“Doesn’t Hollywood have any original ideas anymore?” That’s the reaction most of us have upon reading about yet another TV revival in development. But lack of originality may not be the only culprit. At the risk of giving 45 something else to take credit for, there is one thing the highest-profile revivals have in common: A preoccupation with one Donald J. Trump. NBC brought back Will & Grace, you’ll remember, after the cast and creators reunited in 2016 to shoot a get-out-the-vote PSA lampooning the Republican nominee. The Roseanne revival on ABC (may it rest in complete and utter silence) built its entire first episode around a feud between Roseanne “Deplorable” Conner and her sister Jackie “Nasty Woman” Harris.
And now, Murphy Brown. CBS’s long-running comedy returns this week (Sept. 27, 9:30 p.m. ET) with a premiere focused almost entirely on the events of November 8, 2016. It’s there we find now-retired TV journalist Murphy (Candice Bergen), clad in her own “Original Nasty Woman” sweatshirt and unleashing a primal scream upon the universe after waking up to witness the late-night election results. By the end of the super-sized episode, Murphy Brown is not only back on the air with a new show — co-hosted by her former FYI buddies Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), and produced by her old pal Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) — she’s engaging in a Twitter war with the Commander in Chief on live television. “Bring it on!” she bellows into the camera. “Hashtag Dan Quayle!”
If you suddenly feel very, very tired, you are not alone. While Murphy Brown always mined political headlines for its humor, the show — much like Murphy herself — needs to adjust to our new world, a place where everyone is angry and every screen we own serves up a steady stream of hot (often hateful) takes. During Murphy Brown’s original run, the titular heroine was a novelty, a strong woman shouting truth to power. In today’s world, everyone’s shouting, and while we can take our situation comedy with a side of liberal or conservative outrage, some of us may not be able to stomach it as the main course.
After quick character catch-ups — Corky had a gig on a morning show until producers replaced her with a younger woman; Miles spent two years as producer on The View before suffering a nervous breakdown; and Frank taught classes on investigative journalism — Murphy Brown gets right to tackling the hottest of today’s hot-button issues. The decline in civil discourse, the rise in fear-slash-hate mongering, ad hominem attacks on the free press — the first three episodes address them all, while also name-checking DACA, the Muslim ban, the border wall, immigrant family separation, and the #MeToo downfall of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. And sure, it’s satisfying to watch Murphy Brown lecture Sarah Huckabee Sanders (appearing via a mix of archival footage and a body double) about this administration’s dysfunctional relationship with journalists — “The role of the White House press secretary is to create transparency in the government and tell the American people the truth” — but it isn’t particularly funny.
In between the speechifying are generation-gap jokes about Murphy and new character Pat Patel (Nik Dodani), the head of technology and social media for her cable show. (He goes into a pure OMG freak-out when Murphy hands him her flip phone: “I have never actually seen one of these in person!”) Frank, Corky, and Miles haven’t had much to do yet besides egg Murphy on in her exploits — though Ford gamely handles Corky’s menopause (cue the on-air hot flash!), and Shaud can still wring laughs from Miles’ particular brand of nebbishy anxiety. Interestingly enough, the most entertaining dynamic so far involves new cast member Jake McDorman, who plays Murphy’s grown son Avery. An up-and-coming TV journalist with a gig as the “token liberal” on a conservative news network, Avery serves as “the voice of reason” on the air and with his mother, using logic and his indoor voice to talk Murphy down from her strident soap box. Bergen and McDorman have a relaxed chemistry, and their gentle rivalry — Avery’s new show is a time-slot competitor to Murphy in the Morning — provides the revival with its most genuine laughs.
Just as Murphy strives to place her journalistic integrity above the sensationalistic cravings of cable news, Murphy Brown would be well served to place the human connection between its characters above its mission to make the ugliness of our current reality funny. “There’s a difference between good television and journalism,” Murphy tells Avery. It turns out there’s also a difference between comedy and catharsis. Grade: B-