The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Murphy Brown’ once sparked a feud with Dan Quayle. Now the reboot is courting one with Trump.

(Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — “It’s me every time,” Jake McDorman says with an exasperated head shake. He’s bounded into the “Murphy Brown” townhouse several times during a taping in front of a live studio audience and forgotten to turn on the lights.

McDorman, who plays the title character’s now-grown son, Avery, can be forgiven a few missteps — it’s only the third episode he’s recorded in the townhouse. Star Candice Bergen spent a decade cracking jokes and having heart-to-hearts in a faux Georgetown abode just like this one, which was built to mimic the original.

After McDorman’s goofs, Bergen leans in for a hug. It’s an embrace that says: We’ve all been there. And we’re so glad you’re here.

The studio audience is glad they’re here, too, watching the “FYI” gang reunited 20 years after “Murphy Brown” went off the air. In the reboot, which premieres Sept. 27 on CBS, Bergen’s character is anchoring “Murphy in the Morning,” which goes head to head with Avery’s show on a competing network.

Between scenes, the audience is enjoying a big, fat Murphy Brown reunion party. A hype man gives out blue hats proclaiming MAKE AMERICA MURPHY AGAIN to those who happen to know exactly how many secretaries Murphy burned through in a decade. (“Ninety-three!” says a man in front who looks too young to have watched in real time.) Middle-aged men are encouraged to do their best falsetto renditions of “Natural Woman,” the Aretha Franklin hit that became the show’s de facto theme song in the ’90s.

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In the episode being filmed before them, Murphy and her fellow cast members debate whether to interview a Steve Bannon-like character. Yes, the show will again get topical. In 1992, a disheveled Murphy and her buddy Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) watched Vice President Dan Quayle’s speech on TV calling out the fictional newscaster as glamorizing single mothers and “mocking the importance of fathers” by having a child out of wedlock. New-mother Murphy asked Frank, “Do I look glamorous to you?!” She most certainly did not.

“Murphy Brown” was ahead of its time for its sexual politics, including its frank portrayal of single motherhood, which has since become more common. But also rare was the way a sitcom became embroiled in a real-world political debate — and addressed it through its fictional characters. Murphy and Quayle’s faceoff attracted an estimated 70 million viewers to the Season 5 premiere and made the front page of the New York Times. Regalbuto now remembers being flummoxed that NPR called him for an interview. “We’re just a comedy show,” he recalls saying.

The series had no template for how to respond. “We could come out and blast [Dan Quayle], and there’s going to be people saying, ‘You made a mistake; you didn’t go far enough.’ Or: ‘You went too far.’ There was no right answer,” he adds. “It put us in a very unusual situation.”

Today, the show is returning to a world in which the boundary between pop culture and politics has collapsed. Hardly anything is “just a comedy show,” from the late-night talk shows to “Saturday Night Live” to “Veep.” Never has an occupant of the White House been so public with his strong opinions about entertainment. And the “Murphy Brown” reboot is capitalizing on this: The premiere begins on Election Day 2016, and there are episodes addressing white nationalists, Dreamers, the #MeToo movement and the 2018 midterm elections.

The show’s creator, Diane English, isn’t just wondering whether President Trump will watch, she’s betting on it — the writer’s room has a pool going. “We think it might be difficult for him not to say something, and we welcome it,” she says during an interview on the “Murphy” set in Astoria, Queens. “It’s good for us.”

When asked whether Trump supporters will get anything out of the new version, English responds quickly: “No. They’ll just get mad.” She adds that she hopes to capture the inverse audience of the “Roseanne” reboot, which got huge ratings but dropped star Roseanne Barr after she made racist remarks on Twitter; the show has been renamed “The Conners.” English’s comment reflects not just the polarization of the country’s politics, but of entertainment, as well. Just as it’s possible to win an election by tacking to the extremes, it now appears that it’s feasible for a TV show do the same, even on a big network.

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Still, English says, “We’re not really into Trump-bashing for the sake of it, because it gets tedious, and everybody else is doing it on a daily basis.”

Laura Krafft, one of the show’s co-producers and writers, notes that, for a show like “Murphy,” she aims for humor that will mock the bigger picture rather than day-to-day minutiae. “You want something that can stand the test of time a little bit,” says Krafft, who has also written for “The Colbert Report.” “Rather than just make a joke off of the inner wonkiness of a situation, you kind of go one step up.”

“Murphy Brown” was timely in a way that doesn’t feel dated now. Murphy had very stern words for a colleague who sexual harassed her colleague Corky Sherwood (played by Faith Ford). The show portrayed male and female co-workers who treated each other not as potential paramours, but as friends with the closeness of family. When Murphy gave birth to Avery, her colleagues were in the hospital with her. Later, when Murphy’s breast cancer was diagnosed, Frank offered to quit his job to take care of her. (No, they never slept together. And she would take care of herself, thankyouverymuch, although she did let him tag along to a doctor’s appointment.) The reboot picks up some of these threads — there will be a #MeToo episode that will be very personal to Murphy’s character, English says.

The reboot also reflects how much journalism has changed since “Murphy” was last on the air. In the show’s first incarnation, Murphy Brown idolized Walter Cronkite and resembled, as English once put it, “Mike Wallace in a dress.” In today’s version, she’s more an MSNBC-style host than a down-the-middle network news anchor, positioning the show as resistance entertainment.

In a joint interview with English, Bergen dresses the part: She’s wearing a Ralph Lauren sweater with an American flag knit only of blue and white yarn, an emblem that echoes her show’s target audience. With “the horrendous richness of this administration, there’s just so much to feed on,” Bergen says.

She’s sitting on the couch in that Georgetown townhouse, where not much has changed. The same artwork hangs on the wall; the hallway on the second floor still looks out over the living room. But the bookshelves have been updated: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s historical biographies now sit near Rachel Maddow’s critique of U.S. military power. A couch throw pillow embroidered with the phrase “Tired-Ass Honky Ho,” something an online troll once hurled at Bergen, serves as a reminder that social media now gives everyone a microphone. (Bergen loved it so much, she made it her Instagram bio.)

Plus, there are lacrosse sticks by the front door. Yes, like a good millennial, Avery Brown has moved back in with his mother. “For a woman who’s never excelled at relationships, just seeing her at home with anyone is a big deal,” Bergen says.

“They can both call each other out on their kind of antics,” McDorman says. “She’s a world-famous journalist who sometimes needs to check her status a little bit, and Avery is one of the few people she has in her life that can do it, because she’s just his mom.”

In the two decades since the original show, Bergen says, she’s often approached by women who say Murphy Brown inspired them to be ambitious in their careers: “It gave them a shot of courage to do what they dreamt of doing,” she says. And for those who watched with their mothers who struggled with cancer, the sitcom could be “very emotional,” she says.

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Just seeing the set for the first time was so powerful for Bergen and Faith Ford (who reprises her role as Corky Sherwood) that they burst into tears. “We’re all so close, we just couldn’t believe it,” Bergen says of working again with her old cast members. “We just kept looking at each other and saying, ‘I’m so glad to be working with you again.’ ” At the taping, the audience especially lighted up to see 82-year-old Charles Kimbrough’s Jim Dial (who returns for three episodes) speak up against the dangers of false equivalency when his colleagues face a journalistic dilemma.

In Murphy Brown’s original run, freedom of the press was often threatened, in ways that have felt eerily resonant since. Murphy was subpoenaed and asked to reveal her sources on an explosive story, but she wouldn’t budge, even spending some time in jail because of it — episodes Judith Miller might have thought about during the Valerie Plame case. In the show’s second episode, which aired in 1988, the “FYI” team dealt with a live shooter, which was a tragic reality for a newspaper in Annapolis this summer. In a time when the president calls the press the “enemy of the people” on a daily basis, Ford hopes the reboot will humanize reporters. “We’re getting to have the emotions that they can’t really have” in public, Ford says.

Regalbuto sees the reboot as the chance for these fictional characters to say the things “that people want to say and haven’t been — a lot of things come out and cut through the baloney.”

Murphy Brown, especially, was never one to stand by and stay quiet. “She’s somebody who’s never going to be comfortable in retirement or being irrelevant,” English says. “What’s great is that this character is not a spring chicken anymore and to still be in that game and be taken really seriously is, I hope, inspirational to women our age that you don’t wrap it up. There’s still a lot left to be done.”

Murphy Brown (30 minutes) premieres Sept. 27 at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.