Today at six: Judge Diane Wild goes behind the scenes of Murphy Brown and gives us an exclusive report!
The two sides of Murphy Brown:
"You're dealing with a person who gave up drinking this year. Who gave up smoking this year. Every day is a struggle. I'm not as strong as you think I am."—Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen)
"This is a woman who wrote a letter to the airline suggesting that children fly cargo."—Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough)
Murphy Brown was once my favorite television show. I didn't stick with it through all 10 seasons, but only partly due to declining quality and viewer fatigue—that's an awfully long time for a commitmentphobe to stay with any one thing, especially a TV series. But I remember it as one of the most intelligent, witty, daring, and topical sitcoms to capture my attention, with a female lead unlike any other I'd seen. So, I wondered as I waited for my review copy to arrive, would it live up to my memory? Or, over 15 years on, would this late '80s show be too dated?
Facts of the Case
Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen, Sweet Home Alabama) is a crusty reporter at the top of her game (Bergen calls her "Mike Wallace in a dress"). When the pilot opens, she has just completed a stint at the Betty Ford clinic and returned to her job at FYI, a television news magazine based in Washington, DC. Murphy reveals some vulnerability along with her usual irritability as she faces a high-pressure life without her usual crutches.
She returns to an FYI that includes old friends and colleagues, anchor Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough) and investigative reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto). Two new faces greet her as well—her younger, blonder, fluffier replacement-turned-new-addition Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford, Hope & Faith) and the equally young but uncommonly bright new executive producer, Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud).
Murphy Brown is populated by an appealing diversity of characters (and by diverse, I mean personalities, not ethnicities—this is one pasty white show). The characters would grow considerably beyond this first season, but even here, they show flashes of the depths that would come in time.
Corky is the most one-dimensional, but her idolization of Murphy hints that she would not remain the dumb blonde stereotype forever. Jim is the solid anchor (pun intended) of Murphy's life—the one who helped groom her for stardom and encouraged her rehab, the one who is as devoted to his (unseen this season) wife as he is to his career. Frank Fontana is the adventurous correspondent and terminal bachelor, whose best friendship with Murphy thankfully holds no romantic tension to plague viewers for years to come. Nerdy Miles is frequently the butt of jokes, but stands toe-to-toe with Murphy to fight for the integrity of FYI—a show she reluctantly comes to realize is his as much as hers. On the home front, Murphy's house painter, Eldin Bernecky (Robert Pastorelli) becomes her confidante and partner in bickering.
The team tackles stories from political scandals to pet health spas (I dare you to guess which end of the spectrum is Murphy's domain and which is Corky's). The hunt for news may drive the plot, and to some degree the humor, but it is rarely the focal point of the episodes. Murphy Brown's strength lies in the interactions of the characters and the force of Murphy's personality.
In place of an opening credits sequence, Murphy Brown used clever montages, usually set to classic Motown music. Sometimes it was stock footage of a theme that would be important to the episode, such as a collage of wintry scenes accompanied by "Heat Wave" for the Christmas episode. Sometimes it was a skit-like scene, such as Miles getting trapped in a crowded and smoky elevator, to the tune of "Nowhere to Run."
The pilot episode, "Respect," opens with a collage of magazine covers featuring Murphy Brown: Time, Life, People, Newsweek, Esquire, and a fictional tabloid ("Murphy Brown claims: I had Big Foot's baby!") are all featured. The song? Aretha Franklin's "Respect" of course. Thank the DVD gods that this release was able to retain its original music.
That introduction sets the stage well for Candice Bergen's first entrance as Murphy Brown. It instantly establishes that she is a respected journalist, Diane Sawyer-esque in fame as well as appearance. CBS network bosses were apparently wary of casting Bergen, who they thought was "too pretty" to play the irascible and flawed Murphy. But Bergen takes command of the role from the beginning, with a brilliantly brittle performance that wouldn't be naturalistic enough for a drama, but works beautifully in a sitcom.
Murphy was no role model. She wasn't a plucky Mary Tyler Moore making it in a tough man's world—she was as ballsy as any of the men around her. But she didn't slip into the tough-as-nails, broad-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché either. Sure, she cared about people, but she cared about herself more, and made no apologies for it. The character wasn't always right, and she wasn't always nice, but she was always opinionated, interesting, and funny. As Bergen says in the accompanying featurette, "I loved that she had a voice we'd never heard before. A loud voice." You'd want to have her around the dinner table just to hear her take on the world.
It is a minor problem that she would be making quips at this dinner table about people like Jessica Hahn and Donna Rice, who have long outlived their 15 minutes of fame. And she would be wearing those appalling mega-shoulder-padded blazers and flaunting that big hair. Because the show is dated. It would be impossible for a show that touched on current affairs of the time not to be. When they speak of George Bush, we have to remember they mean the current president's father. When they mention Fawn Hall, we reach back in memory to associate her with the appropriate news item. All the Dan Quayle jokes have lost some of their sting now that he could be featured on a "Where Are They Now?" news segment.
Still, it's gratifying to have a show that responded to real-world issues and assumed we'd get the reference. Creator Diane English says the network lamented that she was forcing people to read the newspaper before watching the show. But to its devoted audience, the appeal was that we already read the newspapers anyway, and appreciated a show that didn't feel the need to explain away its intelligence.
Many of the jokes are timeless. Corky's uncertainty over how to pronounce "Shiite" is one of many that got big laughs then, and would today. Political scandals over sex or lies haven't gone away in the last several years, so Murphy Brown's fictional versions of them still ring true. Many of the news personalities the Murphy Brown gang refer to are still around today, and those who have stepped out of the limelight remain legends—Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Connie Chung (well, maybe not all of them are exactly legends). In the "Summer of '77" episode, Linda Ellerbee even shows up as herself, as others would do in the future. (In her commentary for that episode, English says Ellerbee was an inspiration for the character of Murphy and acted as an unofficial consultant to the show as well.)
The fictional news personalities of Murphy Brown and the clever writing are what make the show itself timeless. In a post-Sex and the City world, Murphy Brown's references to sex, PMS and tampons are not quite as groundbreaking as they were at the time, but the zingers still zing. Angry at being excluded from a men's club, Murphy complains to her male colleagues: "It all has to do with something you've got and I don't. A tiny, pathetic, little…y chromosome."
The show relied on some gimmicks, some of which worked (Murphy's never-ending quest for a good secretary), some of which didn't (the patrons of Phil's bar screaming "shut the door" every time someone entered). The ones that didn't were invariably shed, so Murphy Brown just got stronger over time (well, until we get to some of the later seasons, but that's for another review).
The conceit of the house painter having all-hours access to Murphy's house, and never completing the job he was hired to do, is slightly ridiculous, but forgivable. It's a sitcom—it's funny, right?
Robert Pastorelli died of an overdose before the taping of the commentary tracks, so Bergen takes the opportunity to pay tribute to him, saying at one point: "He was not a traditional guy, which was a huge part of his charm." She could be talking about Eldin, who is a slightly off-center, blue-collar foil for Murphy. His presence allows her home life to be highlighted even though her living alone and not having much of a social life are important characteristics of this woman, who has sacrificed much for her career and lost much to her addictions.
There is some inconsistency in the quality of episodes in this first year. Some seem too contrived, with plots we'd seen before. One example is the "Baby Love" episode, where Murphy suddenly decides she wants to have a baby (and no, she doesn't actually have one—this is seasons away from her on-screen pregnancy that caused a Quayle-kerfuffle). The Valentine episode, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," where Murphy and Frank set each other up on blind dates, is particularly unmemorable.
But most of the offerings on this set are strong, and some are standouts. "Mama Said" falls in the latter category, with Colleen Dewhurst guest starring as Murphy's indomitable mother. Both Bergen and Dewhurst won well-deserved Emmy awards for their performances, and the show was a fixture on the awards circuit for much of its run. It often broke out of the sitcom mold, with innovative storytelling and clever direction. But it never lost its comedic touch, even when exploring some more weighty issues: the ongoing struggle of an ex-addict, or the plight of the homeless, for example.
There are no chapter stops on this set, which isn't a huge issue for a 22-minute show, but would be a nice addition. The extras that are included are fabulous. The two commentaries, Candice Bergen on "Respect" and Diane English on "The Summer of '77," offer meaningful insight into the show. The 30-minute featurette is a retrospective that assembles interviews with most of the cast and the writers. Especially informative and engaging are the segments with Bergen and English talking together on a couch, looking like Doppelgangers and sounding like kindred spirits. I would have loved more extras, particularly some interviews from the era of the show's run, but what's here is great.
The image holds up reasonably well for a television production of the time. The picture is low contrast and very soft, and "The Summer of '77" is further weakened by the purposely overdone softness of its flashback sections. There are some places where significant flaws in the source print are distracting, but mostly it's an average transfer of aging source material. The sound fares better, with a non-stellar but suitable Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that shows off the crisp dialogue and great musical selections.
Even if the list price weren't quite as reasonable as it is, I would encourage collectors to own this set. Murphy Brown was an intelligent, risk-taking sitcom that surpasses its topical '80s humor to become an ageless classic.
Murphy Brown has retained my R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary on two episodes
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