Can you ever really go back?
It’s an existentially-loaded question which confronts anyone who tries to return to something, somewhere or someone they once loved, and it’s one which doesn’t always have the happiest of answers following in its wake.
One arena in which this particularly-loaded nostalgia-laden query has been getting a royal workout is TV where the unceasing demand for new content by traditional networks and upstart streaming platforms has driven purveyors of televisual entertainment to scour the vaults in the hope of unearthing shows that can perform a Lazarus-like return to the zeitgeist.
Murphy Brown is the latest show to perform this zombie maneuvre, and happily like Will & Grace before it, it has emerged as funny, clever and relevant as it was in its heyday from 1988 and 1998 when the Diane English-created show regularly made headlines itself in its unashamed push to shine a light on the political landscape of the day.
While its return might have been prompted by more financial concerns, for the network anyway, English in on the record as being excited about the show to do what it does best which is to gleefully skewer the media and political establishments and it’s clear from the first episode, “Fake News”, that it has no intention of relinquishing its role as a consciousness-raising exercise anytime soon.
In the first episode in twenty years, Murphy is retired but itching to get back into the again now that President Trump is running roughshod over the thing the veteran reporter holds dear – telling the truth.
As she watches, uncharacteristically from the sidelines, Murphy wants to get back into the ring, aware that the media landscape has changed considerably since FYI went off the air but adamant she still has plenty to say.
If you cast your mind back (there’s that word again), you’ll remember that one thing Murphy Brown never had an issue with was speaking her mind and when an offer comes in from Cable News Channel host a show from 7 to 9 am called Murphy in the Morning, she sets about reuniting the old team of investigative reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), lifestyles reporter Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) and executive producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) who is as neurotic but good at his job as ever.
The old gang is back, and while we might worry if you can go back, or in Murphy’s case go back and forwards at once, Muprhy Brown has no such concern, such is her eagerness to take the fight to the likes of Trump and his most ardent media supporter Wolf Network (a Fox Network so thinly-disguised it’s just about naked) and act, as she always has, as a champion of truth-telling and the Fourth Estate’s vital role in making that happen.
Of course, even if you do manage to go back, nothing is ever quite as it was and the show acknowledges that time has passed by bringing in Murphy’s now-adult son Avery (played by Jake McDorman) – if you recall, his birth on the show prompted a media firestorm as then-Vice President Dan Quayle railed on about “family values” – as a journalist who is every bit as feisty and go-getting as his legendary mum.
He and his famous mother are on good terms, even living in Murphy’s immaculately-recreated Washington home together – alas Eldin Bernecky is nowhere to be seen with the actor who played him, Robert Pastorelli, having passed away in 2004 – but professionally they are on completely different sides of the fence with Avery hosting a morning show, yes at the exact same time as his mother, on Wolf Network.
He’s as politically moderate and grounded as his mother but can’t ignore the opportunity to change the network from within, or at least, provide a rare dissenting voice in the right-wing bubble that passes for a news network.
This is of course gives the newly-invigorated Murphy Brown a chance to satirise Fox both from within and without, most hilariously in sixth episode “Results May Vary” when all-day election coverage of the 2018 midterm elections sees Avery dueling with veteran Wolf presenter John Haggerty (Peter Gallagher) who toes the party line with gloriously-hilarious predictability. (The vapid token woman on the panel is also a joy.)
Sure, some of the humour is rather obvious but then Murphy Brown was never a sitcom to pull its punches, and as it surveys and mocks the twisted landscape wrought by Trump in which the press somehow manages to be both hero and villain depending on where you stand, it becomes readily apparent that outright parody is really the only option in a world where reality seems to be have well and truly mad.
That’s not the only focus of the show which also explores the great dilemmas inherent in jornalism such as when Murphy agonises in “Three Shirts to the Wind” over whether to interview a far-right strategist, author and former White House advisor Ed Shannon (Steve Bannon) or in “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” when Murphy’s big scoop over pharmaceutical company criminality is undercut in the most unexpected and relationship-testing of ways, but it is the main reason that 2018 vintage Murphy Brown exists and it exists on its mission superbly.
Naturally enough, the closeness between the team is very much intact – Avery refers to all of them as “Uncle this” or “Aunty that” – and it means that the series retains much of its old rhythm.
But rather than simply rehash the old vibe, Murphy Brown has also brought in new faces including gay social media guru Pat Patel (Nik Dodani) whose is the butt of the expected “no one on the old team gets social media” jokes but who also emerges as an engaging character in his own right and new bar owner Phyllis (Tyne Daly) who is a feisty feminist and the brother of the much-loved gruff Phil (the actor who played him, Pat Corley, passed away in 2006).
They fit into the emsemble seamlessly, as does Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), who returns for three episodes as Murphy’s mentor and friend; the first time he calls her “slugger” makes you sigh with the kind of nostalgic happiness that is only worth experiencing with a show this good.
That’s the key I think – Murphy Brown was always a clever, incisive show and while sometimes the style of humour does seem a little dated and obvious, the sitcom has lost none of its verve, whit or capacity to ruthlessly and witheringly satire and Murphy, complete with typically hapless assistants (one of whom, played by Bette Midler makes a brilliantly-sassy return; another, played by Hilary Clinton, effectively pokes fun at the debacle that was presidential election day 2016) is well and truly back, a welcome and very funny conscience for the American nation at a time when it is most sorely needed.