Of all the recent television revivals (and reboots, and sequels), you can easily make the argument that Murphy Brown is the one best suited to come back and tackle 2018. So much of its original run — including its approach to news media, its habit of calling out politicians, its commitment to feminism — is at home in our current era. If nothing else, the Murphy Brown revival shoots out of the gate ready for battle, but early episodes indicate that it might not actually be up to the task.
The return picks up 20 years after the finale, as Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen, as great as ever) comes out of retirement, angry but eager to reckon with how much has changed by returning to her roots with a new program. Along with old FYI friends — Corky (Faith Ford), Frank (Joe Regalbuto), and still-neurotic Miles (Grant Shaud) —Murphy begins Murphy in the Morning, an early morning news program that is dedicated to “facts” rather than “fake news” (which is also, sigh, the name of the first episode). It’s a quick and easy way to get much of the gang back together (Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough) pops up for a nice appearance in a later episode) and, for original fans, it’s a genuine delight to see them again, as if meeting up with old friends. But there’s no time to enjoy that, as Murphy Brown dives headfirst into a pile of stale Trump-related jokes, resurfacing with the cheesiest ones in tow.
The show makes its agenda clear early on, opening the premiere with real footage of Trump and shots of women crying over Hillary Clinton’s loss. We first see Murphy watching the results on Election Night 2016, then it skips to the Women’s March in January 2018. In the first few minutes of the episode, Murphy wears a “Nasty Woman” sweatshirt while Frank dons a pink pussy hat; both feel like relics from another era, jokes and references that felt old when Roseanne did it last year. (Some of this, I’m sure, is due to how our current news cycle makes one week feel like an entire year. If you told me the “nasty woman” comment happened a decade ago, I’d believe it.)
It’s hard to fault the show for how on-the-nose it is — calling Trump “orange,” a joke about Ivanka Trump’s fashion line — because it mostly feels like Murphy Brown is playing catch-up, as if creator Diane English and her writers room have been sitting on these jokes for years and have to rapidly get them out of their system before they can move on. It’s understandable, but it’s also exhausting. By the time Murphy ends up in an on-air Twitter fight with Trump (who nicknames her “Old Murphy”), I’m ready for a nap. But it’s not even a problem faced solely by Murphy Brown. More than anything, it reiterates my theory that scripted television isn’t well-equipped to deal with reflecting and reacting to our current world and its messy politics. It’s at once too early and too late. This isn’t to say that series shouldn’t try but, more often than not, the results feel too desperate or even embarrassing.
Fortunately, this isn’t always the case here and there’s still plenty to enjoy about Murphy Brown. The main cast easily slides back into old familiarity and rhythms. Miles’ personality is especially fun to watch in this new era, as his frazzled, stressed-out, and perpetually-fretting nature now obsesses over mass shootings and nuclear war. The revival also improves as it goes along: The third episode, in which Murphy spars with a Steve Bannon stand-in (played by David Costabile), is the best of the bunch and it begins to feel like Murphy Brown is falling into place.
There’s also a welcome addition found in the always-reliable Jake McDorman as Avery Brown, Murphy’s 28-year-old son. Avery followed in his mother’s footsteps and begins hosting his own morning news show on the Wolf Network (get it?) and yep, it happens to be at the exact same time as Murphy’s program. Bringing in Avery was a nice touch, providing Murphy (and Murphy) with a youth-oriented perspective on news and politics. The problem is that, at least in the first three episodes, Murphy and Avery are so conflict-free that it occasionally makes you wonder why he’s there. I’d much rather see Avery more fleshed out, more representative of the divide between old and young liberals . As it stands, we mostly just get long scenes of Avery teaching Murphy how to use Twitter. (Those “haha, old people and technology!” jokes already start off feeling tired and they don’t get much better.)
The Murphy Brown revival isn’t bad — and it’s certainly better than a handful of new shows this season — but it just feels slightly off. (Though, it might be worth mentioning that I’ve watched over 200 episodes of the original run within the last few months, so its successes and failures are clearer in my mind. If you want to revisit, CBS All Access put up a small handful of episodes, and I also recommend checking out Joy Press’ book Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television.) Mostly, it’s just clunky when it attempts to simultaneously update itself while keeping one foot firmly in the past. Still, it’s likely the show will iron itself out as it moves along, so it’s definitely worth tuning in.