A dip back into the Real World lands this week’s episode on slightly shakier ground. Inserting the Murphy Brown characters into real-life scenarios like presidential rallies or press conferences always feels a little forced; last week’s Very Special Immigration Episode showed us that the show’s topical stories work much better when they aren’t ripped directly from the headlines. This episode is also made up, more so than usual, of a bunch of very short scenes — we go from the studio to Murphy’s house to the hospital to the studio to the hospital to Pennsylvania to Murphy’s house to the studio to Phil’s to the studio. It’s too much activity crammed into 21 minutes, and too many crises of professional conscience to really dig into any one of them satisfactorily. But there are also plenty of moments that let us relish how well these actors work together and how delightfully weird their characters are.
Murphy, previewing a story on Trump’s relationship with Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, ends the show with a crack about a great screwball comedy: “We could call it Two Men and a Baby.” If the 18–49 demo really understood how good the ’90s nostalgia jokes are — look out for the RoboCop joke later in the episode — this show would have ratings through the roof. (I’m waiting for the Kindergarten Cop joke.) “There goes our last Republican viewer,” says Julius, our Greek chorus. Miles wishes she would stop doing this. “I sort of regretted it the second it came out of my mouth,” Murphy says. Frank’s supposed to report on tonight’s presidential rally in Altoona, Pennsylvania (where Trump has stumped before), but he asks Miles if he can go to the rally himself, instead of basing the story on the press-pool report. He misses being in the field. Miles okays it, as long as the network doesn’t find out that Frank’s paying for it himself.
At home, Avery finds Murphy watching the rally. “Your uncle Frank’s in there somewhere,” Murphy tells him, just as Trump says, “Anybody catch Old Murphy on TV this morning?” She and her flunkies have been “telling their big lies, planting their fake stories about our great country.” (Avery, shocked: “Is that what you do? You paint a much different picture!” Avery is wearing his glasses. They add gravitas. I approve.) Then the president points out “Fibbin’ Frank Fontana” in the crowd. Let Fibbin’ Frank know what you think of him, Trump says: “Maybe a good body slam, whaddya say?” Ugh.
Murphy changes the channel in disgust. What is this? “Hoarders!” she exclaims with excitement. “People afraid of throwing stuff away wind up buried under mountains of their own garbage! It destroys their lives! It’s brilliant!” This is a very authentic representation of the mildly salacious charge people get out of shows like Hoarders. Someone in the writers room is painting from life! Avery can’t believe that this is what she watches in this Golden Age of Television. Famous last words, Avery. Hours later, the phone rings and stirs Murphy from a nap. “What’s happening?” she says. “The social worker just found a dead raccoon under a monstrous pile of old sponges,” Avery says, rapt. “And you didn’t wake me up??” But there’s bigger drama afoot: Miles has called to tell her that Frank got hurt at the rally and is being airlifted back to Washington.
The gang gathers at the hospital. Frank looks like shit — his face is bruised and swollen, he’s got a dislocated shoulder and broken ribs, and he almost lost an eye. He’s in good spirits, though. “No big deal,” he says. “I’m just milking this for the Jell-O and sponge baths.” He’s hallucinating, either from a head injury or from the shot of painkillers he’s just gotten, so when Pat Patel comes in, Frank thinks it’s his brother, Ron. (He does not have a brother Ron.) Pat leans into the role. “Of course I came,” Pat says. “You were always there for me growing up. Remember when I told you I was gay?” Uh, Frank does remember: “You didn’t have to tell me, I walked in on you.” This is getting weird. “You were so supportive, not like Mom and Dad. Well, Mom came around eventually, but not Dad. Dad had to put on a macho front for all his factory buddies. Ironically,” he adds, “Dad had a dark secret of his own!” The questions all of this raises about Pat, Ron, and Frank will, unfortunately, not be answered, because Frank needs to rest. Before she leaves, Murphy apologizes to him. This is all her fault, she says. If she hadn’t made that joke about the president, this wouldn’t have happened. “That’s okay, Debbie. I can find someone else to take to the prom,” he replies. “It’s just that I have to wash my hair,” she says.
Back at the studio, Murphy wants to know what Miles is doing to beef up security. Oh, Corky says, pulling a silver pistol out of her handbag, “All we need is this.” Meet Little Lucy, everyone, the gun Corky received for her 12th birthday. Murphy’s surprised that Corky’s never mentioned it, but Corky assures them that she’s a responsible gun owner. She has a permit and practices at the shooting range every month. And she doesn’t usually carry the gun on her, anyway; Little Lucy lives in her bedroom next to an unidentified sexual appliance she calls “Big Eddie.” Whew, okay.
Avery’s come to visit Frank and let him know that he went to church for him this morning. There’s an awkward silence, and then Frank realizes: “You went to our church. You went to Holy Cannoli!” Avery brandishes the pastries. He tells Frank that he’d like to go back to Altoona and do a story about the attack, talk to the people who were there. Frank doesn’t want him to get hurt, but Avery’s pretty sure that being a Wolf Network guy will protect him. “Take my blessing,” Frank says, but “leave the cannoli.”
Cut Avery’s unsatisfying on-camera from Altoona’s Kozy Kafe. He approaches the woman who threw the first punch, asking, “How can you just punch someone for just doing their job?” You already know the answer. (Is that an L.L. Bean vest she’s wearing?) “He had it coming. He’s fake news. He’s the enemy of the people.” I’d like to chalk that up to some choppy writing, but that’s actually what people sound like when they say that stuff. Luckily, we still can chalk up Avery’s reply to it! “He was just there to cover the rally. That is what a free press does. That is what separates a democracy from a dictatorship.” But Avery’s angry, and when he loses his Wolf Network cool, the woman’s creepy husband decks him.
Back at home, Avery’s having a crisis of conscience. The Wolf Network helped create the mob mentality that got him decked. He lost his objectivity. No, Murphy reassures him, he did fine, she’s just never seen this kind of hostility toward the press in the United States. “We gotta dig in and fight it, right?” Avery asks. There has to be a way to get back to normal. But, his mother asks him, “What if this is the new normal?” Avery’s worries are given disappointingly short shrift here. This is the first time he’s been unable to defend the Wolf Network or confidently justify working there, and I’d rather spend more time on that than try to fit in everyone’s anxieties.
Murphy’s feeling shaken, too, and it shows on-air. She’s afraid to push back on a guest from the administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development when he claims that homelessness has increased because “more people are deciding to live off the grid.” Modern life is too stressful, what with the real-estate taxes, the cable bill, the shoddy internet service. Murphy winds up —” Do you know what any rational person would think if they heard you say that?” — but then backs down. “They would say, who doesn’t … hate … their internet provider.” She was, as Miles puts it at a commercial break, “about to go for the jugular,” but the thought of Frank and Avery’s bruised faces stopped her short. “Hammer this guy because he’s an idiot and he deserves it,” Miles orders her. That would probably be more effective if the guy didn’t hear the whole thing.
Phyllis throws Frank a party when he gets out of the hospital, and he’s loving it. People want to grab selfies with him, and the bar is offering a special cocktail in his honor. But everyone is still uneasy. Miles has been getting weird phone calls all day, and it’s not Gloria in the mail room, who is a suspect because she resents sending out his Hanukkah cards on the company dime.
He asks Corky and Little Lucy to walk him to his car. “You hear that?” she says into her purse. “Now that he needs us, we’re best friends!” And Frank confides to Murphy that he’s really feeling shaken. He’s not ready to come back to work. He reminds her that he bounced right back after he got “roughed up” in Libya on a reporting trip years ago, but “I filed that away under ‘Bad Stuff That Can Only Happen in Another Country.’” He’s not sure he wants to do this job anymore. And Murphy regrets soft-pedaling that interview.
There are so many threads here that it’s hard to land a strong finish. Instead, we’re reminded that the Murphy in the Morning family is tougher than the culture wars. On Frank’s first day back, the big story is an update on the Muller investigation: right back into the fire. “Good show, everyone,” Miles says as Julius counts them down. “It’s what we do.”
Misc. & Assorted
• I’m loving seeing Murphy and Avery at home together because we get these little glimpses of what it was like for Avery to have her as a mother. When he gets back from Altoona, she makes him hold a bag of frozen peas on his bruised face. They’re better than real ice packs, she says, “because vegetables are good for you, duh!” One suspects that this is the only time she endorses vegetables so strongly.
• The moment in the hospital where Pat pretends to be Frank’s brother Ron feels like a bizarre improv scene. Nik Dodani and Joe Regalbuto are really good together.
• The fact that Corky owns a gun she calls “Little Lucy” strikes me as entirely in keeping with her character, rather than hammy and forced. It helps that there was no hilarious sitcom mishap involving said gun.