SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Beat the Press,” the 10th episode of “Murphy Brown.”
Diane English, creator and showrunner of “Murphy Brown,” set out to tell the revival season of the classic 1980s and 1990s sitcom through the “prism of the press.” So it was really only a matter of time before the characters came face-to-face with angry citizens who have come to believe members of the media are the enemy.
In the 10th episode of “Murphy Brown’s” revival season, “Beat the Press,” Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) attends one of Donald Trump’s rallies, and when Trump (voiced by Bob Dibuono) spots him in the audience, he calls him “fibbing Frank” and tells his supporters to “let him know what you think of him.” This incites a small mob of “red hats” to surround Frank and beat him up, ultimately landing him in the hospital.
“It was something that we planned to do from the beginning when we first went into the writers’ room in May because of the angry rhetoric that was being directed toward the press, which I found shocking,” English tells Variety. “Then it escalated from there as we saw journalists get body-slammed by a politician and we saw the president, at his rallies, encouraging all of this vitriol against the press and CNN in particular — and even very recently saying that he would admire somebody that would body-slam a journalist.”
“Beat the Press” used real-life footage of Trump at one of his rallies to set the scene but then cut away and used Dibuono’s voice off-screen as the camera watched Murphy (Candice Bergen) watch the rally on TV.
“We were very careful not to specifically show people’s faces at the rally,” she says of the footage they did use. “And we did have a conversation about the difference between the people who go to these rallies all fired up, screaming obscenities at the press and so on, versus the people who voted for Trump who had real, legitimate reasons — like my entire family. There’s a difference; we see there’s a difference there. It’s a different animal, the rally crowd, and we all have been very horrified at the level of hostility, and our feeling was, at some point, if the flames are continued to be fanned, somebody is going to get hurt.”
However, English admits she isn’t as concerned about how the show portrays Trump because every storyline they take on has been well-researched first, as well as vetted by CBS’ lawyers.
“I don’t care if he comes after us, honestly. What’s he going to do to me? Maybe he’ll give me a nickname. I don’t know, there’s not much he can do,” she says.
English purposely kept the act of violence against Frank off-screen, noting that seeing people beat up Frank would be fodder for a drama, not a sitcom. “That’s where we kind of drew the line and said, ‘Let’s not even see the beginnings of it,’” she says. “I think it’s pretty shocking when we see him for the first time [after].”
But later in the episode, during a field report, Avery (Jake McDorman) confronts the Trump supporter who took the first swing at Frank and gets punched in the face, as well — this time on-camera.
For English, it was important to show that it wasn’t Frank’s liberalism that was targeted. Avery, after all, works for a conservative network and still became a victim of the ire. “When it comes to this kind of division, they saw him as a member of the press, first and foremost, and therefore he was a target,” English points out.
“Beat the Press” followed a Thanksgiving-themed episode that turned political when members of ICE showed up to take Miguel’s (Adan Rocha) parents into custody. English notes that the “balancing act” of mixing the politics of today into the traditional format from the original version of the show has been challenging at times.
“There is a difference because we’re in a much more divided atmosphere, and everything seems to be a lot more jacked up, and we’re in an era where if you made some of this stuff up 20 years ago people would [have] said, ‘You’ve gone too far; it’s too broad; it’s too crazy,’” she says.
Still, as a sitcom, finding the funny in any situation is always of utmost importance. With “Beat the Press,” English says it was important to go outside the actual acts of violence and find moments where the gang could breathe together — such as the “Holy Cannoli” moment between Frank and Avery or how Frank responds to his coworkers when he’s been given painkillers in the hospital.
“You’re never going to get a laugh out of, ‘Wow, you almost died,’” English says. “It’s obviously a really tricky topic [but] when we pick a topic, we make sure we can find the humor [before proceeding]. This was the hardest one, but we felt that since our characters are all members of the press, it was an important one.”
“Murphy Brown” airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.