Arts & Culture » Television

Press violations on 'Murphy Brown'

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Newsman Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto, here with Murphy, Candice Bergen) is beaten up at a Trump rally in the "Murphy Brown" "Beat the Press" episode. Photo: CBS-TV
Newsman Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto, here with Murphy, Candice Bergen) is beaten up at a Trump rally in the "Murphy Brown" "Beat the Press" episode. Photo: CBS-TV  

Tis the season for indictments, fa la la la la, la la la la! There is nothing to put us more in the holiday spirit than a nice hot cup of Mueller'd tea and some prescient menstrual sponge Christmas trees at the White House. Melania is having a good long Madame Defarge laugh at someone's expense.

We were inventing new lyrics to "Last Christmas" with Trump and Putin in mind (you know you can hear it) while watching CNN and MSNBC pundits salivating on Nov. 29 over the 92 indictments. Awesome. Now we need an Advent calendar with a different member of the Trump team behind bars in each little window.

It felt eerie, shifting from MSNBC to CBS' Nov. 29 episode of "Murphy Brown." The show took a cinema verité approach to Trump's "enemy of the people" mantra. In the current climate, the episode was unsettling. While the Schadenfreude denouement to the stolen 2016 election has been heartening, the lived reality under Trump, particularly for women, LGBTQ and Latinx people, has been harsh and brutal at times.

"Murphy Brown" took on the ways in which the schism within the nation has impacted the press and the chilling effect on reporting. Spoilers ahead: The episode, titled "Beat the Press," featured veteran newsman Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) attending a Trump rally. Trump (voiced by Bob Dibuono) spots Frank in the audience (Frank is a stand-in here for Jim Acosta) and calls him "fibbing Frank." As he often did during rallies when he was campaigning, Trump tells his supporters to "let him [Frank] know what you think of him." A cadre of red hat deplorables surrounds Frank, beats him and puts him in the hospital.

There is real footage of a Trump rally intercut with the scenes with "Murphy Brown" characters. Frank's actual beating isn't shown, so that when Murphy (Candice Bergen) goes to the hospital, it's quite shocking. "Murphy Brown" creator and showrunner Diane English was quoted in Variety Nov. 29 about the dramatic episode. English said, "It was something that we planned to do from the beginning when we first went into the writers' room in May because of the angry rhetoric that was being directed toward the press, which I found shocking. Then it escalated from there as we saw journalists get body-slammed by a politician [MT House rep Greg Gianforte, who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs], and we saw the president, at his rallies, encouraging all of this vitriol against the press and CNN in particular, even recently saying that he would admire somebody that would body-slam a journalist."

The sitcom skirts a fine line in the episode. There's nothing funny about the beating of a 70-year-old reporter, yet humor is essential to every sitcom. But when Murphy's son Avery (Jake McDornan), who works as the token liberal for a rival Fox-like network, goes to Altoona to interview those who were there for the beating and ask about their feelings, he gets beaten himself.

This, unfortunately, is the one truly false note in an otherwise spot-on episode. Avery's punched by a woman who's taller and bigger than he is, and she allegedly threw the first punch at Frank as well. If having a woman be the conduit for the violence is somehow meant to mitigate the concept of that violence, it does not. Plus it's statistically inaccurate and offensive to suggest women are the source of violence in America. A feminist writer should know better.

But "Beat the Press" makes some critical points. When Avery goes to speak to the Altoona Trumpers, he goes as a representative of the Fox News side of journalism. Their side. But what he discovers is that all press are anathema now, because of Trump. Reporters are indeed the enemies of the people to this huge swathe of Americans.

That's not the only issue the episode raises. The morning after taking care of her son's injuries, Murphy is interviewing a representative of Trump's Housing Department, and rather than ask her usual incisive questions, she equivocates. Later, she, Frank and her other colleagues sit at Phil's having drinks and talking about everything that's happened. The chilling effects of Frank's and Avery's beatings are clear. Frank is afraid to go back to work. He tells Murphy he never remembers things being this bad in all his years of reporting.

Murphy realizes her waffling in the interview was all about her own fears over the charged atmosphere and what the repercussions might be if she challenged Trump's guy, particularly after these two men she loves have been injured. She questions how they all move forward in this climate. In the final frame, we see them at the anchor desk (Frank is back with Murphy) and the lights dim.

In the Thanksgiving episode, "Murphy Brown" had taken on ICE when Miguel's (Adan Rocha) parents were taken into custody. Trump might be tweeting about Murphy Brown soon. Who can forget the headlines of Dan Quayle taking on Murphy Brown when he was VP? It will be interesting to see what the series does when Nancy Pelosi is back as Speaker and the Democrats have more power.

Lesbian youth

"This Is Us" has been an iconic series since it first aired in Sept. 2016. Now in Season 3, the series is taking some bold new steps. One is to make Randall and Beth's oldest daughter, Tess, gay. In Season 1, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) discovered his birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), was gay. Although William died in the first season, because the show moves back and forth in time, Season 3 has revisited William's gay history.

Tess (Eris Baker) first reveals her questions about her sexual orientation to her aunt Kate (Chrissy Metz), and has a couple of conversations with her grandmother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore). The first conversation is tentative. Kate says Tess will be thinking about boys soon, and Tess says "or girls." Kate makes a quick recovery and repeats, "or girls." Tess makes her promise not to tell Randall, and Kate agrees, but says she knows they will be accepting and loving.

When Rebecca raises Tess' sexual orientation during a car ride, Tess is clearly upset that Kate has told her. But Rebecca explains that Kate wanted Tess to know there was someone close by whom she could turn to. Tess rebuffs her offers to listen.

Yet it is Rebecca who helps Tess tell her parents she thinks she might be a lesbian. Rebecca tells Tess that she spent much of her own life holding in her pain and hurt over various things, including the death of one of her children. She explains that it physically hurt her, giving her headaches, backaches, stomachaches. She doesn't want that for her first grandchild.

Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) are the parents we all wish we had. They would do anything for their kids. So when Tess finally tells them she might be a lesbian, they tell her they love and support her. They do everything right. She explains she's been walking around in literal pain from not being able to talk about it and also not wanting it to become the only subject.

At 13, Eris Baker is utterly believable as the smart, slightly nerdy, parent-pleasing newly teenage Tess. Her coming out is real, vivid, spot-on. There's a girl she has a crush on. But since it's a girl and not a boy, she can't confide in anyone.

Tess coming out is a curveball for Randall and Beth. They've handled the complexities of their foster child, Deja, with relative calm and ease. But they're ill-prepared for the child they've raised from birth to step outside the very carefully constructed and somewhat programmatic world they've created for their children and themselves.

"New Amsterdam" follows "This Is Us" on that mostly empty wasteland that is Tuesday night TV. We have a penchant for medical dramas, so we were lured in via the premise — New Amsterdam is based on New York's Bellevue Hospital — and by the show's proximity to "This Is Us." White savior series (and "New Amsterdam" star Dr. Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold) is the quintessence of that TV trope) generally just irritate the heck out of us. But there are elements of "New Amsterdam" that remind us of early "ER" and "Chicago Hope." So we are still watching. For all of his white savior traits — mitigated by his having stage IV throat cancer (we would love to have "New Amsterdam" discuss HPV in men and the cancers it causes, but that hasn't happened yet) — Max is still a highly engaging character. He's messed up. He wants too much, he tries too hard, and he's screwed up his marriage and his friendships. He's relatable, even as he's able to fix every problem like a medical McGyver.

One focal point of the Nov. 27 episode was not Max, but Iggy (Tyler Labine), the gay shrink who runs the adolescent psyche ward at the hospital. Iggy is a kid whisperer who wants every child and teen to feel safe and be able to live his or her authentic life without being drugged up. The messaging in his character is perhaps the best of the series: kids are being put on tons of meds rather than given talk therapy and the space to work out their issues.

In one of the earliest episodes, Dr. Iggy got a kid off a raft of meds he'd been put on by court order of the school district. He'd punched another kid at school and hurt him badly. But the drugs were zombifying him. Iggy uncovered the source of the fight and got the kid off the meds. But it involved going back to court. And few kids have an Iggy in their corner.

In the Nov. 27 episode, Iggy is counseling a trans teen and his parents. Shay has been transitioning for six months and now wants top surgery. But he's just turned 14, and it's too early. His body has to develop more so he can have a normal chest wall post-surgery.

Shay's hipster parents are supportive, but the thought of surgery feels drastic to them. It's clear they aren't ready to divest of the daughter they raised, even though they can't say it. You can tell they view the top surgery as a door closing, rather than one opening. When they were unsure they could support it, Shay started a Go Fund Me account to pay for his surgery.

Iggy talks to them gently, but firmly. His role is Shay's advocate. Iggy explains to them, "Top surgery is the most common surgery for trans men." But Shay's father fears the finality, saying it's "deeply unsettling."

Iggy counters, "Having a body that doesn't reflect your gender — that can be deeply unsettling."

Iggy talks to Shay's parents about how Shay was prior to transition, and we discover Shay was depressed and isolated. His mother admits, "My baby was 14, and he'd never felt like himself."

Iggy reminds them that "the positive changes in Shay since transition are undeniable."

Their conflicted feelings are presented as background to the foreground of Shay's transition, and our allegiance is with Shay.

So is Iggy's, but there are factors that are beyond everyone's control. When Iggy explains Shay will have to wait a year until his body has changed enough to accommodate the surgery, Shay doesn't want to hear it. He freaks out.

We know Shay's a social media influencer with thousands of followers, he's constantly updating on his phone. He decides to post that Iggy is a transphobe who refuses to allow him to get the surgery.

Shay's angry message goes viral and spawns hundreds of attacks on Iggy and the hospital on social media. The hospital does not respond well.

Iggy is shocked and hurt by what's happened. He meets with a contrite Shay, and tells him the attacks are not okay, that his husband and colleagues and family have all read the hundreds of messages defaming him.

Shay says he knew what he was doing, but didn't care. He explains that people are depending on him to get the surgery, and the first hint of the pressure Shay feels to be a leader for other trans teens is revealed, as well as Shay's feeling he has to show a result to those who donated to his Go Fund Me for the surgery.

Iggy tells Shay, "How and when you transition is your choice. You aren't going to let some troll talk you out of it. You can't let your fans bully you into it."

The best part of this storyline was how being trans was presented as normative. The issues involved were logistical rather than crises. Shay is a normal teen, subject to selfishness and fits of anger that are the hallmark of adolescence, as we all recall. Shay is content with being trans, he's not depressed or suicidal. He looks, dresses and acts like any 14-year-old teenage boy. There's no hand-wringing involved. Even the issues his parents have are presented as fixable, not insurmountable.

As positive a storyline as Dr. Iggy Frome and his patient, Shay, provided on "New Amsterdam," "The Conners" gets it wrong yet again.

Becky (Lecy Goranson) is pregnant. It's shocking news, as she had been told she couldn't get pregnant. She's older, she's poor, she's got a waitress job and no way to support a child. She runs into an old friend who's a new mother, and hating it. This makes her even more doubtful.

Enter two friends Becky knew at school, Bridgette (Ali Liebegott) and Maria (Gina Brillon). The lesbian couple wants a child badly. Becky goes to visit them and tells them they can have her baby. Bridgette is thrilled, and the two hug. But then Becky goes home and confides to her sister Darlene (Sara Gilbert) that she doesn't know what she's doing. Darlene says they will all pitch in, and the baby will stay in the family.

In the episode's literal last two minutes, Becky tells Bridgette and Maria that she's not giving them her baby. She tells them at the restaurant as she's about to get off work, then says, "Don't forget to tip!" to the sounds of the laugh track.

A devastating moment for a lesbian couple reduced to a throwaway joke. Neither Bridgette nor Maria gets a line to say. They just sit there looking like two angry butches. Their hopes and dreams are on the discard pile, and we get no closure for them.

It's a shockingly terrible scene, and to our great disappointment, the episode was written by Liebegott, whose work we love. So we can't even blame straight writers for this one. The San Francisco writer and producer has worked on "Transparent" throughout the series' entire run and has authored several books, among other work.

What were we supposed to glean here? That Becky is still a selfish, conflicted, insensitive woman who doesn't see past her own needs of the moment? Was it necessary to throw a lesbian couple under the bus to make that point? We're wildly tired of queerbaiting storylines, and this is yet another in an increasingly long list. We keep trying to like this show, but "The Conners" just won't let us.

So to watch the latest dominoes fall in Trump's house of cards, for Christmas bake-offs and all things holiday, and for the occasional spot-on LGBTQ storyline, you really must stay tuned.

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