searching for the causes of our social ills, we could blame the media, the Congress, or an administration that’s been in power for 12 years. Or we could blame me.”
Imagine what Mike “societal collapse will be brought on by same-sex marriage” Pence might think about a modern Murphy Brown. He makes Quayle appear as conservative as Bernie Sanders by comparison. Envision the tantrum Trump will throw if a fictional female journalist calls him out and he can’t sick an angry mob of his supporters on her? This is exactly the reason Murphy Brown belongs back on the air. We need sharp, witty writers like English, and veterans like Bergen—and particularly these women who worked on one of the most salient political shows in TV history during three presidential administrations—to take on our current state of disunion.
Looking back at it now, I’m nostalgic for the original show, not just for Bergen’s impressive ’80s feathered hair and the novelty of watching then-unknown, now-famous actors rotating through Brown’s assistant desk. It makes me yearn for a time when news was honest, journalists were distinguished, and the industry didn’t tolerate bullying megalomaniacs for the sake of ratings. The closest thing we have to the transparent, inclusive reporting showcased on Murphy Brown 30 years ago is Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, actual “fake” news programs with more guts to call out political, social, environmental, and economic injustice than most media outlets. And perhaps that’s by design. If you sneak political commentary into a joke, you’ll get a laugh, but you can also teach a lesson.
The new Murphy Brown will be set in a modern newsroom, complete with contraptions 1980s Murphy would have no idea what to make of—floor-to-ceiling holoscreens, 22-year-old social media directors, an HR department. And while Murphy the character may feel out of place at first, the show itself will instantly resonate with America today. And if they can pull it off, it may just help us through the next three years.
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