Saying Goodbye to the Preachy #Resistance Sitcom
This just in! On Wednesday CBS announced that it was canceling the much-hyped, Hillary-guesting “Season 11” of its 1988-1998 Monday night must-see, Candice Bergen’s once-trailblazing Murphy Brown.
For a moment it seemed that in 2018, at least on network television, everything old was new again. Will & Grace, The Conners (Roseanne), Full(er) House, MacGyver, Hawaii Five-0, Magnum PI, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks are but a sampling of analog-era wine being poured into digital-age bottles.
But Murphy’s resurrection was perhaps the most overtly #Resistance-minded reboot on the schedule. And as something of a historian of the era of its heyday, I would say it was one of the best examples of how the politics and culture wars of the 1990s were both so very influential to our current time—and also so very far away.
The once top-rated show, one of the first to feature a confrontational, forty-something professional woman at the top of her career, earned its place in pop culture immortality in 1992, when it was attacked by then-vice president Dan Quayle for its own supposed attack on family values. That was the year Pat Buchanan famously put his foot down after 12 years of Republican administrations had somehow failed to undo Roe v. Wade, AIDS-era gay activism, and general cultural vulgarity.
Frantically trying to regain what was quickly becoming the most important peg of Republicans’ famous “three legged stool,” Quayle attacked the show’s most famous storyline, where a menopause-nearing Murphy decides to have a child on her own without the benefit of a live-in (let alone married) father. Many formerly willing-to-vote-Republican, college-educated suburban women—strongly pro-choice, career-oriented, and at the very least gay-tolerant—had eye-rollingly put up with Reagan’s and Poppy’s lip service to the religious right in the ‘80s. But after Quayle used Murphy to personally attack women just like them, female professionals and soccer moms (especially on the coasts) began saying Basta! to the Republicans. They voted for Hillary Clinton in 1992—I mean for Bill—and mostly for Democrats from that point onward, as this year’s midterm elections reminded us.
Another interesting irony is that—then as now—Murphy was the upscale, Prada version of her contemporary in top-rated feminist sitcommery, Roseanne. Roseanne Conner was every bit as much of a Clinton voter and liberal Democrat as Murphy was, perhaps even more so—a quarter-century ago. But today, after a full decade of deregulating, education-credentialing, free-trading Clintonomics, followed by the Bush II and Obama eras, only one of them is still on Team Clinton (even to the point of a Hillary cameo on the show’s premiere) while the other is a fed up Trump supporter. Indeed, one of Murphy’s main plot lines was that her morning show is up against a “Wolf News” (cute) conservative red-meat machine where her now-grown son Avery works as the Token Liberal, roving around Trump Country talking to (or at) white working class victims of the new economy.
And that right there may have been the show’s biggest failure. For one, the corporate white feminism that Murphy (and Hillary) exemplified is as dated as one of Carol Brady’s polyester pantsuits. Likewise, today’s brand of Gen Z and Millennial feminism—which centers and amplifies Muslim and trans women, and is sometimes downright sex-negative—would have been almost unimaginable when Murphy began in 1988 or even when she signed off in 1998. Andrea Long Chu, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, Stacey Abrams, Pramila Jaypal, Inkoo Kang, Charlotte Clymer, and Sarah Jeong (along with Bitch, Babe, and Jezebel) are the faces of feminism 2018-style.
Put simply, as my young Gen Xer colleague Todd VanDerWerff at Vox noted, Murphy Brown is what feminism was—not what it currently is. Despite the many glass ceiling- and Mad Men-style office obstacles that women like Murphy faced in their earlier careers, in many younger feminists’ eyes, Murphy’s own “knapsack of privilege” is overflowing like a Rodeo Drive handbag. Despite being a liberal bastion in its day, by today’s standards the earlier show was so clearly problematic in its Peak Whiteness, you could go snow-blind watching a rerun. (The new show added a gay Millennial of color, of course a sidekick, played excellently and to the wide range by Nik Dodani.)
What Murphy Brown (and Murphy Brown) did symbolize to complete perfection is the wealthy, older, liberal white woman who refuses to take a seat or think about retiring—even for her younger liberal daughters. Wonder Woman memes aside, was there any better TV or movie analogy to Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary, or The Notorious R.B.G. than Murphy Brown?
When Murphy (original recipe) was finally canceled, along with Dr. Quinn and Murphy’s longtime companion Cybill, in 1998, it was just after Les Moonves had assumed control of the Eye Network. Designing Women doyenne and Clinton-era star maker Linda Bloodworth-Thomason gave expert #MeToo testimony on what Moonves thought of sitcoms featuring domineering, unapologetic career women.
Murphy Brown’s heyday (and its eventual cancelation) also coincided in large part with the beginning of the most blatantly ageist chapter in Hollywood’s history, one that climaxed in a 2010 multi-million-dollar Writers’ Guild lawsuit against the studios and networks (settled in the older writers’ favor). While it might sound like I’m artfully dodging by changing the subject from sexism to ageism, the truth is that the two problems are kissing cousins. Both objectify people and reduce them to how “f–kable” (as Harvey Weinstein and Moonves would have, and did, put it) they are.
However, Murphy’s cancelation might be a sign that Gen Xers and Millennials are getting good and ready to say their own version of #TimesUp to watching two Baby Boomer culture war symbols—both of whom are richer and more powerful than we will likely ever be—battle it out yet again. (Sixty-eight-year-old Murphy Brown versus 72-year-old Donald Trump. It’s gonna be lit!)
Perhaps the closest allegory to Murphy’s revival is its Thursday night NBC neighbor, the rebooted Will & Grace, which went on the air in 1998 the season after Murphy said her first farewell. While also featuring a political subtext (W&G was as landmark for the LGBT community as Murphy was for straight feminism) and plenty of #Resistance attitude, W&G has stayed fresher with its sense of playful camp and outrageousness that Murphy’s considerably more serious and newsy storytelling couldn’t quite carry off. (Although the two were pulling even in the ratings at season’s start, Murphy has been falling off, while W&G was renewed ahead of time.)
More to the point, while shout-splaining, sermonizing, and speechifying might work on a liberal late night talk show, a broadly played variety sketch show, or a choir-preaching conservative Fox News program, a good situation comedy simply requires more—especially today. As Todd VanDerWerff said, too often the rebooted Murphy ran the risk of being an “all-caps email forward” of a comedy.
While Murphy Brown was an upscale and educated show 20 years ago, its old-school sitcom storytelling makes for a sharp contrast with a true prestige TV comedy like, say, Transparent, Girls, The Good Place, or Togetherness (let alone Stranger Things or The Handmaid’s Tale). Even aside from Will & Grace, Murphy 2018 looked hopelessly retro alongside Grey’s Anatomy (a light-years-more-up-to-date portrayal of a modern high-powered career woman) or the truly cutting edge and diverse world of How to Get Away With Murder.
In the end, whatever your politics, Murphy Brown was a groundbreaking show featuring a groundbreaking character brilliantly played by Candice Bergen, and as Joy Press rightly noted in Time, she earned and deserved her spot in pop culture history. I think it’s sad to see one of the few shows out there in today’s oh-so-diverse media ecosystem that centers on a competent woman on the plus side of 60 go off the air, presumably to make way for yet another showcase for shirtless hottie hardbodies and comic bookers with irresistible 18-49 ratings. Even if it couldn’t have really lasted, I was kind of glad to know that somewhere out there in the TV landscape, Murphy Brown was back on the story.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”