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Murphy Brown – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Murphy Brown

The Complete First Season (1988-1989) (Warner Home Video-2005)

The 1988 premiere season of Murphy Brown is here, that of the big shoulder pads and the big hair and the grand entrances. The topical, media-savvy, name-dropping series is bound to get dusty, unless you still appreciate Dan Quayle potshots and Iran Contra jokes and broken typewriter ribbons; however, the intelligence factor is relatively high, considering that the late 80s were a rather boring time in our nation’s history.

What works against it, and what isn’t entirely its fault, is that it came along in the pre-Seinfeld era; despite its great need to be loud and ballsy and tough, it still obeys an obligation to hug and learn (worst example: orphan kids appear on her doorstep on Christmas Eve). The show will prove to be a critical and viewer favorite; it will run for a decade and eventually try a bit harder, but ultimately, it’s stuck in its first gear.

At the very least, there is no teasing will-they-or-won’t-they mating dance like Sam and Diane on Cheers (nothing kills the pace of a sitcom faster than that ploy – think about how much your skin crawls at the Ross and Rachel tedium on Friends or the Eric and Donna “romantic” subplot torture on That 70s Show).

However, the running gag of Murphy’s long line of inept and eccentric secretaries (“somebody in Personnel hates me”) will become a TV staple, even though the joke runs more cold than hot. And credit is given to the series as being the first to use a three-act structure (as opposed to two) – something Seinfeld itself would utilize a few years later and to which everybody would obediently march closely behind.

Murphy Brown is like The Mary Tyler Moore Show left on the stove too long – she is given easy foils (a twinkie of a co-host on her weekly news program, for instance), but, unlike Murray Slaughter, Georgette Baxter and Lou Grant, the co-workers and pals here are not as endearing or memorable enough. They’re high-powered TV stars as lovable losers, pleasant to the bone, but we don’t care. They make it too easy, and it backfires.

The most minor of characters are the ones we need the most. Brown’s eccentric house painter, Eldin (played by the late, great Robert Pastorelli), is the gravity that the rest of the story needs. He’s working class and honest to a fault (“you dance like a white woman,” he tells her) and he brings a reality to a series that desperately wants to prove how real it is. And Phil (Pat Corley), the gravelly voiced owner of a favorite journalists’ hangout, seems to know everything and everyone about Washington, D.C., yet is treated as an afterthought and elbowed out by many less interesting characters.

The biggest dilemma is the character of Murphy herself, and the actress who plays her. Candice Bergen, a child of Hollywood and then a “photojournalist” (right) was never known for her acting chops (one critic once said that her only flair was in her nostrils). The series is writer driven, and Bergen’s wooden acting makes us wonder if she even “gets” the pop-culture references or even the lines she is given to say (try this mouthful that she says to her on-air co-host: “Because you didn’t go through the sixties and you need something to tell your grandchildren besides you once made a wrong turn on Constitution Avenue and wound up in a gay pride parade.”). The lines are usually funnier than the way she delivers them. The writing packs more of a punch on paper.

The character is a colorful, world-famous and world-weary television journalist a la Linda Ellerbee (read Ellerbee’s books instead for the real story). When we first meet her, Brown is freshly graduated from The Betty Ford Clinic (cue laugh track) and she can no longer smoke or drink. The joke is that we are watching the shrew get tamed in this kinder, gentler America of Bush 41. What wrinkles this otherwise acceptable plot is the fact that – yes, even though it’s a show about a mega-TV-star who was brought up as an upper-crust only child -- the world seems to naturally revolve around her and that every lesser being (meaning the entire population of the world) cowers in her presence, rides on her every word, observes her every breath and records her every bowel movement. The entire office even knows and dreads the schedule of her menstrual cycle. Her grand entrances seem a bit unsettling, as everybody else in the office shakes in their boots and seem to have no other way to spend their existence other than in showing their reactions to her. Ultimately, it’s Murphy’s world and we just live in it, and the novelty wears off after about two episodes.

As well, the show often sinks into the adorable when it would have been so easy to avoid it: this upscale white woman loves Motown (“I don’t own a record made past 1968.”). We are asked to find it precious when she dances in her look-at-me-go Caucasian style to the likes of Aretha Franklin or when she sings “You Keep Me Hanging On” to the cigarette she is trying to kick. Also too easy: she keeps a dartboard on her office door with interchangeable signs to throw darts at (“Have A Nice Day,” “The Hostess Will Seat You”). And what sitcom would be complete without the writers insisting on at least one episode where we shockingly learn that the main character was once married before (of course, for only one day, as it always turns out).

In its favor, the series is as media savvy as we may ever get, with an uncanny knack for dropping names (“David Brinkley thinks you’re a putz;” “Brinkley was laughing so hard, beer came out of his nose.”). It’s also hard to fault a sitcom that respects you enough to offer up jokes that involve references to Camus and the Shiites.

However, as much credit as the show gives us for media knowledge, it still asks us to swallow the fact that the fictional news program, FYI, is based in Washington, D.C. (not New York or LA), and that all of the creative and programming decisions for the entire network seem to come from that same DC headquarters. Even the most unsophisticated of us know that major network decisions come out of New York and LA, with no exceptions.

Like Maude before her, this character is older, tougher and just mildly flawed enough so that you don’t have to turn away in agony. There is just a whiff of an air of desperation about her. Networks are often uncomfortable giving us this character in the young and hot version, so take it where you can get it.

The series scores better than most in blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, especially during that haze of an era of “a thousand points of light,” when Gary Hart, Tammy Faye Baker and thirtysomething were easier targets than Murphy Brown’s dartboard.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: March 29, 2005.

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