‘Murphy Brown’ Returns After 20 Years to Take Full Aim at Donald Trump
“Murphy Brown” is back. The latest show to ride the wave of late 80s, early 90s revivals, the take no nonsense journalist returns to CBS with one key target: Donald J. Trump. Although the original “Murphy Brown” closed shop two decades ago, this constitutes as the 11th season of the series. Most of the cast is back with their quirky charm and energy, and a lot of the writing is wonderfully snappy. But this new incarnation is more of a political statement than a sitcom or even satire. It’s obsessed fully with commenting on Trump, but in a style that feels like preaching to the choir. Even Hillary Clinton herself makes a cameo.
The season premiere opens with a montage of the 2016 election. We see Trump and Hillary Clinton accepting their party nominations, giving stump speeches and then it all culminates in that unforgettable night in November. Watching the results on TV is former network news personality Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) who is shell shocked by Trump’s win. Soon she’s at a Women’s March, donning a pink-colored Roman helmet. Much of the old gang is back (also at the Women’s March), including fellow former on air personas Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford). Fueled by the turbulent times, Murphy is determined to come out of retirement and get back behind the camera. Of course the times have changed and now she’s coming back on cable on the CNC network. Frank and Corky are tagging along and for producing duties they recruit Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud). Miles recently had quite the breakdown, but he’s the only one who can man the ship. Murphy is determined this show will defy the current, heated and opinionated trends. But she soon receives a big surprise, her son Avery (Jake McDorman), an established journalist himself, has been offered his own news show. However Avery is being hired by the right-wing Wolf Network. Not only that, his time slot is the same as Murphy’s!
One of the main challenges facing a revival of “Murphy Brown” is if anyone remembers enough of the original show to want to tune in. An Emmy-winning smash that premiered 30 years ago, it’s a show that hasn’t retained a spot in the public consciousness to the level of something like “Full House” or “Roseanne.” This might explain why this new season is so desperate to seem relevant, trading general humor for direct political commentary. The season premiere is wall to wall Trump jokes and fiery slogans. Corky announces she got shoes from Ivanka Trump’s store at a bargain ($1 a shoe), when Avery announces he’s going to be on the Wolf Network (an obvious riff on Fox News), Murphy mocks the show’s dead-eyed blonde hosts. She also tells Avery her show will stand out because “it’s going to be factual.” The ultimate statement is of course the cameo by Hillary Clinton, who walks into CNC apparently trying to pull off a fake identity. She tells Murphy she’s applying for the “secretarial position” and has “a lot of experience with e-mails.” Clinton avoids any truly edgy jokes, which is wise considering the rest of the show is all barrels ablaze, and as far as cameos go it’s a fun little historical record. Murphy is the one who takes it to another level when she’s forced to dump her flip phone and get a fancy new smart phone. Once she learns how to tweet she starts a firestorm by claiming she once dated Trump (“did he grab anything?” asks Frank). During the premiere episode of her show Trump starts tweeting his usual, bombastic responses and Murphy fires back, the result being her show spiraling just into what she wanted to avoid.
All this is very well-acted with a cast that seems refreshed to be coming back to these old roles. Yet what this “Murphy Brown” is missing is a better balance between statement and comedy. Nearly every line is a slam on Trump, and even those of us in the audience who might agree with Murphy’s sentiments will find it gets tired after a while. For all the sins of its star, the recent “Roseanne” reboot succeeded because it commented on these times while keeping the identity of its world quite intact. We enjoyed following the characters and their lives even as they fully took part in the current debate between political factions in this country. “Murphy Brown” instead feels too calculated, as if it’s just jumping on a bandwagon. We already have SNL with its sharp and biting satire, which has done more to comment on the virtual lunacy of the times than any sitcom. Artists should comment on the times and be provocative, but what’s the point if you’re essentially preaching to the converted? The big flaw in this “Murphy Brown” is that it’s too on the nose.
Can “Murphy Brown” grab a new audience? Time will tell. For now it’s fun to see Candice Bergen back with that intelligent feistiness intact and her quirky band of fellow journalists having their usual breakdowns and metaphysical moments. The storyline involving Avery’s hiring by a conservative network also has some fun charm. But the show should also take a breather, because it spends much time shouting what we already shout ourselves, at the expense of more skillful comedy. We don’t need a future episode where Murphy is sitting on the couch reading Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” because many of us already picked up a copy the week it was released.
“Murphy Brown” season eleven premieres Sept. 27 and airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBS.