There should be a rule against re-booting sitcoms that already lasted seven years after they stopped being funny.
Murphy Brown ran for 10 seasons on CBS. The 1988 – 98 sitcom had a talented cast, led by Candice Bergen, and featuring strong supporting players, including Faith Ford, Charles Kimbrough, Robert Pastorelli, Joe Regalbuto and Grant Shaud. Buffalo, NY, native Diane English really hit her stride as writer, creator and executive producer of the cable newsroom-based comedy.
Bergen, the daughter of a famous ventriloquist/radio comedian (let that sink in), provided a different voice on TV at the time, a droll balance of world-weary sophistication. The gag about handyman Eldon (the late Pastorelli) never finishing her house was cute for a while. Ditto the bit about how Murphy could never hang on to an assistant.
Then the vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle, politicized the show by objecting to the idea that Murphy was about to bring a child into the world with no father in the picture. The show got tons of publicity, including the cover of Time, and a whole new backboard, but also quickly lost the funny. (Read this spot-on analysis from Jim Geraghty in the National Review).
Now, every other show being re-booted this season also stopped being funny before it was finally canceled. Will & Grace went at least one season too long and fell sharply in the ratings; Roseanne dragged on two years past its prime.
I once asked Eric McCormack if his sitcom maybe should have shut things down a year earlier. I totally understood his honest response: “My accountant would disagree with you.”
With Murphy Brown, however, it went at least 100 episodes too long. Kimbrough and others did their best and put it all in the bank and never had to work again and God bless ’em, but the show’s reputation was tarnished.
Murphy Brown was on around the same time as Seinfeld, which voluntarily shut down after nine years. Which series would you rather re-watch? Seinfeld did spectacularly well in syndication and Murphy Brown did not, partially because Murphy committed the ultimate syndication sin — it was too topical. (Plus, none of the rotating series of classic ’60s pop hits off the top of the show each week — a reason to watch the first 20 seconds at least — were properly cleared.)
Classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show (five seasons) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (seven) both left people wanting more. Not so Murphy Brown, That ’70s Show, How I Met Your Mother or, I would argue, Friends.
The Simpsons seems immune to the usual laws of TV physics. Had that series died along with the late, great Phil Hartman after nine or ten seasons, if would remain a timeless classic. That there are now over 600 episodes simply makes it the ultimate binge challenge.
Now, I’ve been wrong before. I thought I’d hate the new Roseanne re-boot, which comes to ABC in March, but having watched the first two new episodes I have to admit I really liked them. The writing is sharp and clever, the performances feature folks who never once seem to have lost their stride. It plops in 2018 funny and fresh.
So maybe more Murphy will surprise me too. It just seems to me, at best, like an idea for a one-hour special. People will laugh when Eldon’s grandson walks in with a ladder and says he’s out of paint. The first time Trump’s old press secretary sits in as Murphy’s assistant will get a chuckle. We’ll meet Murphy’s child, who will have transgendered. We’ll see Murphy at the bar with today’s CBS Morning Show and Today Show female anchors in a real #metoo moment.
And then what.