It happened to Murphy, too.
In Thursday night’s episode of Murphy Brown, titled “#MurphyToo,” Candice Bergen’s TV news anchor came forward with her story of sexual assault for the first time.
More than four decades after the experience—she was assaulted by her college professor—she realized, in part because of the women sharing their stories aligned with the #MeToo movement, that it had caused her trauma she never recognized or dealt with. By the end of the episode, she confronts her former professor, articulates for the first time the decades of irreparable pain he caused, and gets the closest thing a person who has been through what she has can get to closure.
There’s a reason Murphy Brown came back. Candice Bergen, creator and showrunner Diane English, and the cast of the revival spent an entire press tour explaining that, after 20 years off air, the sitcom is back now because the times demanded it.
This is a show about the need for a free press and a strong woman speaking truth to power. Anyone who watched the comedy’s original run and has witnessed the actions of the Trump administration knows that Murphy Brown would have something to say about it. Now, Thursday nights at 9:30 pm, we get to hear it.
What “#MurphyToo” illustrated is that the voice isn’t just political, but female, too. And, as the show always has been, it is interested in showing how those two identities are intrinsically aligned, and institutionally silenced.
The episode starts with the staff of Murphy’s shiny new show, Murphy in the Morning, having to attend a sexual harassment seminar. At first everyone is glib about the chore. “What guy would be stupid enough to try anything with me?” Murphy jokes, when asked if she’s ever had an uncomfortable professional encounter. The instructor warns that she’s not immune from repercussion because of her celebrity, reminding her that Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Bill O’Reilly were all brands before their behavior ended their careers.
While groan-worthy jokes abound surrounding the seminar, things get meaty when Murphy goes home afterwards and confesses to her son, Avery (Jake McDorman), that the afternoon had a profounder effect on her than she let on.
He’s now working for the Wolf Network, the Murphy universe’s fictionalization of Fox News. At Wolf, “it’s not #MeToo, it’s #HowTo,” he jokes. He encourages Murphy to share her story.
At age 19, she had a professor in college, a smart and passionate man who took special notice of her, which meant a lot to an aspiring journalist. He told her she was brilliant and was destined for great things. At the end of the year she won an award for her college reporting. He invited her over after the ceremony. She assumed there would be other people there. They were alone. He invited her into his office, and “something happened.”
“I put it in a drawer in the back of my brain and moved on,” Murphy tells Avery. “That’s what we did in those days. It was a different time.”
In line with the nuance of how these stories are being shared today, she explains how she felt like she was at fault, as if she had baited his abhorrent behavior.
“I keep going over it in my mind,” she says. “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.” Avery points out that she’s victim blaming herself. She recoils: “I am not a victim, OK?”
Rattled, she goes to her confidant, which in this revival is Tyne Daly’s Phyllis, the sister to Phil (Pat Corley), her father figure in the original series. She explains that the #MeToo movement, in conjunction with that day’s seminar, dredged up memories of the assault and caused her to reconsider what effect it might have had on her life. Phyllis commiserates, understanding why Murphy has buried these feelings for so long. “In those days, it wasn’t sexual harassment. It was a bad date,” she says.
The episode was written before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of a Senate judiciary committee, but its themes—how women bury trauma, and how the current conversations surrounding the #MeToo movement have triggered them to reexamine their experiences—couldn’t be more timely. Murphy confesses that she never considered until now how that awful experience has impacted her life.
She tells Phyllis that she arrived at the professor’s house all those years ago for what she thought would be an after party, only to find they were alone. He forced drinks on her. When she was tipsy enough, she pushed her onto the couch, pinned her down, and tried to make a move.
She fought him off and ran away, but the trauma didn’t end there. He did the cruelest thing a mentor could do to someone as talented as Murphy. He made her doubt herself, wondering if she had deserved or earned the praise he gave her.
When she goes back to his office in the present-day to confront him, he accuses her of having asked for it, saying that her friendliness sent him signals. That is misogynistic horseshit. Murphy does what so many women never have the chance to do. She tells him how he made her feel. Even all these years later, she triumphs.
This summer, a week after The New Yorker published the first bombshell report of sexual-misconduct allegations against then-CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, we asked CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl how the network would react and what type of input it would have on its shows, going forward, that crafted storylines inspired by the #MeToo movement—especially in light of the fact the network’s top executive had been implicated.
“I believe we give our showrunners and our creators and our executives great latitude to create their storylines,” he said. “This is something that is in the news. I would not be surprised to see this come up. I believe it’s come up in the past on some of our shows, and the guidance we give them is, ‘Do the best show you can.’”
Diane English confirmed his sentiments when she broke the news that same morning that the series was working on an episode titled “#MurphyToo.” In light of the combative Brett Kavanaugh hearings and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony alleging that the now-confirmed Supreme Court judge sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, English and CBS decided to move up the air date of the episode, which was originally scheduled to air next week.
Murphy Brown established its legacy by scripting its characters in the real world, and having them interact with the news the same way viewers at home might. Most famously, the show had Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown watch the speech given by Vice President Dan Quayle condemning the character’s decision to have a child out of wedlock in an actual episode, then having her respond to him from her FYI news desk. Already in this season of the revival, Murphy has engaged in a Twitter war with Donald Trump and, using real news footage edited to fit the episode’s script, sparred with Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the White House briefing room.
Murphy Brown is a fictional character, making her “story” nowhere near as powerful as the women sharing their real-life traumas. But she is an iconic character, who has made her imprint on history because of her values. “#MurphyToo” might be a topical gimmick. But, as far as those things go, it matters. That’s what Murphy Brown, if unevenly, came back to do: make television that matters.