MURPHY BROWN

U.S. Situation Comedy

Since its premier in 1988 Murphy Brown has appeared in the same 9:00-9:30 slot on CBS's Monday night schedule, serving as something of an anchor in that network's perennial battle against the male-oriented Monday Night Football on ABC. The show focuses on life behind the scenes at the fictional television series FYI (For Your Information). FYI is represented as a tough, talk-oriented investigative news program--perhaps a little like another CBS mainstay, 60 Minutes. From its beginnings Murphy Brown has established itself as one of television's premier ensemble comedies, exploring life among the reporters, producers, staff, and friends of FYI. But there is no question that, as the title implies, this ensemble is built around its central character.

As played by Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown is one of the most original, distinctive female characters on television. Smart, determined and difficult, she does not suffer fools gladly. Her ambition and stubbornness frequently get her into trouble, and she often acts a little foolishly herself.

But what sets Murphy apart from so many other female sitcom characters is that when she gets into a ridiculous mess, it is not because she is a woman. It's because she is Murphy. She's a crack reporter, yet manages to get herself banned from the White House during both the Bush and Clinton administrations. When a corrupt judge falls silent during an interview, Murphy finishes grilling him--even though he's dead.

Although Murphy acts tough, Bergen shows viewers her vulnerable side as well. Wracked with guilt after the judge's death, Murphy tones down her interviewing style--for a while. And she's genuinely hurt when she doesn't get an invitation to George Bush's inaugural ball. All these character developments and revelations build on the fact that the show's pilot introduces Murphy as she returns to the FYI set after drying out at the Betty Ford Clinic. The central character, the star of FYI, is presented from the very beginning as a recovering alcoholic, vulnerable and flawed. All her foibles and eccentricities are presented in this context, adding richness and depth to the portrayal.

Indeed, throughout the show's seven seasons, all the characters and their relationships have developed beyond what is typical for a sitcom. The original ensemble included: Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), a Louisiana girl and former Miss America who took a few journalism classes in college but was mainly hired for her looks; Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), ace investigative reporter and irrepressible skirt chaser with a mortal fear of commitment; Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), the rigid, serious, eminently competent anchorman; Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), a new Harvard graduate; producing FYI is his first "real" job; Eldin Bernecky (Robert Pastorelli), a house painter who works continually on Murphy's townhouse until her son, Avery, is born, at which time he becomes Avery's nanny; Phil (Pat Corley), the all-knowing owner of Phil's Bar, hangout for the FYI team.

As a running gag, Murphy has also had a parade of secretaries, most of whom are inept and last only one episode. A few examples: a young African-American man who speaks only in rap, a crash-test dummy, a bickering married couple, and a mental patient. Naturally, whenever Murphy gets a good secretary, he or she leaves by the end of the episode.

Initially, some characters were two-dimensional. Miles existed only to run around acting tense and to annoy Murphy, a 40-year-old woman with a 25-year-old boss. In the pilot, Murphy tells him, "I just can't help thinking about the fact that while I was getting maced at the Democratic Convention in 1968, you were wondering if you'd ever meet Adam West." Corky was a stereotypical southern beauty queen, more interested in appearances than in reporting.

But throughout the series Miles became a competent producer and manager. He's fully capable of holding his own against Murphy, who still tends to underestimate him. And Corky, too, became more a friend than an annoyance to Murphy. A failed marriage tarnishes the southern belle's fairy-tale life, making Corky more human and giving her more in common with Murphy. Murphy's feminism and ambition also begin to rub off on the younger woman.

Beneath the facade of the serious anchorman, Jim Dial is a warm, caring person, more liberal than he seems. In a first-season flashback, we see Murphy's 1977 FYI audition; she's dressed like "Annie Hall" and sports a wildly curly mane. Network executives want to hire a more "professional" woman, but Jim convinces them to hire Murphy. Frank, the skirt-chaser, has never chased Murphy or Corky. Frank and Murphy are a TV rarity: a man and a woman who are close friends, with no sexual tension.

Murphy Brown's plots have often parodied actual news events. In the second-season episode, "The Memo that Got Away," a high-school journalist hacks into FYI's computer system and finds an uncomplimentary memo Murphy has written about her coworkers. A similar, real-life incident occurred when a memo written by Today anchor Bryant Gumbel was leaked. In a seventh-season episode, Murphy Brown lampoons the O.J. Simpson trial circus with a story about an astronaut accused of murdering his brother.

Real-life events came head-to-head with Murphy Brown in the summer of 1992 when former Vice President Dan Quayle criticized unwed mothers as violating "family values." To support his argument he pointed to the entertainment industry as cite of flawed morals. As a specific example he singled out the fictitious Murphy, who had given birth to son Avery, out of wedlock, in the 1991-92 season finale. Producer Diane English responded to Quayle with her own analysis of the social and fictional conditions and the exchanges escalated into a national event, a topic for much discussion in the news and on the late-night television talk shows. In the fall 1992 season premier the series presented an episode devoted to the controversy. In "I Say Potatoe, You Say Potato" (a reference to the Vice-President's much-publicized misspelling) Murphy takes Quayle to task, introducing several hard-working, one-parent families on FYI.

In 1993 the character of Peter Hunt was added to the cast. Appearing in occasional episodes, Hunt was played by Scott Bakula, and became Murphy's new love interest. In the show and in the entertainment press, frequent hints suggested that the two would be married before the series ended.

In the seventh season, two additional characters were added: Miller Redfield (Christopher Rich), an idiot anchorman on another network show and McGovern (Paula Korologos), a former MTV personality hired to bring "youth appeal" to FYI. Miller is stereotypically handsome and stupid (often played against Peter Hunt's "real" journalistic style); without some development, he likely will prove to be a one-note character.

 


Murphy Brown

McGovern had more potential; the writers resisted the "slacker" stereotype usually pinned on her generation, and instead made her a miniature Murphy, with one exception--she's politically conservative. This fact never fails to annoy Murphy who, in one episode, cuts McGovern's report to less than a minute because she doesn't like its political slant. McGovern complains to Corky, who offers this advice:

Corky: When I want Murphy to leave me alone, I just let her think she's getting her way. McGovern: But she is getting her way! Corky: Right. But I don't care, as long as she leaves me alone!

In the 1994 season veteran comedian Garry Marshall joined the cast as Stan Lansing, head of the network. The following year Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman) appeared as Lansing's fawning (and scheming) nephew. Their presence added a fresh energy to the other characters and the stories helping to ensure that Murphy Brown continues to have its way with comedy and social commentary. In the spring of 1996, however, Bergen announced that the 1996-97 season would be the last for the series.

-Julie Prince

CAST

Murphy Brown....................................... Candice Bergen Jim Dial........................................... Charles Kimbrough Frank Fontana......................................... Joe Regalbuto Corky Sherwood............................................ Faith Ford Miles Silverberg......................................... Grant Shaud Phil.............................................................. Pat Corley Eldin Bernecky (1988-1994).................. Robert Pastorelli Carl Wishnitski (l988-l993)........................ Ritch Brinkley John, the stage manager .........................John Hostetter Gene Kinsella (1988-1992)................. Alan Oppenheimer Peter Hunt (1993- ).................................... Scott Bakula Avery Brown (1994- ).......................... Dyllan Christopher Stan Lansing (1994- ).............................. Garry Marshall Miller Redfield (1995- ).......................... Christopher Rich Andrew J. Lansing, III............................... Paul Reubens

PRODUCERS Diane English, Joel Shukovsky, Gary Dontzig, Steven Peterman

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS
November 1988--                                 Monday 9:00-9:30

FURTHER READING

Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. Murphy Brown: Anatomy of a Sitcom. New York: Dell, 1990.

"An Unmarried Woman and a Political Fight." U.S. News & World Report (Washington, D.C.), 1 June 1992.

Benzel, Jan. "Murphy's Choices." The New York Times, 31 May 1992.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Flap Over Murphy Brown, Art is Bigger than Life." The New York Times, 23 September 1992.

Mandese, Joe. "Murphy Brown Flap 'Irresponsible': Producer Diane English Sees Her Creation as Sensitive 'Real Person' (interview)." Advertising Age (New York), 21 September 1992.

_______________. "Advertisers Vote for Murphy Brown." Advertising Age (New York), 7 September 1992.

"Team of English and Shukovsky Make Murphy Work." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 5 March 1990.

Zoglin, Richard. "Sitcom Politics." Time (New York), 21 September 1992.

 

See also Comedy, Workplace; English, Diane; Gender and Television