October 22, 2018

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No escape from reality

Murphy Brown reboot struggles to stay relevant in Trump era

Call it a combination of bad timing and a case of truth-is-stranger-than-fictionitis.

The fact that the anticipated debut of the Murphy Brown reboot coincided with a deeply upsetting day at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings can’t be helped.

But when real life is so horrid, attempts to make fun of it — even attempts filled with genuine anger and indignation — are bound to feel frivolous.

The new Murphy Brown, a revamping of the beloved 10-season CBS sitcom that went off the air in 1998, is trying for ripped-from-the-headlines relevancy, with an over-exuberant laugh track to soften the blow.

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Call it a combination of bad timing and a case of truth-is-stranger-than-fictionitis.

The fact that the anticipated debut of the Murphy Brown reboot coincided with a deeply upsetting day at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings can’t be helped.

John Paul Filo / CBS</p><p>Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes an appearance in the Murphy Brown reboot.</p></p>

John Paul Filo / CBS

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes an appearance in the Murphy Brown reboot.

But when real life is so horrid, attempts to make fun of it — even attempts filled with genuine anger and indignation — are bound to feel frivolous.

The new Murphy Brown, a revamping of the beloved 10-season CBS sitcom that went off the air in 1998, is trying for ripped-from-the-headlines relevancy, with an over-exuberant laugh track to soften the blow.

But its debut episode, which sees suffer-no-fools reporter Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) come out of retirement to head up a cable-news morning show, feels stale-dated and sadly irrelevant right out of the gate.

That’s partly down to the network sitcom format that never trusts an audience alone with a punchline, but mostly, it’s that we’re past hackneyed "orange guy in the White House" jokes. Even for a TV comedy, a more nuanced approach is necessary in these dark days.

Opening on U.S. election night 2016, the show sees Murphy awake from a nap in front of the TV to find herself in a waking nightmare: Donald Trump has won the presidency, a fact announced onscreen by her son Avery (Jake McDorman), all grown up and a political reporter.

Fast-forward a few months to Murphy meeting her former co-workers at Phil’s, their regular watering hole, after a protest march. They’re all chafing at the way the president has reduced their lifelong dedication to journalism to a "fake news" hashtag.

So when fictional network CNC offers Murphy a job, she jumps at the chance to get the band back together: investigative reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), lifestyle reporter and former beauty queen Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) and high-strung executive producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) join her for Murphy in the Morning.

TV review

Click to Expand

Murphy Brown

Starring Candice Bergen

CBS, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.

★★ out of five

Complicating matters is that Avery has been offered his own anchor slot on the competing conservative Wolf network. (Get it? GET IT?)

The old-school Murphy swears she’s not going to fall into the trap of yelling into the echo chamber via social media — and then promptly gets into a Twitter war with the commander-in-chief. This should be funny, but frankly, it’s too close to what actually happens every day to have real zing.

The writing from series creator Diane English has some mustard, but too much of it relies on a well-worn comedic formula that goes for easy laughs.

Some of the lines only work because of Bergen’s impeccable timing and inflection. Others are beyond saving: a nonsensical stunt-casting sequence in which Hillary ("with one L") Clinton applies for a job as Murphy’s secretary is a weirdly smug exercise in wink-wink jokes.

To be fair, a sense of continuity is trickier for Murphy Brown than with many reboots — because of the plot’s reliance on real-life news events, it was never a candidate for syndication; the soundtrack’s use of Motown songs meant licensing it for DVD was also difficult — so it might take awhile to settle into a rhythm that doesn’t have to include backstory or strenuously set a tone.

But any notion that this is show for young viewers or newbies is destroyed when Murphy challenges Trump with: "Bring it on! Hashtag Dan Quayle!" Ah yes, nothing like hearkening back to a 1992 reference to reel in the whippersnappers.

There are also too many "Get a load of these millennials" jokes, from the show’s social media co-ordinator Pat Patel (Nik Dodani) marvelling at Murphy’s ancient flip phone to Phyllis’s dismissive comment that "protest marches are the new eggs Benedict."

Beyond old people, however, it’s not clear who the audience is intended to be. Left-coast liberals will likely find it too milquetoast, while no self-respecting Trump supporter is going to be swayed by anything a self-confessed "nasty woman" has to say.

Perhaps in future weeks, it will morph into an exercise in wish-fulfilment and escapism, where we can watch Murphy and Co. wield journalism as a weapon to take down corruption and deception.

Right now, it just feels like we’re laughing — way too loudly and indiscriminately — into a void.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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