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What happened to Monday TV?

Ken Tucker on how ”Murphy Brown” and ”Northern Exposure” are losing their charm, and why the rest of the CBS Monday night lineup is seriously lacking

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What happened to Monday TV?

It’s still in the Nielsen ratings’ top 10, it still sits in the strategic center of a Monday night supposedly devoted to sophisticated television comedy, but Murphy Brown has become as much of a drooling bore as Murphy’s overhyped, overdue, over-pampered baby. A recent cover of The Atlantic Monthly asserted ”Dan Quayle Was Right” in his attitudes about family values. That’s depressing and debatable, but we may have to concede that Quayle was onto something when he criticized the show — not as a poor role model for single mothers, but as a poor example of supposedly first-rate American television.

Unlike Dan, however, I blame the baby. Murphy Brown took a nosedive the minute Candice Bergen’s Murphy was forced to start smiling and cooing over little Avery. (Oh relax, will ya? I’m not beating up on an innocent little kid — he’s just a fictional character.) This season we were subjected to an episode shot almost entirely from Avery’s point of view (unfunny premise, unfunny execution) and witnessed the devolution of the charcater of Eldin (Robert Pastorelli) from insouciant painter to daffy nanny.

Avery is a symbol of the softening of Murphy Brown; even when individual episodes are set in the FYI offices, they lack much of the snap and sarcasm that first made the show a success. Now we’re down to plots about Frank’s drab mid-life crisis and the dissolution of Corky’s so-boring-no-one-cared-anyway marriage.

The malaise one may feel watching Murphy these days can’t be ascribed solely to that series alone, however: CBS’ entire Monday-night lineup has become a dreary disappointment, in varying degrees. The network’s 8 p.m. sitcom, Evening Shade, always prided itself on its down-home, leisurely pace, but lately it has crawled to a creative halt. There are now episodes in which stars like Burt Reynolds, Hal Holbrook, Ossie Davis, and ElizabethAshley sit around chatting so aimlessl it’s as if C-SPAN has been granted permission to broadcast the actors’ post-taping bull sessions. Shade, with its award winning cast and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason production imprimatur, has become the bumpkin sitcom for people who thought Green Acres was too complicated.

At 8:30, CBS has at least temporarily replaced Hearts Afire — 30 sweaty minutes of John Ritter and Markie Post frantically trying to convince us that they have the hots for each other — with the calmer, smarter Bob. This schedule change is a relief, even if Bob Newhart’s new vehicle hasn’t quite lived up to its potential. To be sure, Newhart’s new TV wife and daughter — Carlene Watkins and the radiantly silly Cynthia Stevenson — have proven to be just ducky. But the comedy in Bob’s workplace, a comic-book publishing house, is stil very uneven. Can’t anything be done to make Joh Cygan’s comics-writer charcater more than a pushy loudmouth.

Over on the other side of Murphy Brown, at 9:30, there’s Love & War, which has pretty much acknowledged its problems with the recently announced departure of Susan Dey, who wasn’t striking sparks with costar Jay Thomas. Not that Dey deserves to be the fall-gal in this: L&W, created by Murphy‘s Diane English, has been characterized by weaker and weaker writing as the season has worn on.

All of which should lead us to the gleaming, frosty oasis that is Northern Exposure — except that, like the rest of CBS’ Monday night, the past few months’ Exposures have dimmed; they lack purpose. The series is still a soothing charmer, but the only time I truly enjoy it these days is when angry chief Adam (Adam Arkin) and his beguilingly hypochondriacal wife, Eve (Valerie Mahaffey), drop in for a visit to Cicely — they’re so much more tart than Exposure‘s standard sweet oddness. Now comes word that next season Holling (John Cullum) and Shelly (Cynthia Geary) will become parents. Pray that, as a sweeps-period stunt, Eldin doesn’t show up in a paint-spattered parka, offering to baby-sit Holling and Shelly’s new little popsicle.

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