Murphy Brown S1 Warner Bros DVD cover
The cast of Murphy Brown | Season 1 DVD, Warner Bros. (2007)

You Think Feminist Sitcom ‘Murphy Brown’ Had It Tough in the ’90s?

Would the Murphy Brown “Uh Oh” episodes, which addressed abortion, withstand the Texas Heart Beat act and America’s current right-wing cultural climate?

Murphy Brown
Diane English

When Murphy Brown first aired in November 1988, it was compared to the ’70s classic sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Superficially, the comparisons made sense: both shows centered on a beautiful woman working in journalism who is surrounded by a cast of kooky, eccentric coworkers that become her family. Digging deeper though, it’s clear that the similarities are mostly superficial.

Whereas Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards was a young, freshly-single woman who was finding herself in the big city, Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown was a middle-aged, seasoned vet who had lived many lives. If there was an iconic sitcom character that one could liken to Murphy Brown, it would be Bea Arthur’s Maude Findlay of Maude, the crusading – if deeply flawed – liberal feminist from Normal Lear’s stable of socially conscious comedies. Murphy leaned more toward Maude because both women were tough, uncompromising, even intimidating individuals who weren’t easily likable – to some.

The other important commonality the two characters shared was that both were placed in episodes in which they faces pregnancy during middle age. In the two-part episode, “Maude’s Dilemma” (written by Susan Harris, Soap, The Golden Girls), Maude discovers she’s pregnant and must decide whether to have an abortion. The episode was met with the predictable furor and indignation from America’s social conservatives and it may have been a shocking plot arc for some. Viewers familiar with Lear’s work, however, couldn’t be too surprised that he chose to use his sitcom to address reproductive freedom. The theme was revisited almost 20 years later in 1991 when Murphy Brown announced that its titular character was pregnant.

Like most sitcoms, Murphy Brown had tropes, themes, and in-jokes baked into the show’s DNA. One of the recurring gags was Murphy’s inability to conform to traditional feminine standards, particularly when it came to motherhood. Though conventionally attractive, Murphy wasn’t the traditional sitcom heroine: she was loud, obnoxious, mean, prone to occasional acts of physical violence, and most importantly, she wasn’t defined by a man. Though the show had sprinkled the seasons with romantic interests, for the most part, we were presented with a woman who was so obsessed with her career that she couldn’t maintain a healthy romantic relationship. And for the most part, we understand that she was fine with that.

However, in the three-part episode, “Uh-Oh”(Part 1, May 1991; Parts 2 and 3, September 1991), which serves as the end of the third season and the beginning of the fourth season, Murphy’s romantic life causes much confusion and consternation when she discovers that she’s pregnant. The “Uh-Oh” episodes were very much like a Lear sitcom in that we were presented with various points of view, from Murphy’s liberalism to Corky’s social conservatism, we applauded breaks after trenchant one-liners, and we left the episode seemingly smarter and better because we had experienced a “discussion” about a thorny topic like abortion and a woman’s right to choose.

Indeed, one of the elements that have been a hallmark of Murphy Brown is its focus on topical issues. Both a strength and a weakness, the show tackled some difficult questions, but the reliance on topicality often dated the show, although many remain entrenched in the culture wars to this day.

The plot – credited to Korby Siamis and creator Diane English – has Murphy reunited with her ex-husband, Jake Lowenstein (Robin Thomas), an activist from her past. (I can’t help but think the relationship was based, in part, on Jane Fonda’s marriage to Tom Haydn). Jake is depicted as a burned-out idealist looking to settle down and he repeatedly proposes to Murphy. She’s understandably wary of his advances.

Whilst weighing her feelings for Jake, Murphy’s other ex, Jerry Gold (Jay Thomas) arrives, also looking to patch things up. The interesting thing about Jerry is that, unlike Jake, he’s a fiery conservative who seemingly stands opposed to everything Murphy believes in. Despite their ideological differences, they have an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the show’s run.

The main conflict arrives when Murphy discovers she’s pregnant with Jake’s baby. When Jake arrives at her Georgetown townhouse once again to propose, she shares her news and the two realize that they’re better apart. It’s an emotional scene, rare for the show that usually relies on snarky irony or broad comedy. Bergen earns her Emmy for her performance.

Indeed, before Murphy Brown, the actress was given a lot of grief in Hollywood for her stilted, dull acting, but Diane English was able to unearth a gifted thespian and comedienne when she cast Bergen in this role. During the tête-à-tête between Jake and Murphy, Bergen movingly conveys the hurt and resignation she feels when she understands that Jake – a man whom she loves – is not suited for fatherhood or matrimony. There’s also fear. So much of the Murphy Brown lore rests on Murphy being a superwoman, but English’s script allows for the character to ponder the wisdom of her decision: a middle-aged workaholic who struggles with alcoholism and is known for her sharp temper, is considering having the baby.  

One would assume that when Murphy turns to her work family for support – the other news people over at the fictional newsmagazine, FYI – the reception to her choice would be easier. English is smart in that she writes a wide array of reactions to Murphy’s news, each more or less aligning with the character’s personality.

Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), the wunderkind producer, is prone to panic. He frets and fumes over what effects Murphy’s motherhood would have for the show. Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), the Cronkite/Murrow/Rather amalgam, stoically responds with understated concern. Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), the beautiful Southern Belle beauty queen, is shocked and appalled. Meanwhile, Murphy’s confidant, Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), is conflicted, worried about his friend but also determined to be supportive. The cacophony of reactions to Murphy’s pregnancy is dizzying, and they peak with a martyred Corky bravely vowing that she would accompany Murphy to a back-alley doctor to “take care of things”.

It’s at this moment that English uses Murphy (and Bergen) as a megaphone to champion women’s rights. Aghast at Corky’s desperate response to the news, she lectures,

Corky, there is no back alley. Women in this country legally have a choice. At least I think they still do. I haven’t checked the paper today.

The joke was met with a rapturous cheer and applause break by the studio audience (that’s very Norman Lear) and then the audience was rewarded with Corky’s simpering apology, “I’m sorry. I’m from Louisiana.” (Ford delivered this line perfectly.) Murphy’s decision to keep the baby is big news and it creates a perceptible shift in the scene – one that requires a break in the tension. This is handily delivered by an annoyed Murphy rebuking Jim’s condescending offer of money by revealing that she’s just as rich as he.