Putting Some English On It

Remember Diane English, the creator of Murphy Brown? She’s back as of next week, when her remake of The Women opens at a theatre near (or at least in the same province as) you. Though it’s being distributed and marketed as Sex and the City 2, it’s actually her longtime dream project, which she has been trying to get made since 1994. (Meg Ryan has also been attached to the project since 1994.) She finally made it independently after the studios, pre-SATC, wouldn’t back it.

I have to say that I’m puzzled by a remake of The Women being a dream project for anyone; the original play and movie are really not that good and Clare Boothe Luce‘s message — a woman should just accept it when her husband cheats or tries to sponge off her money, and anyone who tells her otherwise is just an evil harpy — is pretty horrible. (I will admit, though, that The Women and its message are not quite as bad as that other “classic,” The Philadelphia Story, which has told generation after generation that if a woman’s husband beats her and her father cheats on her mother, it’s all her own fault for being such an ice queen. Yeesh.)  English says she’s trying to do a less anti-woman version of the story, but it begs the question, why not just do a new story with an all-female cast? (One possible answer to my own rhetorical question: without the name recognition of the original property, she might never have gotten the backing to make a movie with an all-female cast; that was the big stumbling block to getting studios to underwrite it.)

But anyway, English was a huge name in TV in the late ’80s and early ’90s; along with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who was the same age and created Designing Women two years before English did Murphy Brown, she represented a new kind of showrunner and a new kind of television show. (They were both influenced by Susan Harris, but she was no longer running shows day-to-day.) There hadn’t been many women showrunners before, and it was a big step forward for two of CBS’s biggest hits — and the network didn’t have a lot of hits at the time — to be created and run by women, both of whom were hands-on, distinctive, larger-than-life producers just like James L. Brooks or Garry Marshall. And both shows had a style that was like a hybrid of ’70s and ’80s comedy: the topical, in-your-face style of the Norman Lear comedies, leaving the showrunners free to talk about anything that was on their minds (most famously in the Dan Quayle episode of Murphy Brown), combined with the yuppie-friendly ensemble comedy of Cheers.

Of course, things didn’t turn out so well, at least not for the new kind of show represented by Murphy Brown. It suffered early creative burnout, and it was a complete disaster in syndication; it was bought up by a lot of stations, as was normal for a long-running hit show, and soon after it started in reruns, most of the stations that bought it started shuffling it into late-night slots. A lot of topical shows have problems in reruns, but this one just seemed like a relic of the George H.W. Bush era (which at that time was just “the Bush era”) before it was even over. The first season is out on DVD, but it didn’t sell, and no other seasons are planned for release.

I loved Murphy Brown at the time, at least until roughly the election of Bill Clinton — no, I don’t think that killed the show, it’s just that the creative burnout occurred around 1993 — and there’s a lot to like, still, about it; many of the episodes are funny, Eldin was great, and though Candace Bergen couldn’t exactly act or play comedy, she was still appealing because she played someone we hadn’t often seen on television before and still don’t see very often today: an aggressive, pushy career woman who is neither condemned nor lionized for the way she acts. She wasn’t, in other words, a test case by which we were supposed to judge all women, the way the Sex and the City characters sometimes were; she was just a character, take her as she is. That was pretty refreshing. That said, the show doesn’t really hold up, because the characters never really went beyond the basic stereotypes set up at the beginning, so you can see any character in any season and predict what kind of joke he or she is going to make at a given point. But I still have enough affection for it that I’m kind of rooting for The Women, even though I don’t have high hopes for it being much good.


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