Created, produced, and written by Diane English, Murphy Brown debuted in 1988 during a period when women were nearly eliminated from television by all-male "buddy" shows. One of the only series to focus on a female character that year, it would become one of the most popular of the 1980s and 1990s and enter the platform of a presidential campaign.
The main character, Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), was one of the most well developed characters to ever appear on a sitcom. At the beginning of the series, Murphy, a highly competitive journalist, had just spent time in the Betty Ford Clinic, where she overcame the drinking and smoking addictions honed during her years as an ambitious journalist. Included in the ensemble cast were her "family" of co-workers on the fictitious television newsmagazine, FYI, and Eldin Bernecky (Robert Pastorelli), house-painter-turned-permanent-fixture at home.
Murphy's co-anchor was Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), a newsman in the image of Edward Murrow, who for 25 years had been a respected peer of such luminaries as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) was the naive former Miss America who was brought onto FYI to add youth and energy to the "aging" program by covering human interest stories of dubious value. Rounding out the FYI team was Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), Murphy's best friend and the show's insecure investigative reporter. For the first eight years, Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) was the neurotic boy-wonder who was foisted on the experienced triumvirate as the show's producer. He was replaced by Kay (Lily Tomlin), the no-nonsense veteran who could be as abrasive as Murphy.
Murphy Brown dealt frankly and intelligently with topical issues such as homelessness, political correctness and over-sensitivity, celebrity, ecology and the environment, first amendment protection, single motherhood and "family values." Not only did the series readily address issues of substance, but it often reflected a strong viewpoint on the issue, as when Brown went to jail rather than reveal the source of a story.
It was the series' willingness to take a stand on issues and to deal with controversial topics that propelled Murphy Brown into the center of controversy over contemporary morality. During the 1991-92 season, the unmarried Murphy became pregnant, although the baby was given a quasi-legitimacy as the child of Murphy's ex-husband. In part because of the popularity of the character and the show, Murphy became the topic of heated debate within the media and the target of conservative politicians and religious groups. In speeches during the 1992 presidential campaign, vice president Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown for being an unwed mother and a symbol of declining family values. The argument quickly spread to a variety of national magazines from U.S. News and World Report to Christian Century, and, in an episode from the 1992 season, Murphy replied to Quayle's comments in a segment of FYI that featured real-life nontraditional families.
During the final season, Murphy learned that she had breast cancer and, in addition to the typical comedy stories, many episodes chronicled her battle and the way in which she dealt with this new crisis in her life. At the end of several episodes, Candice Bergen made public service announcements concerning breast cancer awareness. At last, in the final episode, Murphy learned that she was cancer-free. After questioning her priorities and lifestyle, Murphy decided that there was nothing she would rather do than continue her work on FYI. Perhaps the most satisfying scene of all was when she returned home to find Eldin, who had left several years earlier to "paint" in Spain, in her townhouse planning his "masterpiece" to be painted on her den ceiling.
While Murphy was, in many ways, a feminist role model, her character was not without the typical conflicting signals and symbols found in female characters who are successes in non-traditional terms. Although she was extremely successful in her work, the traits that aided in her success were those generally ascribed to males in our society—independence, bluntness, excessive self-confidence, courage, and ambition. In addition, her private life, the traditional realm of the female, was a disaster. The implicit message seemed to be that to be successful a woman must be masculinized, thereby losing her "female-ness" and resulting in an empty personal life.
Murphy Brown offered a nontraditional role model of female success even though it also presented conflicting messages of the cost of that success to women. Yet, through it all Murphy was depicted as a survivor of a dysfunctional childhood and a professional journey replete with "hard knocks." For the viewing audience, perhaps her resiliency and persistence were the most positive and beneficial aspects of her character.
Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. Murphy Brown: Anatomy of a Sitcom. New York, Dell Publishing, 1990.