It still snags enough viewers to rank in the top 20 for the season, ad agencies hire its actors to plug their products, and last week Newt Gingrich strolled in to give both his image and the show some media juice. But none of this disguises the suspicion that Murphy Brown is on its last legs.
When it premiered in 1988, Murphy Brown was an amusing series, a kind of Mary Tyler Moore Show with a more cynical Mary as its protagonist. Candice Bergen was coming off a very uneven movie career that had peaked with a fine comic performance in 1981’s Rich and Famous. As Brown, a tough, world-weary Washington journalist who’d just found sobriety, Bergen made her harsh voice and stiff movements work. And Murphy creator Diane English surrounded Bergen with a solid supporting crew: Grant Shaud as overweening yuppie producer Miles Silverberg; Charles Kimbrough as stuffy Jim Dial, anchor on the newsmagazine FYI; Faith Ford as daffy correspondent Corky Sherwood; and Joe Regalbuto as loser correspondent Frank Fontana. Crucial to the series’ charm in its early seasons was Robert Pastorelli as the moody beatnik housepainter Eldin.
Pastorelli left in 1994, and it’s a measure of how far Murphy has fallen that, in the absence of Eldin, one of the most-employed new supporting characters is Miller Redfield, a head-shakingly unfunny arrogant-jerk anchor played by Christopher Rich. It’s not Rich’s fault — it’s the writing, which has left Murphy limp and aimless. Having wrung every last ounce of interoffice comedy from the core players, Murphy Brown is relying heavily on other characters for new plot twists, whether it’s Murphy’s strained romance with reporter Peter Hunt (Scott Bakula may be a handsome fellow, but he ain’t no comedian) or the FYI crew’s strained relationship with network boss Stan Lansing (played at overbearing top volume by Garry Marshall). The first time Paul Reubens appeared as Lansing’s weaselly nephew, he was hilarious; after that, the character instantly became repetitive — a drag.
Slashing satire was never the point of the show, but this season’s attempts at pop-culture commentary have been notably gutless. A recent entry alluded to 60 Minutes’ notorious tiff with the tobacco industry (60’s lawyers had squelched a segment — which eventually ran — on industry practices to forestall a potential lawsuit). The show featured Wallace Shawn as a tobacco lobbyist who leaks damning information to Murphy, whose big laugh line was to tell Shawn’s character, ”You’re pimping for an industry that has the moral integrity of a rabid sewer rat.” (Aside from corniness, this doesn’t even make sense: Do healthy sewer rats have integrity?)
It used to be a big media deal that the character of Murphy is an unbowed liberal — that’s why Dan Quayle was able to score points off the show when he accused single mom Murphy of being a poor example of a parent. Instead of becoming emboldened by Quayle’s simultaneously silly and shrewd move, however, Murphy’s writers have grown more timid. The tobacco story line resulted in a lot of pious grandstanding about the First Amendment, and Jim Dial tendered his resignation, but all we at home could feel was relief that one exhausted character was at least temporarily gone.
Ultimately, what makes Murphy Brown seem quaint these days is simply that its time has passed. In the beginning, its self-reflexive irony — a TV show about a TV show! — was refreshing; now it’s as tiresome as Bergen’s ”Dime Lady” Sprint commercials. A recent episode tried for some timely zing by making fun of the industry’s slew of Friends imitations, but these days, even the chums on that show would rather veg out in front of camp junk like Baywatch than stale junk like Murphy Brown. Newt, you should have tried to put the moves on Rachel when Ross was busy with dinosaur bones at the museum. C-