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Murphy Brown’s Righteous, Furious, Flawed Protest Against Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Photo: David Giesbrecht/Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc

The Murphy Brown revival’s second episode is designed to provoke — provoke cheers, provoke outrage, provoke disgust, provoke eye-rolling. After years of being banned from the White House, Murphy sneaks into the daily press briefing in “I (Don’t) Heart Huckabee” to confront White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who’s represented both as a blurry figure seen from behind and through actual clips of the real-life Sanders.

“Why do you lie?” Murphy asks her, from inside the studio set’s recreation of the White House briefing room.

“I think that’s an absolutely ridiculous question,” Sanders responds, in footage taken from a real press briefing.

The back-and-forth continues a bit, and as Murphy points out specific cases when Sanders has lied about Trump administration policies, the scene is intercut with actual reaction shots from Sanders herself. “How demoralizing is it for us to be called the enemy of the people?” Murphy asks, as we see a shot of Sanders’s downcast eyes. Eventually, Murphy attempts to lead a revolt inside the briefing room, encouraging her fellow journalists to walk out in protest — journalists who include her son Avery, a reporter for a rival Fox News-ish outlet called the Wolf Network.

“The most basic principle of journalistic integrity, to report the facts, is totally out of reach,” Murphy declares, incensed by Sanders’s persistent lies. “I say we get up and walk out right now. Let’s show this administration we’re not going to take it anymore!” No one follows her.

This scene, as well as Murphy’s on-air sparring with Donald Trump’s Twitter account in the season premiere, are direct descendants of the Murphy Brown legacy. After all, the best known story from the original show — the moment when it reached its zenith of cultural relevance — was a similar intermingling of reality and fiction. When Murphy gave birth to her son in the show’s season-four finale, she found herself under attack from Vice President Dan Quayle, who decried the way Murphy Brown “glamorized” single motherhood and contributed to the erosion of “family values.” And when the show returned for its fifth season, it fired back: While at home with her newborn, Murphy watches the real-world Quayle speech, aghast that her personal life has been dragged into national conversation. She tries to ignore it as long as she can, but eventually drags herself away from maternity leave so she can appear on her (fictional) news program and respond to the (actual) vice president about the cruel unfairness of defining a family in such a narrow, close-minded way.

The revival’s close intermingling with real-world events makes sense, then, as a continuation of that legacy. Murphy’s character has always been defined by her response to current events, her awareness of politics, her point of view, and her voice as a journalist. Of course she would step back into her old role with gusto, and of course Murphy Brown would once again straddle the dividing line between fiction and fact.

But so far, the revival series is capable of using that narrative device in more than one way. Although they’re obviously related, none of Murphy Brown’s direct ties to reality thus far are direct analogues with the Quayle story; in each case, the show picks and orchestrates its fights, rather than finding itself drawn into them. Trump has yet to tweet about Murphy Brown (although showrunner Diane English has said she welcomes that seeming inevitability), but Murphy went there anyhow, having Murphy and Trump exchange insults in an on-air slugfest that she regrets after the fact. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has yet to discuss Murphy Brown (although it seems likely she’ll have to make a comment after this episode), but the show has already used her likeness to position Murphy as someone anxious to speak truth to power, and regretful when she does it in a thoughtless way.

For some, Murphy’s anti-Sanders revolt will come off as silly, ham-fisted, desperate, or most likely, as preening liberal wish-fulfillment. And it is wish-fulfillment. It’s a fictional realization of the “why doesn’t someone just say what we’re all feeling!” impulse. It’s a furious Twitter thread about the futility of White House press briefings come to life, granted all the goofy trappings of Candice Bergen in a wig, shaking her fist about journalistic integrity. The whole scene is a giant sheet cake with “#RESIST” frosted on the top, and Murphy Brown is not embarrassed about serving up that cake with an extra helping of smugness.

Yes, it’s an over-the-top ploy for Murphy Brown to take shots at public figures within the safety of a scripted sitcom. But it’s also a scene where a woman — a public figure of both fictional and factual renown — stands up to the mouthpiece of the Trump administration and directly accuses her of lying to the American people. She defends the importance of journalism as a “firewall” between the powerful and the vulnerable. She may be standing there in a goofy wig, wearing a nametag and disguised with a goofy French pseudonym, but she still reminds a simulacrum of the Sarah Huckabee Sanders that Trump did, in fact, order a policy of tearing immigrant children from their parents at the border. And that Sanders lied about it.

What’s more, this public scolding takes place in a CBS sitcom, perhaps the last bastion of TV monoculture and network home to NCIS, Big Brother, and Dick Wolf’s FBI. (Also, Mom, a sitcom that’s miraculously managed to be subversive and female and revolutionary without pinging the outrage radar.) It is a laudably visible moment, although it’s not brave or insightful or even particularly radical. It’s certainly not deft, either: As NPR’s Linda Holmes points out, Murphy interrupts the reporter Sanders who actually calls on, an “April” who could only be White House correspondent April Ryan, a woman of color who’s been the target of several demeaning, racist remarks from the Trump administration.

I so wish that costly, suggestive misstep weren’t there, because the rest of the scene is entirely in keeping with who Murphy Brown is. This isn’t Will & Grace’s “Make America Gay Again” hat, and it’s not Roseanne’s “never say Trump’s name but yell about politics” approach either. It is as outspoken and blunt as the times we live in. Even better, Murphy Brown proceeds to have its #RESIST cake and eat it too: Murphy is furious that her son didn’t stand up with her, but then swifty realizes he was right not to do so. The episode ends with a humbled Murphy admitting that her protest was wrong, even if her message was right. Murphy Brown uses its old device of embedding reality in its fiction, but then deploys that tool to stage its liberal wish-fulfillment, show us a prominent female journalist raging against attacks on the truth, and then let her admit she was wrong.

I will take my public disavowals of attacks on journalism where I can get them, even when they’re flawed, and even when they feel like a cathartic excuse to rail against what’s essentially a cardboard cut-out of a real person. In that moment in the White House press room, Murphy Brown was furious. I was happy to see her fury.

Murphy Brown’s Protest Against Sarah Huckabee Sanders