After a 20-year hiatus, Murphy Brown returned to CBS last week, and though the cast is two decades older (and Murphy Brown has a son who works for a competing network), it’s remarkably the same show, only set in a different era, and I suppose that’s something of a mixed blessing. The politics are liberal and far more pronounced than on any other network sitcom, but the comedy is still broad, which means that even when Murphy Brown is making great political points, it lacks a certain bite.
In a lot of ways, Murphy Brown is applying old-school comedy to Trump-era politics, and while I absolutely appreciate the show’s earnest intentions and the way in which it does not shy away from being vociferously anti-Trump, the comedy is still bland. There’s some irony, perhaps, to the fact that comedy that comes after Trump sideways through satire or metaphor can be more effective than Murphy Brown, which attacks Trump both directly and earnestly. I absolutely applaud the effort, but we live in an era where two women who approach a Senator in an elevator with an impassioned plea can be more effective than a speech on the floor of the Senate, and Murphy Brown is more akin to a Senate speech. It’s nice! But it’s not going to move the needle.
This week’s episode is the perfect illustration. After Murphy got the gang back together again in last week’s season premiere (minus Charles Kimbrough, who is expected to return for a multi-episode arc), this week Murphy directly took on Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her meaningless press conferences. Murphy’s anchoring a morning show now, along with her old cohorts, while her son, Avery Brown (Jake McDorman), is the token liberal at the “Wolf Network.” In this episode, Avery gains press credentials for the White House Press Briefing, and because Sarah Huckabee Sanders apparently developed a crush on him during the campaign, he expects to be called on.
Murphy, however, puts on a wig and disguises herself as a French reporter (see? It’s very broad) and crashes the press briefing to deliver a message to Sarah Huckabee Sanders personally (archival footage of SHS is used in the scene):
“If you really want to talk about what’s inappropriate, how about the way you do your job? The role of the White House press secretary is to create transparency in the government and tell the American people the truth. But that’s not what happens in this room. Whether it’s about a meeting with Russians in Trump Tower, or a made-up mandate that requires separation between parents and their children at the border, it all comes down to the same thing, so here’s my question: Why do you lie? And how demoralizing is it for us to be called the enemy of the people? How do we go back to [our jobs] knowing that the most basic principle of journalistic integrity — to report the facts — is totally out of reach. If we can’t get to the truth, why are we even here?”
I love the liberal soapbox as much as the next person — more even — and this speech should have got me to my feet, clapping in front of my television screen. But, that damn laugh track has a way of cutting the mood. I do appreciate how “the other side” — in this case, presented by Murphy’s son — is a different “liberal” perspective, instead of Fox News talking points. In fact, the “other side” of the debate over whether journalists should even attend press briefings is arguably just as compelling, if not more: “A lot of those reporters in there probably agree with you today,” Avery argues with his mother later that night. “Hell, I agreed with you. But if we all stormed out in protest, what would we be left with? The ones who drink the Kook-Aid and the President’s unhinged Twitter feed. Journalists are the only real firewall between power-hungry politicians and the people they are elected to serve.”
Yes! Exactly! Amen! But also: bad joke, laugh track, hug, awwwwww, bad joke, laugh track, stale decades-old sitcom trope, laugh track. What was that about the role of journalists again?
And that, sadly, is the problem with Murphy Brown: Every great point it makes is diluted by its cliched sitcom antics and canned laughter. That’s not to say it’s not a comfortably amusing sitcom — liberal catnip while we are lying on our couches and scrolling through our Twitter feeds — but the comfort is also arguably its biggest liability. Good political discourse should be a little uncomfortable, and while I decidedly did not like the Roseanne revival, it knew how to push our buttons. Somehow, Murphy Brown manages to say provocative things without actually being provocative. That might be enough to make it a hit TV show, but in this era, it’s not enough to make it an important one.
Header Image Source: CBS