This doesn’t qualify as breaking news, but the current glut of TV revivals we’re experiencing isn’t exactly fueled by creative necessity. As fun as it is to see some of these old casts yukking it up together again, let’s be real: Most of these revivals are solely designed to provide a short-term ratings fix for desperate broadcast networks — and quality is beside the point. CBS’ revival of Murphy Brown, which debuts this Thursday (9:30/8:30c), at least has a compelling hook to hang itself on: the election of President Trump and the war on the press he’s currently waging. But based on the three episodes I’ve seen, it feels more obligatory than urgent, and a bit late to the Trump-bashing party.
Picking up twenty years after the original run ended, Thursday’s premiere finds decorated TV journalist Murphy Brown (Emmy winner Candice Bergen) enjoying retirement until she’s inspired to make a comeback by her fury at the Trump administration. (Instead of just yelling at her TV, she says, “I’d rather be on the TV, yelling out!”) So she recruits her old FYI pals — Frank (Joe Regalbuto), Corky (Faith Ford) and Miles (Grant Shaud) — to join her in launching an old-fashioned news program that will favor facts and journalism over spin and rhetoric. (Yeah, good luck with that.)
I was a regular viewer of the original Murphy Brown back in the day, so it’s an undeniable treat just to see the old gang back together again. The ensemble has held together nicely in the two decades since — especially Shaud, who’s still a hilarious ball of neuroses as Miles. (When Murphy finds him, he’s living like a hermit, traumatized by his previous producing experience: “Two years on The View nearly killed me.”) Charles Kimbrough makes a welcome guest appearance in Episode 3 as stuffy anchor Jim Dial, and there are sweet nods to Murphy’s house painter Eldin (played by the late Robert Pastorelli) and her beloved Aretha Franklin. But all of that nostalgic goodwill can only carry it so far. When it comes time to take aim at today’s political landscape, Murphy Brown misses its target.
It doesn’t wait long to make its political allegiances known: The premiere opens with footage of Trump’s election set to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” It’s not surprising that the new episodes take swings at Trump… but it is surprising how ineffective those swings are. Most of the Trump jokes feel at least six months too old — Frank wears a pink protest hat, which was already a sight gag on the revived Roseanne… and it was old then! — and not pointed enough to draw blood. I do wonder if Murphy‘s humor has been neutered at all by nervous CBS executives, but it doesn’t seem to have anything pressing to say about our current political climate that hasn’t been said ten different ways already in the past two years.
The revival’s strongest asset, actually, is Murphy’s relationship with her now-adult son Avery (Jake McDorman), who’s a journalist just like his mom, and serves as the liberal voice on the staunchly right-wing Wolf Network. (Har-har.) McDorman brings a much-needed dose of youthful vigor to the series, and his scenes with Bergen allow her to play more than just a political crusader. Nik Dodani is funny, too, as the new show’s fast-talking social media guru Pat, but the scripts have unfortunately saddled him with a string of tired “darn those millennials!” jokes seemingly left over from The Great Indoors.
It’s not until the revival’s third episode, with character actor MVP David Costabile guest-starring as a Steve Bannon-style conservative firebrand, that we start to see what this new Murphy Brown could eventually become. When he and Murphy delve into a meaty debate about where this country is headed, it crackles with an intellectual energy that’s vintage Murphy Brown. (It’s a one-sided debate, of course, but hey, the original never pretended to be evenhanded, either.) It’s enough, along with McDorman’s presence, to make me want to keep checking in on this new Murphy, to see if something old can actually become something new again.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: It’s nice to see the Murphy Brown gang again, but the revival lacks urgency and relies too heavily on tired Trump humor.