“Murphy Brown” and “Magnum P.I.” return to the CBS lineup this week, giving the network an it’s-the-’80s-all-over-again one-two marketing punch. These are, however, very different makeovers — the first a contemporary, Trump-referencing revival that occasionally suffers from over-reaching for topicality; the latter a light, blue-skies reboot, on a network whose lineup already features similar updates of “Hawaii Five-O” and “MacGyver.”
CBS actually made three episodes of “Murphy” available, which was a wise move, given what an ungainly, overstuffed exercise the pilot is. That’s because the show has to rapidly go through the contortions of reassembling the cast — with Murphy (Candice Bergen) literally saying “The band is getting back together” — accounting for the absences and creating a rationale for the reunion, beyond the obvious commercial motives.
Murphy is out of the TV biz when the show opens, wearing an “Original Nasty Woman” sweatshirt on the night of President Trump’s election. Through a series of jumps ahead she gets the call to host a morning show on CNC (yes, everyone in news seems to be migrating to cable these days), reuniting with her “FYI” colleagues Frank (Joe Regalbuto), Corky (Faith Ford) and producer Miles (Grant Shaud).
A lot has changed, of course, since the original series signed off, and the show has fun with Murphy’s Luddite ways and general crankiness about the current state of TV news. “There’s a difference between good television and journalism,” she says in the third episode — the best of those previewed — plucking the topical chord to which series creator Diane English keeps returning.
The first two installments, by contrast, oscillate a little too much between current events and the show’s fictional world, between the serious and the silly. While that turned out to be a public-relations bonanza when then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the show/character in 1992, it feels both a trifle forced and extra treacherous in today’s hyper-partisan climate.
The show finds an emotional core, meanwhile, in Murphy’s relationship with her 28-year-old son Avery (Jake McDorman), who has followed her into the family business — only as a reporter/host for the rival Wolf Network, a name about as subtle in its intentions as CNC.
On the plus side, Bergen slides into her imperious character like she was never away, and there’s genuine warmth in the mother-son interactions. On the down side, topical comedy is hardly a novelty, and joking a lot about being preoccupied with Twitter isn’t quite enough to bridge the gap.
To paraphrase Murphy’s line, there’s a difference between good television and an attention-getting concept and title. “Murphy Brown” certainly possesses the latter, but only sporadically qualifies as the former.
As for “Magnum P.I.,” forging ahead without Tom Selleck (occupied elsewhere in “Blue Bloods” alongside the aforementioned “Hawaii Five-O” and “MacGyver”), the philosophy seemed to be that one good reboot with Hawaii as an enticing backdrop deserved another.
The new “Magnum” stars Jay Hernandez in the title role, and seeks to offer the same mix of action (there is one pretty dazzling stunt sequence involving a truck and helicopter), comedy and wish-you-were-there scenery. Sure, there are cosmetic changes (Higgins is a woman now), but once you get past the name, this could be any detective show, one likely to rise or fall on Hernandez’s appeal and Magnum’s camaraderie with his various pals.
“You don’t have a plan, do you?” one of Magnum’s buddies asks at one point. Actually, the plan is pretty clear: Hope people tune in thanks to curiosity and nostalgia, then stick around for the reasons they did 30-some-odd years ago.
The plan’s not foolproof, but as MacGyver could tell you, it’s worked before.