The title of the 1998 series finale of “Murphy Brown” was taken from a Jackson 5 tune, “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
In 2018, truer words couldn’t be spoken because “Murphy Brown” is saying hello again this fall on CBS.
“That’s pretty funny, exactly,” said Diane English, the Buffalo native who three decades ago created the hit series about an outspoken anchor and journalist for a network newsmagazine series, “FYI,” fresh out of rehab at the Betty Ford Center.
“Who would have thought really that 20 years later you’re back with the same people?” she added. “Just walking on to that stage with the re-creation of the original set was so emotional for everybody. We all burst into tears… It was almost like watching people step into a time machine.”
In a wide-ranging, 25-minute telephone interview, English addressed the newsy reason for its return and her unique place in network television.
“I am a bit of a unicorn,” she said, “because I am a 70-year-old woman running a major television show. Go find another one.”
The show’s finale aired on her 50th birthday, and English once said writing it almost killed her. What about working so hard now?
“I’ve had a nice 20-year rest,” joked English.
She said the idea of bringing back the series was first joked about and then dropped when Sarah Palin ran for president in 2012. However, the idea was taken more seriously when executives for Warner Brothers encouraged English to write a pilot in 2017 after the successful return of “Will & Grace.”
English talked to Candice Bergen, who won five Emmy awards as Murphy, about bringing the series back.
“We felt like it was a risk, what if we tarnish it?” said English. “We decided no.”
Warner Brothers television head Peter Roth didn’t take no for an answer.
“He said, ‘why don’t I pay you to write a script and you can see how you feel about it?’ ” recalled English.
She put off writing it for about nine months. She made sure cast members Bergen (Murphy), Joe Regalbuto (investigative reporter Frank Fontana), Grant Shaud (producer Miles Silverberg), Faith Ford (lifestyles reporter Corky Sherwood) and Charles Kimbrough (anchor Jim Dial) were available before putting them in the pilot script.
They all agreed to return, though Kimbrough will be in only three of the 13 episodes because he lives in Los Angeles and the show is filmed in New York City. Tyne Daly is one of the new cast members as Phyllis, the sister of bartender Phil played by the late Pat Corley. Jake McDorman plays Murphy's son Avery, who now is the liberal voice working as a journalist for a rival network called Wolf. Nik Dodani plays the director of social media for Murphy's show.
“I finally turned in the script before last Christmas and within days it went straight to a series deal at CBS,” said English.
The election of media-bashing President Trump falls perfectly into the theme of “Murphy,” which was known for political satire and dealing with current events.
“Of all of the shows that have come back – and all of them are doing quite well – we were the only one that had a real reason to,” said English. “Not just because of the political climate and the election, but because of the attack on the press. We are a show about the press. It felt like in the atmosphere that got created in November of 2016, we felt like we had a real compelling reason to do it.”
In other words, 20 years after “Murphy” ended, the timing to bring it back couldn’t have been better.
“We were always a show that lived in the real world and it is a show that is based in Washington, D.C.,” explained English. “We have 13 episodes and we’re here to make some noise. But I want to emphasize we’re not going to compete with the late-night guys who do a dozen Trump-bashing jokes a night. We’re focusing on themes. We’re always going to see everything from the prism of the press.”
The Sept. 27 pilot written by English reintroduces all the characters in the show.
“We catch up with them and where they’ve been for the last 20 years and what they’ve been doing,” said English. “The band gets back together again and they move into the world of cable news, which is a big adjustment … When we went off the air, there was no social media, there was barely an internet, Fox News was days old. It is a big adjustment and we have a lot of fun with that.”
The second episode highlights the overall theme of the series.
“The press is not the enemy of the people,” said English. “These are people doing their jobs, trying to expose the truth and dig for the truth and, in this climate, it is almost taking their lives in their hands.”
The #MeToo movement and climate change are addressed in subsequent episodes.
English said having to produce only 13 episodes rather than the 26 or 27 during the show’s earlier run is one reason she and Bergen were willing to do it.
“Candice and I made a pact,” English said. “We don’t want to do more because we’re older, we have lives that we created for ourselves. We just don’t want to be chained to a soundstage for 10 months of the year.”
English had hoped to a do an HBO series set in the morning television world, but the pay-TV network passed. In hindsight, she conceded that might have been a blessing in disguise. If HBO had approved the project, she probably couldn’t have done “Murphy.”
“I’m a firm believer in things happen for a reason,” said English. “I loved the HBO script. They gave the rights back to me and there was a bunch of stuff in that script that I actually used in this new pilot of ‘Murphy Brown.’ So it was not a complete loss.”
The original series ended with a two-part finale with an incredible cast of guest stars that included George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Mike Wallace, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler. English is using the new filming location of New York City to line up an impressive list of guest stars, all of whom she is keeping secret.
It might have been natural to reopen the series with Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” since the song appeared in the pilot and then the finale 10 years later.
“No, we have a different song that we are opening with,” said English. “It is extremely apropos. It cost a fortune and we all felt it was worth it. Not to say we wouldn’t use our Aretha Franklin theme someplace else, maybe at the end of our 13th episode.”