Is Murphy Brown Coming Back Just in Time?

“I better warn you up front, I’m not gonna be like other mothers,” the sitcom character Murphy Brown told her newborn son, Avery, at the end of the series’ fourth season in 1992.

Since Candice Bergen’s fictional news anchor was planning to raise the baby in the absence of his father, that particular Murphy Brown episode was shortly dragged into the presidential election when Vice President Dan Quayle, in a major policy speech, attacked it on moral grounds: “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’ I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.”

With Murphy Brown returning to the airwaves amid an even more volatile culture war, we turn to the first drafts of criticism to see how the show was initially received.

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In the October 25, 1988, edition, Laurie Stone reviewed the show and two other debuting sitcoms, Roseanne and Baby Boom, noting, “Based on the pilots, the shows are not equally well-crafted or amusing, but in all the central female mind is sharper than its surround.” Stone reports that “sentimentality is the price [Roseanne] pays for her smart mouth,” while the neurosis of the Murphy Brown character “is allowed to linger and trouble. It’s not instantly drained of threat, as it was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.”

A year later, as the show settled into the culture, media critic Elvis Mitchell wondered in print about the show’s star: “After all, this is Candice Bergen, who has shown an ability to make fun of herself that’s quite engaging. But Murphy Brown is so ingeniously structured, and the press surrounding the show focuses on so many extraneous things — like Bergen’s being a real person (proof: standing around and passing out donuts and plasma to the crew when they’re tired) — that one thing doesn’t ever really come up. Which is — just between you and me — what Bergen does isn’t really acting, is it?”

By December of 1990, the popular Murphy Brown rated its own supposedly learned study, which the ever-animated Mim Udovitch reviewed in the Voice Literary Supplement. Murphy Brown: Anatomy of a Sitcom was a slight enough volume that Udovitch also critiqued studies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a book titled Sweethearts of ’60s TV in the same article. “The most interesting (by which I mean the only interesting) observation in any of the three works under review,” Udovitch writes, “occurs on page eight of Murphy Brown: ‘One seldom-noted fact about the sitcoms was the preponderance of women in lead roles. Indeed, most of the popular series of the fifties carried female names in the title.’ Since it’s outside their Murphocentric focus [authors Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown] do not add, as they might, that there is still a somewhat equitable proportion of lead female characters on sitcoms, particularly relative to other media, such as film. Nor do they explore the deeper-than-face-value reason for this explosion of comparable worth, since to do so would run contrary to their entire thesis that Murphy Brown is a force for social good. It is possible, for example, that television is a medium unique in its ability to simultaneously glorify and reduce, making it the most efficient instrument available for the dissemination of a male view of tiny, empedestaled women, sort of an electronic dollhouse for the masses.”

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Finally, Marc Cooper weighs in on Dan Quayle’s 1992 campaign, pointing out that the fundraising breakfast where the veep attacked Brown’s morals was held in a “San Fernando Valley neighborhood only a stone’s throw from the soundstages of the feared Murphy Brown.” Quayle — who famously could not spell potato — was every bit as ham-fisted a demagogue as President Trump, only prettier and less overtly savage. Cooper reports on the “entertainment values” at the heart of the vacuous senator from Indiana’s campaign: “[The mention of Quayle’s name] evokes no association with previous thinkers, legislators, or statesmen, but only with TV images: part Michael J. Fox, part Doogie Howser, a little Dobie Gillis, and a whole lot of Gilligan.”

Little did we know, half a century ago, just how awful having a TV personality for president would turn out to be.


The Candidate

Dir. Michael Ritchie (1972).
Robert Redford’s vehicle The Candidate and managed to garner real followers, if not votes, for their imaginary candidates. Indeed, it was thanks to The Candidate‘s satire of image politics that a good-looking if dimwitted law student named Dan Quayle decided to follow his electoral destiny.

Tue., Sept. 8, 4:30, 6:50 & 9:15 p.m., 2009


Rack Focus

Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection


The Bush Sr. era may never be a tenable candidate for a nostalgia trip, but this three-disc box is a welcome blast from the days when our worst national fears were of the looming Japanese economic takeover and the prospect of a Dan Quayle presidency. The original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) still holds up as one of the more enjoyable ’80s time-travel movies, but the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, a metaphysical missing link between The Seventh Seal and Little Nicky, may be the real keeper. The “Non-Bogus Disc” of special features kicks off with a conversation between “the original Bill & Ted,” screenwriters Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon, but the 30-minute (sadly Keanu-less) making-of documentary is very much a tale of two directors: While Excellent Adventure helmer Stephen Herek fondly recalls exhorting his stars to crank up the “puppy factor,” Bogus Journey auteur Peter Hewitt chatters enthusiastically about the influence of Michael Powell and Orson Welles on his vision. Also included: an air guitar tutorial, the premiere episode of the short-lived cartoon series and more.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man


Tartan’s Asia Extreme series has never lived up to its name more fully than with this 1988 art-shocker from Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto. Man meets machine, cyberpunk futurism meets Cronenbergian body horror, and Freud meets the power-tool shed.




Age 28

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Artist

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? Bush is a figurehead with a good cabinet. Even if Dan Quayle were president, it wouldn’t matter, because he wouldn’t be the one making the decisions. I like Cheney, I like Powell. They’re making decisions I would be hard-pressed to make.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? Yes, I’m sure it’s part of the grand scheme.

Do you have a survival strategy? I don’t want to die, but I also don’t want life to be changed by one event. In terms of monitoring e-mail and tapping phones for security purposes, I’m an exhibitionist, so I say tap away.


Age 45

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Maintenance

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? Bush is not the guy I voted for, but so far he and the mayor and the governor have done a good job. The U.S. has to find out exactly what happened. It’s not just one person, and we can’t just go in and bomb the citizens of Afghanistan because some guy said Bin Laden told him to organize these attacks.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? Yes, they’re coming back. Right now there are 50 members of my union missing. I don’t know if they knew that when they bombed the trade center, they would be killing all these working-class men and women.

Do you have a survival strategy? No, but I have to admit I’m a little panicked.


Age 32

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Television licensing

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? My initial response was that there should be a military retaliation. Now I think it’s going to be an impossible war to fight.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? Yes. I don’t think it will be as big, but as soon as the U.S. strikes, there will be small incidents. I think we need to win the hearts and minds of the people who are at war with us.

Do you have a survival strategy? I keep thinking about purchasing a gas mask.


Age 23

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Retail

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? The current response is an emotional one and a result of people lashing out. There should be an alternative to bombing Afghanistan to smithereens. All these American flags have turned it into a football event.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? I can’t live in fear of another assault. I could just as easily be killed by a truck.

Do you have a survival strategy? No. I slept through the September 11 attacks, and it still seems abstract. Until I go down to the site, it won’t seem real.


Age 32

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Manager

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? When it first happened, I wanted the U.S. to bomb Osama bin Laden. Lately I’ve been watching programs about Afghanistan that are so sad. I’ve never been involved in the peace movement, but I think I might march for peace on this issue. At least the Constitution guarantees us the right to march and yell in the street.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? Yes. I’m less afraid of the water being poisoned than of something being released into the air.

Do you have a survival strategy? I’ve been thinking about getting gas masks for myself and for my two children.


Age 26

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Film student

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? There has to be more dialogue, something you’re seeing online in chat rooms. I’m gratified that we’re not bombing; I think it would be a terrible mistake.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? Yes, it’s likely that they’ll do something big and stupid in a major city.

Do you have a survival strategy? No. You can’t live anticipating an apocalypse.


Age 34

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Truck driver

How should the U.S. respond to the September 11 attacks? I think Bush is doing the right thing, but I’m waiting for the bombing to begin. I think they should wipe out the whole Middle East.

Are you concerned that there will be another terrorist assault? It might happen, but I’m not going to worry about it.

Do you have a survival strategy? No, I don’t carry anything like a gas mask or a candy bar. I live here, and I’ll die here.


World Leaders on Dope

The American drug war may yet grind on, but one by one, the troops are hiking out. Right-wingers like Jesse Ventura, Gary Johnson, Dan Quayle, William F. Buckley, and George Schultz have all voiced support for either ending the costly campaign of interdiction and imprisonment, or at least decriminalizing pot.

Through the years, in statements little-noted or splashed onto front pages, they’ve aligned themselves with leaders around the world, all standing in unlikely opposition to the frat-boy chief commander in the White House. President Bush shows no sign of yielding, instead choosing to harden his stance. In May, announcing the appointment of a drug czar who makes John Ashcroft look like a hippie, Bush thundered, “John Walters and I believe the only humane and compassionate response to drug use is a moral refusal to accept it. We emphatically disagree with those who favor drug legalization.”

These days, that means disagreeing with a lengthening list of international heavyweights—former presidents of the United States, current presidents of Latin American countries, legislators, governors, high-ranking judges, and law enforcement officials. Not that all of them favor outright legalization—most don’t—but each has broached the possibility of relaxing the laws.

Two weeks ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court shot down medical marijuana like Christian missionaries over Peru, the Canadian Parliament was questioning whether soft drugs should be decriminalized. “It’s time to be bold,” lawmaker Derek Lee told the Ottawa Citizen. “Everything has to be on the table.”

Bush finds himself hemmed in by opinion south of the border as well, where some of his strongest allies in free trade break radically with his policies on drugs. President Vicente Fox of Mexico, for one, assures the Bush administration he will be an obedient, merciless drug warrior, while he tells his own country’s newspapers that someday humanity will recognize universal drug legalization as the best course.

A parade of brutal statistics has long made clear the merit of Fox’s legalize-it zeal. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, police in 1998 arrested 682,885 Americans for marijuana offenses, more than the number for all violent crimes combined. After eight years of Bill Clinton, a supposed progressive who could have provided relief, some 450,000 drug offenders sat behind bars—a total almost equal to the entire U.S. prison population in 1980. The president who later told Rolling Stone he believed small amounts of pot should be decriminalized spent his terms fueling a multibillion-dollar escalation of the drug war, in which people were killed in raids of the wrong homes and constitutional rights were shredded. On average, the Lindesmith Center reports, a federal offender in the Clinton era drew twice as much time for drugs as for manslaughter.

The Drug Policy Foundation calculates that in 1999, the feds spent $1.7 billion to guard America’s borders and coasts—$17,700 per mile—only to have 70 percent of the coke and 90 percent of the heroin make it through. Drug use continues to climb, with some 72 million Americans believed to have tried pot.

While the U.S. continues its self-destructive orgy of arrests and wasted money, other parts of the world move forward. The Swiss government has endorsed a plan to legalize pot and hash consumption and allow some shops to sell cannabis. Belgium allows people to grow pot for personal use. The Netherlands allows coffee houses to sell marijuana. Portugal, Spain, and Italy punish the use of any drug (including heroin and coke) with only an administrative sanction, such as a fine.

Britain has loosened its laws a tiny bit, allowing low-level marijuana offenses to be immediately expunged from arrest records. In an effort to control the damage from opiate addiction, Australia has opened the world’s largest heroin-injecting room in Sydney.

But it’s in the regions most wracked by narco-violence that the cry for legalization rings most clear. Having been shot in the neck by a police officer thought to be acting under orders from drug lords, Patricio Martínez García, governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, told El Universal in March that he believed a proposal for legalization must be considered. “[B]ecause if the war is going to continue being lost, with the deterioration of the life of communities and even the nation, and with the deterioration of the quality of life for the citizens of the country, well, then, where are we heading?” said García, whose state borders Texas and New Mexico. “There has to be a remaking of the law.”

Vicente Fox

Mexican President

“My opinion is that in Mexico it is not a crime to have a small dose of drugs in one’s pocket. . . . But the day that the alternative of freeing the consumption of drugs from punishment comes, it will have to be done in the entire world because we are not going to win anything if Mexico does it, but the production and traffic of the drugs . . . to the United States continues. Thus, humanity will one day view it [legalization] as the best in this sense.”

source: Unomasuno, March 17, 2001


Jorge Castañeda

Mexican Foreign Minister

“In the end, legalization of certain substances may be the only way to bring prices down, and doing so may be the only remedy to some of the worst aspects of the drug plague: violence, corruption, and the collapse of the rule of law.”

source: Newsweek, September 6, 1999

Jorge Batlle

President of Uruguay

“Why don’t we just legalize drugs? . . . The day that it is legalized in the United States, it will lose value. And if it loses value, there will be no profit. But as long as the U.S. citizenry doesn’t rise up to do something, they will pass this life fighting and fighting.”

source: El Observador, December 1, 2000

Bill Clinton

former U.S. President

“I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be.”

source: Rolling Stone, October 6, 2000

Joe Clark

Head of Tory Party, member of Canadian Parliament, former Prime Minister

“I believe the least controversial approach is decriminalization [of marijuana], because it’s unjust to see someone, because of one decision one night in their youth, carry the stigma—to be barred from studying medicine, law, architecture or other fields where a criminal record could present an obstacle.”

source: Globe and Mail, May 23, 2001

Jimmy Carter

Former U.S. President

“Penalties against a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana for personal use. The National Commission on Marijuana . . . concluded years ago that marijuana use should be decriminalized, and I believe it is time to implement those basic recommendations.”

source: speech to Congress, August 2, 1977

Dan Quayle

former U.S. Vice President

“Congress should definitely consider decriminalizing possession of marijuana. . . . We should concentrate on prosecuting the rapists and burglars who are a menace to society.”

source: Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum, quoting Quayle from 1977

George Schultz

Reagan’s Secretary of State

“We need at least to consider and examine forms of controlled legalization of drugs.”

source: Associated Press, November 6, 1989

Abigail Van Buren

Advice Columnist

“I agree that marijuana laws are overdue for an overhaul. I also favor the medical use of marijuana—if it’s prescribed by a physician. I cannot understand why the federal government should interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, nor why it would ignore the will of a majority of voters who have legally approved such legislation.”

source: “Dear Abby,” March 1, 1999

William F. Buckley

Conservative Author

“Now it’s one thing to say (I say it) that people shouldn’t consume psychoactive drugs. It is entirely something else to condone marijuana laws the application of which resulted, in 1995, in the arrest of 588,963 Americans. Why are we so afraid to inform ourselves on the question?”

source: syndicated column, October 21, 1997

Gary Johnson

Governor of New Mexico

“Make drugs a controlled substance like alcohol. Legalize it, control it, regulate it, tax it. If you legalize it, we might actually have a healthier society.”

source: The Boston Globe, October 13, 1999

Ben Cayetano

Governor of Hawaii

“I just think it’s a matter of time that Congress finally gets around to understanding that the states should be allowed to provide this kind of relief [medical marijuana] to the people. Congress is way, way behind in their thinking.”

source: Associated Press, May 15, 2001

Jesse Ventura

Governor of Minnesota

“The prohibition of drugs causes crime. You don’t have to legalize, just decriminalize it. Regulate it. Create places where the addict can go get it.”

source: Playboy, November 1999


Kurt Schmoke

former Mayor of Baltimore

“Decriminalization would take the profit out of drugs and greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the drug-related violence that is currently plaguing our streets.”

source: The Washington Post, May 15, 1988

Frank Jordan

former mayor of San Francisco

“I have no problem whatsoever with the use of marijuana for medical purposes. I am sensitive and compassionate to people who have legitimate needs. We should bend the law and do what’s right.”

source: Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1995

Ron Paul

U.S. Congressman from Texas

“When we finally decide that drug prohibition has been no more successful than alcohol prohibition, the drug dealers will disappear.”

source: Paul’s Web site.

Jorge Sampaio

President of Portugal

“Policies conceived and enforced to control drug-related problems and effects have led to disastrous and perverse results. Prohibition is the fundamental principle of drug policies. If we consider the results achieved, there are profound doubts regarding its effectiveness. Prohibitionist policies have been unable to control the consumption of narcotics; on the other hand, there has been an increase of criminality. There is also a high mortality rate related to the quality of substances and to AIDS or other viral diseases.”

source: Madrid’s El País, April 7, 1997

Milton Friedman

Nobel Prize winner for economics

“Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?”

source: Newsweek, May 1, 1972

Part II of this article: Dream of a Worldwide Truce

Related links:
Narco News
Radical Party: Legalization of Drugs


The Dinner Game

In the Annals of Idiocy—
there with Dan Quayle,
Charles Bovary, and Debbie Matenopoulos—surely a
place is reserved for Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a portly, hapless French civil servant who spends his spare time
constructing matchstick
models of famous buildings. Just moments after meeting him, Brochant (Thierry
Lhermitte), a smugly well-to-
do publisher, knows he’s found a diamond in the rough—he and his pals like to hold “idiot dinners,” where they compete to bring the stupidest guest. When the unwitting Pignon
arrives at Brochant’s fab pad, however, the contender is down for the count: Brochant can’t make it to the party, as he’s thrown out his back and his wife, Christine, has just left
him. Pignon resolves to stay and help his new “friend,” in
the process botching attempts to find Christine, inviting a
tax collector into Brochant’s apartment, and even preventing Christine’s return to her home.

The script for The Dinner Game—courtesy of director Francis Veber, a Frenchman whose films have provided the springboard for dozens of lousy Hollywood remakes (most recently Father’s Day)—is at once blithe and meticulous about the tidy comeuppance
it arranges for Brochant’s everyday cruelty, a tone that matches the jovial yet concentrated approach to humilation that he and his friends pursue. But the movie, thankfully, is not so conceited as that smarmy bunch. Clever, snappy, and
inconsequential, it’s essentially a two-character sketch, and one that never strains for a laugh (Lhermitte’s subtle air
of bemused fatalism toward the end of the film is funny in itself). True to its simple premise,
The Dinner Game aspires to
be not more nor less than an airy confection, as lightweight and briefly diverting as one of Pignon’s matchstick towers.


And Baby Makes Two

This short documentary about single motherhood follows eight women in a support group as they try to either get pregnant or adopt an infant. Conventionally assembled, it focuses on the women’s ambivalence about raising children without partners. That the group is somewhat homogeneous— professional, heterosexual Manhattanites— makes the film less than comprehensive, but it’s affecting nonetheless, particularly with a birth scene and the first glimpse of a much-longed-for adopted daughter. The issue of single motherhood as a societal hot button— seven years after
Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown speech— is secondary to family dynamics. We see disappointment and disapproval from the parents of these women, then gradual acceptance. As one mother says about her daughter’s efforts to adopt, “I feel like she’s coming out of an adolescent phase.”


John Stravinsky’s Spoilsports of the Century

Cute nicknames like Boy Gorge and Round Mound of Rebound followed Charles Barkley’s early thunder up NBA hardwoods. But after 14 truculent years, call him pro hoops’ mouth that roars. Now that the future Hall of Famer has announced his plans to run for governor of Alabama in 2002— he named Dan Quayle and Rush Limbaugh as mentors— prospective voters might want to reflect on selected quips from a turbulent career:

  • “We don’t need refs, but I guess it gives white guys something to do.”— February 1990

  • “We just have a lot of fun.” (explaining his $500 game bets with the Knicks’ Mark Jackson)— February 1990

  • “I’ll write it off my income tax.” (re: his league-leading $45,000 in fines in 1990)— July 1990

  • “This is a game that if you lose, you go home and beat your wife and kids.”— November 1990

  • “It was a bad, bad thing, but it’s not like I killed somebody.” (after spit intended for a heckler nails an eight-year-old girl)— April 1991

  • “He might have a spear hidden somewhere.” (re: his excuse for elbowing a significantly smaller Angolan opponent at the Barcelona Olympics)— July 1992

  • “I’ve got to stop drinking . . . it’s been affecting my game.”— February 1998

  • “You’re black now. Forget about that Asian shit.” (to Tiger Woods)— May 1998

  • “I allowed myself to be provoked by a malicious bar patron.” (re: his throwing an Orlando man through a plate-glass window)— June 1998