Labor And Other Pains

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THE BOTTOM LINE: This popular sitcom has good things going for it, but wit, style and subtlety are not among them.

THE DOORBELL RINGS, AND ONE BY one, an all-star guest list of TV celebrities troop into the house: Katie Couric, Joan Lunden, Paula Zahn, Faith Daniels, Mary Alice Williams. The scene plays like one of those old I Love Lucy episodes, with the Ricardos in Hollywood. (Look -- it's William Holden! And Harpo Marx!) Actually, it is the most star-studded baby shower in TV history. All these real-life TV newswomen have come to pay tribute to their most famous fictional colleague: Murphy Brown.

Ranked No. 3 in the Nielsens, but No. 1 in the hearts of the upscale "I rarely watch network TV" crowd, Murphy Brown is about to hit the climax of its four-year run. A year ago, Murphy -- 42, unmarried star reporter for a TV magazine show called FYI -- got pregnant and (after a brief flurry of interest in the father's identity) decided to have her baby alone. Now, with her due date approaching, the series is gearing up for a season-ending double whammy: & next week's celebrity shower and then, on the season finale, the baby's arrival. Get ready for a barrage of promotional fanfare, a jump in the ratings and another round of critical cheers.

Minus one.

Let's be fair: Murphy Brown has some good things going for it. One of the few comedies on TV that stay abreast of current events, it has the smarts and the moxie to take pokes at everything from gossip-mongering tabloids to the Anita Hill hearings. Its main character is a successful and independent career woman who isn't bitchy, ditsy or man crazy -- in other words, a feminist role model. It features some good '60s music.

But mostly the show is pretentious and annoying. TV sitcoms are rarely models of subtlety, but few are acted and directed with such in-your-face coarseness. Candice Bergen, a two-time Emmy winner (in years when the Golden Girls were apparently snoozing), has anything but a light comic touch. Listening to her labored, overemphatic line readings is like watching someone slog through a swamp in combat boots. Faith Ford, as dippy anchorwoman Corky Sherwood-Forrest (a character married off just to create a funny name!), shrieks her way through scenes as if she were trying to be heard above a hurricane. Grant Shaud, as frenetic executive producer Miles Silverberg, needs sedation more than his character does.

Created by the wife-husband team of Diane English and Joel Shukovsky (who have parlayed the show's success into a four-series development deal with cbs), Murphy Brown is cleverly written, but in a smug, soulless, metallic way. The characters are all Johnny one-notes, the satire of TV news obvious and unoriginal. Pompous anchorman, shallow news bimbo, ratings-obsessed station executives -- once it all might have been daring, but such TV navel gazing is now painfully commonplace.

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