NEW YORK - FYI, the Murphy Brown gang is celebrating their 25th anniversary.
Stars of the hit CBS sitcom about a TV newsmagazine staff reunited this month, as reruns from its 10-year run began airing on Encore Classic (weekdays, 5 and 7 p.m. ET/PT).
And though the feathered hair, power pantsuits and clunky computers betray the show's age, its barbed political satire remains relevant, cast members say.
Murphy, played by five-time Emmy winner Candice Bergen, was a strong-willed 40-year-old hotshot who, in the series premiere, returned from a month-long stint at the Betty Ford Center after giving up drinking and smoking. It was a rarity in prime time of 1988, when family-focused The Cosby Show and Roseanne led the ratings and CBS was in the doldrums.
In contrast to The Mary Tyler Moore Show's heroine, "Murphy was a more abrasive personality, and she wasn't a people pleaser," says creator Diane English. "This was a woman living in a man's world as a man lived, breaking through the glass ceiling."
She was surrounded by a workplace family: Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), the repressed senior anchor who rarely cracked a smile; Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), her colleague and best pal; Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), the eager 25-year-old producer hired in her absence who struggled to earn her respect; and Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), the bubble-headed feature reporter who was the antithesis of Murphy, and "actually felt comfortable not knowing more than she needed to," Ford says.
Outside the newsroom were Phil (Pat Corley) the gravel-voiced in-the-know barkeep who proved Murphy's valuable guide; and Eldin Bernecky (Robert Pastorelli), the perpetual house painter who anchored scenes at Murphy's D.C. townhouse. (Both actors died several years ago).
CBS at first rejected Bergen, a film actress who says she hadn't watched sitcoms at a time when "movie actors didn't do TV; it was outside of the caste system."
They had someone 10 years younger in mind - specifically, Heather Locklear - "but to make her 30 was missing the whole point" of a focus on a high-energy professional weathering midlife crises, English says.
The series didn't shy from the highbrow or political humor: The pilot episode had jokes about Albert Camus, Edwin Meese and Shiites. And the characters were motormouths: "The show was played at a much faster pace," Bergen says. "People were always exploding out of exits and entrances all over the bullpen set. Everyone was always hurrying to meet deadlines. That was fun to play and also fun to watch. To me it was great that it was set in a newsroom because it was a current-events course every week."
Shaud says that after shooting an episode that mirrored the O.J. Simpson trial, "I was concerned that we were somehow going to affect the outcome of the case. I went and spoke to the president of Warner Bros. at the time and told him my concern, and he was like, 'Get back to work.' "
And other sensitive topics drew headlines: Murphy had breast cancer in the show's final season, and the show earned its place in political history when Murphy became a single mother at the end of season four. A day after the episode aired, in the midst of a 1992 re-election campaign, Vice President Dan Quayle referenced the show in a speech, asserting that Murphy, by forgoing a mate, was "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice."
Bergen recalls the resulting backlash: "That was huge for us," she says. "His platform was family values. And who disagreed? Nobody was making fathers irrelevant. (But) he should have known better than to go head-to-head with comedy. I was so overwhelmed by it."
English says Quayle was "getting his revenge" for the show's frequent jokes at his expense. "That whole summer there was this giant debate going on" that proved both flattering and scary. But she wasn't around to deal with the fallout - she left after the birth episode to create two more reporter-focused (but short-lived) series for CBS, Love & War and Ink, leaving other producers to pick up the pieces.
Despite the attention, the show suffered in its wake. "We really didn't have anywhere to go, politically," Ford says. Characters became too broad, and writers didn't seem to know what to do with young Avery.
"If we wanted to keep the quality at the peak we would have quit after four years, frankly," says Bergen. "The fifth year was really rocky, the sixth year was worse, (but) the tenth year was actually very well written," mostly because English was lured back to close out the series. "We stayed too long, but it's irresistible."
Could Murphy work today? The stars say its topicality - which may have hurt its previous run in syndication - could turn in its favor, especially since many of the subjects - Bush, Cheney, a Gulf war - remained in the headlines well past the series. And today's charged climate of cable news has produced some real-life counterparts such as Rachel Maddow and Megyn Kelly.
"The beauty of the show is we were always able to reach out to what was really going on," Regalbuto says. Some ripe targets would be tempting today: "Never mind Sarah Palin, we missed Anthony Weiner," says Kimbrough.
Yet English says it could exist only on cable. "I don't think with the climate we have on broadcast TV you could do a show with a political point of view. They always sandpaper the edges off."