The latest show in the recent parade of nostalgic revivals is CBS’ Murphy Brown, which was a critically-acclaimed, groundbreaking comedy that aired from 1988 to 1998, earning star Candice Bergen five Emmy Awards (and the show earned another 15 over its run). I was a big fan of the original series and was excited to check out the revival episodes; as much as we all kind of collectively loathe the revival trend, individually, there are shows we’re excited to see more of. Murphy Brown is one of those for me.
Unfortunately, the new iteration gets off to an uneven start. There are some bright spots, like original cast members Bergen, Faith Ford (Corky), Joe Regalbuto (Frank) and Grant Shaud (Miles) slipping effortlessly back into their roles. And Jake McDorman is an excellent choice to play Murphy’s now-28-year-old son Avery, who works for a rival cable network, a thinly-veiled Fox News. McDorman and Bergen have an easy chemistry together, making their moments the highlights of the three episodes given to critics.
But what doesn’t work as well, at least in the first two episodes, is how topical the show is trying to be. Yes, the original series was topical and liberal and didn’t shy away from current political issues. The revival should be the same way. But it feels too forced. Instead of being a workplace comedy punctuated by different viewpoints and commentary, this feels like it is trying to be a political commentary that just happens to be set in a workplace.
The premise of the revival sees Murphy, Frank, Corky and Miles reunited in the wake of the 2016 election to start a new cable news morning show, one that will focus on facts instead of spin and punditry. Of course, that flies out the window immediately when Murphy gets into an on-air Twitter fight with the president during her very first broadcast. The desire for Murphy as a character, as well as the show at large, to fire back at someone who is lambasting the press at every turn is understandable, but it also feels a little beneath a woman of Murphy’s intelligence. Though necessary for her to react to the president’s angry tweets, it could have been done in a better, sharper way.
Additionally, much of the political humor in the first few episodes feels a little stale. Creator Diane English told The Hollywood Reporter that once the production schedule really gets going, the turnaround time for each episode will become tighter and tighter, allowing them to stay more up to date on the country’s events, so that sounds promising. And it is heartening to see the episodes improve, even over just the three released early. The third episode, which also features the return of Charles Kimbrough as retired newsman Jim Dial, is the strongest of the bunch, as it forgoes the faux interactions with a real White House figure in favor of Murphy experiencing an actual struggle with journalistic ethics. Sure, there’s a Steve Bannon-type figure as part of the plot, but it feels a lot more organic than the previous two episodes’ plotlines. Hopefully, Episode 3 portends an continued upward trend in quality as the series goes on over its 13-episode first revival season.
But for now the new Murphy Brown, like our country as a whole, feels like it’s more interested in scoring cheap points than finding the heart from the original show. It’s not a coincidence that, so far, the best parts of the revival are character-based moments: Murphy and Avery’s relationship, Miles’ neuroses, Frank’s terrible luck with women, Corky’s charming bubble headedness, Murphy’s ongoing saga with terrible assistants. They were the best part of the original series, too, so not much has changed. Moving forward, the show just needs more of that and fewer cheap shots.
There is the potential for the revival to be a charming workplace comedy that finds ways to be topical, rather than the other way around. What remains less certain is whether Murphy Brown can find the old magic again.
Murphy Brown returns to CBS Thursday, September 27th.