I’m surprised to find that I am enjoying the CBS comedy Murphy Brown. Say what you will to criticize the show, which is a so-called re-boot of the top-rated 1988-1998 CBS comedy starring Candice Bergen (The Wind and the Lion). Laughter is canned. Plots are simple. Some of the jokes are lame. Yet, with a few exceptions, the comedy is topical, interesting and thoughtful.
The very light, amusing show leans left, of course, as it did when it originally aired 20 years ago. However, with the title character’s son Avery having grown up to become a broadcast journalist like his single mother, whose decision to have a child out of wedlock was a controversial flashpoint in the so-called culture wars (triggering then-Vice-President Dan Quayle), Murphy Brown is less strident now than it was back then.
Consider the context of my interest in the 2018 show, which has neither been cancelled nor renewed for a second season by CBS. I’ve always thought that Ms. Bergen is a talented actress and comedienne, though I was not a fan of her TV show. Bergen as Brown was too biting for my tastes; too self-centered to be likable. The show was bombastic and showy. Once her single motherhood became a political rallying cry, I lost interest. The original Murphy Brown was too often a whiny call and response with shrill, flimsy feminist preaching.
This fall’s Murphy Brown isn’t. Even when she’s editorializing, as the character recently did about immigration during a Thanksgiving-themed episode, she’s more interesting to watch. This owes chiefly to creator Diane English’s new focus on the contrast with her son Avery (Jake McDorman, Live Free or Die Hard, American Sniper). Avery Brown, who initially appears to have no life outside of his new job hosting a show that airs against his mother’s new show, works for a Fox News Channel clone.
This makes for Murphy Brown‘s best moments. Most of the show takes place at her home, the same one she lived in for the original 10-year run. Avery comes back to Manhattan to live with his mother when he gets the rival TV job and their mother-son chemistry clicks. She’s still an activist, but she’s been seasoned by the tectonic shifts in the press, her age and her role as a mother. Murphy Brown seems more mindful of her son’s life now. The character’s more realistic for this reason.
She still wisecracks, she’s still a recovering alcoholic and she’s still an icon in the media. She’s also still competitive, which leads to some sparring with her son, whom she needles about working for a conservative cable channel. But she’s also a better parent that she was in her heyday. Murphy Brown listens to her son. She tries to understand his perspective. Not that he’s a conservative. In fact, his politics are neither left-wing nor right-wing, which makes Avery Brown less explicitly political and therefore more compelling, which puts pressure on his mother to be sharper.
This makes Avery and Murphy more dimensional. Their relationship makes her character, her work (same cast has returned and some new cast members, too) and her journey more aligned with reality and less contingent on topical agendas. And, while Murphy Brown lacks bite, which is not a criticism, some of the funniest moments involve her clashes with President Trump.
For example, her fascination with Twitter, which her son Avery warns her against misusing due to her hot-headed personality, foreshadows her striking resemblance to the childishly ranting president of the United States. Indeed, that Murphy Brown’s just as shallow and vapid, though not quite because she becomes self-aware of her deficiency, as the 45th president is one of the more hilariously written episode arcs.
This is a character that, thanks to her having made mistakes and raised a child, has grown out her self-centeredness to some degree. The beleaguered career woman still oversimplifies certain issues, such as sexual misconduct, which comes up during an episode on the Me, Too movement, and she can still be as cutting as ever, though she appreciates the role of idealism, too, as she does in a good exchange with Faith Ford’s character.
Candice Bergen plays Murphy Brown straight up. The TV news hostess is fiercely independent, wiser and older (in the pilot, she’s depicted as having fallen asleep during the 2016 presidential election TV coverage), which gives her character, and the new show, an opportunity to depict a fuller, clearer perspective with a sense of humor, grace and, at its best, harmony.