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Jeff Simon: 'Murphy' was never worse; 'Conners' may be better than ever

Jeff Simon

"Roseanne" came first in October 1988. A month later in November we made the acquaintance of "Murphy Brown."

The new "Roseanne," complete with a Trump-converted star, arrived last year. "Murphy Brown" followed suit this year, 30 years after it arrived.

I disliked both shows rather intensely in their primes. Those shows caused me problems -- especially "Murphy Brown," whose creator Diane English was from Buffalo. I didn't know back then the same beloved Buffalo figure -- Phil Corigliano, proprietor of the Parkway Bar on Elmwood and Potomac -- figured prominently in both of our youths. That was so true in English's case that a wise and lovable fictional bartender named Phil was an important character on her show.

It wouldn't have made a difference back then if I'd known. I disliked both shows for the exact same reason: the lead acting of Roseanne Barr and Candice Bergen.

Aside from that, they couldn't have been more different.

Roseanne was not only a standup comic, but a radically different one that I'd always liked. Working class male standups have been commonplace forever, but not female ones. When Roseanne first hit Carson, she wasn't like anything we'd seen before. Both Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers seemed to me from the suburbs. Totie Fields from big nightclubs and Borscht Belt.

Roseanne was a renegade, bad woman from the comedy clubs -- one unlikely to have been shocked by anyone's bad behavior in those clubs' parking lots. She seemed brilliantly defiant.

That's what her show was, too. People I knew and respected treasured it for that reason. It made trouble. But all I could see was a brave and large but bad paycheck for John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, two exceptional actors.

My trouble with "Murphy Brown" is that the lead character was so self-congratulatory that having her enacted by a Left Coast aristocrat almost seemed like an understandable reason to inflame the Dan Quayles of this world.

The show had all of its fancy shmancy Washington guest stars and a decent line or two along with all the dropped names, but it was so much less edgy than it pretended to be that I just never wanted any part of it.

Coming from a Buffalo-raised creator whose education began with a truly legendary Buffalo theatrical figure -- Warren Enters of SUNY Buffalo State -- was beyond inconvenient for me. It was a test I couldn't possibly pass, no matter what I said or did. So I heard from her family about my lack of support and once found my actual name on the show given to a self-loving Hairspray Harry anchor who kept going around introducing himself to everyone, "Hello, I'm Jeff Simon."

You need to understand a couple of things. TV writers freely admit telling other TV writers to get the names of fictional characters from their real pasts so they can freely harness the feelings associated with them (hence a wise bartender named Phil). So there was my name on the show attached to a self-loving idiot. As I said, my no-win situation came to an ignominious fate.

Now "Murphy Brown" is back. There are occasional serviceable wisecracks, but it is, amid the polemic bloodshed of the 21st century, a feeble waste of time. But hey, didn't we all have to watch the Anchor Bar episode dutifully -- you know, the one where Murphy's grown son goes to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo to introduce America to where chicken wings were invented and get some "man on the street" political commentary along with it.

That's when we were introduced to a bearded fictional plumber named John Dwyer, whose head kept leaning to the right and whose house, we were told, was so big it had a (self-constructed) moat. The fellow slammed "low IQ Democrats" and proclaimed the virtues of sweat and hard work. When he was snottily advised of the advantages of occasionally reading a book, he replied, "Hey, I'm a plumber." (Pronounced in a very un-Buffalonian way, "plum-uh.")

As if plumbers never read books.

There were two significant John Dwyers in 20th century Buffalo history -- one a respected Buffalo District Attorney and State Supreme Court judge, the other the classical music critic of The Buffalo News until his death in the early '80s.

The latter was not only a revered friend of ours here, but, in my case, a mentor. He was also responsible for some of the most progressive and sophisticated work published in The News.

I covered UB composer Morton Feldman constantly beginning with his arrival at the UB Music School, but it was not until Dwyer's masterly large profile of Feldman that I can say I understood him. It was one of the most beautiful and serious things ever published by an essentially humorous man.

Slapping his name on a barroom troglodyte was egregious.

Dwyer reviewed things all over the map during his years at The News -- theater and movies, as well as music. It's entirely possible he wrote something negative about Enters or one of his charges at SUNY Buffalo State's theater school. To remember him now with such bilious "nostalgia" on a show was revolting. I may be wrong, but I don't think Corigliano or Enters would like it, either, after so many years.

Meanwhile, the upheavals at "Roseanne" became the TV controversy of last year. A political rant by its star was such that it could be interpreted as racist enough to fire her from her own top-rated show, even though her name was on it.

What's almost certain is that what she said was infinitely less important than the legendary historic difficulties of dealing with Roseanne. With politics now added to the brew, ABC decided to divest themselves of a headache.

She was then surgically removed on a version of that show that starred everyone else and was renamed "The Conners."

All due praise for Roseanne's fight for blue-collar reality at home and in the workplace, but "The Conners" it seems to me, finally has the chance to be the show so many wanted it to be. Whatever it becomes, it is now something I liked.

I'm no fan of any sitcom, really, but the premiere of "The Conners" began right way with Roseanne's (fictional) death from an opioid overdose. It was as strong and connected to a real recognizable America as everything on "Murphy Brown" was connected to absurd and a pitifully unreal and unimportant fantasy about the TV news business.

In the 21st century, "Murphy Brown" seems proudly about nothing at all.

I truly hope the show's nostalgists are happy. Watching it now, I almost found myself wondering what Dan Quayle would think of it.

But then even he knows full well when a TV show no longer matters.

. . .

Meanwhile, don't miss the weekend return of Showtime's "Ray Donovan." It can be seen now on Showtime on demand and it's one of the toughest and most depressed and powerful episodes of the show. Ray has now relocated to New York. His soul is now in one of the outer burbs of hell.

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