[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the “Murphy Brown” episode airing Thursday, Oct. 11, entitled “#MurphyToo.”]
Near the beginning of “#MurphyToo,” the fourth episode of the CBS revival “Murphy Brown,” eternally perky Corky (Faith Ford) is reflecting back on times in her life when she had to deal with inappropriate men. “I don’t know any woman who hasn’t had an experience,” she says, turning to Murphy (Candice Bergen), expecting her to agree with her.
Murphy instead jokes, “What guy would be stupid enough to try something with me,” but the formidable journalist is holding back. As she later reveals to her son Avery (Jake McDorman), she does have her own story.
It’s a touchy time for a CBS sitcom to take on #MeToo so directly, given that former CEO Les Moonves, recently exited following a number of sexual misconduct allegations. While creator Diane English teased “#MurphyToo” this summer at the Television Critics Association press tour, she did so while also telling reporters that she and her cast had never had “any negative experience in that regard at CBS.”
“I go back to the Bill Paley days,” English said. “I’ve kind of outlasted all these guys, so I have never experienced any kind of sexual misconduct personally or misogyny, and as far as I know, no one on my crew has.”
In “#MurphyToo,” issues of workplace harassment are discussed (the episode begins with the “Murphy in the Morning” team sitting through a sexual harassment seminar). But the #MeToo moment Murphy experienced didn’t take place in a workplace environment — instead, it’s revealed that when she was 19 years old, a professor who mentored her in college attacked her after an awards dinner.
David Giesbrecht/© 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
The way in which these details are revealed, and Murphy’s growing unease with being confronted by this memory, is easily the episode’s most compelling aspect. Bergen’s task in this episode is a tough one, as she’s asked to deliver some weighty material with a laugh track breathing down her neck, yet the subdued tone of her performance speaks to the impact of this one event. The quiet way in which she initially describes her assault to Avery — “something happened… that’s it” — is the voice of every survivor who doesn’t want to think of themselves that way.
“I put in a drawer in the back of my brain and moved on,” she says a moment later. “That’s what we did in those days. It was a different time.”
However, a later scene takes that statement and pushes it one degree further. For those looking to understand the importance of casting of Tyne Daly as Phyllis, the new bartender at Phil’s, it comes out clearly when Murphy asks her for advice. The two women share a generational bond that lets Murphy open up a little bit more.
“We both know what it was like back then,” Phyllis says. “We flattered egos, laughed at lousy jokes, and if something happened, we didn’t talk about it. In those days, it wasn’t sexual harassment. It was a bad date.”
“In those days” are the words that are increasingly becoming obsolete. That allows Murphy to not only acknowledge that something happened, but also that it affected her deeply — enough to inspire a drive to confront her old professor.
The sequence that follows feels a little cliched. Murphy sees that her professor has the award she won all those years ago on display, along with a ton of her press clippings. She also meets his new assistant, who might represent the next generation of victims. Professor Talbot parrots lines about the #MeToo movement, how it’s just “women dredging up the past, pointing fingers, ruining reputations” — dialogue that could be lifted from Twitter responses and comments sections.
Murphy gets her closure (we know this because she says, “I came her to get closure”) by reclaiming her award. But the reason Murphy’s professor has her award is because she left it behind when she fled his house in fear, and he put it in a display case, like she herself was the trophy. It’s a grotesque detail, essential to selling the moment.
David Giesbrecht/© 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Outside the Murphy storyline, “#MurphyToo” is one of the season’s weaker episodes, with a few runners that play awkwardly in contrast to the main storyline. The decision to introduce Miguel (Adan Rocha) as a barback who happens to have DACA status has yet to feel like anything other than what it is: a way to inject more political commentary. The writing isn’t there for him, with the gag of having him constantly duck behind the bar anytime someone asks for “ice” not really doing much in the way of character development.
The other subplots — Miles (Grant Shaud) panicking over the fact that he’s attracted to a member of his staff, and Frank (Joe Regalbuto) helping Pat (Nik Dodani) test out a phone app that zaps him for saying inappropriate things to women — are clearly included to provide other angles on the subject matter, but 21 minutes and 54 seconds isn’t enough time for either to go beyond a basic lesson that no, supervisors should not try to date their subordinates, and people should be careful about what they say in a workplace environment.
That said, solid zingers do pepper the dialogue, including this wry comment from Murphy’s son Avery, now working for a very thinly veiled analog for the Fox network: “We had sexual harassment training last week, except at the Wolf Network, it’s not #MeToo — it’s ‘how to.'”
“#MurphyToo” is best read as what it is: an older generation of women not quite sure what to make of how things have changed. Bergen is 72 years old, English is 70, and when Murphy and Phyllis talk about “the way things used to be,” it’s an authentic moment. The ending gives her a sense of triumph, but the most powerful part of the story comes with Murphy’s initial denial that comes with trying to survive.