The reunion didn’t start out as sentimental as Candice Bergen imagined it would. Before filming the premiere episode of the Murphy Brown revival last month at New York’s Kaufman Astoria Studios, Bergen gathered creator Diane English and her castmates in her trailer for a preshow pep talk and selfie. But the group proceeded to make fun of Bergen’s lavish quarters instead.
“Faith came in and said, ‘This is like Vin Diesel’s trailer,’ ” recalls Bergen.
“We were all shocked at the size of it,” adds English.
“There’s a rock garden,” says Grant Shaud, who plays Miles Silverberg.
“A fireplace,” continues Faith Ford (Corky Sherwood).
“I liked sitting next to the water feature,” says Joe Regalbuto (Frank Fontana).
Then Ford started in with the hugs, and Bergen was suddenly overcome with emotion. These were the people she knew and loved from 1988 to 1998. “I could barely talk,” remembers Bergen, who recently reunited with the old FYI team for a Los Angeles photo shoot. “It was just too much. Not only were we doing it again, they built these exact replicas of the sets. I felt so lucky. It was like coming home in a really deep way.”
Given how NBC resurrected Will & Grace and ABC revived Roseanne, it was hardly shocking when CBS decided to dust off Murphy Brown, a workplace sitcom that earned Bergen five Emmys for playing the title character, a hard-charging investigative journalist. The predictability doesn’t make the reunion any less significant: Never in television history has a broadcast network (re)built a comedy around a 72-year-old actress, much less handed the reins to a 70-year-old female showrunner.
“I’m a unicorn!” exclaims English.
Chalk it up to the timeless appeal of the series, known as much for its political satire as its punchlines. Sure, recurring bits like Murphy’s revolving-door secretaries and omnipresent housepainter (Robert Pastorelli, who died in 2004) helped turn the show into a top 10 hit after the third season. But the true test of its power came in 1992, when the single, fortysomething Murphy gave birth to a baby boy in the season 4 finale. The very next day, Vice President Dan Quayle publicly declared that “it doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown…mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it ‘just another lifestyle choice.’”
“I just got back from Philadelphia, where I was getting an honorary doctorate from Penn, and I saw the front pages of the [Philadelphia and New York] Daily News in my lobby,” recalls Bergen of the moment her character’s arc became headlines as part of the GOP platform’s discussion of family values. “One said ‘Murphy Has a Baby, Quayle Has a Cow,’ and the other said ‘Quayle to Murphy Brown: You Tramp!’”
“I was actually very surprised that we never got any blowback from the studio or the network for some of the positions we took,” adds English, who left the show after the fourth season to develop new series like Love & War but returned to write and briefly appear in the hour-long 1998 series finale, which guest-starred Bette Midler and Julia Roberts. “I’ve often said I’m not sure that would be the case today. But here we are again.”
English first considered revisiting the show back in 2012, when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin started to get under her skin. “Sarah was really the beginning of the Trump era in a way that we had never seen before,” explains English. “She didn’t have much experience, had very strong opinions, and was extremely out-there. I really disliked her. I made a joke someplace like ‘If CBS just gave me six episodes, that’s all I would need.’ It became moot, though, because [the GOP] was soundly beaten, so we never really revisited it.”
But Warner Bros. Television did. Right in the midst of the reboot wave, the studio gave English a generous, six-figure check last year to write a Murphy Brown script, which took her months to complete. “It was hard,” recalls English. “In the back of my head I was thinking, ‘Is this gonna be a mistake? If we didn’t do it as well as we did before, are we gonna get ripped apart in the press?’ There was a legacy there, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Candice didn’t want to mess it up.”
Fortunately, it took far less time to reunite the rest of the gang via email. “The subject line said, ‘Hey guys, you are never going to believe this,’ something like that,” recalls Ford, who was back in her home state of Louisiana after occasional stints on shows like The Middle. “We were floored.”
“We all responded immediately,” adds the Pennsylvania-based Shaud, who recurs on Younger. Regalbuto was just appreciative of the timing. “I had done a Curb Your Enthusiasm [episode] and a couple of little acting things, but I was thinking, ‘Should I start taking my pension soon?’”
Once the core cast was locked (Charles Kimbrough, who played blustery newscaster Jim Dial, will return for several episodes, and six of the original scribes have joined English in the writers’ room), CBS ordered 13 episodes before even shooting a pilot. The network now has five iterations of classic TV shows on its schedule, including the upcoming Magnum P.I. with Jay Hernandez in the title role. “We’re never going to say no to somebody who comes through the door and wants to talk about a revival,” says CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl. “But we do want to make sure there’s some distinguishing feature that tells us why we should put it on the air. Murphy Brown couldn’t be more relevant today. This is the perfect time to bring this show back.”
One of the props used in Murphy’s carefully re-created townhome is a small throw pillow that reads “tired-ass honky ho,” something Bergen had made after an ageist troll called her that on social media. (It’s also in the bio of her addictive Instagram account, BergenBags.) While the pillow reflects both Bergen’s and Murphy’s wry sense of humor, it’s certainly not meant to imply that either has lost her fire. On the contrary: When the sitcom returns Sept. 27, a reinvigorated Murphy comes out of semi-retirement to host an eponymous news show with all her former cohorts. “Trump is president for sure,” says English, who moved the show to New York to accommodate Bergen. “Our show has always been like that. We treat our characters as though they live in the real world.”
And just like what’s happening in reality, there’s a conservative news network called WOLF that’s become a real thorn in Murphy’s side, made worse by the fact that her adult son, Avery (Limitless’ Jake McDorman), now serves as its sole liberal voice. “Avery has followed in his mother’s footsteps by following the 2016 campaign. By doing that, he thought it would be a good get to host his own show,” explains McDorman. “Unlike Murphy, he’s really interested in moving toward the middle and having a conversation with some of these people he met on the campaign trail who felt like they haven’t been represented. So even though he’s a liberal voice, he doesn’t have the liberal privilege that I think Murphy can sometimes fall into. He calls her out on that a lot.”
Reality will definitely inspire how English crafts her scripts. Upcoming episodes will shine a light on the #MeToo movement and those truth-challenged White House press briefings. There will also be a whole arc addressing elections, since “we’re gonna air four days before the midterms,” English says. “So yeah, we’ll be really topical.”
When times get unbearably tough, Brown will have a bartender to run to in case she needs to vent, but not imbibe (she continues to be a recovering alcoholic). But don’t expect a carbon copy of her old pal Phil (memorably played by Pat Corley, who died in 2006). The new taverner is Phil’s sister Phyllis (Tyne Daly), who has zero interest in holding Murphy’s hand. “Diane and I thought it might be interesting to see a bartender who wasn’t sympathetic and wouldn’t lend an ear to any problems someone might have,” explains Daly. “I’m just someone who says, ‘Blow it out your nose, I’ve got problems of my own.’”
Other playful additions to the new iteration include Pat Patel, Murphy’s lippy social-media director played by comedian Nik Dodani (Netflix’s Atypical). “Murphy doesn’t understand anything I do,” says Dodani. “My job is to bring the crew into the 21st century, to be the young guy in the office who’s keeping them fresh.” English will also resume the tradition of revolving assistants — there have been 93 so far — but she won’t reveal whether the “big” celebrity she has planned for the premiere will be taking Murphy’s calls. Not that the revival needs any extra star power. When Bergen and her costars finally stood in front of the studio audience on that electric night in August, it was as if “Frankenstein came alive,” remembers Bergen.
“The audience went nuts. They loved the show, and were just desperately hungry for the other point of view,” she continues. “They get all of us back better, smarter, more confident, and in many cases, handsomer and more gorgeous than ever.” No fake news here.
Want more Fall TV scoop? Head to EW.com.