• U.S.

Labor And Other Pains

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin



THE BOTTOM LINE: This popular sitcom has good things going for it, but wit, style and subtlety are not among them.

THE DOORBELL RINGS, AND ONE BY one, an all-star guest list of TV celebrities troop into the house: Katie Couric, Joan Lunden, Paula Zahn, Faith Daniels, Mary Alice Williams. The scene plays like one of those old I Love Lucy episodes, with the Ricardos in Hollywood. (Look — it’s William Holden! And Harpo Marx!) Actually, it is the most star-studded baby shower in TV history. All these real-life TV newswomen have come to pay tribute to their most famous fictional colleague: Murphy Brown.

Ranked No. 3 in the Nielsens, but No. 1 in the hearts of the upscale “I rarely watch network TV” crowd, Murphy Brown is about to hit the climax of its four-year run. A year ago, Murphy — 42, unmarried star reporter for a TV magazine show called FYI — got pregnant and (after a brief flurry of interest in the father’s identity) decided to have her baby alone. Now, with her due date approaching, the series is gearing up for a season-ending double whammy: & next week’s celebrity shower and then, on the season finale, the baby’s arrival. Get ready for a barrage of promotional fanfare, a jump in the ratings and another round of critical cheers.

Minus one.

Let’s be fair: Murphy Brown has some good things going for it. One of the few comedies on TV that stay abreast of current events, it has the smarts and the moxie to take pokes at everything from gossip-mongering tabloids to the Anita Hill hearings. Its main character is a successful and independent career woman who isn’t bitchy, ditsy or man crazy — in other words, a feminist role model. It features some good ’60s music.

But mostly the show is pretentious and annoying. TV sitcoms are rarely models of subtlety, but few are acted and directed with such in-your-face coarseness. Candice Bergen, a two-time Emmy winner (in years when the Golden Girls were apparently snoozing), has anything but a light comic touch. Listening to her labored, overemphatic line readings is like watching someone slog through a swamp in combat boots. Faith Ford, as dippy anchorwoman Corky Sherwood-Forrest (a character married off just to create a funny name!), shrieks her way through scenes as if she were trying to be heard above a hurricane. Grant Shaud, as frenetic executive producer Miles Silverberg, needs sedation more than his character does.

Created by the wife-husband team of Diane English and Joel Shukovsky (who have parlayed the show’s success into a four-series development deal with cbs), Murphy Brown is cleverly written, but in a smug, soulless, metallic way. The characters are all Johnny one-notes, the satire of TV news obvious and unoriginal. Pompous anchorman, shallow news bimbo, ratings-obsessed station executives — once it all might have been daring, but such TV navel gazing is now painfully commonplace.

Too often what passes for wit is merely the insertion of brand names or pop- culture references designed to get a rise out of the baby-boomer audience. “For a guy who knows all the words to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, you’re starting to sound an awful lot like Pat Boone,” says Murphy. Or: “I’ve been carrying this kid for longer than Bonanza was on the air.” At Phil’s, the wateringhole where Washington’s movers and shakers supposedly mingle, the running gags about famous patrons (“I keep telling Koppel to stop bringing in that garbage”) amount to little more than idle name dropping.

The show’s habit of mingling real-life references (and occasional guest appearances) with its fictional TV news crew is carried to a new level in the baby-shower episode. The visiting TV newswomen do surprisingly well in their cameo appearances, delivering quips about such things as balancing career and motherhood. (Says Williams: “I once asked Garrick Utley if he had to make a boom-boom.”) But the encounter simply lends a bogus aura of credibility to a show that seems phony at its soul. And why do all the guests at the shower come from the soft-news world of morning TV? Apparently, the hard-news reporters whom Murphy is really modeled after — Diane Sawyer, Lesley Stahl — were too busy doing real work.

Murphy’s single motherhood is being hailed as a milestone for prime-time TV, but the plot twist smacks of gimmickery. The trouble is that the show tries to have it both ways: Murphy, the unsentimental career woman, has spent most of the season making cynical jokes about motherhood (“Oh, right, the unforgettable thrill of passing a bowling ball”). Yet when the baby finally arrives, there’s our new mother, misty-eyed, crooning (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman to the newborn. For a gal who knows the words to In-A-Gadda- Da-Vida, she’s starting to sound an awful lot like Debby Boone.

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