“What if it tarnishes our legacy?”
That’s the question Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) poses during the return of Murphy Brown, which premieres tonight on CBS.
When Vice President Dan Quayle chastised Murphy Brown for having a baby without a male partner in 1992, it become one of the decade’s defining cultural moments, and cemented Murphy Brown as a television icon.
Whatever happens with the revival, though, the series’ legacy will shift. Its story will expand to include this decade, this political climate, this moment in time. Its legacy may not be tarnished, but it will be different—and perhaps even diminished.
Back in 1988, when the series first premiered, there were no blogs. No Twitter. No Facebook. No streaming platforms. 24-hour news channels were a much smaller piece of the media puzzle. There weren’t a plethora of late-night talk shows dissecting every political machination. You actually could watch everything that was on television, if you were so inclined. We needed Murphy Brown. She spoke up. She spoke back. She spoke truth to power. Since she’s left the airwaves, we’ve gone from a vice president who treated a fictional character as real to a president who treats fiction as fact.
Now, Murphy’s back doing what we always loved about her. The series begins, as The Good Fight did more than 18 months ago, with the election of President Trump. Watching the news inspires Murphy to get the gang back together. And so, with very little regard for how a show actually gets on the air, Corky (Faith Ford), Frank (Joe Regalbuto), and Murphy are hosting Murphy in the Morning, with Miles (Grant Shaud) as their producer. Jim (Charles Kimbrough) is retired, but Kimbrough will make a multi-episode guest appearance beginning with the third episode.
Murphy’s son, Avery, the one she famously gave birth to in 1992, is now 28 years old and played by Jake McDorman. (Given that it’s 2018, the math doesn’t quite work, but I’m willing to overlook this). He gets his own show on the Wolf Network (read, Fox News) as the one liberal journalist among all the conservatives. “All the male anchors are conspiracy theorists and the women are dead behind the eyes” is how Murphy describes the network.
There are lots of jokes about how old everyone is now. Some are fun, like Murphy still having a flip phone. “I have never actually seen one of these in person,” social media director Pat (Nik Dodani) says in awe. Others, like the ones about Corky having hot flashes, are less inspired. And inside jokes, like Tyne Daly’s Phyllis saying she spent 20 years on the NYPD, are amusing, while the dig at Roseanne seems beneath the show.
But mostly, Murphy Brown is a victim of the 24-hour news cycle, making it instantly dated. Murphy’s trademark speeches are a rehash of something we’ve already heard. The second episode features real footage of Sarah Huckabee Sanders as Murphy attends a press briefing and asks, “Why do you lie?” The third features Ed Shannon (David Costabile), a Steve Bannon-esque conservative right down to his shabby appearance. “Fact? I’m surprised you can even say that word without bursting into flames,” Murphy lambasts him. “The only crime I see is the way your murder the truth.” But many others have covered both of these scenarios many times before. Murphy’s saying what so many of us want to say—months after we wanted to say it. The series is firmly in the Democratic/liberal corner, which will leave the show preaching to the converted, and conservatives, which the show treats with utter disdain, without a reason to watch. It fans the flames of an already divided country.
The cast still has great chemistry, and the relationship between Avery and Murphy has a breezy, loving rapport. You get an instant sense of Avery’s childhood in their exchanges. The one thing not included in the three episodes made available for review is the premiere’s special guest star, who is so top secret that they aren’t telling anyone about it. (Maybe Dan Quayle, as Murphy’s new assistant?) I would be delighted to see Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama. And I’m confident that the show won’t legitimize anyone from the Trump administration.
And just as I was congratulating the series for not forgetting that Murphy had a son like some other revivals, I was struck by the fact that Miles and Corky were no longer married but there was no talk of divorce. In fact, they were acting like they were never in a relationship at all. That’s apparently because the decision to put them together happened after executive producer Diane English departed the original series. I get it, but it’s also weird, because their romance was a big part of the show and one of the things I really remember.
Murphy is back, but maybe she should have stayed the legendary memory she once was.
Murphy Brown premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .