What Happened When Murphy Brown Tried to Tackle Sexual Assault

The rebooted show’s #MeToo episode was careful and cartoonish in equal measure.

After attending a sexual-harassment seminar for the "Murphy in the Morning" staff, Murphy tells Phyllis about a long-repressed memory of her own #MeToo moment. (David Giesbrecht / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

“The #MeToo movement is real. It matters. It is needed, and is long overdue.”

That was Susan Collins announcing last Friday that she would vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination—effectively ensuring that he would become the Court’s newest associate justice. The senator explained her logic this way: Collins believed that Christine Blasey Ford had been sexually assaulted when she was 15 years old. Collins simply didn’t believe, she said, that Kavanaugh had been the perpetrator. Collins #believedwomen; the matter was just that, after Ford had said she was “100 percent” certain her assailant had been Kavanaugh, the senator did not believe this particular woman.

It was a familiar kind of doubling, this attempt, from this powerful woman, to have things both ways: the declaration that manages to represent progress and backlash at the same time. I thought of it when watching the #MurphyToo (full title: “Hashtag MurphyToo”) episode of the rebooted Murphy Brown, which aired on Thursday evening. In it, Murphy, after attending a mandatory sexual-harassment seminar at her CNN-style cable network, makes a revelation: She, too, can say “Me, too.” When the powerful broadcast journalist was a 19-year-old college student, she discloses to her son over the course of the episode, a professor who had been a mentor to her—who had championed her early forays into journalism, helping her win a prestigious reporting award—had taken her back to his home to “celebrate” the victory, plied her with champagne, and tried to kiss her. When she resisted, he pinned her down on a couch. She finally fought him off, and fled. She left the award trophy at his house. She’d never told anyone.

Murphy Brown, in its rebooted episodes, has mostly failed to do the thing that made the show’s original seasons, during their heralded run in the late ’80s and ’90s, so remarkable: to fuse, through the concentrated heat of humor, the events of the actual world with the show’s familiar fictions. The new Murphy Brown—back with Candice Bergen as Murphy, Joe Regalbuto as the investigative journalist Frank Fontana, Faith Ford as the former Miss America Corky Sherwood, and Grant Shaud as the no-longer-a-wunderkind producer Miles Silverberg—has tried, definitely, to rekindle some of the old magic. There are timely and topical jokes about comfort animals and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Steve Bannon and Donald Trump; very few of them, however, are terribly funny. Most are cringeworthily awkward. (“I wish I knew how to quit you,” Miles tells his former colleagues as they decide to get back together for a new morning show, making a reference to Brokeback Mountain that Murphy’s writers had apparently been waiting for 13 years to deploy.) The owner of the old Murphy mainstay, the bar/restaurant Phil’s—Phil’s sister, Phyllis (Tyne Daly)—conducts a job interview with Miguel (Adan Rocha), a prospective dishwasher. He informs her that he’s Mexican. They talk about the wall. And then: “I’m DACA,” Miguel says. “So you’re a dreamer,” Phyllis replies. “Me, too: As in, I never dreamed I’d be doing this.” She means managing a bar. But he replies, with a grin, “What, talking to a Mexican?” The studio audience guffaws.

Later, there are several jokes made of the fact that Miguel, hired by Phyllis, works at a bar where, yes, ICE is served. They are not funny. But they make extremely clear who, this CBS sitcom believes, has the distance from ICE raids to find them humorous—and who, among its viewers and in America, currently enjoy the privileges of laughter.

Several episodes in, the #MurphyToo plotline has, to some extent, been an exception to that moral narrowness: It is relatively nuanced. It explores, through its protagonist, the self-doubt that so often accompanies harassment and abuse. (“I keep going over it in my mind,” Murphy tells her son, Avery (Jake McDorman), now 28, of the way the episode has haunted her, decades after it took place. “When he would ask me for coffee, I would say yes. When he gave me small gifts—a book, a special pen—I would accept them. Maybe in some way I was sending a signal that I was interested.”)

The treatment also pays attention to Murphy’s reluctance to feel like a victim. And it features Murphy, finally, confronting the professor—and him insisting to her that “everything you’ve accomplished, Murphy, was because of me.” The story line offers, essentially, nods to nuance within the deeply constrained format of the television sitcom: a treatment of sexual abuse that takes into account how far-reaching the effects of a moment can be in the life of the person who has lived through it. “You made me doubt myself,” Murphy, a character defined above all by her effusive self-confidence, tells the professor. “I always wondered if I deserved that praise or if you singled me out for your own reasons.”

And yet. This—like #MeToo itself—comes in its context. Relative nuance; relative cartoonishness. Progress; backlash. Susan Collins giving; Susan Collins taking away. It’s striking in that sense how many of the cringey jokes the Murphy Brown reboot has served up have come at the expense, specifically, of women. In the first episode, Corky makes a joke about the participants of an anti-Trump march in Washington. (“So many women! You’d think they were giving away free Spanx!”) Phyllis notes that “my brother Phil would have loved this march,” on the grounds that “angry women love Chardonnay.” And there are several jokes, in earlier episodes of the new season, focused on Murphy’s assumption that she is too confident, too strong, too invulnerable to be harassed. Murphy mentions that years ago she went on a date with Donald Trump. “He didn’t … grab anything, did he?” Frank asks. Murphy’s reply says so much: “He may be many things,” she says of the president, “but he’s not suicidal.”

The implication, of course: Only some women—weak women, complacent women, women who are not Murphy Brown—will be harassed. “#MurphyToo,” several episodes into the show’s new season, tries to complicate that pernicious idea: It suggests that Murphy’s insistence that the president, when it comes to her, simply wouldn’t dare is more than anything else a defensive delusion. It acknowledges how deeply ingrained it remains, in American culture, to blame the victims of sexual violence rather than the perpetrators.

But it’s a position that, in the context of Murphy Brown, as a sitcom, remains hollow. “#MurphyToo” aired less than a week after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court—which, as it happens, was the same week that found Americans marking the first anniversary of the initial public revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s monstrosities. It aired during a time when critics have been asking again some of the questions that have long been asked—and still urgently require asking—about feminism and #MeToo: the way privilege inflects itself on social movements in general. The blind spots of #MeToo in particular.

“#MurphyToo”—the product, of course, of a network that has done its own grappling with #MeToo—is yet another cultural artifact that makes those inequalities painfully clear: The episode devotes a relatively nuanced plotline about sexual violence to its white, rich, famous, powerful protagonist. All around that story line, however—in the earlier episodes of the Murphy reboot and in the rest of the “#MurphyToo” episode itself—sexism and harassment as broader phenomena are treated largely as jokes. Frank treats the new awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment as an inconvenience. Corky’s lifetime worth of experiences with that harassment manifests, in the show, as quirky anecdotes. Miles is attracted to a woman who works for him, and can’t stop asking her, the id being what it is, to keep him “abreast” of professional developments. The studio audience laughs and laughs. Here it all is, in one 30-minute package: progress and backlash. Empathy and its impediments. A culture that wants to be better—and a culture that, despite it all, isn’t.