The show lasted ten years, but it took me twice that time to finish it. Murphy Brown was never a hit in Sweden, most likely due to poor programming decisions. It has been shown on four different TV channels, never in its entirety (until now), and usually in time slots where nobody is watching. Still, now that I have been able to catch a majority of episodes, I have been fortunate to rediscover a show that reflected an era so much that it has, for better or worse, become a time capsule.
In the first episode, we learned that Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) was one of America’s best known and celebrated TV correspondents, having earned that reputation over the past ten years working for FYI, a television newsmagazine on CBS. She had recently spent time at the Betty Ford Clinic and was now returning to FYI as a recovering alcoholic, happily learning that her old friends and colleagues, Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), were still going to be by her side on the show. But there were changes in the shape of younger, less experienced talent. Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), a ditzy Southern belle, had been hired to do fluff pieces, and Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), a nervous, bookish nebbish who was 25 but looked like he was 12, was the new FYI producer.
Murphy, who had been through almost every crisis imaginable, found it very hard and completely unnecessary to take either one seriously. Standing up to her was almost impossible. Murphy had her charming qualities; she was a reliable friend, a journalist with integrity and an enthusiastic Motown fan. But she was also cynical, had an occasionally nasty sense of humor and knew how to make anyone who crossed her end up groveling at her feet. Over the years, she came to both respect and like Miles and Corky (who in later years also found each other romantically).
As the show was set in Washington, it made an effort to involve current events but refused to stand neutral; the writers often attacked conservatives, but politicians in general were a frequent target (which didn’t stop them from appearing in cameos).
A ratings hit
In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle made the show a ratings hit after naming Murphy Brown as a poor example after the character gave birth to a son and decided to raise him on her own. The controversy was written into the show and Murphy found many opportunities to make digs at Quayle as well as prove him wrong on the single-mother issue. When she got breast cancer in the final season of the show, it was another chance for the character to make a connection with viewers, many of whom were going through the same ordeal.
The show undeniably had serious moments, but it was always primarily a sitcom. One standing joke was the endless parade of secretaries that were hired for Murphy over the years; they always ended up being fired over some fatal flaw, and part of the joke was that they were often played by celebrities, such as Kramer (Michael Richards) from Seinfeld. The cast was perfect for their parts, especially Bergen who was one hundred percent credible as the hard-nosed reporter.
As a TV phenomenon, Murphy Brown is exceptional. As a sitcom, it wasn’t always laugh-out-loud funny or quite as intelligent as some fans would have you believe. There was also, as Family Guy pointed out in a parody a few years ago, a tendency to build jokes around famous, current names as if that’s automatically funny. Still, the very fact that there is so much to discuss and admire about this show that I’ve had to exclude too much of it to keep the length of this review down says a lot.
Murphy Brown 1988-1998:U.S. Made for TV. 247 episodes. Color. Created by Diane English. Cast: Candice Bergen (Murphy Brown), Charles Kimbrough (Jim Dial), Joe Regalbuto (Frank Fontana), Faith Ford, Grant Shaud (88-96), Lily Tomlin (96-98), Pat Corley (88-96), Robert Pastorelli (88-94).
Trivia: Heather Locklear was allegedly considered for the part of Murphy.
Emmys: Outstanding Comedy Series 89-90, 91-92; Directing 91-92; Writing 88-89, 90-91; Actress (Bergen) 88-89, 89-90, 91-92, 93-94, 94-95; Guest Actress (Colleen Dewhurst) 88-89, 90-91; Guest Actor (Jay Thomas) 89-90, 90-91 (Martin Sheen) 93-94. Golden Globes: Best Comedy Series 90; Actress (Bergen) 89, 92.
Quote: “Oh my god, I have milk coming out of my breasts. This is like having bacon come out of your elbow.” (Bergen after giving birth)
Last word: “Frankly, to be honest, I hadn’t worked for two years before ‘Murphy Brown’. It’s a nice illusion now to think of all of us as terribly successful and talented people at the top of our profession, but that’s hindsight. I had to pray for a job like this. It was going to get me over this bumpy patch in my middle years, a conveyor belt to this West Coast life. I would run to work! The first couple of years, I was here every day 15 minutes early. Everyone thought I was so disciplined. No! I had nothing else to do.” (Kimbrough in 1992, Entertainment Weekly)