Originally created 05/17/98

'Murphy' brought lot more than laughs to TV



LOS ANGELES -- How could Murphy Brown have missed? With the face of Candice Bergen, a mouth like Sam Donaldson and the brass to go toe to toe with the vice president of the United States, we couldn't ignore her.

She was more than a vivid television character; she was a new kind of virtual reality. Murphy shook off '80s addictions, reveled in her career ambition and then, with genuine political fanfare, became a '90s kind of mother.

When she made headlines, it was in her fictional world and in our real one as well.

Seinfeld sailed into the TV reference books for merrily exploiting nothing much; Murphy Brown earned a place in history as part of the national wrestling match over family values.

If Murphy's audience and clout have shrunk in recent years, she still rates a big sendoff in her 10th season. The hour-long farewell, at 9 p.m. Monday (WRDW-TV, Channel 12), includes juicy cameos by Bette Midler, Julia Roberts, George Clooney and others.

There is sentiment as well as wit as Murphy endures a final confrontation with breast cancer, considers leaving her beloved "FYI" news magazine and even manages a chat with God (as played by a well-tailored Alan King).

Cast members Charles Kimbrough, Joe Regalbuto, Faith Ford and Lily Tomlin each get a well-deserved chance to shine.

It's a righteous ending for a series that counted for more than laughs -- a proud fact for series creator Diane English.

Murphy Brown initially gained attention for casting the glamorous, movie-pedigreed Ms. Bergen as a brassy TV journalist, a part that won her five Emmys. The fit between the actress and the role made the show, Ms. English said.

And the series' unabashed topicality made it sizzle.

"I think we broke through some barriers regarding the way women are portrayed on television. And I think we broke through some barriers with political satire," Ms. English said. "In the first half of our life we were really firing on all cylinders."

And making noise. In the premiere episode on Nov. 14, 1988, Ms. Murphy grills a man believed to be involved with a married woman who is a vice presidential candidate. The alleged paramour has a few questions of his own for the reporter.

"Do you think the press deserves to know everything? Do people deserve to know everything?" Ms. English recalled. "It's the same questions we're dealing with 10 years later."

That, remember, was the year after would-be president Gary Hart was reduced to a Donna Rice side dish.

"I think the first season was really exciting for us," Ms. English said, "because we were too stupid to know any better. We were really so innocent about what we could and couldn't do."

Murphy could have warned us: You ain't seen nothing yet.

In the 1991-92 season, the unmarried character got pregnant, decided to keep the baby -- and became an improbable part of the '92 presidential campaign as the line between fiction and reality warped.

A debate started by then-Vice President Dan Quayle produced catchy headlines ("Quayle to Murphy Brown: YOU TRAMP," trumpeted the New York Daily News) and rancorous exchanges.

Mr. Quayle accused the series of mocking the value of fatherhood; the show, in turn, mocked Mr. Quayle and accused him of polarizing America over a serious issue for political gain.

"We were simply a flash point, a cultural flash point, around which a much-needed debate occurred," Ms. English said. "It never occurred to us this would be the result of this little idea we had for the fourth season."

Times change; Mr. Quayle saw many others jump on the family-values bandwagon that he got rolling. And Murphy Brown, which lost Ms. English's guidance after the sixth season, lost its luster and bite.

"I think after Year Six or Seven, that should have been it," mused Ms. English. But the show at least got the chance to bow out with some of its old spark when the decision was made to do a 10th and last season.

"The couple of seasons prior to that were rather dismal. I don't think either of us wanted to peter out that way," Ms. English said. "We wanted to do a season that meant something again."

Breast cancer provided the heart and -- surprise! -- the controversy. Although the series was lauded for its blunt depiction of the disease's emotional and physical impact, it took heat for Murphy's medicinal marijuana tokes.

Ms. English is asked how she'd like her show to be remembered.

"It would be nice to hear somebody say they raised the bar for everybody else," she replies. "I don't know if that's entirely true."

Murphy Brown would have no doubt. And no qualms about saying so.

Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, battled breast cancer and notions of single parenthood, the media and politicians in its 10-year run, which comes to an end Monday at 9 p.m.