Then and Now: Murphy Brown vs. 30 Rock

Photo courtesy of CBS and NBC.

Photo courtesy of CBS and NBC.

Strong women are rarely the main characters of anything in media not entrenched in romance. The Atlantic knows this as I imagine most of you do, which is why I wanted to compare Murphy Brown and 30 Rock this week as the representative shows of their decade for women who get shit done.

Murphy Brown, which ran from 1988-1998, stars Candice Bergen as a hardline news reporter on FYI, a show like 60 Minutes. She’s in charge of several inept coworkers including a Jenna Maroney-like former model, a goofy Peter Hornberger-type confidante and an annoyingly proper Twofor-like cohost. 30 Rock features the hapless Liz Lemon also managing a television show, ridiculous corporate pressures and an unfortunate personal life.

In the series premiere they both return to their respective television shows and livelihoods, Murphy after a stay at the Betty Ford Center and Liz after the summer, vastly different than when they left. All these similarities would suggest these shows would be pretty darn similar to each other and thus any 30 Rock fan should pop on the internet and check out Murphy. Well, not quite.

30 Rock really pioneered a style, or least took advantage of an underused style, with breakneck pace and the weaving of almost sketch-like comedy into a compelling narrative setting it apart from the traditional sitcom. In describing 30 Rock, the problems seem outlandish, such as Jenna dating and marrying a Jenna impersonator or Tracy making an incredibly lucrative pornography video game. This humor is pretty abnormal, and thus the nature of the show sets it apart from more traditional sitcoms like Murphy which derived much of its humor from set-up/punchline political and popular culture jokes.

An interesting way to compare the two is through a topic both main characters address – single parenting. The aforementioned desert of strong women on television makes single motherhood more uncommon on television than it is in real life. So it seems appropriate that these two women who manage to excel at a demanding job would take on motherhood.

About a third of the way through each series, Liz and Murphy realize they desperately want to be mothers. Murphy finds this out by getting knocked up and Liz chooses the avenue of adoption. Both do not have reliable partners by their side so onwards and upwards by themselves. The premises are essentially the same, but the executions are startlingly different.

Both characters had pregnancy scares for season finales and then the subsequent season premiere answered the question. The difference arises with the pacing and tone attached to the prospect of single parent pregnancy in each show. Liz thinks she might be pregnant and then once she realizes she isn’t brings an adoption counselor to interview her coworkers. Throughout everyone questions the capacity of her moronic boyfriend as a father but remains rather supportive and helpful throughout the process. Not so with the Murph.

Murphy finds out she is indeed pregnant with her ex-husband’s baby in a two-part season premiere that has the most abnormal structure I have seen on a multicamera sitcom. Instead of quick joke delivery and laughs, each act consists mainly of Murphy in one place with little movement just telling person after person of her quandary. At 42 she’s having a geriatric pregnancy, but more troubling for the characters is the prospect that this child would inhibit Murphy from doing her job well should she choose to keep the baby. That is the other surprising element – the idea of abortion is brought up relatively frequently instead of giving it up for adoption. The characters only mention abortion covertly and label it as “women’s choice”, but a character even slips in a back-alley abortion joke. Not tradition sitcom fare, let me tell you.

The reinforcement of gender norms in this two parter is pretty astounding because although most of the time Murphy’s coworkers are afraid of her, they all feel comfortable weighing in on her pregnancy. Most conclude she should have an abortion, with her boss going so far as to say kids should not grow up in single parent households, though the tension is undercut when it is revealed he was raised by a single mom. She ultimately decides to keep the baby despite the opposition and while she struggles to maintain her edge, she comes back just as demanding as before.

The themes of both shows are rather similar – a workaholic woman taking on the world – but the world seems a little more supportive of Liz than it did of Murphy probably because Murphy threw potatoes at Dan Quayle’s house in the next season paving the way for future single mothers.

If you feel up to date on 80’s/90’s politics and news then Murphy Brown should prove to be just as funny as any multicam and an interesting study in social consciousness uncommon in the average sitcom, but if you’re looking for straight up funny, I’d stick with 30 Rock.

*Should be disclosed I’m a self-described 30 Rock super fan.

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