As an overzealous patron of the library system in Western Massachusetts, I recently requested the first season of Murphy Brown (sadly the only season of the series to be produced on DVD). With just the first episode, I found myself wondering why this amazing show has not enjoyed a resurgence. It’s a shame for younger generations, to say the least, that they don’t have the strong female role model of Murphy Brown in their realm of knowledge. I tend to look to the past for inspiration (my other entertainment passion at the moment is film noir (of which coincidentally, some films were directed by Candice Bergen’s first husband French director Louis Malle!)), and perhaps I found this show at just the right time, as I’m at yet another crossroads in my life and in need of some encouragement. I can think of no better pop culture inspiration, particularly for a rebellious female, than Murphy Brown. She makes grown men quake in their shoes! Her inimitable reputation precedes her! Her journalistic prowess is unparalleled. As is her bold sense of style.
The first episode, entitled Respect, begins with the song of the same name, sung by Aretha Franklin. For those of you new to this show, one element it was known for was its use of classic Motown music, which many claim is the reason the show has had difficulty being released to DVD. Apparently the rights to the music are extremely expensive. However, music can be edited out or changed. I think this is really an issue of effort, and yes, even sexism, because this show really ruffled a lot of feathers when it was on the air.
Episode one is the only episode that includes commentary by Candice Bergen. She compared going in to work at the studio to working in a mine, for she was new to acting on television and the studio environment. I find that metaphor fitting, because in my opinion she produced diamonds!
The ensemble cast pulled it’s weight too. I think when I initially watched this show, as a child, I found Miles (Grant Shaud) annoying. Now I can fully appreciate the neurotic little bugger. I even sat next to him at a restaurant – John’s on 12th – when I was in college! I can honestly say he is handsome in person, and I recognized him right away, even despite dim lighting (it’s a gift). Unfortunately I didn’t have the guts to talk to him. He played the role of executive producer of FYI, and Murphy’s foil, brilliantly. The tension between them is delicious. Murphy is annoyed to have a boss who is so green-behind-the-ears, while Miles is just thrilled to work for one of his journalist heroes.
I mean, anyone would be annoyed to find their new boss is 25 years old (and their new co-anchor is a former Miss America), let alone the day they return to work after a stint in rehab. Yet another marvelous aspect of this show is that we are introduced to our hero, right off the bat, flaws and all. She is a recovering alcoholic and is also endeavoring to give up smoking. Given that information, the audience might think that her biting wit and suffer-no-fools charm are temporary, but I like to think that they were always part of Murphy, intoxicants or not.
Not only is it refreshing for a lead character to be presented in this honest way, but also yes, because it’s a woman. A powerful, well-known media figure, who is female, with a drinking problem. Traditionally, that would be a role for a male, let’s face it. The plight of addiction, for a white woman, would be kept hush-hush, and those who knew about it would probably just gossip behind her back. I say that with Murphy’s pedigree in mind. In the first season, we do get to meet her mother, and it becomes quite clear that she is from an upper class world.
For now we’ll stick to the pilot. Everyone is sort of walking on tiptoe around Murphy, given her recent drying out. They’re wondering if she’ll be the same old Murph. In fact, she herself is wondering if she’s still got “it”. Her interview for her first show post rehab is with the smarmy, sleazy Bobby Powell, who is alleged to have had an affair with the female candidate for the Vice Presidency. As the episode progresses, we’re wondering if Murphy will cater to the pressure not to go for Bobby Powell’s jugular. Hell no! “It’s in her genes! Also she has bad PMS!”
While it’s not that unusual for someone to mention PMS on TV, and usually in a derogatory way, it doesn’t feel like a slam here. It’s a little reminder of what a woman has to deal with in addition to her work. And it shows how far we’ve come that it can be mentioned in the workplace (this pilot aired November 14, 1988). It’s like femininity is just another weapon in Murphy’s arsenal, rather than something that would ever bring her down. Earlier in the episode, she instructs Miles to read aloud something from her desk calendar, and he zeroed in on “buy tampons”. Do you think Murphy was embarrassed? Not a chance, especially not in front of Miles, of whom she clearly thinks little. One of the first things she asks him is if he knows the Shirelles, The Ronettes, and the Delphonics. Of course she was making a crack at his age, but what a way to measure a man’s worth!
In the first episode we see Murphy in this red jacket. As I learned from Candice Bergen’s commentary, this style choice spoke volumes – it is not dissimilar to traditional fox hunter garb. Murphy is the hunter and her interviewee is often the prey. Candice contributed her ideas to the wardrobe and even included pieces from the men’s clothing. As she noted in the commentary, not every choice was a winner: “I learned from this not to wear pleated khaki pants again” (see first picture at the top).
Most of the episodes volley between the office, the studio, Phil’s (“Close the door!”) and Murphy’s townhouse. While Murphy is outspoken and confident no matter where she is, it’s at home where she truly lets her hair down. And belts out her favorite songs. It’s also where we find Eldin, her housepainter (played by Robert Pastorelli, R.I.P.). I love Eldin. While a housepainter, he has the soul of an artist. Under his spattered white overalls, he always has on a cool vintage shirt to compliment his two-toned wingtips. His character offers a nice childlike companionship for Murphy. The addition of his character also helps to bring out Murphy’s softer side. They trade barbs and even dance and sing together, both being true fans of Motown.
This episode really packed a musical punch, not only opening with Aretha’s “Respect,” and incorporating her version of “Natural Woman,” but also ending with The Temptations’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do”.
It’s badass enough that Murphy is a tough as nails journalist, but the fact that this show portrays her as someone brave enough to go to rehab and return to her job takes it to the next level. But that was always the intention of the show’s creator, Diane English. She didn’t set out creating a character that would blend in, like so many roles written for women. She set out to create “Mike Wallace in a dress”. In fact, the greatest inspiration for Murphy Brown was Linda Ellerbee (who before introducing children to hard news via Nickelodeon, was a highly lauded TV journalist). I wish there was a prequel to Murphy Brown, to see how she began in the field, and how she took the risks she mentions in the pilot.
This post is just the first in a series of my utter obsession with this show. Stay tuned.