It Took Donald Trump to Bring Back ‘Murphy Brown’
Creator Diane English, star Candice Bergen, and the cast of ‘Murphy Brown’ on why they brought the show back, and what to expect from the revival. (Don’t expect Trump to be a fan…)
Why, after 20 years, bring back Murphy Brown now? The iconic character answers that question herself in the first 10 seconds of Thursday night’s season premiere. Wearing a pink sweatshirt proclaiming herself the “Original Nasty Woman,” Murphy is watching news coverage of the 2016 election results and responds in kind—by letting out a primal scream.
To anyone who watched the original Emmy-winning sitcom, it should come as no surprise that Murphy Brown would have something to say about what’s going on in the world. In fact, much of the premiere centers around her frustration that, in retirement from her FYI news program, she hasn’t had a platform to say it.
Well, now she’s back, both literally—the Murphy Brown revival follows a slew of classic sitcoms making a broadcast comeback—and fictionally: Murphy Brown, watching the world implode around her, decides to get the band back together and launch a new cable news show.
“They don’t like to be sidelined,” series star Candice Bergen says, talking in Beverly Hills at a press tour just days after shooting the first episode of the revival. “They just want to be back in the game, and it’s a game they’re all especially good at.”
As Vanity Fair recounted, Murphy Brown premiered on CBS in 1988 amid a war between politicians and changing culture. Conservatives and the religious right’s white-knuckle grip on family values birthed its own movement. In a speech, pundit Pat Buchanan mourned “the soul of America.”
In response to the show’s success, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech suggesting that Hollywood represented a “cultural elite” robbing the country of American values. These immoral bandits, he said, were lurking in “newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges.”
Gee, sound familiar?
“This is a show that has a reason to come back,” series creator Diane English says. “The beauty is that we’re reporters on the show, so we’re back again reporting the news,” echoes Joe Regalbuto, who is back as investigative reporter and Murphy’s best friend, Frank Fontana. “It’s something we always did on the original show, but now the news is this.”
Thursday night’s season premiere, the first new episode after the original show’s 10-season run, sees Murphy desperate to rescue herself from a news-induced tailspin.
“There’s such insanity out there that I’ve become such a nut job yelling at the TV. I’d rather be on TV yelling out,” Murphy says, reuniting her old friends and colleagues Frank, plucky broadcaster Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), and neurotic producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) to create a new cable news show, Murphy in the Morning. “Here’s the novelty,” Murphy says. “It’s going to be totally factual.”
Not only does Murphy Brown have a reason to come back. As English stresses, it has a purpose, a mission to advocate on behalf of the free press. “It’s incredibly disturbing to hear the press be called the enemy of the people,” she says. “The press is not without its flaws, that’s for sure. But one of the pillars of our democracy is the free press, and our characters are members of the press. So that’s how we focus many of our episodes, through that prism.”
English, who left the series four years into its original run, had been approached about a possible revival several times over the years, most seriously when Sarah Palin was a vice presidential candidate. The comparisons between Palin’s shilling for the "right-winging, bitter-clinging proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religions, and our Constitution” and Murphy’s self-styled ideological nemesis, Dan Quayle, were, after all, uncanny.
(Quayle notoriously criticized the fictional character of Murphy Brown, who in season four had a child out of wedlock, for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone,” igniting a national debate. The show responded with an episode about the diversity of the modern American family. When Bergen won an Emmy that year, she thanked Quayle in her speech.)
While that Palin-timed revival never materialized, Warner Brothers approached English again late last year. It took her nine months to wrap her head around the idea and turn in a script, but once it clicked, she says, Murphy’s voice came roaring back. Bergen agreed to return under the condition that Ford, Regalbuto, and Shaud all sign on as well.
“It was a great compliment to us,” Ford says. When we meet, none of the cast members can really believe that we’re talking at all. They barely believe that the original run lasted 10 years, let alone that they’re doing it again.
“I think every year after Diane left we were like ‘we should probably throw in the towel,’” Ford says. “When the administration changed it was less interesting because there was less of that difference going on that Murphy represented. But we never would have imagined this.”
She lets out a laugh. “You’re old at 35,” she says, marveling that the original cast, of which she’s the youngest at age 54, is back as sitcom leads 20 years later. “You’re over the hill. You’re too old, so who cares what you have to say, because everything’s new.”
But at the crux of the revival, and of Thursday night’s premiere, is the idea that we do still care what Murphy has to say, that we’ve missed her voice in these last two decades, and that maybe we even needed it.
The episode is political and politicized. Donald Trump is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a major character in the premiere, and will be mentioned in future episodes. “Every one,” English says, nodding her head forcefully. “We live in the real world, and always did.”
She cautions that while the premiere certainly targets the president, not every episode will be quite so persistent. “The late-night guys do all those jokes every night, and it could be tedious. We’re not into Trump-bashing every day.”
But what truly convinced the cast that this revival could work is that, as with the original series, of which the Quayle episode is certainly a testament to, it doesn’t hold back.
“The first episode is so ambitious and so fearless,” Bergen says. “During the taping, I turned to Joe at one point and I said, ‘This show has no fear of anyone,’ because we really stick our head in the lion’s mouth.”
While delving into politics has proven to be both a revival’s superpower and its kryptonite—case study: Roseanne—the cast says that any anti-Trump sentiments held by the character of Murphy Brown shouldn’t scare anyone away from the new episodes. The original run, English reveals, counted Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter as fans.
Shaud stresses that he brought a friend who is an avowed Trump supporter to the taping of the premiere and he loved it. “Even as a Trump supporter, he wasn’t offended by it,” he says. “He thought it was well-done and funny.”
Future episodes will tackle issues like immigration, abortion, and climate change. An episode inspired by the #MeToo movement will be titled “#MurphyToo.” English also teases a storyline born out of the conversations surrounding Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview Alex Jones on her program earlier this year, and whether that was a good idea.
The significance of Candice Bergen, at age 72, resuming her position as the lead of a network sitcom isn’t lost anyone, English included. Writing to that significance isn’t hard. “I use my own example,” English says. “I’m a 70-year-old showrunner on a major network show. There aren’t any other ones. We have that in common.”
The revival casts Tyne Daly as Phyllis, who runs Phil’s bar, the gang’s preferred watering hole, taking over for her brother. Whereas Phil was more of a father figure for Murphy, Phyllis is a contemporary. “They have a lot in common and things to talk about, being women of a certain age.” Generational gaps will figure prominently in the revival, too. Murphy’s son, Avery, has grown from a cultural lightning rod to a twentysomething journalist in his own right, played by Jake McDorman and anchoring his own competing cable news show.
“It’s great to write these characters who went off the air 20 years ago now, in a completely different world,” English says. “There’s wasn’t any of this technology, or all these ways people get their news now. Fox News was just starting when we were going off the air. There was no internet to speak of. There were no smartphones. You were lucky to have a car phone—they were like toasters you hold up to your ear. Now the technology has changed all our lives, and to put these people in that environment, there’s so much material.”