'Murphy Brown' opens season with a bit of back scratching

September 18, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISON CRITIC

"Hi, I'm Murphy Brown, and you must be my new secretary," Murphy says to the guy in the dark suit, sitting head down at the desk outside her office.

But it's not just the latest entry in her secretarial sweepstakes. The guy looks up, and it's -- gasp! -- John F. Kennedy Jr., smiling in all his People magazine glory.

You have to hand it to "Murphy Brown." No prime-time television series since "All in the Family" has done a better job of playing American political life for both satire and ratings sizzle.

And, tonight at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13), the series starts its eighth and last season with its biggest bang since Dan Quayle -- the guest appearance by Kennedy. What a coup! It's enough to make the premiere, for a series that many thought of as old and tired, the most talked about of any returning series on television.

The scene between Murphy (Candice Bergen) and Kennedy lasts only 90 seconds, but it's clever and quite funny.

Murphy, proving herself still to be one of the most self-important television characters of all time, recovers from her initial surprise and says, "John? Hi. Oh, I guess the whole lawyer thing didn't work out. That's a tough break. But could you file this for me?"

Kennedy says he just stopped by to personally deliver her wedding present -- a one-year subscription to his new magazine, George.

Murphy is underwhelmed. "Gee, I hope you didn't have to sell the compound," she says, looking through the gift box for something more.

"OK, fine, be that way, if you want. But don't come crying to me when you have to pay full newsstand price," Kennedy says, turning on his highly polished heel and walking off in a saunter somewhere between the stroll of his late father and the rolling gait of John. The camera films his behind all the way to the elevator.

Does it matter what happens after Elvis leaves the building? For many viewers, I think not. But die-hard "Murphy Brown" fans will probably want to know that right after Murphy calls off her wedding, she's hit with the announcement that Corky (Faith Ford) and Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) have married.

Ford is just a shade less than brilliant during the rest of the episode. Her work in a scene set in the back room of Phil's bar is better than anything done in the more famous back room of the bar called "Cheers."

So, tonight's "Murphy Brown" show is something worth getting a little excited about, especially in a fall season of new series that have not yet generated much buzz. But we should also be honest about what kind of television thrills we're getting these days.

The 90-second bit between Kennedy and Bergen amounts to a cleverly scripted advertisement -- in front of some 30 million viewers -- for the new political magazine that Kennedy is launching.

The quid pro quo? The media-selective Kennedy agrees to the guest shot to hype the return of "Murphy Brown." The advertising time alone would run about $2.5 million, not counting all the related publicity in previews like this.

Who loses? Maybe no one. ABC claims no one loses when it gives Michael Jackson 30 minutes of prime time to hype his CDs and albums. So what could be wrong with 90 seconds on CBS for Kennedy to sell some magazines, and put "Murphy Brown" on the cover of TV Guide?

Television has been moving relentlessly toward more commercialization in recent years. Where once there were public affairs programs on Sunday mornings, now there are 30-minute infomercials for tummy-whacker exercise devices. It's even happening on PBS where the underwriting announcements get more and more "enhanced," to use the euphemistic language of public television.

The visit by JFK Jr. to the set of "FYI" tonight is part of that troubling trend. CBS is scratching Kennedy's back, and he's scratching the network's. And both are doing it by selling our eyeballs to advertisers.

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