The long Night of the Living Dead television shows continues, with the resurrection of “Murphy Brown,” a topical multi-camera, live-audience sitcom from the 20th century, starring Candice Bergen as a television journalist.
Premiering Thursday on CBS, it returns to the series all its surviving stars, either as regulars or recurring faces, and also brings back several original writers and creator Diane English, who left the show after its fourth season.
Three episodes were made available to review, and I watched them twice — to get past the disorienting effect of 20 extra years on a first viewing, in order to see it fresh, paradoxically, on a second. It’s funny and sweet and true to its roots, if, at times, a little obvious in its aims.
It’s tempting to compare this to the revival of “Roseanne,” which premiered in 1988, the same year as “Murphy Brown.” Each featured a strong, (refreshingly) opinionated woman in the lead. Each was concerned with the sociopolitical matters of its time, if viewed in different ways from different places.
The new season begins — after a preamble of recent electoral history — in the recent past as Murphy walks out of this year’s Women’s March and into Phil’s Bar, wearing a gladiator’s helmet, and delivers a message: “The pink hats were fine for the first march, but it’s time to step it up. We’re at war now.”
“Murphy Brown” was born in the George H.W. Bush administration — with which it famously clashed, when then-Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the show for Murphy’s single motherhood — but lived large in the Clinton years. Reflecting our current state of mental emergency, the revival comes with a heightened sense of urgency and public mission, like a tweet you just have to send to stop evil from winning.
Still, it’s not as if no one has been doing that job. There is so much topical comedy now with myriad nightly and weekly series turning current events into one-liners or extended analytical comic monologues. Trump is imitated everywhere, and there is the incidental, unintended black comedy the president himself commits, as when he recently got laughs at the U.N. when he claimed that almost no other administration in history had done as much as fast as his.
Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), the investigative reporter whose fearlessness is matched only by his neediness, has been teaching. Perky Southern features reporter Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) has been cut from a morning show. And Miles Silverburg (Grant Shaud), on the far side of a nervous breakdown, is fetched from the dark disarray of his rooms at the Watergate Hotel. Soon they will be back on TV, with “Murphy in the Morning.”
Murphy’s son, Avery (Jake McDorman), a child when last seen, is now a broadcast journalist himself, bearded and strapping and conveniently returning home to Washington, D.C., to live with his mother. (The character in some respects takes the place of Eldin Bernecky, played by the late Robert Pastorelli, the house painter who never went home.) Avery has been offered his own show on the Wolf Network — nothing subtle in that name — where, as his mother describes it, “all the male anchors are conspiracy theorists and the women are dead behind the eyes.” It happens to be on opposite hers.
Avery does not fit the network profile. But in the course of covering the 2016 election, he has developed sympathy for the “good people, who care about this country, who drive pickup trucks and have kids in the military, and save their coupons and go to church on Sunday,” not to indulge in any limiting stereotypes about the good people. “They deserve a voice.”
“They’ve got one,” says his mother. “It’s orange, lives in the Oval Office and is Facebook friends with Putin.”
Murphy characterizes Avery’s new employers as “the ministry of propaganda,” but most — not all — of the battles have been designed for her to win. One episode pits Murphy against a Steve Bannon/Alex Jones stand-in, a straw man who rails against libtards, “crimmigants” and “swarthy people"; she gets the last, withering word. Likewise, she bests Trump (who nicknames her “Old Murphy”) in a social media war.
Still, English takes care to humanize the opposition. Avery has a friendly relationship with Sarah Huckabee-Sanders; the media takes its lumps: “There’s a difference between good television and journalism,” says Murphy. “This is why the people don’t trust the press anymore.”
“Just think before you tweet, mom,” Avery says. “Shows have been canceled for less.” And there is your “Roseanne” reference.
Time is inescapably of the essence: “It seems like just yesterday I was changing your diaper,” Frank says to Avery, who replies, “Well, in a few years, Uncle Frank, I’ll be happy to return the favor.” Corky is menopausal, which she characterizes as “God’s way of saying to women, ‘Sorry, but now that you’re done having babies, I’m going to have to kill you.” Miles, whose extreme youth was a joke in the first seasons, is solidly middle-aged. (And co-anchor Jim Dial, played by Charles Kimbrough, is not a new series regular, though he will drop in from his boat, like a good-looking Poopdeck Pappy, to show his face, and amuse.)
And yet in some ways, time has, comfortingly, stood still. Murphy has apparently done no redecorating in 20 years. Nor has Phil’s Bar changed, apart from the inspired installation of Tyne Daly as its reluctant new proprietor, Phyllis, brother of the late Phil (played by Pat Corley). Of her Washington clientele, Phyllis says, “They got fired, their mistress got a lawyer, they’re under indictment for collusion with a foreign government — please, I’ve got my own problems.”
Younger Murphy was something of a terror — her co-workers, even her close friends could fear her, and she was forever being banned from the halls of power. She’s still competitive and ego-driven — and banned from the halls of power — and Bergen’s delivery, though quieter, has its old crisp, propulsive rhythms.
But time has tempered Murphy Brown. She has a new, slightly daffy sweetness, most notable in her scenes with her son, with whom she dotingly spars (“Shut up, you little piss pot” is typical banter). It mirrors the tone of the revival itself: a reunion about a reunion, an expression of the love of the people making it it for the material, their characters and one another. They hit their marks — they are who they were. If they seem to move a little slower than before, even as the world moves faster, well, check yourself.
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd