Different eras, different cliffhangers.
The "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas" in 1980 tickled the nation's fancy. The "Murphy Brown" episode scheduled for Monday, resolving the pregnancy status of the central character played by Candice Bergen, may touch the nation's conscience.
In the surprise cliffhanger that ended last season, Bergen, as the single, independent TV news star in "Murphy Brown," took an at-home pregnancy test that disclosed a positive result.
Diane English, creator and co-executive producer of the Emmy-winning series, promises that Monday's special one-hour season opener of the weekly, issue-oriented 30-minute comedy will answer all of the questions in viewers' minds.
Throughout the summer, viewers have wondered who the potential father might be--Murphy's former husband, Jake Lowenstein (Robin Thomas), or acerbic talk-show host Jerry Gold (Jay Thomas). A magazine says it's Jake. English says, "I can't confirm or deny."
It's been a beautiful publicity stunt, using the can't-miss grabber of secrecy. And CBS hopes the pregnancy plot turns into huge ratings Monday instead of a nasty controversy that puts the hit series--and the network's potent Monday lineup--at risk.
"I find it interesting," says English, "that people who criticize TV for not taking risks are often the first ones to aim their guns at you when you do take risks."
The pregnancy issue certainly didn't affect the popularity of "Murphy Brown" during the summer, as ratings remained high, building to the conclusion of the cliffhanger on the show's fourth-season premiere.
In fact, taking the offensive, CBS even is promoting interest in the pregnancy question. "Is she or isn't she?" asks a network print ad for the Monday show. "Murphy faces the possibility of impending motherhood," says the headline of a CBS press release.
"She thinks she is (pregnant), so obviously she had sex with one of these two men," says English. "Either she used protection or maybe she didn't. We got a lot of safe-sex letters. The safe-sex issue is addressed in a mature way."
The CBS press release teaser notes that "while she awaits final word from her doctor, an unwed Murphy considers her choices, including marriage and motherhood."
In other words, it is suggested, the questions include not only whether she's pregnant, but also whether she would have a baby or get married if she did--and who the possible father is.
Several women readers have written to us, saying, in effect, "What's the big deal? This happens all the time nowadays." Several other women have written letters blistering the show, wondering how an intelligent woman like Murphy Brown could allow herself to get pregnant, and mentioning the threat of AIDS.
In the episode, English says, Murphy "goes through a very agonizing hour of decision-making. It's something you don't often see on television--someone making a choice, a choice that women all across this country are making right now."
But "Murphy Brown" is, of course, a comedy. And, as English said in the July issue of the Journal of the Writers Guild--speaking of her series in general:
"We need to be very, very funny because there is a point of view, challenging material and topics which require people to think. If the show wasn't entertaining on some level, people wouldn't allow us to do what we do."
In the same article, English adds: "I also believe that, in a strictly storytelling sense, debates dealing with moral issues create better television. Having a strong point of view is often more entertaining than not having one. It's all in the execution."
Which, of course, was exactly the approach and the strong suit of the TV comedy classics "All in the Family" and "MASH."
"I don't know if this is the right choice for keeping our viewers," English says of the cliffhanger plot, "but it's the right one for the characters, and if you do that, it's usually right for the show.
"It's not a lecture. It's just woven into a story so that all of the pros and cons have to be weighed. It's not an easy choice for her. Serious consideration is given to both sides, the right to life and the pro-choice. This is not something you can sidestep. And we're prepared for whatever flak we get.
"If she chooses not to marry, how many pregnant, unwed anchors have there been? This woman in every sense is a role model. There are all those questions. You're really walking a tightrope, but it's an interesting tightrope that gives us a lot of meat, which we always look for."
Of the possible risk to CBS' Monday night lineup, English says: "I think it is at stake, but we all believe in the brains of our viewers. And our viewers have stuck with us through lots of stuff. The first episode is the test, but it's what we do, what got us into the Top 10. I think if there was going to be a huge turnoff, it would have happened already.
"I'm very proud of the way we handled this. It's a very funny, very intelligent hour. I have a hard time believing that people, after watching it, would turn off 'Murphy Brown' for good. If I did (think that), I wouldn't have done it, because I have a huge stake in this."
Indeed. And CBS already has expressed its faith in English and her husband, co-executive producer Joel Shukovsky, by recently signing them to produce four more series in an agreement that the network says will also help them create "a substantial independent production company."
"Their talents and creative instincts forged the cutting edge of what network television will be in the 1990s," said Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, in announcing the agreement.
Typical of the topicality of "Murphy Brown" was English's comment in an interview with guest host Linda Ellerbee on the NBC series "Later With Bob Costas":
"If you open the papers, you read that many, many women anchors are dealing with pregnancy and careers, children and careers. . . . That whole idea of balancing family with careers is one that we haven't really had to deal with yet."
Viewers of the recently concluded series "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," which ran on Lifetime cable, are familiar with the story of the show's unwed single career woman who became pregnant and decided to have the child. Did "Murphy Brown" get the idea from "Molly Dodd"?
"I don't get cable where I live," says English. 'I haven't ever seen 'Molly Dodd,' so that actually was a surprise to me. But I talked to some people who did watch it regularly, and (that show) made you guess for the whole season who the father was."
Adds English: "Our decision (about the pregnancy storyline) was made a long time ago, back in the first season."