Murphy Brown Gives Birth (May 1992)
Advanced TV Herstory takes TV’s portrayal of motherhood very seriously. There’s a long and wonderful list of memorable TV moms… from sitcoms to dramas and more than a few fun and smart ones found in daytime TV.
This Mother’s Day salute gives the high sign to Murphy Brown, as played by Candice Bergen and as created by the incredibly talented Diane English.
There’s a lot to celebrate in this respected series. During its run from the late 80s to the late-90s, it broke ground for women characters, writers and directors, took pot shots at politicians and attracted big name talent for cameo fun.
In this segment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’re going to look in depth at the episode in which Murphy gives birth to her son Avery and the fanfare that led up to it. In many ways, this delivery segment was every bit as herstory-making as Lucy heading off to the hospital to deliver little Ricky.
We here at Advanced TV Herstory raise our glasses of TAB and seltzer to mothers everywhere. We’ll share just enough audio of the Murphy Brown episode to remind you all of the funnier moments of delivery and how it was that we knew her co-workers would become Avery’s extended family.
In its fourth season, Murphy Brown was still in the hands of its creator, producer and writer, Diane English. English had a rich resume of bringing women characters to sitcoms… you may remember My Sister Sam, Love and War and Foley Square. They weren’t as memorable as Murphy Brown, but gave her the experience and confidence to put American audiences back into the fictional TV newsroom. But Murphy Brown was no Mary Richards.
It’s important to know up front just how difficult – if not impossible – it is to view the entire series, which ran from 1988 to 1998. Only Season One has been released on DVD. It’s reported that low sales of Season One, combined with the expense of clearing copyrights to all the music that was used in every season, makes it a poor candidate for boxed set release any time soon.
Episodes of Murphy Brown can be found on a smattering of cable channels. Good luck in your hunt.
Murphy Brown’s first three seasons were strong but not at the top of the pile.
In Season Four, Murphy learns she is pregnant by old flame, left wing activist Jake Lowenstein. Lowenstein responds to the news by saying that he’s not the marrying kind and settling down wouldn’t fit with his work and lifestyle.
Further into season 4, which by the way put the show at the #3 rank for the entire season, Murphy decides she will have her baby and raise it alone. The news of the pregnancy and that decision bring her closer to her own mother, Avery Brown. Murphy’s mother was played by the incredibly talented and accomplished Colleen Dewhurst. Dewhurst’s career spans the stage, film and TV and her work recognized with two Tonys and four Emmys. She was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. These two actresses were well paired. Their character likenesses extended beyond being stubborn, strong-willed and gifted with the turn of the word. Dewhurst and Bergen both had great hair.
But, before the premiere of the fourth season and with two Emmys in hand for her role as world-traveler Avery Brown, Dewhurst died from cervical cancer. A pregnant Murphy mourned the death of her mother and faced the daunting challenge of being a single mother without the help of her own.
Viewers of Murphy Brown remember that even though it was a comedy, it never shied away from heavy topics and certainly wandered into controversy and political editorialization.
Murphy’s decision to become a single mother (a working single mother earning a very good salary, living in a nice home in Washington, D.C) raised the hackles of conservative pundits and talk radio. There goes the country!
Then Vice Presidential Candidate Dan Quayle attempted to make political hay.
The Quayle reference crossed the wonderful line that is now permanently smudged. Back in the early 90s, TV shows and TV news held distinct turf. Politicians didn’t weigh in on the fictional comings and goings of TV characters. Dan Quayle attempted to use pop culture to make a point only he picked the wrong show and the wrong decade. And he also picked the wrong actress on whom to pin the fictional decision.
Once Quayle’s remark in the televised debate had been uttered, it was fair game for the politically oriented comedy series. The season opener of the fifth season revolved around Quayle’s statement and the whirl it created for Murphy.
Quayle’s attempt to place Murphy at odds with family values was a stretch at best. Again, here is an educated career woman who very well could have chosen to have an abortion. Given her age, career demands or concern for her own image as a single mother, termination would have been a much less “family values” decision than carrying her baby to term and keeping him.
Murphy did. And eventually Quayle got the message and developed a more realistic perspective about the complexity of Murphy’s decision. Moreover, Bergen herself said in a 2002 interview that she fully agrees with Quayle that fathers are vitally important to a child’s growth, well being and success.
In the long tenure of the series, Avery Brown the child is not a central figure. But his conception and birth really did rival TV’s first – Lucy’s pregnancy with Ricky – for the top spot in TV herstory, pregnancy edition.
Viewers were treated to the best Diane English had to offer in episode 26 of the fourth season, entitled Birth 101. It began with a very pregnant Murphy celebrating the fact that she had made it through the fictional show FYI’s season before giving birth.
Seconds into her final on-camera interview, her water broke.
As we have come to expect from the FYI gang, each contributed to the well-intentioned turmoil that unfolded as Murphy was admitted to the maternity ward and began having contractions. Frank, played by Joe Regalbuto, brought all the wrong items from Murphy’s house. Jim Dial, played by Charles Kimbrough, was his usual stiff self, happy to drive her to the hospital but all the rest was just too much personal information for him.
Corky Sherwood and Miles Silverberg garnered a few laughs. Bits were interspersed with a video narrative that produced by the team for the baby to see in the future, which was a wonderful way to keep the bits short and for her colleagues to offer perspective on Murphy’s character.
Candice Bergen’s delivery of labor surely hit home for every mother whoever watched. It was relatable in detailed ways revealing it was clearly written by women – namely English and writer producer Korby Siamis.
Even with the news of Murphy’s mother’s passing, viewers were confident that Murphy could successfully welcome a baby into her busy life. Eldin, who had originally been hired as a house painter had now become key to the day to day living at the Brown house. It was only natural that Eldin should be Murphy’s labor coach. Eldin wasn’t the father, but he was clearly someone Murphy trusted with her most personal details and thoughts.
And through all their adventures, Eldin had a way of bringing out the best in Murphy.
Eldin as coach
This Mother’s Day tribute to Murphy Brown will not wander into the rich field of character analysis that she and Eldin offer. It’s a fascinating relationship and it made the show work.
After the break from commercial, viewers are back in Murphy’s hospital room. Bergen’s hair looks great. Eldin is in a recliner, eating leftover ribs.
Regardless of your age or status as a parent, this was a touching episode. Bergen delivered one of her many performances that earned her five Emmy statues.
The FYI gang glowed with support and pride. Eldin was that gentle giant whose heart of gold would be a patient positive influence on a baby boy with blue ribbon DNA. And at season’s end, regular viewers felt the bittersweet pang of Murphy’s year, the loss of her mother and the arrival of her son.
English signed off on her culturally significant creation in the same way she ushered it in. Murphy Brown, all-American success story, really just lives her life with a soundtrack in her head and the lyrics on her tongue. If you need more context by seeing how we were introduced to Murph, run out and buy the DVD set of Season One. If enough of listeners of this podcast do it, maybe just maybe, they’ll find out that Murphy’s fan base is as strong as ever.
Bonding with Avery
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, dedicated to mothers everywhere. Audio from season four episode 26 – entitled Birth 101 can be found at Gorillavid.com.
I’d like to thank Northwestern University soon to be graduate and my daughter Alison Abrams (delivered via C-Section) for input and inspiration of this segment. Not only is Alison is a huge Murphy Brown fan – via syndication since the show ended before her fourth birthday – but she also has a mane of hair much like Candice Bergen had during the 80s and early 90s.
Celebrate women and TV by following Advanced TV Herstory on Facebook. On Twitter our handle is AT TV Herstory. Friends in our Twitter community had suggested that we feature the sitcom Roseanne for our tribute to motherhood. That character’s relationship with her daughters OR her mother will take some work to study. So many topics and seminal moments…
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