October 28, 1996 12:00 PM

MARY RICHARDS HAD MR. GRANT, Elaine Benes has J. Peterman, but this season, Murphy Brown has something different: a woman boss. Veteran game and talk show producer Kay Carter-Shepley (Lily Tomlin) has replaced whiz kid Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) in the FYI newsroom, and, for the first time, Queen Bee Murphy (Candice Bergen) is facing a major leadership challenge. It looks like competitive Murphy has finally met her match in a female exec who’s just as tough but masks steely determination with strategic warmth.

The situation has terrific comic potential as hard-news Murph meets soft-soap Kay. Murphy has always scorned girl talk. At her 1992 baby shower, Murphy was less interested in chatting with the guests—real-life anchorwomen Katie Couric, Joan Lunden and Paula Zahn—than in opening their gifts. In her eyes, she has no equals. While Murphy’s FYI colleague Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) has grown from ditsy beauty queen to hard-hitting journalist, Murphy still patronizes her.

Invited to a party by sugary rival Dottie Wilcox (Shelley Long), Murphy snaps, “I don’t like you and I don’t want to go.”

Single motherhood has not softened Murphy at all. If anything, she’s less nurturing than ever, bragging to fellow correspondent Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) that she can barely care for a plant. Apparently it’s lonely for women at the top; even the show’s creator, Diane English, told The New York Times that Murphy Brown is “a sort of cautionary tale about getting what you wished for.”

In stark contrast, Tomlin’s Kay is maternal and endearingly frumpy, pairing dowdy jackets with droopy skirts and luring the FYI team into her cozy, kitsch-filled office with gourmet coffee and trays of home-baked pastries.

Murphy tries to generate resistance, but Kay wins the gang over with tantalizing assignments (Frank gets to be an astronaut, Corky covers Buckingham Palace) and outsmarts Murphy by pretending to give her the upper hand.

The duel between these two caricatures of female professionals could be timely and hilarious, but only if Murphy gets a better break from the show’s writers. Lately she has become harsh and abrasive, the poster girl for America’s ambivalence toward powerful women.

Bergen has even shorn her gorgeous hair, and the mannish pantsuits for which she has always had a penchant now come complete with suspenders. Unlike lovable Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown may never light the world up with her smile, but if she just stays likable, watching Bergen and Tomlin slug it out could make a nothing night on television seem suddenly worthwhile.

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