On Murder, She Wrote

Growing up, it was hard not to be familiar with Murder, She Wrote, a fantastic 12-season series starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica’ J.B.’ Flecther. I have found that it is really a great treasure to watch from beginning to end, especially today.

Part of this is due to an underlying positive depiction of Jessica Flecther in the series, that could be described as feminist. According to the post, “I couldn’t help but notice…”: Murder, She Wrote’s Prime Time Feminism:

First airing in 1984, Murder, She Wrote, about the sexagenarian crime-solving widow Jessica Fletcher [i] (Angela Lansbury), was written—and well-received—as a cozy, satisfying crime procedural. But in the decades since, the show’s meanings have evolved far beyond its seemingly benign prime-time origins. Thanks to reruns, Murder, She Wrote has seduced a new generation, who watch with a side of irony (like the Tumblr users and bloggers that have jokingly dubbed Fletcher’s hometown, Cabot Cove, “Murder Capital, USA”). Elsewhere, and with a bit more rigour, Fletcher’s adventures have been scrutinized by cultural theorists for their stealth feminism. These alternate ways of watching are by no means mutually exclusive, but the latter recognizes the show for what it most significantly was: a feminist bullet muffled by folksy charm, set to deceptively jaunty Andy Griffith Show-type theme music, that subversively fluttered the feminist flag in prime time.

Because of this subtlety, even to this day the show is largely unheralded as the revolutionary feminist series it was. Murder, She Wrote gives us a self-actualized female character and independent career woman, yet it does not draw attention to those things as unusual or make them the show’s defining identity. It’s thanks to this “low-flying feminism” that Murder, She Wrote infiltrated and endured in prime time. It was enormously popular, earning a slew of Golden Globe wins and Emmy nominations, 20 million viewers every week for five of the series’ 12 seasons, and the prestigious Sunday-night spot following 60 Minutes. The famous two-episode crossover with Magnum, P.I. was designed to bolster his flaccid ratings, not hers—and did. So while Fletcher might not have been on the frontlines of feminist protests, the character did write 24 novels, tend her garden, and volunteer in her community—all while solving 264 crime cases.

Since the show was created for a major network, it’s perhaps not surprising that Murder, She Wrote shares the same creative team as the hit mystery series Columbo (1971-2003)—Richard Levinson and William Link—and several of the same writers, most notably Murder, She Wrote’s third co-creator Peter S. Fischer. But what is more surprising is the genesis of Fletcher. Carla Singer, the senior development executive at CBS who previously developed The Twilight Zone, said she wanted a murder-mystery series with a strong female lead. “She needn’t be particularly young,” was part of the brief, Fischer recounts in his 2013 memoir, Me and Murder, She Wrote.

The network’s first choice for the role, Jean Stapleton, turned the project down, and the creative team had misgivings about Lansbury, the runner-up. Fischer describes the team’s initial February, 1983 meeting with the actor, incredulous about the suggested casting and unsure of what the movie star and Broadway icon had to do with “the bright and charming, delightfully downhome character” he had written:

She was also that snippy little tart in Gaslight that bedeviled Ingrid Bergman and shamelessly batted her baby blues at Charles Boyer. She was the saloon girl in The Harvey Girls who made life miserable for lovely Judy Garland. She was the hard-nosed publisher in State of the Union who caused frostbite to afflict anyone she came near. And worst of all, she was the harridan of a mother to Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, whose onscreen presence made Eva Braun seem like Mary Poppins.

Fischer worried that if Lansbury were cast he would have to alter the project. (“How would Shakespeare rewrite Macbeth to star Billy Crystal?”) But he needn’t have worried. Similarly to many of the show’s criminals—and just as often, the authorities—who routinely underestimated Fletcher, so too did Fischer underestimate Lansbury. But the reason the show works is because of what Lansbury brings to it: she plays the widow with equal parts charming comedic airs and take-no-bullshit feminism.

Murder, She Wrote shares one of the mystery genre’s most prominent tropes: the successful sleuth as loner. Think Father Brown, Sherlock (Watson notwithstanding) or Columbo (whose wife seems a fiction); the solo Inspector Morse and Hercule Poirot, or the steely spinster Miss Marple. As Fischer recalls, Fletcher was written as a stand-alone character right from the beginning, because for many reasons she needed to be. Fletcher had to be “unencumbered by children or a husband,” and was inspired by the lone female on this list, Miss Marple. But the idea was to combine Marple’s identity with aspects of her creator, Agatha Christie, to create a meta-sleuth with “a twinkly sense of humour that masks the sharp brain lurking beneath a very attractive hairdo.” By making her a widow in her sixties, the show also sidestepped the need to define a woman in the usual shorthand that dates back to earliest silent cinema—with polarity, as either vamp or virgin.

What makes Fletcher even more interesting for a feminist reading is her age and marital status. Like many women of Lansbury’s generation, the widowed Fletcher would have married after the war. [ii] As opposed to the more swinging, liberated single gals of the 1970s on film and TV, Fletcher was not born into feminism and the benefits it afforded. Still, despite this generation gap, she chooses to follow her own dreams and desires after her husband Frank’s death. She is free to pursue her second career as a crime writer (and her unofficial one as a crime-solver) after a life spent as an English teacher and wife. With an astute realism that reflects the generation from which Fletcher hails, she is written as initially demurring. “I was just filling time after your uncle died!” she tells nephew Grady in the first episode, who has sent a publisher her manuscript because she didn’t yet have the confidence to do so. Or, as she tells an interviewer, along the lines of women’s work trifles, she took up her pen “like some people needlepoint or paint.” But her trepidation is short-lived: by the preface to the opening credits we see her taking care of herself, jogging around the quaint town of Cabot Cove. She is content, capable, energetic—and on her own.

Murder, She Wrote also always celebrates Fletcher for who she is on her own terms—a remarkable fact given her age and far-from-Charlie’s-Angels looks. In one episode, on the eve of her first publicity trip to the Big Apple, a well-meaning friend arranges a makeover. Fletcher gets the full treatment at the town’s only fashion boutique, Guillermo’s Dress Shop (“those tweeds have got to go!”): a facial, then the latest style from Coiffure Monthly. Uninterested in the proceedings, Jessica is nose-deep in a book under the hair dryer until, eventually, she loses patience with having to look like someone she isn’t. When we next see her, it’s as she emerges from the train in New York—in a beret and tweeds, looking triumphantly like her familiar self.

Not unlike the ur-example of the solo sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Fletcher is charming but sometimes awkward, dispensing unsolicited helpful advice. But unlike the man who occupied the bachelor pad at 221B Baker Street, she is not celibate. Though never explicitly spelled out, Murder, She Wrote is filled with hints of Fletcher’s love life. At one point she observes that her dashing publisher looks grey, and suggests apples would improve his complexion—an opening gambit that passes for flirting in Cabot Cove. In a more coy moment she quips, “Well, I could always come as Lady Godiva” as she walks away from one handsome prospect. She grins, shimmies her hips and throws him a deep wink over her shoulder.

While Fletcher has suitors all through the series, there’s no suggestion that it has to be serious, or a focal point of the show. One of her regular friends-with-potential-benefits is the similarly single widower Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom). Episodes sometimes open with Hazlitt and Fletcher in a cozy domestic scene: he’s doing the dishes after a meal while she lingers at the table, or he’s making her morning coffee. Another time she offers a simpatico drifter-slash-handyman she has befriended her late husband’s pipe. “Folks have a way of talking in a little town like this,” the man says, acknowledging what their several days of companionship might look like (and may very well be).

Just as Murder, She Wrote slyly addressed the sexuality of a 60-year-old woman in prime time, politics were also not a verboten subject. The show’s political awareness may have come less from the writer’s room than from Lansbury’s own life. Lansbury’s grandfather had been the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, a member of parliament who resigned his seat in 1912 to campaign for women’s suffrage as a supporter of the militant actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Her aunts were also all involved in politics, working with the likes of Sylvia Pankhurst, for the Communist Party, and championing women’s rights to access for abortion and contraception in England.

What does this have to do with Lansbury’s alter-ego sleuth? A lot. Though speculation is a slippery slope, there are grounds to assume Lansbury’s real-life background seeped into Fletcher’s character. Indeed, the three male co-creators’ Colombo-based portfolios hardly suggest they had any feminist leanings. Taking into account Lansbury’s family history might explain, then, another hallmark of Murder, She Wrote: frequent overt and less funny acknowledgments of the era’s misogyny. In the episode “The Error of Her Ways,” a detective rebuffs Fletcher’s offer of help, saying: “Ma’am, do us both a favour. Go back to your hotel, relax for a day or two by the pool until I sort this out.” In another moment, a husband tut-tuts his wife’s intellect, calling it “that fevered little mind of yours.” This character type—the patronizing husband, the incredulous boss—is, if not the actual who in the whodunit, at least due some just desserts. Like in the Washington episode, where in the figure of Fletcher, Mr. Smith meets Norma Rae. When Fletcher arrives to talk politics, she’s told her “biggest problem should be where to have lunch.” In response, she tells the aide off: “We’ll get along just fine if you remember that I’m not your old addled aunt from East Nowhere.” These occasions are when the knives are sharpest beneath the New England niceties. As Fletcher explains to one over-confident adversary with matter-of-fact joviality: “Back in Cabot Cove the only thing we have with claws are lobsters—and we eat ‘em.”

Fletcher’s genial catchphrase “I couldn’t help but notice…” may be an innocuous version of Lieutenant Columbo’s “just one more thing.” And like Columbo, she’s confident, polite and even humble about her talents—but not self-effacing. As Fischer had learned, viewers, chauvinists, and murderers should take caution when underestimating Jessica Fletcher as no more than the poster girl for the hip-replacement generation. “I may be wrong,” the sleuth herself has said, ever cordial before sticking the proverbial knife, “but frankly I doubt it.”

According to the Stake‘s article “Jessica Fletcher Don’t Give a Damn: What Murder, She Wrote teaches us about aging actresses“:

Jessica Fletcher don’t give a damn. She’s snubbed, condescended to, and threatened by police, detectives, friends and the public. But does this matter to her? Not in the least. Push her down the stairs or intimidate her with a gun, and Fletcher just keeps going.

Jessica Fletcher, protagonist of Murder, She Wrote, is the American incarnation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Instead of knitting like her predecessor, she jogs. Instead of being a spinster, Jessica is a widow. She fills her time keeping tabs on everyone’s life and writing mystery novels. Due to her inquisitive and outgoing nature, she’s invited to picnics and house parties, award ceremonies and archeological digs. Anywhere you go and anything you do, Jessica Fletcher has already been there, seen it and done it.

Murder, She Wrote ran for a mind-blowing 12 seasons, due in large part to the talent and hard work of its leading lady, Angela Lansbury. The first season is lackluster but by season two, cast and crew hit their stride. Lansbury steps into Fletcher’s sensible shoes and becomes unstoppable.

Fletcher arrives, energetic at a time of life when most women are diminishing. Without youth and beauty, older women lose their value and are discarded to the sidelines of life. Fletcher is a widow and without a husband to care for or the desire to remarry, society pronounces her role in life finished.

Not so for our leading lady. She’s learned a lot about people during her lifetime and she’s determined to use that knowledge not to comfort and placate elderly gentlemen, but to solve crime. Instead of playing the passive older care-giver society expects, she pushes outward, traveling across the United States, solving crimes and sending cops into rages.

Every episode is filled with men trying to coerce or intimidate her. Sometimes they’re good men and sometimes they’re bad, but whoever they are, Fletcher regards them with calm blue eyes, a loaded smile and a placid retort. She continues on with her work as they sputter and scoff in the background. Each episode turns a doubter into a committed Jessica believer and after 12 seasons, it’s safe to say the whole of the United States’ police force dials her number whenever a murder occurs.

Most of the show’s many guest stars are former silver screen actors like June Allyson and Ann BlythePatrick MacNee–Steed from the old TV series The Avengers–shows up in one episode, helping Fletcher save her look-alike cousin. He wore his signature bowler hat from his Avengers days’ but was not, alas, carrying his trademark umbrella nor a champagne glass. I regularly use IMBD to look up the aged stars and recognize the great classics they formerly starred in- this is one of the show’s particular delights.

Youth and beauty don’t count for much on Murder, She Wrote; it’s a show that reveres old age. Older characters are embroiled in just as much drama as their younger counterparts, and no one’s drama is over till they’re absolutely dead. The elderly may be bed-ridden or just creeping along; it doesn’t matter. They’re still alive with as many emotions, troubles and cares as any other young person.

Free from the dictates of sex or motherhood, Fletcher casts off her robe of invisibility for a life of writing and adventure. The show’s enduring popularity is no surprise. Our society has few older woman as role models. The altered and worried visage of Kim Novak during the Oscars told too common a tale. She should have been beautiful without trying. Losing sexual allure and failing to win it back rains societal scorn and derision down on women.

This needn’t happen. Women’s value does not ride on their looks or their care-taking abilities. Jessica Fletcher is not just a sleuth but a superwoman, pushing back the twin powers of ageism and sexism. In our own recent time, more super ladies have arisen on screen and stage: Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Note that all these women are British, including Lansbury herself.

America’s entertainment business fails older women actors, but there was a recent push (and fail) for a reboot of Murder, She Wrote to star Octavia Spencer (the Help). While I love the idea of a racially diverse Cabot Cove, Murder, She Wrote was the product of a dedicated Angela Lansbury along with her cast and crew. The show quit filming nearly two decades ago and it’s time for Hollywood and TV producers to create new stories and characters worthy of terrific older actors. Maggie Smith’s performance as the Dowager Duchess in Downtown Abbey demonstrates the delightful power that comes to actors in older age. And let’s not forget Helen Mirren in Red. Her terrifying character is equally at home trimming roses for a bouquet or mowing down men with a sub machine gun. These women are far from useless. And their wisdom, intelligence and beauty make our lives richer and better. Let’s embrace this group; they’re incredible.

Finally, according to The Awl article, “Watching Every Episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’“:

Most people my age have that vague memory of watching Murder, She Wrote in their grandparents’ house. At the time I viewed it as no more than CBS For Us By Us Old People Fodder. But a few years ago we were looking for a show to get into—crime-solving for me, something classic for my boyfriend—and we met in the middle when Netflix suggested M-S-Dubs. We tried the pilot and were hooked instantly. The murders keep you guessing. The plot twists are legit. Dame Angela Lansbury’s acting is worthy of her twelve Emmy nominations in twelve seasons and four Golden Globe wins. And in the memetic era we’re in now, drenched in our lust for irony and an inside joke, it was immediately refreshing to remember what unabashed sincerity and earnestness looked like. It’s neither snark nor smarm; it’s schmaltz, but the best kind. Don’t sleep on a cozy mystery drama.

The murders themselves are just serialized rewards, though. The show is a broader case study in Jessica Fletcher Gives Zero Fucks. She’s kind and sweet and polite, with a most neighborly etiquette. But she’s also a ruthless advocate for justice, fearless in the face of intimidation and incapable of buying your weak bullshit. When the killer says “I was at a restaurant ’til 9:30,” and she calmly refutes, “No, I don’t think you were, Jerry,” she does it with equal parts elegance and ferocity. She walks down every dark hallway, she opens every locked door, she meets every lying sack of shit with inquisitive charm. And she never judges you.

People always ask me to summarize it: Why do you like this show so much? Remember how J.K. Rowling popped up from obscurity to become an accidental mega-famous author? Now imagine Rowling is in her late fifties, a flawless specimen of folksy charm and social grace, growing ever more famous for her subsequent novels, traveling the country and the globe, personally solving 250+ murders over the next twelve years. And it’s not simply that she solved more than twenty murders *every year* for more than a decade over the objections of misogynist detectives and interference from blundering inspectors—she coaxed full, teary confessions from the murderer in each instance. Wouldn’t you watch that? Doesn’t that sound like someone with whom you’d want to spend your evenings?

In the pilot, some stuffy Sunday morning presenter asks Cabot Cove’s finest about the feminist streak in her book’s main character. The newly famous writer scoffs, calling it unintentional, which is probably how Lansbury would’ve handled a similar question about Jessica Fletcher. Both the star and the character doth protest all they want, but there is literally nobody on television lo these last three decades who has drawn a feminist blueprint quite like this.

Jessica Fletcher was a substitute English teacher in a town of 3,560. After losing her darling husband Frank, she finally gives that novel a go—just for herself, almost to pass the time. Her bumbling nephew Grady, unbeknownst to her, forwards it along to a friend, and the rest is history. Almost overnight she goes from Local Citizen to World-Renowned Author, gallivanting around NYC, LA, British Columbia, Rome, Moscow in 1989(!)—name a city, chances are she’s not only been there, she’s foiled a perfect murder.

But that’s just background. Here’s a woman who said, “Yep, now’s the time for me, nobody is standing in my way of happiness or greatness, nobody can tell me to back off a case or run me out of town.” Every single detective falls into one of two binary camps: One, the crotchety male cop who doesn’t need Jessica’s help; or two, the inept local constable who’s in way over his head. Whether the number one is trying to shoo her away or the number two is begging for her help, the end result is the same: a strong, confident icon leading by example, by actions, by deeds, not slogans or words or academic blabber. She’s not equal to men—she exceeds their intellectual capacity, she outfoxes them all at every turn. She doesn’t fight for her rights. She just goes about her way in the world accepting every challenge as if every creature on this earth has all the rights and responsibilities as each other.

With respect to the other part of your question: It’s tough to judge “the best” episode of Murder, She Wrote. They all have different sentimental reasons for being great. There’s the episode where Jessica plays a floozy in a bar to get information that’s pure lulz. There are amazing cameos, like a mid-twenties George Clooney, Jessica Walter four times, a young Joaquin Phoenix (in his Leaf Phoenix days), and Neil Patrick Harris. Or the virtual reality episode, which gets lots of play on Tech Twitter and featured a pre-Hercules Kevin Sorbo. But here’s one of my favorites to discuss: Season twelve is pretty weak, with the show running out of gas and Lansbury already committing to closing down shop. There’s a blatant Friends parody, ripped from the headlines—the murder happens on the set of a fictional sitcom called Buds, where all these twenty-somethings hang out at a coffee shop. This episode is amazing on its own, until you realize the added genius of it: CBS moved MSW from its comfortable Sunday slot to Thursday nights for its final season, pitting it against the new NBC darlings. This now seems like an incredible Lansburian middle finger to CBS and to Friends. Brava.

Dame Angela Lansbury has spoken out about ageism in The Telegraph‘s article, “Beautiful actresses suffer more from ageism, says Angela Lansbury“:

Beautiful actresses are more likely to struggle to find work as they grow older, Dame Angela Lansbury claimed as she discussed returning to the London stage aged 88.

The veteran television star said she had not suffered from ageism when looking for work because she had never been considered a beauty.

Ms Lansbury, who will be returning to the West End for the first time in nearly 40 years to play the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit, described herself as a “character actress” who had often filled older roles in her youth.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: “For those women who were lovely, were known for their beauty and so on, it is darn difficult.

“But I was playing older parts when I was terribly young because I wasn’t a big screen beauty, I am a character actress.”

Her comments follow complaints from many female actors about the lack of roles for older women.

Zoe Wanamaker, Julie Walters, Margaret Tyzack and Dame Harriet Walter have all expressed concern about older performers being overlooked in favour of their younger counterparts.

Speaking in an interview last year, Wanamaker, 64, said: “It’s difficult to get work as I age, but it was always thus.

“Even Shakespeare stopped writing about women while his men aged. The young look nicer, but older women are more interesting with more to offer and better stories to tell.”

Lansbury said she had no intention of retiring while she was still able to get parts.

She said: “I am better when I am working. Some people feel that they have got to retire, that they don’t want to work another minute.

“Of course a lot of it depends on the work they are doing.

“Now if you are doing the work that I do, which I adore, it’s hard to give it up.

“And I think most of the elderly actors that I have known had great difficulty giving it up.”

The Murder She Wrote star said she hoped to surprise British audiences who may have only seen her as Jessica Fletcher in the US series.

She said: “It’s an opportunity to show the audience who come, many of them have only seen me in Murder She Wrote or old movies, they’re going to be shocked, but I hope to surprise them, make them laugh and for them to say, my goodness is that really her? Is that her?

“I would be an idiot if I wasn’t nervous, of course I am nervous.”

Asked why she had chosen to base herself in America, the London-born star said she had planned to remain in the UK but was unable to get parts here.

She said: “My husband Peter Shaw and I married in London in 1949 and we really wanted to stay, unfortunately I couldn’t get work in England.

“I had made two successful movies but I couldn’t get a job here so we went back to America.”

Lansbury, who was nominated for an Oscar for her first film Gaslight in 1944, said she had come to accept she would always be most associated with Murder She Wrote.

Asked if she minded, she said: “I did for a while because I thought damn it, I have done other things.

“But I’ve always said that on my obit it’s going to say Angela Lansbury, star of Murder She Wrote and I am very proud of that too.”

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5 thoughts on “On Murder, She Wrote

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