From November 1988 until May 1998, Murphy Brown entertained fans across America. Created by Diane English, the workplace sitcom followed television journalist Murphy Brown and her colleagues on FYI, a weekly news and commentary program. It was an entertaining, progressive comedy, and at times took a hard hitting look at various issues in the U.S. and regarding what Americans are used to in regards to news, entertainment, and the gray area in between. This year, it was announced that Murphy Brown would return with a sequel TV series that reunites most of the original cast. For this week’s nerdy love letter, I want to look specifically at the solid storytelling of… the pilot episode of Murphy Brown!
Murphy Brown starred Candace Bergen as the title character, and also featured Faith Ford as Miss America winner turned journalist Corky Sherwood, Joe Regalbuto as sports commentator and field reporter Frank Fontana, and Charles Kimbrough as Murphy’s co-anchor Jim Dial. Along with these folks, there was Grant Shaud playing young FYI producer Miles Silverberg, Robert Pastorelli as Murphy’s woke house painter Eldin Bernecky, and Pat Corley as Phil, a bartender and bar owner who somehow knew almost every secret that existed in Washington D.C. All of these characters were nicely introduced during the pilot episode “Respect,” which hit TV on November 14, 1988. But how the show introduced Murphy before she even appeared on screen still impresses me. It’s simple, it’s efficient, and it gave us a lot of history quickly. It also gave us a character we weren’t used to seeing lead a sitcom in the 1980s (and it’s arguable if we’ve even seen a lot of characters like her since).
The first thing we see is several magazine covers framed and hanging in Murphy’s office. As we hear Aretha Franklin singing “Respect,” the camera pans over the magazine covers and so in just a few moments we get a fair amount of exposition. We learn that Murphy is an accomplished and celebrated journalist. She apparently has the respect of world leaders. She’s at least 40 years old now. She is single (we learn a few episodes later that she was once married for about five days). This is all basic info, but there’s also a few more things that add a glimpse of her personality. A cover warns that “She’ll ask you anything!” Another depicts her going “head to head” with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Moments before the camera then shows more of her office (including an Emmy sitting on top of a file drawer), we see a framed cover of the Star Examiner that asks if she’s having Big Foot’s Baby.
This last cover in particular is a great move to my mind, letting you know that Murphy has a sense of humor about herself. After all, she enjoyed this story so much, she framed and hung it in her own office, right by her emmy. It’s a great button for this montage of magazines, and it complements the fact that Murphy obviously enjoys her reputation as a formidable person considering some of the other covers she framed.
Finally, this montage ends with us seeing an office employee securing a sign above Murphy’s office. It’s message is simple: “Welcome Back, Murphy.” So now we also know that for some reason, this accomplished journalist has been away from work for some time.
That’s a ton of information to give the audience in the first 40 seconds of a show. Exposition is such a tricky beast to handle, and a lot of pilots will deliver this kind of information in clumsy ways and/or dialogue that sounds unnatural coming out of a person. Here, it’s done through a quick montage of magazine covers, a glimpse of an award in a cluttered office, and a sign. It makes sense why all of these set pieces would be present and framed once you get to know Murphy. It’s very natural exposition.
A few moments later, the camera shifts to a conversation among Murphy’s co-workers and here we get a little more obvious (yet still not poorly done) exposition. We learn a bit about the roles and personalities of Frank, Jim and Corky. Then, just before the 1 minute and 30 second time mark, the gang debates whether the Murphy they know will now be “a changed woman” because of the reason for her absence: she is a recovering alcoholic and has spent the past month at the Betty Ford Center.
So wait… in 90 seconds, we’ve been told a ton of information and have been given a layered protagonist, the kind you don’t expect on a sitcom in 1988 (and some still wouldn’t expect it today). We’ve been told very fluidly and efficiently that our title character is a formidable, assertive, famous, accomplished, and at times feared professional, one who enjoys seeming intimidating to some, a person who has a sense of humor about herself, is single at age 40, has recently faced the fact that she is an alcoholic, and is now on her way back to work where expectations are mixed even among her own friends and colleagues. That’s a ton of information before she’s even walked into the scene herself. And better yet, that all paints a very interesting and layered character who is formidable and flawed, who is experienced and yet realizes (by facing her addiction) that she must continue to grow and evolve.
Finally, Murphy arrives at about 2 minutes and 13 seconds into the episode. She seems chipper, she compliments people, she’s on time for work. All of this defies what her colleagues are used to. As she vanishes into her office, her friends mourn the formidable journalist they once knew, believing she has lost her edge. Then we hear her voice call out, “Ok! Which one of you turkeys got their greasy fingerprints all over MY Emmy?” And with that, Frank rejoices, “All right! She’s back!”
And that brings us almost to the 2 minute and 50 second mark. In less than three minutes, we have such a clear picture of this show and this woman, a fictional journalist who would entertain audiences for ten seasons, winning numerous awards, garnering much acclaim, and earning the ire of Vice President Dan Quayle.
And the high points of the pilot didn’t end there. Murphy herself also wonders if she’s lost her edge. She hopes the office will at least provide something familiar and comfortable, only to learn that her temporary replacement Corky Sherwood will be remaining as a regular on FYI, and that her new producer is a somewhat neurotic 25 year old who worries just about ratings and keeping the network happy more than she cares to see. Murphy learns that producer Miles Silverberg has landed her a hot exclusive interview, but then is also told she can’t ask the man the very question America wants an answer to because otherwise he wouldn’t come. She doesn’t want to be hampered, she doesn’t want to hold back, but at the same time she has her own doubts, which she expresses to her longtime friend and colleague Jim Dial.
“Have you ever felt not like yourself? Like you went through something that changed you and you start to wonder if maybe you’ve lost the thing that made you special and, if you don’t pull it off, everyone will see through you and you’ll fail in front of millions of people?”
I honestly wish more formidable and aggressive TV protagonists showed this kind of layering and spoke this openly about self doubt and impostor syndrome. This pilot was a great exploration of a dynamic character. Along with all this, it had great humor and continued to enhance the story with little touches such as Murphy’s home having the books disorganized (as if someone lives there and it’s not just a set), the fact that the show lets her toss her shoes in different directions and drop her coat on the floor when she comes home, and that she is comfortable singing badly at a bad volume when she thinks she’s alone. There’s fun stuff with Phil the bartender and with Eldin, a guy who is asked to paint a kitchen ceiling and “takes a chance” by instead turning it into a mural about the American Industrial Revolution.
I could go on and on about this fascinating, well directed, well cast, well written, and wacky pilot episode. But I think I’ve rambled enough. Go check it out for yourself and come to your own conclusions of what worked and what didn’t. And if you’re not familiar with the show in general, do yourself a favor and dive headfirst into the classic series that was Murphy Brown.
This article was originally posted on 9/16/18
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