Why We Need Murphy Brown In The Trump Era

Photo: CBS/Getty Images.
Hollywood has reboot fever, leading to collective groans from entertainment fans everywhere every time another one is announced. Are there no original ideas anymore, many of us wonder? And yet, the hunger and nostalgia for existing properties seems to be there. The Will & Grace revival is a ratings success. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life led to a million hot takes and many warm and cozy viewings with our mothers over Thanksgiving weekend in 2016. News of a Murphy Brown reboot, announced Wednesday, was perhaps the most unexpected — yet it makes total sense.
“As its 30th anniversary approaches, Murphy Brown returns to a world of cable news, social media, fake news, and a very different political and cultural climate,” CBS said in a statement about the reboot. And it’s true. In the age of Trumpian tumult, the zeitgeist is right for the return of a trailblazing figure that once captured national attention when a politician turned her into a polarizing lightning rod for her decision to have a child out of wedlock and become a single mother.
America met Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) in 1988. Brown was a take-no-bullshit journalist who worked at the fictional FYI newsmagazine in the spirit of Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The series ran for a decade on CBS, raking in a whopping 62 Emmy nominations and 18 wins, including five Best Actress wins for Bergen (she eventually withdrew her name from consideration). In 1991, the series led CBS to record ratings.
During the 1991-1992 season, Brown got pregnant from a one-night stand with her ex-husband (Robin Thomas). He didn’t want to have a child, so Brown was left to decide whether or not to have the baby. This wasn’t the first time a television character considered having an abortion. In 1972, Maude, the title character of Maude, decided to have one in the state of New York, where it was legal at the time (this was a year before Roe v. Wade passed). Unlike Maude, Brown decides to have the baby, a decision that both pro-choice and pro-life advocates actually came together to support.
In firm opposition to this decision: vice president Dan Quayle, who for some reason invoked Murphy Brown during a speech he was giving about the Los Angeles riots at the the Commonwealth Club of California in 1992. Quayle associated the riots with the “breakdown of family structure” in America, and, in his opinion, Murphy Brown’s portrayal of a single mother directly reflected that.
“Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn't help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice,’" Quayle said.
To Quayle, Murphy Brown and her creators represented part of the Hollywood cultural elite, who he felt jeered at moral values that the conservative right wanted to uphold. This all sounds very familiar, right? A blowhard criticizing Hollywood for setting a freewheeling example he felt the rest of the country shouldn’t be following. Never mind the fact that criticizing Brown’s decision to be a single mother was completely hypocritical considering the GOP’s staunch pro-life position.
“In a way, the current moment feels like an echo of that time,” Joy Press, author of Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television (out February 27), tells Refinery29. “There was definitely a real divide in the country. The conservative right wing was really kind of circling around these issues of family values. When Quayle was doing this, he was speaking to his base in the way that Trump speaks to his base. That base was very much reacting to this and...sort of demonizing Murphy Brown.”
It didn’t hurt the show, though. If anything, it made it more powerful than ever. Series creator Diane English issued an open invitation to Quayle to debate the topic “anytime, anywhere.” Viewers and the media waited with baited breath to see how Murphy Brown would respond to the vice president’s pointed accusations during its fifth season premiere. The show inserted pieces of Quayle’s speech into the episode itself, having Brown respond directly to what he said. “I’m glamorizing single motherhood?” she asks. “What planet is he on? I agonized over that decision.” Later on, Brown says, “Perhaps it’s time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes. And, ultimately, what really defines a family is commitment, caring, and love.” Per Slate, the episode, titled “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” (a dig at Quayle’s inability to spell potato during a spelling bee) garnered 70 million viewers.
“You can get a sense that an awful lot of people were behind Murphy Brown,” Press continues. “There were a lot of women in the workforce. There were a lot of women who were single mothers. The show very much [sort of tried] to make that point that America was an inclusive place that had different kinds of families. I think that that message very much resonated in the America of 1992, certainly with the other side of that political and cultural divide.”
In the end, Bush and Quayle lost the election. It’s impossible to say how much of an impact the Murphy Brown incident had, although it did make national news for several weeks in the summer of 1992. "Back Talk From Murphy Brown to Dan Quayle," trumpeted the New York Times. "Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown," was Time's approach. "[T]he voters appeared unmoved by the vice president's rhetorical clash with a fictional character...Murphy Brown just isn't going to haul Bush-Quayle across the finish line in November," Steve Daley noted in the Chicago Tribune.
Trump will firmly be in the White House when the Murphy Brown reboot returns for 13 episodes in the 2018-2019 season. During the decade the series originally ran, breaking down the fabric of the American family (per Dan Quayle) wasn’t the only issue she dealt with. She frequently butted up against sexism, in one episode forcing her way into an actual all-boys club. While newsrooms are more inclusive today, it’s not hard to imagine a new episode of the show taking on a situation akin to what happened with Matt Lauer, with a high-ranking male reporter or producer taking advantage of women in the workplace. It would mirror the situation with Trump’s many accusers along with resonating with the #MeToo movement.
Murphy Brown’s return also coincides with that of another woman-led sitcom that premiered in 1988, Roseanne. The two couldn’t be more different, though. Press points out that while Murphy Brown represented the 1%, Roseanne was about the 99%. Where Murphy Brown had the leisure to ruminate about politics (it was, after all, part of her job as a reporter), Roseanne was just trying to scrape by, working a series of menial jobs to support her husband and three children.
Barr herself said during the TCAs in January that her sitcom character would be a Trump supporter in the upcoming revival, noting that, “It’s just realistic. [W]orking class people...elected Trump.” Sara Gilbert, who plays Roseanne Conner’s daughter, hinted that there may be a political divide within the family, but added that this divide can exist alongside love. It’s a rift many, many families in the United States have been trying to work through since November 8, 2016. Maybe the Conners can lead us through the abyss. Still, just how much politics — Trump in particular — will come up during the Roseanne revival remains to be seen.
What’s most exciting about this particular moment in the reboot trend is that networks are bringing back women-led shows. Creators like Diane English and Roseanne Barr clearly aren't afraid to tackle big issues, and Murphy Brown has battled the GOP before. Our current president is a live wire, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s tweeting about how a particular plot point is causing the moral decline of America. And oh, what a glorious moment in TV history that will be.
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