Essays · TV

Murphy Brown & The Last Anti-Heroine

One viewer’s ‘Murphy Brown’ is another viewer’s ‘Roseanne.’
Murphy Brown Reboot
By  · Published on December 20th, 2018

While the anti-hero enjoyed a period of notoriety in the late 1990s to the early to mid-2010s, with the Holy Trinity of Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White holding court on television, the last few years have seen the rise of the anti-heroine.

From Shondaland’s prickly stars to Netflix’s “strong female lead” category to the comedic stylings of The Mindy Project and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, our sexist and patriarchal society means that pretty much any female-led show will draw the ire of audiences to classify her as an anti-heroine. Even a woman just being in a show in which her character deigns to assert herself, such as the piled-upon Skyler White in Breaking Bad, is enough to grant her anti-heroine status.

So what better time to revive one of television’s formative anti-heroines, Murphy Brown?

During the Candice Bergen vehicle’s initial run from 1988 to 1998, Murphy Brown courted controversy by being an ambitious working woman who didn’t take shit. Famously, in 1992 Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the character for choosing to be a single mother and “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

That child, Avery, is now a 26-year-old news anchor like his mom, but in the revival, which ends its initial run on CBS on December 20 with a second (twelvth?!) season unclear, he works for the conservative Wolf network, a proxy for Fox News.

As in Murphy Brown’s initial run, the modern iteration takes pride in rankling conservatives and takes aim at the current administration, though in this climate you’d be hard pressed to find a show that doesn’t address Donald Trump and politics more broadly. In one episode, Murphy sneaks into the White House press room after having her credentials turned down, which predated the revocation of Jim Acosta’s press credentials by a month. The Thanksgiving episode saw Murphy and her cohort try to prevent the deportation of a DREAMer’s parents, while in the following episode Frank (Joe Regalbuto) was assaulted at a Trump rally. Murphy Brown does not shy away from calling out the people responsible for human rights atrocities and those who cover them up, name checking and using actual footage of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Steve Bannon and Trump himself. In the rare event that his frequent verbal faux pas don’t serve Murphy Brown’s narrative, the show employs a voice actor (Bob Dibuono) to fill in for Trump.

Murphy Brown even goes so far as to break the fourth wall, acknowledging the time Bergen went on a date with Trump!

It’s these storylines that exemplify the heightened stakes involved in criticising the administration, which Murphy Brown does perhaps more forcefully than some other shows that address these themes.

It’s also in this way that Murphy Brown actually subverts the the traditional notion of the anti-heroine as a woman who bucks the system of how women are expected to exist in the world. An anti-heroine is often addicted, abused and “badass”, like eponymous Jessica Jones or Sharp Objects’ Camille Preaker, for example. She might not want kids or, if she has them, she might not parent them in a way that society sees fit, such as SMILF’s Bridgette Bird or Claire Underwood in House of Cards. She might be mentally ill, such as Rebecca Bunch in the abovementioned Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or murderous, like Scandal’s Olivia Pope and the women of Orange is the New Black, American Horror Story and Killing Eve. Given these dark times, and Murphy Brown’s status as a sitcom, Murphy is a beacon of hope to anyone who is cognizant of what’s going on in the country. By the same token, though, she maintains her anti-heroine status to the conservatives she lampoons on the show. One person’s Murphy Brown is another’s Roseanne

But Murphy is just a woman who tells the truth on television (both within the show and IRL) and does it without placating her audience with a smile. Once upon a time that would have landed her squarely in the anti-heroine category, but in the current political climate, she’s plainly a heroine, using her platform to speak truth to power and fight for justice.

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Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman.