As "Murphy Brown" prepares to sign off after a decade on the air, a case could easily be made that the show hung around too long.

Creatively, it probably peaked in its fourth season - the season that ended with the birth of Murphy's out-of-wedlock baby. It was an event that became a media sensation when the then-vice president of the United States launched an attack on the show.The show sort of hit bottom in the seventh, eighth and ninth seasons, all of which paled in comparison to the Emmy-winning earlier efforts. But the fact remains that, even at its worst, "Murphy Brown" was still better than the vast majority of the comedies on television.

And if star Candice Bergen had decided to call it quits before now, we would have been denied what has turned out to be an excellent 10th and final season. It was a season in which "Murphy Brown" returned to its roots as a smart, funny, biting, topical comedy that took on an unusual topic - Murphy's battle with breast cancer.

"It's been sort of stunning to me how (the writers) have managed to find the humor in the pain," Bergen said in a recent interview with TV critics. "But it's expanded the plot line so much more that, in a way, I think the show is funnier when it's funny than it has been for some time. I think it's revealed aspects of all the characters that we never had the opportunity to show before.

"And in that sense, rather than expanding the show in its 10th year, it's almost like we've burrowed inward and revealed more interior aspects."

It's been a shift that the cast has relished.

"The issues are much deeper and the humor is back to really strong character humor," said Faith Ford (who plays Corky Sherwood). "I don't think we've had these kinds of episodes since the fourth season.

"So it's been really great for us - like a real shot in the arm for us as actors. It's a perfect way to go out."

The spark returned to "Murphy Brown" along with creator Diane English, who had not actively participated in the show's writing since the end of the fourth season. She helped supervise the writing this season and penned Monday's final episode (8 p.m. on Ch. 2).

In the hourlong finale, Murphy faces another cancer scare and decides to quit "FYI," the fictional network newsmagazine for which she has reported for so long. According to Bergen and executive producer Marc Flanagan, the episode will contain not just a sense of "finality" but a sense of "optimism." There won't be a tragic ending.

"Yes, Murphy's life will go on," Flanagan said.

The hour will also include the return of former series regulars Robert Pastorelli (Eldin) and Pat Corley (Phil) as well as guest appearances by Bette Midler, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Alan King and Mike Wallace.

(Original cast member Grant Shaud, who played Miles Sil-ver-berg, was invited back but declined. "I think he's quite pleased to have put some distance between who he is and who Miles Sil-ver-berg is," Bergen said. "I'm not sure that was a marriage that he was always very happy with, being sort of identified as this neurotic sort of nerd. Sort of under-stand-able.")

As the end of the show approached, cast members were wistful and nostalgic. Asked what they'd miss most, they chorused, "The laughter."

"We laughed so much on a given day," said Joe Regalbuto (Frank Fon-tana).

"We are definitely close," Ford said. "We are definitely like a family.

"Not to sound corny about it, but with a family comes all the other stuff. . . . But we're there to do our work, and we have fun with each other."

There was unanimous agreement among the cast members that none of them ever dreamed "Murphy Brown" would run for 10 years.

"Absolutely not," Bergen said. "I don't think we thought five years later we'd be sitting here."

And while all agreed it was time to end the show, they were all rather broken up - even unbelieving - at the prospect.

Shortly before taping their final episode, Ford approached Flanagan with a question. "Faith just said to me, `Now when is our hiatus in March?' " he said. "And I said, `Well, the hiatus will be the third week in March for the rest of your life."

Regalbuto said the end of the show was like sending his second son off to college and realizing how quickly time had passed.

"I felt this tremendous loss. And it was very emotional," he said. "I can't take that in about `Murphy Brown.' It's been 10 life-changing, incredible years."

Charles Kimbrough (Jim Dial) compared their 10 years together to going to school. "(It's) the same kind of almost unconscious bonding process," he said. "And you realize that you really are a group that has lived together a long time and gone through a lot of stuff. Some tears, a lot of laughs."

"It gets to a level of intimacy that almost transcends that of a marriage, because we spend more time with each other than you do with a spouse," Bergen added.

Continuing with the school analogy, Ford said, "For 10 years we've had a routine. It's almost like a school schedule. So it's almost like we're graduating.

"We're like these kids that never want to quit school. . . . We just don't want to go out into the real world."

Kimbrough agreed.

"When you graduate from the eighth grade, your parents cry and you're dry-eyed," he said. "You graduate high school, you're parents cry and you're dry-eyed. At college, your parents cry, you're dry-eyed.

"This time, we have a chance to cry. Because it is like a graduation, only this time I think it's really going to hit us that it's the end of something."