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Jeff Simon: With all that real sound and fury, 'Murphy Brown' was just smug nostalgia

Jeff Simon

You had to know Phil Corigliano a little to understand why Diane English would want to pay tribute to him in a hit TV sitcom.

And why she'd want to continue doing it when that sitcom — "Murphy Brown" — was resurrected in 2018 as one of the pale Lazaruses emerging from the nostalgic caves into 2018 network television.

Phil Corigliano was that lovable.

He died at 78 in 1991. I didn't know he was the model for "Murphy Brown's" Phil — the proprietor of Phil's Bar, played by Pat Corley — until after the show was off the air. Let me admit that I had a sudden, completely unexpected lurch of comradely affection for "Murphy" inventor Diane English that I never had when the show was on the air. And that inconvenient lurch is with me still. The way I see it — and always will — is that anyone with so much affection for Phil Corigliano can't be all bad.

Phil's very real bar was the Parkway, which, at 810 Elmwood Ave. near Potomac, was the second home for a lot of us throughout the early and mid-'60s. In a town that English has always correctly identified as a "great bar town," the Parkway, in its heyday, was one of the best ever.

It had, as Phil's daughter Carolyn C. Koelmel, freely admits, no "ambiance" whatsoever. When a later incarnation of it — J.P. Bullfeather's — suddenly sprouted "atmosphere" by the bucket, it seemed to me almost funny. The Parkway was just formica tables, shabby booths, grubby floors and drab walls. Nothing sparkled at the Parkway but the people, who were often spectacular.

Buffalo Bills often showed up there. So did visiting actors playing at Studio Arena Theater. WUFO DJ Frankie Crocker shortly before he moved to Manhattan and took the town by storm. Professors and students at SUNY Buffalo State. Star writers at UB.

We were all drawn there by the cheap beer, the good juke box (with enough jazz on it to even make me happy), the fascinating people to talk to (including those of the opposite sex) and the proprietor of the place, Phil Corigliano in his bartender's uniform, smiling and keeping tabs on everyone in the place with a paternally watchful eye.

You have to understand that 18 was the drinking age back then. It's an age where stupidity can be very ripe. A lot of us were little more than just kids. Phil understood that. His place may have been shabby, but it was small enough to feel like home and make it abundantly clear to everyone inside — male or female — that they were safe.

People played chess there, and told filthy jokes (that was where I first heard "The Aristocrats" in, yes, 1964), and argued about obscure novels, movies, records and TV shows, and got to know fascinating members of your species. Men and women met there, courted there and returned there to celebrate right after their wedding ceremonies.

And it was all because of the sweet, lovely, paternal guy who ran the joint — the one who served the drinks and heated up the sandwiches.

So here we are with in 2018 with a new "Murphy Brown" where Murphy, now in her '70s, reminisces about once dating Donald Trump and is now being her loose-lipped self on morning television.

Her gang, sans the late Corley, is back, and there were a couple decent lines. Hillary Clinton showed up to apply for a job as Murphy's secretary — one of the old show's more smug but effective running gags. And Murphy is now drawn out of retirement and into morning TV on a CNN-type network in direct time slot competition with her son, working for "Wolf TV" News.

The real Phil — a born diplomat — would have found that premise a good deal less cutesy than I did but, hey, there was a reason why my lack of allegiance to the show sometimes seemed to inspire understandably surly phone calls from Diane English's father, who wasn't at all fond of his daughter being dissed in her own hometown. It wasn't unusual for him to call me and make that clear.

I liked the old man's crankiness and wished his daughter's show had more of his bite. It pretended to be a lot edgier than it was, which is why it was so hilarious when Dan Quayle decided to make Murphy's unwed motherhood a subject for national hand-wringing and finger-wagging.

Phil's bar is still open for business on the new show. Phil's sister, played by Tyne Daly, now owns the joint. They could have done far worse.

It was a decidedly malevolent accident of fate that the mild and nostalgic "Murphy Brown" of 2018 premiered after so much of America watched, on Thursday, so much of the riveting, heart-wrenching brutality and rancor of the U.S. Senate Committee's Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.

It was, I think, impossible for those of us who remember so well the 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill confrontation not to remember how much of this seemed to be yet another sequel to a TV hit of yore.

I remember our whole features department crowding into the piteously small TV office that was constructed in an era of only five channels. We watched, back then, a TV only slightly larger than a clock radio. After Hill told her story with perfect composure and equanimity, I said, in my plummiest attempt at orotund sagacity, "he's toast." When Clarence Thomas took center stage to rage against a "high-tech lynching" I knew how wrong I was. He'd won the day.

His ghosts of oppression past seemed bigger in 1991 than her seeds of future revolution. He had conjured up America's gruesome racial history in his furious anger. It seemed so much larger than her complaints about insufferable oafishness and the possibility of its turning dangerous.

The Kavanaugh hearing was both a sequel and an upside down version. Christine Blasey Ford was a tremulous, tearful and vulnerable witness, where Anita Hill had been cool, composed and professionally unruffled. Kavanaugh, nevertheless, stole the Thomas playbook, but by the time he finished yelling angrily, crying, decrying past political grievances and snarling nastily at senators, he had destroyed any inkling that he had even a fraction of the judicial temperament that we hope Supreme Court justices exhibit.

And yet in our deeply disturbed, "new normal" Reality TV world, rancor and fury is what we tell ourselves has value and authenticity, rather than wisdom and depth.

It was, I thought, absolutely as disgraceful as Kavanaugh said it was. And it turned that evening's self-congratulatory return of a slightly endearing TV relic into a hopeless irrelevance.


A couple other upside  down dramas from a new TV season:

"Lethal Weapon": One of the most overlooked dramatic stories of the TV year past was the oddly underplayed firing of the watchable show's co-star Clayne Crawford in the Mel Gibson role, after a couple of years of tension with his co-star Damon Wayans, in the Danny Glover role. Crawford was good, with  kind of boozy melancholy and flippancy that was unusual for TV (and a creative take on what Gibson had established onscreen.) But tales of onset troubles bedeviled the show and, when push came to shove, Crawford's showbiz clout didn't begin to match a member of the Wayans family. Wayans' new partner on the show is played by Seann William Scott, as a former CIA agent who speaks six languages, hates guns but is always up for devotional craziness.

It's a reasonably smart re-set of a show whose well-directed action was always surprisingly engaging to watch.

"Magnum": Unfortunately, the newly resurrected "Magnum" is just barely watchable, no matter how many Ferraris are trashed. Jay Hernandez is an engaging actor, but the whole point of the original show was the huge star impact of Tom Selleck, the tall hunk in the skimpy bathing suit with the voice that sometimes rose up an octave into a weirdly witty whine. There are no truly memorable stars in the new "Magnum," just likable and disposable primetime actors whose disappearance would barely cause a ripple, much less the veritable tsunami of regret and weeping and gnashing of teeth that would accompany the disappearance forever of Tom Selleck.

The original "Magnum" was a vehicle for Selleck, full of actual luxury vehicles from the Ferrari family. This one has the cars but is otherwise a Ford Focus with Ferrari pretensions. It's an hour of entirely interchangeable primetime TV.

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