Wednesday, September 26, 2018

TV REVIEW: CBS' 'Murphy Brown' - Season 11

CBS' Murphy Brown returns after 20 years for its eleventh season on Thursday, September 27 at 9:30/8:30c. following the season premiere of Mom. The new season stars Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud, Jake McDorman, Nik Dodani and Tyne Daly.

Read on for my thoughts on the comedy revival after screening its first three episodes.

Before the debut of her new cable morning news show Murphy in the Morning, iconic journalist Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) turns to her colleagues - including executive producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), investigative reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and journalist Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) - and wonders if they made the right decision to come back or if it will somehow tarnish their legacy. It's a very meta moment that occurs in the first episode of the Murphy Brown revival. The networks have been so hungry to bring back these iconic shows from the past with the original cast intact. They have proven to be massive ratings hits. It's a formula that has been very beneficial to the broadcast networks as of late. However, the shows that actually work are the ones that come back with a purpose. Some sense that these characters still have engaging stories to tell and that they weren't just a byproduct of the time they were originally airing in. Shows have natural time spans. And now, this overall trend believes that audiences will want to spend time with their favorite characters again even though it runs the risk of it being much sadder to see them in the same exact positions in their lives despite now being older. The new season of Murphy Brown plays as if they had no choice but to return. America needed it to save the world from destruction. That sense of self-importance is very prominent in the stories this season. Murphy herself comes out of retirement to put on a new show because she can't stand sitting on the sidelines and allowing the deceptions of the presidential administration to poison the American people. She values the truth and facts. She wants them to shine brightly on her new show. She believes that the best product will be the one that is factually accurate and civil at all times. A version of the show were people respect each other and will get to the truth no matter where it goes. It's a return to the style of journalism from the past and one that Murphy and company argue is once again very necessary in the modern world.

Of course, that sets up a ton of conflicts throughout these new episodes highlighting the generational differences of the characters and the world they now live in. The show is keenly aware that Murphy, Miles, Frank and Corky are older. They may no longer be in touch with the way that people live their lives. They continually complain about needing to update their social media presences while being surprised whenever some innocuous and private moment happens to be recorded on a smart phone. They are completely shocked by how connected the world has become. It mostly establishes Pat Pital (Nik Dodani), the new director of technology for Murphy's show, as the guy continually laughing at how his new colleagues have always lived their lives. There is a joke in the first episode about Murphy still using a flip phone and Pat being stunned to see one in person for the very first time. It's not a good joke at all. In fact, it very much feels reminiscent of the kind of Gen X vs. Millennial humor that defined and doomed CBS' one-and-done sitcom The Great Indoors a few seasons ago. There is just more empathy for the older generation because the show continues to be helmed by original series creator Diane English. Her perspective of the world is the same as Murphy's. That has always been the case. It allowed the character to be one of the most iconic roles in the history of the medium. As such, the rage and confusion that the characters feel in the world is the same way that English and her writers are coping with the modern era. At times, it's just broad humor that seems a little too easy and juvenile. Other times, it's political humor that already seems dated because other shows were making the same exact jokes a couple of months ago. But when the show actually gives Murphy a powerful voice and argument, it's still absolutely compelling to see her deliver with the hope of actually being able to change the world.

There is a natural sense of optimism in that regard as well. Murphy returns to television in order to make sense of the world and help it rediscover the role that journalistic integrity used to play in polite society. Of course, these episodes are also very topical and extremely political. Every single story so far revolves around the current presidential administration. The first airing of Murphy in the Morning gets derailed by a new series of Trump tweets. Then, Murphy tries to get into the White House press briefing to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders a question. And then, Murphy has to decide if she's willing to grant an interview to a Steve Bannon stand-in played by Billions star David Costabile. It really takes until the third episode before the show actually produces another epic takedown from Murphy that reminds the audience what is so special about this character and Bergen's performance. But it's also proof that she is still so powerful and strong. Her voice is absolutely necessary in the modern world. There is also the sense that the show will grow as well. Right now, it's very tiring because every story is political. There are no real stakes to the personal lives of the various characters. They only really spend time at the job or discussing what happened on the air at Phil's Bar - now managed by Phil's sister, Phyllis (Tyne Daly). It's clear that there are a lot of topics that the show and the writers wanted to discuss right away. However, it still comes with the sense that it feels like they have to talk about these issues immediately in order to save America from implosion. That elevates the stakes in a way that makes it seem less like a comedy and more like a public service announcement. As such, the show can be preachy at times which can be off-putting to those viewers who aren't completely onboard with the beliefs that Murphy holds. However, the likelihood of those people watching in the first place are slim to none as well.

Furthermore, the most engaging quality of the new season has almost no connection to the original run. Murphy's son, Avery, is now a grown man with a career in journalism as well. In the premiere, he is also given a morning news show to address the issues of the day. He has a completely different take on the format. Sure, he's also functioning as the token liberal commentator on the ultra-consecutive Wolf network - clearly a play on Fox News. However, the show has a sense of fun with the competition between both shows. Jake McDorman has immediate charm and charisma. It's easy to get the sense of why the entertainment industry is willing to give Avery his own show at a young age. He is trusted to do something that will resonate in the current world. That too is a very fascinating angle that the show chooses to explore. It doesn't do enough of it in the early going though. His actual broadcast is only seen once. The rest of the time it is simply mentioned offscreen with some joke about how ridiculous the conversation of the day became. However, there is an easy camaraderie and affection between Bergen and McDorman. It's a bond that already feels lived in. Murphy and Avery love each other. They respect each other. But they are also trying to do what's right as journalists. That's a very infectious quality to these new episodes. It's the hook that should absolutely be the driving force for the story moving forward. Sure, that means possibly having to divide more focus to split it evenly between them. But it's actually really engaging to see how these two different generations from the same family can view the world and hope to make a difference even when everything is moving so quickly nowadays.