By and large, the world views of television sitcom actors are best left to fluffy features in the entertainment section. But in a society where intellectuals regard pop culture as a passable approximation of political reality, surely Candice Bergen's remarks marking the end of her once controversial show, "Murphy Brown," are noteworthy.
In a recent interview in The Los Angeles Times, the actress was asked about the astonishing contretemps in May 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech pointing out the link between out-of-wedlock childbearing and the poverty of women and children.He added that it "didn't help" when Hollywood, specifically "Murphy Brown," glamorized such behavior.
The idea of family values was "the right theme to hammer home," Bergen said now, referring to Quayle's speech.
"I agreed with all of it except his references to the show," she acknowledged. "The body of the speech was completely sound."
Excuse me? Did I miss something?
Though Bergen's revelation was published on April 18, it has not received much notice, save a commentary in The Wall Street Journal's weekend section. This seems especially bizarre when one recalls the paroxysms of vitriol, contempt and self-righteousness that Hollywood and the media worked themselves into at the time. Who can forget the endless columns, letters and jokes accusing the vice president of being hopelessly provincial and an enemy of women?
What happened? Was the whole brouhaha just a Hollywood over-reaction? Or have the elite's views on family life changed?
At the time, Hollywood went ballistic, demonstrating its general animus toward "bourgeois" and conservative cultural views. And Diane English, the producer of "Murphy Brown," clearly understood that portraying the show as the target of "McCarthyism" was good for ratings.
There have been changes in the past six years, if not precisely progress. For one thing, in this post-feminist moment, marriage and family life are fashionable again, and babies are downright chic. This is partly a result of a late-inning rally by baby-boom women who had previously favored careers over reproduction.
But it's bigger than just a bunch of fortyish women chasing toddlers as they turn gray. Every actress and supermodel appears to have acquired one - as if infants were this season's de rigueur accessory - which is not an inherently bad thing.
Witness the June issue of Los Angeles Magazine, which proclaims: "Hooray for Mommywood; a new breed of star moms makes childbirth downright glamorous."
Meanwhile, a clear consensus has emerged among policy intellectuals. The harm caused to children by illegitimacy, divorce, teen-age pregnancy and absent parents is widely acknowledged as the cause of troubling social problems.
But we live in the Clinton era, when no choices need be made, when everything may easily co-exist with its antithesis. So it is again a truism that children need both mothers and fathers. At the same time, it is now much harder to muster moral outrage at narcissistic adult behavior, no matter how harmful it is to children.
While babies are chic, pop culture has mixed feelings about motherhood. The nature of daily life with children, with its small frustrations and quiet joys - and absence of office politics, power and sex - does not make for cute plots.
And that was a problem on "Murphy Brown." Perhaps because babies are great ratings gimmicks, perhaps because a much-hyped quarrel with a vice president is a public relations boon, the show's ratings peaked in 1992. In later seasons, however, Murphy's child became a drag on the tough career-babe plot line. The solution was easy: the character's son virtually disappeared.
Candice Bergen, on the other hand, told her interviewer that she was "very different" from Murphy. "My family has always come first - by a mile," she said. She thinks "quality time," the organizing myth of careerist moms, is bunk.
"I had a very difficult time playing Murphy the first year after the baby, as a distant second priority," she told The Los Angeles Times. "It was very distressing to me, and I couldn't get them to change it." She continued: "I didn't think it was a good message to be sending out. Everybody saw the charming and likable side of Murphy, but I always try to remind people that she paid a very high price."
So, here's an idea. How about a sitcom about a thirtysomething, married, professional woman who does realize just how high a price she is paying. She likes her work, but when she learns that the nanny has been neglecting her children she quits her job and begins a series of wacky adventures and lessons in humanity as she learns to push a double stroller; befriends interesting, diverse women at the playground; learns the tacky, fascinating details of their marriages and finances, and takes an active hand shaping her children's lives. After all those years of watching a woman surrounded by officemates serving as family, a show about a woman with a real family might seem new again.