“I better warn you up front, I’m not gonna be like other mothers,” the sitcom character Murphy Brown told her newborn son, Avery, at the end of the series’ fourth season in 1992.
Since Candice Bergen’s fictional news anchor was planning to raise the baby in the absence of his father, that particular Murphy Brown episode was shortly dragged into the presidential election when Vice President Dan Quayle, in a major policy speech, attacked it on moral grounds: “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’ I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.”
With Murphy Brown returning to the airwaves amid an even more volatile culture war, we turn to the first drafts of criticism to see how the show was initially received.
In the October 25, 1988, edition, Laurie Stone reviewed the show and two other debuting sitcoms, Roseanne and Baby Boom, noting, “Based on the pilots, the shows are not equally well-crafted or amusing, but in all the central female mind is sharper than its surround.” Stone reports that “sentimentality is the price [Roseanne] pays for her smart mouth,” while the neurosis of the Murphy Brown character “is allowed to linger and trouble. It’s not instantly drained of threat, as it was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.”
A year later, as the show settled into the culture, media critic Elvis Mitchell wondered in print about the show’s star: “After all, this is Candice Bergen, who has shown an ability to make fun of herself that’s quite engaging. But Murphy Brown is so ingeniously structured, and the press surrounding the show focuses on so many extraneous things — like Bergen’s being a real person (proof: standing around and passing out donuts and plasma to the crew when they’re tired) — that one thing doesn’t ever really come up. Which is — just between you and me — what Bergen does isn’t really acting, is it?”
By December of 1990, the popular Murphy Brown rated its own supposedly learned study, which the ever-animated Mim Udovitch reviewed in the Voice Literary Supplement. Murphy Brown: Anatomy of a Sitcom was a slight enough volume that Udovitch also critiqued studies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a book titled Sweethearts of ’60s TV in the same article. “The most interesting (by which I mean the only interesting) observation in any of the three works under review,” Udovitch writes, “occurs on page eight of Murphy Brown: ‘One seldom-noted fact about the sitcoms was the preponderance of women in lead roles. Indeed, most of the popular series of the fifties carried female names in the title.’ Since it’s outside their Murphocentric focus [authors Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown] do not add, as they might, that there is still a somewhat equitable proportion of lead female characters on sitcoms, particularly relative to other media, such as film. Nor do they explore the deeper-than-face-value reason for this explosion of comparable worth, since to do so would run contrary to their entire thesis that Murphy Brown is a force for social good. It is possible, for example, that television is a medium unique in its ability to simultaneously glorify and reduce, making it the most efficient instrument available for the dissemination of a male view of tiny, empedestaled women, sort of an electronic dollhouse for the masses.”
Finally, Marc Cooper weighs in on Dan Quayle’s 1992 campaign, pointing out that the fundraising breakfast where the veep attacked Brown’s morals was held in a “San Fernando Valley neighborhood only a stone’s throw from the soundstages of the feared Murphy Brown.” Quayle — who famously could not spell potato — was every bit as ham-fisted a demagogue as President Trump, only prettier and less overtly savage. Cooper reports on the “entertainment values” at the heart of the vacuous senator from Indiana’s campaign: “[The mention of Quayle’s name] evokes no association with previous thinkers, legislators, or statesmen, but only with TV images: part Michael J. Fox, part Doogie Howser, a little Dobie Gillis, and a whole lot of Gilligan.”
Little did we know, half a century ago, just how awful having a TV personality for president would turn out to be.