Picture this. A struggling actor (Jeff Conaway
of Grease and Taxi) is desperate to become a huge movie
star, so he moves to San Francisco (ah, yes, the center of the
entertainment world) and takes a job in a local drag-queen cabaret.
When the heartless owner of the place (Martin Landau of Mission:
Impossible) is murdered, the entire bar sees the misunderstood
thespian running out in full female attire with the murder weapon.
Everyone believes that he is guilty, except for his adoring fiancée
(Genie Francis of General Hospital) and her meddlesome,
mystery-writing aunt. Can they prove his innocence? Who else
could have done it? Is it the nightclub comic (Gabriel Kaplan of
Welcome Back Kotter) who is so corny that he does his act from a
drum kit (the easier to give his own rim-shots) and yet is still up to
be the host for a splashy national talk show? Is it his weaselly
agent (Bart Braverman of Vegas) who can't get the boss man to
budge on his star's contract? Is it the bitter wife (Carol
Lawrence of whatever it is that Carol Lawrence has done) who will
inherit this inexplicably popular gay bar? Is it her torrid lover
(Dick Gautier of Get Smart!),
also the grande dame of the drag show? (Drag don't mean gay,
baby!) Mix in Harry Guardino as a gruff-but-lovable Police Chief
and Barbara Rhoades as generic eye candy.
Welcome to the surreal
world of Murder She Wrote.
It is a world where has-been
TV actors kill other has-been TV actors. A world where everyone
has read a series of books by our star, Jessica (J.B.) Fletcher (Angela Lansbury).
A world where a woman can go to any state in the union and stumble upon
a killing. (Most of us, no matter how well traveled, have not been
witness to even one.) A world where the police (and the military
and even the KGB) not only put up with, but actively solicit the
deductive savvy of a mystery novelist who had never had any experience
fighting crime other than writing about it. A world where this
same woman will be offered other jobs she has no experience at just
because she is a minor celebrity, like Professor, co-owner of a football
team and U.S. Congressman.
Yet, for all its weird
quirks, it is a strangely seductive, fascinating world. It is
comfort food television, low in nutrients and not very good for you, but
it does taste good going down.
The basic Murder She Wrote plotline goes like
this; Jessica Fletcher leaves her idyllic home in Cabot Cove, Maine
(okay, it's really the same part of the Universal Studios back lot which
was used as Amity Island in Jaws) and goes to meet one of her
nieces or nephews (played by B-celebrities like Lynn Redgrave, Genie
Francis, James Stephens, Eddie Barth and Belinda Montgomery) who is
getting married/promoted/over the tragic suicide of their husband.
about 1,000 nieces and nephews spread all over the world, apparently...)
A mysterious killing casts suspicion on her relative, so dear old Aunt
Jess starts snooping around to find the real murderer.
There's always someone there who blurts, "It's like
something from one of your books." The cops give her a hard time for snooping in their
cases, but they really appreciate the insights that the spinster gives
them into the world of crime.
"Sergeant, you need to eat
more carrots to improve your eyesight," Jessica tells Gregory Sierra (of
Barney Miller) as a friendly rebuke when she disagrees with his
theory of a murder.
Eventually, after about forty minutes of chasing down
red herrings, Jessica has a moment of epiphany where she realizes who is
responsible for this dastardly deed and confronts the killer. At
first, the killer will claim innocence ("Come on, lady, you been smoking
funny cigarettes or something?" one killer protests when Jessica tells
her hypothesis of his acts, but he knows the gig is up.) Then the
killer will threaten to off her, but at the knick of time the cops show
up and foil his plan.
You have to wonder – with doing all that jetting around
the world and solving so many mysteries – when Jessica has time to write
the dozens of books (all written on a manual typewriter!) that she has
apparently put out since she started writing in her sixties.
However, just because a series has a formula does not
mean that it can't be fun and interesting. Jessica gets plopped
down in the worlds of publishing, football, jazz, Mediterranean art,
academia, pleasure cruises, amusement parks, horror movies and many
others and walks away looking like the smartest person in the room.
This could be insufferable in the wrong hands, but with the talented and
lovable old pro Angela Lansbury in the role, Jessica is charming and
Murder She Wrote
is the show that single-handedly gave CBS its reputation as "the Tiffany
Network" in the eighties and nineties – there wasn't much on the
net for younger folk, but it was a great option for the older
demographics. The surprise popularity of this show (and the series
ended up airing for twelve seasons) gave rise to a new series of
senior-skewing mysteries –
Matlock, Diagnosis Murder and The Father Dowling Mysteries
were some of the more popular titles. However, not all of these
shows caught on. For example, A Murder She Wrote spin-off
called The Law and Harry McGraw, featuring a pre-Law & Order
Jerry Orbach as a tough-as-nails noir gumshoe, only lasted a few
months. Harry McGraw was introduced here in the episode "Tough
Guys Don't Die," but the smash-up of Jessica Fletcher's Miss
Marple-esque detecting technique and Harry McGraw's Sam Spade take on
the biz led to a bit of an awkward mix. This is demonstrated by
this early meeting between our two heroes, the day after Fletcher caught
him breaking into her house.
"Look, Mrs. Fletcher, why don't you take some advice?
Why don't you devote that boundless energy of yours to needlepoint or a
bridge club," Harry tells her dismissively.
She tries to be reasonable
with him, answering calmly, "I tried that. It's precisely the
reason I wrote my first book. I was bored out of my mind."
To which the tough shamus
bats back with, "Well, I read your first book, and I was bored out of
"Ah, that's your
privilege," she answers huffily.
is not our privilege, though, because Murder She Wrote may be
many things, but it is not boring.
The mid-80s clothes and
hairstyles may get a little distracting, but the show still exerts a
warm and enjoyable fascination. This comes partly from the murders
themselves, which are interesting without being too knotty; you don't
need a Ph.D. in Sherlock Holmes to figure out who did what and why.
However, the real charm of
Murder She Wrote is in its nostalgia. Future stars show up
in odd places, like Andy Garcia playing "1st White Tough" who tries to
mug Jessica in a bad part of town in the pilot film and Joaquin Phoenix
(then known as Leaf Phoenix) playing Jessica's
hamburger-and-haunted-houses-lovin' great-nephew. It's also striking
to see Leslie Nielsen in his earnest pre-Naked Gun acting mode
again, and interesting how little his work in comedy and drama really
varied. More importantly, for twelve years, the show provided an
occasional paycheck for such long-forgotten celebs as David Doyle, James
Coco, John Schuck, Joanne Whorley, Lynda Day George, Vicki Lawrence,
Jan Smithers, Dick Butkus,
Bruce Jenner, Cesar Romero, George Kirby, Bobby Sherman, William Conrad,
Peter Graves, Ned Beatty, Howard Duff, John Saxon, Lyle Waggoner,
Melissa Sue Anderson, Samantha Eggar, Dean Jones, June Allyson, Van
Johnson, Kim Darby, Diana Canova, Edie Adams, Linda Kelsey, Gary Sandy,
Mark Shera, Milton Berle, Patrick O'Neill, Richard Sanders, Garrett Morris, Judy Geeson,
Robert Goulet, Barbara Babcock, Fritz Weaver, Gary Lockwood, Tim
Brittany, Paul Sand, Robert Reed, Diana Muldaur, Kenneth Mars, Pat
Harrington, Linda Blair, Michael
Constantine, Rue McClanahan, Eddie Bracken, Martha Raye, Kay Lenz, Bo
Hopkins, Ed Ames, Joey
Bishop, Linda Purl, Piper Laurie, Ken Howard, Noah Beery Jr., J.D. Cannon, Clu
Gulager and Stella Stevens. And the list goes on and on. Now,
All rights reserved. Posted: March 29, 2005.