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Murder She Wrote – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Murder, She Wrote

The Complete First Season (1984-1985) (Universal-2005)

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. (Jessica has 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 nick 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 always welcome.

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 my mind."

"Ah, that's your privilege," she answers huffily.

It 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 Thomerson, Morgan 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, that's entertainment!

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: March 29, 2005.


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