The underwhelming success of the Murphy Brown reboot calls to question what we ask for in our television comedies in 2018.
Despite star Candice Bergen’s Golden Globe nomination, CBS’s 2018 remount of the original nineties hit sit-com Murphy Brown hasn’t had the critical or audience success that the network anticipated. The show debuted in 1988 and followed a single mother, a career woman, often overly self-assured as she reported the news. The reboot follows the same woman, now older and only somewhat wiser. Raising a child in a single parent household in 2018 is less unique (though no less difficult), and the stakes are also lowered as Avery, Murphy’s son, is now an adult. But the news environment of 2018 seems ripe for a show about journalistic integrity.
— Murphy Brown (@MurphyBrownCBS) December 6, 2018
No News is Good News
Perhaps Murphy‘s proximity to the news was its unlikely downfall. The show rehashes news stories that audiences have already heard plenty about — and stories break too fast in 2018 for a traditionally-filmed sit-com to keep up. But beyond that audiences’ attention spans are short, and their newsfeeds are tragedy fatigued. Murphy gave us humor and heart, but with a heavy-handed dose of reality too. Could it be that sit-com viewers on a Thursday night have taken in too much political news throughout the week, and are unwilling to ingest more as they seek a more escapist viewing experience like The Good Place?
Revenge of the Reboot
The successful reboot of a former hit television show has been a somewhat unattainable ideal for networks throughout the past decade. Television executives pine for a pre-internet time when audiences viewed in the double digit millions regularly. There were no DVRs, so the only numbers that mattered were the live ones. “Appointment television” meant families and friends crowding around a set together to take in the night’s entertainment. Friends regularly drew upwards of 20 million viewers — this is unheard-of today. Only mega hits like Big Bang Theory break the 20 million thresholds and rarely maintain it. It’s no wonder that networks salivate for a simpler time, and are willing to try anything to resuscitate it.
Smash multi-camera sit-com hits of the 1990’s like Will and Grace, Roseanne, and Fuller House have come back for more with each having the effect of reheated leftovers. Some dishes get better with age, others turn out soggy and unappealing. Each, even at their best, are enjoyed more as a memory of something once served fresh. None can stand alone from its original runs, and none can compete.
Can Murphy Make It?
In “The Wheels on the Dog Go Round and Round” Avery’s show is being promoted to primetime, and the gang longs for a time when they were successful. In Murphy‘s 5th season, an estimated 70 million people were watching. These days, the show is lucky to see seven million per episode. Avery (Jack McDorman) is also getting pressure to change his opinion pieces and read copy prepared by the conservative “Wolf” network. This could be a veiled reference to Murphy‘s own creative integrity and desire to remain independent from edicts issued from the network brass at CBS. But it is also and importantly a reflection of something real happening on Sinclair stations across the United States. Many local news shows have been required to read right-leaning editorial messages on the air.
There is one more salient moment that bears mention in what could be the penultimate episode for this reboot. Murphy, standing before a wall of cages that hold dogs at an over-crowded shelter, the show itself potentially on the docket to be put down. Will the show be euthanized? Will it prove to be the adorable, two-legged pup that Murphy ultimately adopts? Is Murphy Brown too sweet to be put down, or like the handicapped canine, is it too weak to climb the steep staircase of a crowded and complex television landscape? While this metaphor has definitely jumped the shark, only time will tell whether the reboot of Murphy Brown has come to an end or will get a second chance.
Murphy Brown continues Thursday nights at 9:30 ET on CBS.
Photos and video credit courtesy of CBS.
65th Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon Waldorf=Astoria Hotel New York, NY USA June 5, 2006