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'Murphy Brown' Returns For The Trump Age


Switching gears now. The TV series "Murphy Brown" returns to CBS on Thursday, 20 years after the original sitcom ended its run. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spoke to star Candice Bergen and show creator Diane English about making "Murphy Brown" relevant in the era of cable news and social media.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's a question Diane English answers without hesitation. If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, would there be a "Murphy Brown" revival?

DIANE ENGLISH: Probably not. Had we been approached, it would not have felt as relevant as it does now. There's so much material here. It's hard to walk away from it.

DEGGANS: After the election, she spent nine months developing the first script. In it, Murphy Brown has moved from network to cable news. The new episodes of "Murphy Brown" often play like an in-your-face rebuttal to the Trump era. In one scene, stock footage of Sarah Sanders is used to set up a scene, where Murphy confronts the press secretary at a White House briefing.


CANDICE BERGEN: (As Murphy Brown) Why do you lie?


BERGEN: (As Murphy Brown) I mean, how do we go back to our newspapers and our magazines and our networks knowing that the most basic principle of journalistic integrity to report the facts is totally out of reach? If we can't get to the truth, why are we even here?

Murphy is still relentless, and she is not caving in to being older.

DEGGANS: That's star Candice Bergen describing the character who helped turn her into a TV legend. Bergen won five Emmy awards in the '80s and '90s playing Murphy Brown, a driven investigative journalist just out of rehab who eventually decides to have a baby as a single mom. In CBS's revival, Murphy comes out of retirement to take over the morning show on a cable channel. The competition - her son. He works for a conservative cable news channel called The Wolf Network. Get it? Bergen hopes the new Murphy Brown, older than most women currently anchoring a major cable news show, might break new ground for older characters on TV and older performers and producers.

BERGEN: So I'm 72. That's old. And I think it may just be helpful to see just the kind of work that people in their 60s and 70s are capable of. You're 40 times smarter. You've got the same energy. And you have - now, you have something to say.

DEGGANS: From 1988 to 1998, Murphy Brown always had plenty to say. One minute, she was confronting a sexual harasser in her workplace.


BERGEN: (As Murphy Brown) My knee is poised inches from the sensitive spot...


BERGEN: (As Murphy Brown) And if you don't swear not to hit on Corky or anyone else in his company again, you'll be coughing up things you ate as a child.


DEGGANS: The next, she was reminding a clueless senator about the value of a free press.


BERGEN: (As Murphy Brown) Without the press, Watergate, the savings and loan debacle and Iran-Contra may never have come to light.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So?

DEGGANS: English says when she first developed the idea for Murphy Brown, the tales that made the show distinctive also scared TV executives. They feared audiences wouldn't like a 40-something woman just out of rehab. They suggested younger bombshell Heather Locklear instead of the Oscar-nominated Bergen. Speaking to the Archive of American Television, English said the script was saved by one stroke of luck.


ENGLISH: When we shot the pilot, we were in the middle of a writers strike. I turned that script in. The next day, the strike happened, and I could not change a word of it.

DEGGANS: Despite their bold storylines, English says she was still surprised in 1992 when then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the show during a campaign speech. And it became a huge controversy.


DAN QUAYLE: It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly optimizes today's intelligent highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.

DEGGANS: Murphy Brown and her baby landed on the cover of The New York Times, and the show had Murphy address the criticism head on.


BERGEN: (As Murphy Brown) These are difficult times for our country. And in searching for the causes of our social ills, we could choose to blame the media or the Congress or an administration that's been in power for 12 years. Or we could blame me.

DEGGANS: These days, English says she wasn't necessarily trying to make history when she created the character of Murphy Brown.

ENGLISH: I was just trying to put a character on television that was like me and my friends. That - I didn't necessarily see that. And it turned out that she, in the body of Candice Bergen, who is such a brilliant comedienne and actress, made it groundbreaking.

DEGGANS: At a time when issues affecting women are at the center of public discussion, it's great to welcome back a character with such a long legacy of empowerment and strong principles.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "SHADES OF BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.