Like the return of “Roseanne” or “Will & Grace” last year, the reboot of CBS’ “Murphy Brown” this month after 20 years off the air should be the big news for the network in terms of this year’s fall lineup of “new” television shows.
The groundbreaking comedy starring Candice Bergen as a no-nonsense female journalist in a man’s world has nostalgic value. But more than that, its return signals a shift away from the network’s usual winning series formula — with women and/or brown people as sidekicks to a white male lead — and toward a future that repeatedly threatened to leave them behind.
Ironic, right, that the return of an old show your mother (or you) watched before the advent of the internet represents change in 2018. But it does for CBS, the most-watched network for over a decade that’s been criticized for dragging its feet on diversity initiatives and ignoring America’s changing demographics. At this time last year, CBS was under fire about the casting of its six new shows — just one, “SWAT,” featured a minority lead. None featured a woman in a leading role.
The resurrection of “Murphy Brown” represents a significant reversal for CBS. But will anyone notice?
“Murphy Brown” challenged stereotypes back in the day as a mom who had her son out of wedlock. Murphy is returning to today’s world of journalism: cable news networks, fake news, YouTube and social media, so expect plenty of jokes about alternate truths and reporters as enemies of the state. Recurring characters include Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), and the show’s creator, Diane English, returns as a writer and executive producer.
Progress has also been made on the cultural front.
Gentrification is satirized in “The Neighborhood,” a comedy starring Cedric the Entertainer that looks at what happens when a white family moves into a historically black Los Angeles neighborhood. Created by “Big Bang” writer Jim Reynolds and based on his own experience, the show explores and then lampoons racial tension and stereotypes through the neighbors’ preconceptions of one another, and their awkward interactions.
The hourlong drama “God Friended Me” follows podcast host Miles Finer (Brandon Micheal Hall), the son of respected Harlem preacher Reverend Arthur Finer (Joe Morton). He’s also a die-hard atheist. But Miles begins to question his own beliefs and purpose when he’s friended by God on Facebook. Spiritual uplift ensues.
CBS’ reboot of “Magnum P.I.” now stars Jay Hernandez, who does not sport a Tom Selleck mustache. “Happy Together” with Damon Wayans Jr., Amber Stevens West, Felix Mallard and Chris Parnell is a comedy about a white British pop star (think Harry Styles of “One Direction,” who is an executive producer), moving in with his black agent’s family. 24/7 culture clash.
“FBI,” from Dick Wolf of the “Law & Order” franchise, is a procedural about New York agents working with “mind-blowing” technology to keep the city safe. It stars Missy Peregrym and Zeeko Zaki as two unconventional agents.
Hollywood’s efforts, or at least lip service, toward diversifying its productions and shows is hardly breaking news at this point. But the fact that CBS finally flipped the switch should not only be making news, but should be an element that executives would be eager to highlight, especially since they are no longer in defense mode on the diversity front.
That narrative, however, has been eclipsed by another tectonic shift at the network.
In what is sure to be one of the most volcanic media stories this year, CBS network chief executive Les Moonves has left after 20 years on the job amid a flood of sexual misconduct allegations.
Moonves, who has denied charges of assault and wrongdoing, was one of the media’s highest-paid CEOs. CBS said it and Moonves will donate $20 million to organizations that support the #MeToo movement and other groups fighting for workplace equity.
A decades-old system upended by societal pressure. Sense a theme here?
Like most of the entertainment world, CBS is moving toward a more equitable world in its fictional programming. The reality behind the camera, however, is one of an industry that doesn’t practice what it preaches.
It’s the sort of hypocrisy that makes for great comedy, and the #MeToo movement is low-hanging fruit for “Murphy Brown” because lucky for them, 20th century sexism never went out of style! And “The Neighborhood” is a microcosm of where television is now — some networks, like some people, are just more evolved.
That’s not to say CBS is some sort of fossil from the pre-cable box era, though it did debut in 1941 before the advent of the remote control. It’s offered fresh shows like “Mary Tyler Moore,” “All in the Family” and “Good Times” along the way, and had its flops — remember “Central Park West”? Probably not.
The steps it’s taking toward updating an old model are indicative of growing pains across all networks. The platforms, like the audience, keep changing, and those shifts seem to be happening at warp speed compared to when “Knots Landing” landed in the 1990s.
For example, some of this fall’s more promising comedies across all networks feature casts well over 70.
Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method” stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin as a Hollywood agent and actor, respectively, who are trying to stay relevant and working in a city that worships youth and beauty. The comedy series comes from Chuck Lorre of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.”
Fox’s “Cool Kids” is another example of the Centrum Silver crowd stealing the show. The sitcom stars David Alan Grier, Martin Mull, Vicki Lawrence and Leslie Jordan. They reside in a retirement community with a social pecking order not all that different from the one in high school. There are cool kids and followers, but hilarity ensues when a new arrival topples the social pyramid.
In short, “Murphy Brown” has company.
And no doubt all the aforementioned shows will riff mercilessly about technology, culturally-sensitive labels and all the hashtag movements that have replaced the civil rights marches and Vietnam protests of their youth.
Progress is hard, for old folks and the television industry both on- and offscreen.
It’s no coincidence we’re witnessing the fall of Moonves, and the resurrection of “Murphy Brown,” all in the same month.