The original run of Murphy Brown had no shortage of big-name guest stars, from Aretha Franklin to John Kennedy Jr. to Sally Field, Rosie O’Donnell, Paul Reubens, and Bette Midler as Murphy’s final secretary.
The pressure was on, then, for Thursday night’s 11th season premiere to produce a guest star that measures up not only to that history, but to the momentous occasion: the first new episode of Murphy Brown in 20 years. Well, Murphy delivered with Hillary Clinton making a cameo, to the roaring thrill of the sitcom’s studio audience. More, with the episode charged with such an electrifying anger—directed particularly at President Trump—the cameo was likely gratifying to viewers, and perhaps, given that sentiment, it was a bit surprising and amusing that Clinton would participate.
She’s there to interview for the infamous position as Murphy’s secretary. She’s not playing herself, exactly. The character in the show is “Hilary Clinton,” with only one “l.” In the job interview—how alternately traumatizing and cathartic to watch this job interview just hours after the Kavanaugh hearings—she touts her previous secretarial experience, serving as one for “a very large organization…” (Get it.) And, of course, “I do have some experience with emails.” As for her teamwork skills? “It takes a village.” She leaves her business card with Murphy should she have any follow-up questions, including her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(To pull the curtain back a little bit, critics like myself were furnished Thursday night’s premiere in advance without Clinton’s cameo; series creator and showrunner Diane English explained she wanted it to be a surprise for everyone watching. Or, more likely, wanted to make sure the news wasn’t leaked. Interestingly, Clinton will be back on CBS in just a few days, guest-starring in Madam Secretary’s October 7 season premiere.)
But Clinton’s cameo was just one small part of the episode. In fact, her appearance was dwarfed by the politician whose presence loomed menacingly large. Second to only Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown herself, Donald Trump was probably the episode’s most important character.
It starts with Murphy, sporting a pink sweatshirt with “Original Nasty Woman” on it, watching the election results roll in. When Donald Trump is declared the winner, she shrieks in despair. We fast-forward to last winter, with Murphy and her former friends and colleagues stumbling into Phil’s Bar after participating in the second annual Women’s March. “Remember when people used to go to brunch on weekends?” says new cast member Tyne Daly, playing Phil’s sister, Phyllis, who now runs the bar. “Protest marches are the new eggs benedict.”
We learn what the old gang is up to. Murphy is retired, and going stir-crazy without her FYI platform during these wild news cycles. Frank (Joe Regalbuto) has moved on from investigative reporting to teaching at a journalism school. Corky was fired from the morning show Wake Up, America, and replaced, in an ironic twist, with a younger, prettier weather girl. They’re all squirming on the sidelines while the world screams Fake News at the press.
Flash-forward two months, and we’re introduced to Murphy’s now-grown, now-attractive, now-journalist-himself son, Avery, played by Jake McDorman. Both he and Murphy have big news for each other. He’s been offered his own morning show on the Wolf Network, which, much to Murphy’s dismay, is a cable station modeled after Fox News where, she says, “all the male anchors are conspiracy theorists and the women are dead behind the eyes.”
Murphy’s news is that she, too, is getting her own TV show. “There’s such insanity out there that I’ve become such a nut job yelling at the TV. I’d rather be on TV yelling out,” she tells Avery. “Here’s the novelty... it’s going to be totally factual.” The especially cruel kicker, to this competitive mother-son pair: their shows will be airing in the same time slot.
The missing piece in getting the band back together for the new show, Murphy in the Morning, is neurotic producer, Miles (Grant Shaud), who Murphy and the gang find disheveled and shell-shocked, living in squalor in his Watergate apartment. “Two years on The View,” he explains. “Nearly killed me. Every day was like an episode of Game of Thrones.”
One of the first orders of business when they start putting together the show is to get technology-resistant Murphy to join Twitter. (In a nice nod to Murphy’s beloved Aretha Franklin, she makes her password “ArethaForever.”) Her first tweet is a doozy. She posts that she once went on a date with Donald Trump, and he made her split the check. “Just think before you tweet,” Avery cautions her, taking a swing at Roseanne. “Shows have been canceled for less.”
When we interviewed English about bringing the series back, she told us the show will “live in the real world, and always did.” And as all of us in the real world know, Donald Trump would never let a post like that from someone like Murphy Brown go without tweeting out his own insulting response, which certainly happens in the episode.
This fictional Trump responds while Murphy is on air, with a characteristically misogynistic tweet calling her “Old Murphy” and refuting a segment of hers that attacks his administration’s denial of climate change. She loses her cool and starts dressing him down, and he threatens in a follow-up tweet, “Be careful Old Murphy. You hit me, I hit back ten times harder.” Murphy erupts: “Oh you bring it on. #DanQuayle.”
It was a clever way to get ahead of the Trump tweet that seems inevitable in response to the tone of the revival, given how often conservative politicians—Dan Quayle chief among them—took aim at the character of Murphy Brown and the show’s storylines during the original run. E!’s Chris Harnick asked Bergen how she might brace for any Twitter attacks from Trump. “Other than getting armor and going in a silo? I don’t know what the reaction will be,” she said.
Especially with Clinton appearing in Thursday night’s premiere, and the climax centering on Trump’s unhinged tweeting at Murphy, it should be interesting to see whether life imitates art on @realDonaldTrump’s timeline.