It's the election-year equivalent of "Who Shot J.R.?": How will the fictional Murphy Brown respond to the real-life Dan Quayle's comments about her unwed motherhood in the season premiere of "Murphy Brown"?
Ever since the vice president took aim against Murphy's single motherhood and generated front-page headlines in what appears to be a widening Republican campaign strategy of attacking Hollywood's "family values," the producers and actors on the CBS sitcom have been besieged with requests for information about the season's first installment, an hourlong episode scheduled for Sept. 21.
But according to executive producers Steven Peterman and Gary Dontzig, not even Candice Bergen, who plays Murphy Brown, or Diane English, the creator of the hit series, know exactly how Murphy will respond to Quayle.
"We decided that we had to address Quayle's comments because this show has always used references to real-life people in Washington, D.C., and the vice president is part of the world that Murphy functions in," Mr. Peterman said in an interview. "But nobody, including Diane, knows exactly how the premiere episode turns out. Candice knows a lot about what happens, but there are some things that she has asked us not to tell her about [so that the episode will be a surprise]."
To keep the episode as secret as possible, the producers quietly filmed the main portions of the script two weeks ago on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. They shot several different versions of a few of the scenes. And there still are some parts of the show that have not yet been filmed -- or even put into script form.
"There are a couple of things that still are in our heads," said Mr. Peterman, who co-wrote the premiere episode with Mr. Dontzig after working on the story line with "Murphy Brown" consulting producer Korby Siamis.
"We're planning to have ourselves hypnotized so that we reveal the information in our heads only after being given a code word," he added jokingly.
The controversy over Murphy Brown and Quayle has been an inherited whirlwind for Mr. Peterman and Mr. Dontzig, who started out as story editors on the show several years ago and became supervising producers last season, then took over as executive producers for this season when Ms. English left to create and produce a new CBS series, "Love and War."
The new producers didn't expect so much controversy in the show's fifth season. "We thought by now that everybody would be watching 'Seinfeld,' " joked Mr. Peterman, who has written 20 of the 100 episodes of "Murphy Brown" with Mr. Dontzig.
Mr. Dontzig and Mr. Peterman said they felt that the producers and writers on "Murphy Brown" had been responsible and careful in their handling of Murphy's pregnancy. And they noted that Quayle said at the time he first criticized the show that he had not seen the highly rated series.
"We take responsibility for the fact that Murphy does become pregnant after having sex with her ex-husband," Mr. Dontzig said. "But he has come back into her life asking her to marry him, she is not a promiscuous woman, and [in an age of AIDS] they had had blood tests beforehand. She does have a moment of passion, but, as she said, most of her friends her age are [not getting pregnant] but going to fertility clinics."
Although they would not divulge the plot of the opening episode, Mr. Peterman and Mr. Dontzig indicated that it would follow the "Murphy Brown" style of interweaving the fictional characters with real-life figures in Washington. But the response to Quayle will be confined to the first episode, they said.
"We are not running for political office, and this is not a show about Murphy Brown 'getting even' with Dan Quayle," Mr. Dontzig said. "His name will certainly come up [in other episodes], but we don't intend to talk about the specific comments beyond the first episode. And we'll be talking about ** the Democrats too."
Mr. Peterman said, "We had always envisioned the first episode back [from the birth of Murphy's son at the end of last season] as an episode in which Murphy dealt with being home alone for the first time with the baby, now that the adrenalin from the hospital is over, and she's trying to deal with a whole new situation. We started thinking about elements that might invade Murphy's life -- and then the vice president made his comments."
The scripts for the premiere episode were numbered, collected and stored in a protected location. There was a notice on each of the scripts, Mr. Peterman said, "reminding everyone and urging everyone involved that giving away information might affect the number of people [who might watch] or their enjoyment of it."
Still, despite the precautions, there was one leak. The National Enquirer got hold of what the producers said was an early version of the script and published some speculation and information about the episode, including saying that the show would be called "You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato," in reference to the vice president's recent spelling gaffe.
The article also said that the show intended to take on the vice president in the first six episodes, ending with the election in November -- information that Mr. Peterman said was "absolutely inaccurate.
"There was some funny stuff in the script, but it was only an early version," Mr. Peterman said.