How ‘Murphy Brown’ is Telling White Women With Good Intentions to Do Better

Spoilers Ahead.

When I heard about the return of Murphy Brown, I was a little more than skeptical, a sentiment shared by many who thought we should probably stop at Will & Grace before this reboot/reinvent/reignite craze forced us to acknowledge there are lessons to be learned from the past.

It is not just the show itself which is beginning to hit its stride with a powerful Thanksgving episode focused on DACA, Immigration, and our collective sense of helplessness. It is my understanding of how this show in particular is helping me no longer just survive, but begin to thrive again.

When my partner Ledcat and I sit down on the sofa at 8 PM on Thursday nights, we are there for the duration. Seven of our favorite shows are on during four time slots so choices are made. Remotes are at the ready for the channel change. Right now, we are watching Big Bang Theory at 8 PM on CBS, The Good Place at 8:30 PM on NBC, Will & Grace at 9:00 PM on NBC, with Murphy Brown at 9:30 PM on CBS batting clean-up. Then off goes the TV and we go about our evening rituals. We skip The Rachel Maddow Show and we watch Young Sheldon (CBS) and Moms (CBS) on FIOS later.

When is the last time we did that on a regular basis – watched a chunk of entertaining, thought-provoking television, week after week? Hint – we can’t even remember, but we think it was circa 2007.

We don’t have a DVR because with FIOS and network TV and 3 streaming subscriptions, there damn well better be something on to watch when I need a show and I should hopefully be able to catch most of my preferred shows somewhere on that continuum of money trickling out of my bank account each month. We can barely keep up with the semi-daily paper, the NYT on Sunday, magazines, Feedly feeds, NPR, MSNBC must-see shows, and the odd holiday special.

This block of time is a chance to decompress while still living in the bubble of resistance and defiance. Science is both funny and important. Philosophy and redemption are funny and profound. LGBTQ issues and the experiences of single women in mid and later-mid life have a lot to teach us. And then there’s Murphy Brown.

What can a sitcom about a news program teach us that we can’t learn by just tuning in to actual new programs? Isn’t it enough that Rachel Maddow has the leading news show on cable and Andrea Mitchell is hustling her decades of wisdom to help us pull through all of this? That the loss of the Melissa Harris Perry show didn’t eradicate the voices of intelligent Black women on MSNBC thanks to Joy Reid? (Can you tell I pretty much watch MSNBC?)

Turns out there is plenty to be learned by watching the show about the show.


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Yes, some of the plotlines are predictable or absurd as the show scrambled to catch up on all of the things, especially the cringeworthy story of Murphy sneaking into the White House press briefing – come on. But now the show has hit the high notes on the biggest issues of the past XX years and can take a breath as it eases more into its footing as a cultural critique of an industry and the job the media is supposed to be doing.

The Thanksgiving episode caught me off-guard. I thought it would be yet another very special holiday episode where a group of people who apparently don’t know anyone else hang out with their coworkers on a holiday while a hapless-in-the-kitchen, confident in the workplace female character struggles to produce a meal just because she thinks she should. I expected nostalgia and warmth.

I wasn’t prepared for ICE to enter the scene even though the deportation storyline was hanging like low-lying fruit over almost every episode featuring Miguel Gonzales. Miguel works for Phyllis, the current owner of Phil’s Bar. Phyllis as played by the stalwart Tyne Daly is a former parking enforcement officer reluctantly turned tavern owner after the demise of her brother Phil. Early on, she hired Miguel to work PT at the bar. Miguel spoke often about his parents undocumented status and his own DACA deferment amidst stories from the frontlines of running a food truck and dealing with casual racism.

My thinking was that Miguel was going to come out and conveniently date the only other person his age on the show, Pat Patel, digital wizard for the Murphy Brown show within a show and openly gay man of color.

Instead, Ohio born Pat was called on the carpet about his brown skin by ICE enforcers who thought (of course they did) that any brown man might be the Carlos Gonzalez they are looking for. Team Murphy resists mightily, but Carlos and Maria are taken into custody. The show ends with Murphy pleading with us to realize that things have become so bad that even someone with her access and resources and connections cannot secure justice. Its like she figuratively took off the pink pussy hat and began paying closer attention to just how bad things can be.

I didn’t see it coming and like most sitcom scenes, it was over before I realized what was happening. My immediate thought was the inconsistency of Avery telling Pat to start filming. Pat is the social media whiz and surreptitious video has played a role in previous storylines so that felt like a way to force Avery into the dialogue while the adults were resisting. I don’t even know how Murphy’s network could use Avery’s narrated coverage since he’s on a different network, but that’s probably my attempt to focus on a detail because the genuine horror of what played out was pretty hard to swallow. Even on a sitcom.

Maria and Carlos are not coming back. So a B or C storyline moving forward will probably touch on how a young man with a DACA deferment copes with life without his parents. (Still hoping for Miguel to interact <date> Pat more often.)

Of course it was sitcommy. Of course Maria and Murphy bonded over what they had in common rather than what separated them. Of course Maria was wise and of course her act of generosity in opening up her food truck to #TeamMurphy put her in this dangerous situation. Maria and Carlos were the literal guests at the Thanksgiving meal celebrating, so we are told, the glories of European immigration to the New World. And they were slaughtered because they accepted hospitality from well-intended white folks.

But it worked. Perhaps because I am also a middle-aged white woman with good intentions, it resonated with me as has most of the season. Perhaps I have been impatient with the show catching up through anger and defiance to helping us figure out what the hell to do about it because I didn’t remember how much power a show like this had to actually help me figure it out.

That’s something I crave, support and help and camaraderie. Yes, there is some of that online and I enjoy live tweeting my Murphy viewing each week. Humble Brad: to date, Tyne Daly, Faith Ford, and the official CBS Murphy Brown accounts have RTd me. I tweet about the issues, I tweet about Tyne Daly’s hairdo (different streaks of color each episode), and I tweet about how I feel.

Because I have feelings and they have been hurting for so long. It feels *good* to watch this show with my partner while I’m connecting with other fans on Twitter. It feels *good* to have an appointment with tv like we did in days past, to remember what we endured before and how exactly we did it. It doesn’t feel like an escape, it feels like I’m taking a deep breath before I step back into the void.

Murphy, Corky, and Phyllis (and Maria and other guest stars) are reminders of how women and nonbinary folx are finding ways to thrive even as our seemingly darkest fears come to life.

As Murphy says in character at the end “There has to be a way to fix this. We can do better. We will do better. I know we can.”

White women with good intentions, take heed.

Take heed to the work we’ve been doing documenting the stories of LGBTQ folx throughout Western Pennsylvania, in their own voices, with The #AMPLIFY LGBTQ Project and please consider donating on this Giving Tuesday (or any day.)