A key component of a number of television series from the 1990s currently getting revivals on network TV is their relate-ability to real life issues. Roseanne at its best was about the struggles of a lower middle class Middle American family while Will & Grace has been credited with helping move the needle on acceptance of LGBT issues. And the Candice Bergen-led series Murphy Brown tackled politics from the first Bush presidency through a majority of the Clinton years.
In the socio-political climate we somehow have found ourselves in today, all three returning shows can certainly be vehicles for relevant commentary within their laughs, so it is easy to see why they were attractive prospects for revival. And while Will & Grace and Roseanne – now The Connors thanks to a certain someone’s twitter meltdown – are doing OK in that department, surprisingly Murphy Brown is somewhat lagging. But while all three shows are indeed topical, Roseanne/The Connors and Will & Grace speak to issues and the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, whereas as a workplace comedy set in a newsroom, Murphy Brown tends to address more immediate current events. And with the collapse of the news cycle from what it used to be in the 1990s to now, compounded with the number of late night talk shows and news satires that all comment on the news events pretty much the same day they happen, Murphy Brown starts to feel like it is a half-step behind everyone else in the conversation.
Last week’s midterm election episode, “Results May Vary,”” crystallized all the show’s problems and strengths into one episode. Murphy and the gang get ready to cover the mid-term election in an all-day marathon session while her son Avery, a journalist over at the competing hard conservative-leaning Wolf Network, is offered the coveted position on the Fox And Friends-like couch that serves as the home base for the Wolf Network’s coverage.
It’s a great setup for an episode that mostly worked. Murphy and the gang struggle to stay awake as the day grinds on to the evening and then late night. Meanwhile, the team’s new young social media manager Pat Patel deals with his fear of being on camera in front of a national audience for the first time. Meanwhile, over at the Wolf Network coverage, Murphy’s son-turned-journalist Avery spends his time irritating the main host – a delightfully unctuous Peter Gallagher – with factual corrections and having to suffer through what seems to be an hours-long live phone call from President Trump. Although, perhaps the episode’s most biting gag was the on-air substitution of one dimwitted but pretty co-host on the couch for another with no one commenting on the switch. The time-hopping nature of the narrative is ideal for just a string of gags about what it might be like working in the hectic environment of election night TV coverage.
But the episode fumbles the ball on the one yard line. As the results from the last couple of US congressional races start to roll in, results that will determine which party will have control of the House and Senate for the next two years, both news teams just stare at their respective Teleprompters, absorbing the results before letting out a collective “Huhn…” The episode then fades to black and a title card comes up reminding everyone to vote, turning what had been a fairly promising half-hour into a Public Service Announcement.
It seems obvious that the show was locked into this ending before it even started, and that is entirely due to its “Go vote” message. And yes, while this past week’s midterm election was an important one, it feels like given the politics and topicality of the series as a whole, creator Diane English and company were pretty much preaching to the choir about getting out and casting a ballot. The message at the end wasn’t needed and ultimately harmed what could have been one of the stronger entries of this new run of episodes.
(This isn’t the first time the show’s earnest desire to score political points has hamstrung its narrative. The show’s second episode, “I (Don’t) Heart Huckabee,” addresses some interesting questions about the media’s responsibilities when reporting on things Trump and his administration state that are factually incorrect. But Murphy sneaking into the White House Press Room to confront Press Secretary Sarah Sanders-Huckabee felt more like wish-fulfillment rather than an honest speaking truth to power moment.)
So how could they have improved on this past week’s story? Well, if they weren’t so tied to the desire to remind people to vote, they could have filmed multiple endings for the various potential outcomes and then use the one that corresponds to what actually happened yesterday on the show’s next airing later this week. It could have also removed the focus from the actual election outcome itself and still have room for political commentary among the rest of the episode’s hijinks.
But that only addresses one specific episode’s issues with topicality. How should the show handle things on a week-by-week basis? One way to get as topical as possible would be to take a page from late night and record the show the day it airs. It would cause a huge amount of pressure on both the cast and crew due to the time crunch, but it would at least put it on even footing or even give it a few hours head start over the late night comedians that are stealing some of the show’s thunder.
In fact, something like this has already been done. The British sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey, set in a cable news network’s news room – Sound familiar? – ran for six series in the mid-1990s partly on the appeal of its timely jokes about British politics. Each episode was recorded just a few hours before the show aired, with jokes being written mere minutes before taping. The topical jokes would often be delivered by the characters in staff meetings discussing the stories that would be part of their news program, so the actors had an excuse to be reading their jokes off of newswire printouts and note pads. It gave an immediacy to the show that Murphy Brown could sorely use.
As it stands now, we’re a little more than halfway through this revival season’s ten episodes. And six episodes in is barely enough time for a brand new show to find its storytelling legs, even with some of Murphy Brown’s main creative forces behind the original series returning for this revival, so it is hard to tell if this is an issue that will straighten itself out or not. So far, there has been no word as to whether CBS will be renewing the show for another run. But if the Tiffany Network does, here’s hoping that Murphy Brown can hit its stride and be a valued and funny voice in the national conversation like it was in its heyday.