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With echoes of the past, ‘Murphy Brown’ reboot tackles Trump-era culture wars

Why We Wrote This

As it returns to prime time, “Murphy Brown” is poised to be as prescient now as it was 30 years ago, capturing the national zeitgeist and offering commentary on the current political climate. 

David Giesbrecht/Warner Bros./AP
Joe Regalbuto, Candice Bergen, and Faith Ford star in ‘Murphy Brown.’ Politics, sexual harassment, and the role of journalism are expected to be central when the sitcom returns Thursday to CBS.

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“Murphy Brown,” the iconic show starring the eponymous fictional TV journalist as she took on America’s culture wars from 1988 to 1998, parachutes into 2018 with a widely anticipated remake on CBS Thursday night. It lands in an era altogether different, yet similar. The original “Murphy Brown” flourished before Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, “fake news,” and President Trump. The sitcom famously incorporated the headlines of the day into plot lines, blending fact and fiction. Now those blurred lines are part of everyday reality. In many ways the show’s original segments are eerily suited to this era. In one episode spinning off the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill Senate hearings, Murphy Brown is summoned to Capitol Hill, echoing the Senate standoff over confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh. In another, Murphy throttles a network executive with his own tie after he makes a pass at her co-worker – a precursor to the #MeToo movement. Andrew Leo, a Pittsburgh salon owner, says the show was ahead of its time. “She is so current now. She said all those things years ago that women are saying now.” 

Watching old clips of “Murphy Brown” can often feel equal part prescient, equal part dispiriting, as if past and present are seamlessly connected despite a gap of more than 20 years.

There’s the one episode, spinning off the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill Senate hearings, where Murphy is summoned to Capitol Hill about a leaked confidential Senate report. “May I respectfully remind you of the importance of the press in a democratic society?” Murphy answers the senator grilling her in a Southern drawl. “Without the press, Watergate, the Savings and Loan debacle, Iran-Contra may never have come to light.”

“So?” he responds deadpan.

There’s the episode where the fictional TV journalist interviews an “average American,” in this case Betty from Idaho, who bemoans the Italians who have “taken over” and that “black people moved in next door.” Her on-air goodwill tested, Murphy asks Betty, “Has anyone ever accused you of being a bigot?”

And there’s the time Murphy throttles a network executive with his own tie after he makes a pass at her coworker, Corky. “If you don’t swear not to hit on Corky or anyone else in this company again you will be coughing up things you ate as a child,” she roars.

They are all vintage Murphy Brown the character, a hard-hitting, often caustic journalist played by Candice Bergen, and “Murphy Brown” the feminist sitcom, which stepped headfirst into the maelstrom of America’s culture wars from 1988 to 1998.

Now as the iconic show, which garnered 18 Emmy awards over 10 seasons, parachutes into the year 2018 with a widely anticipated remake that CBS launches Thursday night, can it resonate in today’s America?

Some see the revival as part of the risk-free reboot craze among money-conscious, ailing networks in an era in which viewers are live-tweeting “Game Of Thrones,” not gathering around a watercooler. And pioneering as “Murphy Brown” may have been on television when she emerged in the ’80s, many strong, irreverent women have taken on American politics and culture head-on since then – from Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep” to Robin Wright in “House of Cards.”

Still, Joy Press, author of “Stealing the Show,” which documents the revolution of female-centric television, says Murphy Brown in 2018 easily finds her place among that lineup. “It’s not just that she was a strong woman but that she was untethered. She was allowed to be really sharp and nasty and critical because she was so funny,” says Ms. Press. “I think that there is an enormous hunger right now to have a woman on television speaking truth to power and expressing the sort of rage, the kind of anger and kind of misery of the current political moment.”

Art imitates life

The sitcom famously incorporated the headlines of the day into plot lines. Blending fiction and reality became its trademark in 1992 when then-Vice President Dan Quayle derided Murphy’s single motherhood as a symbol of America’s decline in family values. The writers brought that speech right back into their story line.

Now those blurred lines are part of everyday reality. One in fact expects the Trump administration to weigh in on the fictional news portrayed in the new sitcom. But the speed is dizzying, the news itself overtaken not by the next cycle, but within the seconds it takes to send a tweet.

The return of a powerful journalist also comes amid the legitimacy crisis facing the mainstream media. If Murphy Brown convulsed American politics in the ’90s, her critics still listened to what she had to say. Washington is said to have emptied out on the nights it aired. In September 1992, Mr. Quayle watched the season premiere with a group of moms, some of them single, a few months after dissing the character’s parenting choices in a stump speech.

In many ways the show's original segments are uncomfortably suited to this era, the parallels almost eerie. There is the Senate standoff over confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court amid sexual misconduct allegations. There are two bifurcated Americas, which see everything from the presidency to Sunday Night Football exclusively through their own lens. And then there’s the #MeToo movement that’s shaken institutions, not sparing CBS.

‘Ahead of her time

Today, though, those sides are less apt to hear one another. The original “Murphy Brown” flourished before the financial crisis, when divides between the “haves” and “have-nots” hardened; before the politicization of immigration and 9/11; before #BlackLivesMatter; “fake news”; and #MeToo – and above all, before President Trump took over the White House.

Ms. Bergen and series creator Diane English admit they wouldn’t have considered a relaunch if Hillary Clinton were president, making the show easy to dismiss as yet another liberal venture. For the cast, it's almost a mission of resistance. They promise to take on gun control, immigration, and sexual harassment, among many of the issues that have resurfaced.

Laura Grindstaff, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in American media, race, gender, and inequality, says the revival seems almost perfectly tapped into the national zeitgeist. “The Trump administration has brought to the surface a kind of conversation that I think many of us thought we wouldn’t have to have anymore,” she says.

Yet it also runs the risk of telling those stories through one narrow lens. The mostly white cast doesn’t reflect society, nor even the media. In terms of #MeToo, it is the middle-class, white woman who has a voice today, even though minority and low-income women are often far more vulnerable. Dr. Grindstaff says she hopes the producers use their platform to spotlight the complex reality of gender inequality. “Murphy Brown is not the story of women in the workplace, it’s a story of a woman in the workplace,” she says.

That the story is told through the eyes of a woman over age 70, however, has many fans buzzing. If some have dismissed the character as a “relic” who won’t stand up in this hot-blooded, fractured, fast-paced era, others say Murphy Brown was ahead of her time – and now can claim her rightful position as pioneer.

Andrew Leo, who has owned and operated hair salons in Pittsburgh, says he remembers the chatter when the show first aired. “I remember women saying, ‘I wish there really were women like that.’ She was so ballsy, so everything. And now here we are. The #MeToo movement,” he says. “This is Murphy Brown territory. She is so current now. She said all those things years ago that women are saying now.”

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