Golden Words — Murphy Brown, “Jingle Hell, Jingle Hell, Jingle All the Way”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

jingle hell

Murphy Brown went into its third season as the reigning champ of the Outstanding Comedy Series category at the Emmys. The show, created by Diane English, was exactly the sort of comedy that Emmy voters adored. Its setting at a Washington, D.C. television newsroom — and tendency to slip in references to geopolitical current events — gave it an air of added intelligence, and the presence of Candice Bergen in the title role added to the sense of refinement, her years as a figure of Hollywood glamor — if never previously quite finding the project that could make her a formidable star — making it seem like she was gifting television with her presence during the long era when the medium was still viewed as the poor cousin to Hollywood movies. Through its first few years, Murphy Brown gathered Emmy nominations by the bushel, and Bergen was close to unstoppable in her category, winning five out of the seven times she was nominated.

During its run, Murphy Brown took two Emmys for writing. The second victory came for the Christmas-themed, third-season episode “Jingle Hell, Jingle Hell, Jingle All the Way.” As opposed to the increasingly common instances where the writing award is bestowed upon an episode carries a certain amount of extra weight — some big character turning point, a sly reinvention of the form, a season premiere or finale — this holiday romp is basically Murphy Brown in a business-as-usual mode, with some extra tinsel tossed around.

First and foremost, Murphy Brown was a workplace comedy, and “Jingle Hell” takes a basic comic premise, escalates it to heightened verbal conflict, and wraps it up with a gentle comeuppance accompanied by clarifying sentimentality. Responding to the stress of the holidays, Murphy suggests to her coworkers that they make a pact to forgo gift-giving, donating the money they would have spent to charity instead. Then Murphy surreptitiously buys gifts for some of the newsroom workers a little further down the org chart, leading her fellow anchors to panic, sure they’ll look like cheapskates in comparison. Then the pact breaks down further, with all of the anchors prowling through a drugstore on Christmas Eve, seeking last-minute gifts and ranting at one another over the collapsed agreement. Only a later visit to the office Christmas partner by Murphy’s essentially-on-retainer house painter, Eldin Bernecky (Robert Pastorelli), stopping by on his way to serve meals at a local orphanage, snaps the crew out of their collective snit.

In its day, Murphy Brown was held up as a new high-water mark for sitcoms, and I can attest that it felt uniquely sharp at the time. Unlike some of its rough contemporaries, such as Cheers or Seinfeld, it hasn’t aged well. In 1990, staging a Christmas-themed episodes around the main characters behaving abominably might have provided a fizzy and unexpected mean streak that contrasted with the holiday treacle likely to surround it on the network schedule. The episode now seems hackneyed before its time, deploying aggression as an easy alternative to crafting real jokes. “Jingle Hell, Jingle Hell, Jingle All the Way,” is a rough, joyless ride, and it certainly doesn’t provide laughing all the way.

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