Once-great 'Murphy Brown' fades away, at least two years too late The show had an edge as sharp as any on TV. But over the years preachiness came to replace pertinence, and the sitcom lost its viewers' trust.

May 17, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this story.

Murphy Brown," the CBS sitcom starring Candice Bergen as a Washington anchorwoman, will end its 10-year run tomorrow night with a one-hour episode. It would be nice to say it was a glorious run and America is going to miss "Murphy Brown," but that would be two lies.

The once-great sitcom overstayed its welcome, and, in recent years, became preachy, predictable, smug and flat. Ultimately, it is guilty of one of the worst sins a television show can commit: It betrayed the trust of its fans.

Even Bergen acknowledges "two dismal seasons," referring to 1995-1996 and 1996-1997, saying she "wasn't as aware as the viewing public that the show had disintegrated to the point that it had."

But "Murphy Brown" is still worth a look back because of what it has to tell us about the nature of sitcom characters and our connections to them. "Murphy Brown," like no sitcom since "All in the Family," helped us understand the surreal intersection of television entertainment, popular culture and politics in our personal lives and in American public life these days.

Six years ago almost to the day, "Murphy Brown" was not just the hottest show on television, it seemed to become almost overnight the only thing the media was talking about.

On May 19, 1992, in a speech in San Francisco, Vice President Dan Quayle blamed the Los Angeles riots in part on a "breakdown in family values." One paragraph of that speech mentioned the character Murphy Brown, who had a baby out of wedlock on the episode that had aired the previous evening.

Quayle attacked Murphy for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing the child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'" His remarks set off an election-year controversy.

In a cover story two weeks later, Time magazine characterized the controversy as "political, moral, cultural, racial, even metaphysical."

As Time put it: "Americans talked about it in coffee shops and check-out lines and elevators. In the Rose Garden at the White House, George Bush stood with Brian Mulroney, trying to hold a press conference about matters of state. The hounds of the press frisked and barked in excitement until their intermingled questions sounded something like Murf! Murf! Murf!

"The Prime Minister of Canada turned to the President of the U.S. and asked in some puzzlement, 'Who is Murphy Brown?'"

In terms of television genealogy, Murphy Brown is Mary Richards, of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," making the jump from Minneapolis to a Washington newsroom and coming of age as a woman along with the woman's movement. No more "Ohh, Mr. Grant" from this lady.

In a generational sense, she is the baby boomer's baby boomer right down to her love of Motown and record level of self-absorption for any character not on "thirtysomething."

The 51-year-old Bergen today says she has mixed feelings about the controversy. "It was certainly a good thing to happen to the show in a historical sense because it linked 'Murphy Brown' with the political platform for the rest of time. And it certainly was a good thing for our numbers [ratings] at that point," she said.

"Murphy Brown" finished the 1991-1992 season the third highest-rated show on television, behind only "60 Minutes" and "Roseanne." By the fall of '92, it was the most expensive show on which to advertise, earning $310,000 per 30 seconds of commercial time for CBS. But Bergen says it was also the beginning of the end for the series creatively.

"Diane had left the show," she said, referring to the departure of creator Diane English as executive producer at the end of the 1991-1992 season. "We had a new team. We had a baby we had to deal with, and didn't deal with it very well."

English signed back on as an "executive consultant" this year and helped the show make an attempt at its old sense of relevancy through a story line involving Murphy finding out she has breast cancer.

It was a laudable effort on paper. One of the things television can do well is dramatize our worst fears and play out how to deal with them. But, in terms of execution, "Murphy Brown" didn't have anything to tell us about cancer that hadn't been said already on series ranging from "thirtysomething" to "Party of Five" to even "The X-Files."

The dismal ratings this winter convinced CBS management that most viewers had simply stopped caring about Murphy Brown.

English, who wrote tomorrow night's finale, said she thinks the show will be remembered for the way its central character blurred the line between fiction and reality.

"That's certainly no better dramatized than when the vice president himself forgot she wasn't a real person," English said. But some TV characters do become real to us - Archie Bunker, Lucy Ricardo, Hawkeye Pierce, Mary Richards, Cliff Huxtable - and we measure our lives against theirs. Murphy Brown broke into that rarefied company in 1992, ironically, with the help of Quayle.

In the end, though, the baby cost her a place in that pantheon, and that's why the series ends with a whimper this week.

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