Murder, She Wrote

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Murder, She Wrote

The longest-running detective drama series in television history, Murder, She Wrote premiered in September 1984 and ended in May 1996 after 261 episodes, becoming a feature of popular American cultural life in the process, and the highest-rated drama series for nine of its 12 seasons. As James Parish observed in The Unofficial Murder, She Wrote Casebook, the series broke a number of television rules, not least in having a middle-aged female lead where previous crime or suspense dramas with female stars had involved glamorous young women—Angie Dickinson in Police Woman, for example. The show did, however, tap into a vast reading audience who enjoyed traditional detective fiction by writers such as Agatha Christie. Despite the literary success of amateur detection stories in which crimes are solved by deduction rather than covenient coincidence or violent physical confrontation, few attempts had been made to adapt such material to television.

Murder, She Wrote was created by Peter S. Fischer and his longtime collaborators Richard Levinson and William Link. The latter two, who had been responsible for a number of television programs, including Mannix, Columbo, and The Adventures of Ellery Queen, served only as consultants after the pilot episode. The character of Jessica Fletcher, a widowed ex-high school teacher and successful mystery novelist who hails from Maine but lives in Manhattan where she teaches criminology at Manhattan University, was conceived as a contemporary, energetic, self-sufficient woman rather than a dowdy spinster. The writers furnished her with the curiosity and the will necessary to ask uncomfortable questions, as well as the tenacity to get the answers. Although the scripts were designed to draw on many of the conventions of cozy, "golden age" detective fiction—the closed circle of suspects often gathered together at the end for the final revelation, and the use of flashbacks to review key moments of action and major clues—its creators tried to avoid some of the mistakes made in shows like The Adventures of Ellery Queen, whose bumbling hero, 1940s setting, and complex plots were too outmoded to appeal to latter-day audiences.

Murder, She Wrote allowed the viewer to play detective along with Jessica Fletcher. In addition, her literary career was not an afterthought, but added substance to her character, and provided a springboard for many of the plots. Miss Fletcher was presented as a prolific novelist whose output was studded with intriguingly parodic titles, from her first, "The Corpse Danced at Midnight" to "Dirge for a Dead Dachshund" to "The Stain on the Stairs." All of these familiar elements, present throughout the series, both created and fulfilled audience expectations, with each facet contributing to the show's success and longevity. Formula here, as in most television, was an integral ingredient, so Murder, She Wrote simply immersed itself in the form it had adopted, ignored its improbabilities, and rode to success with its star, Angela Lansbury.

The role of Jessica Fletcher was originally offered to Jean Stapleton, who turned it down. Angela Lansbury was approached on the strength of having played Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in the films Death on the Nile (1978) and The Mirror Crack'd (1980); it was also known that she was interested in the challenge of a television series. Lansbury, who said in an interview that "mystery is the most popular form of fiction there is and most television shows deal with it in one way or another," liked the script, and the character, and, in accepting, brought a distinguished provenance to the small screen.

The granddaughter of George Lansbury, a distinguished British Labor Party leader, Angela Lansbury was born in London on 16 October 1925. She was evacuated to the United States in the early 1940s, continued her drama training, and went to Hollywood in 1943. A screen test led to a contract with MGM and her debut role as the devious maid in Gaslight (1944), which brought her the first of three Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actress. (The others were for The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1944, and The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.) She often played older women and was a noteworthy purveyor of malicious characters. A long stage career blossomed into theater stardom when she played the title role in Mame on Broadway in 1966. The musical won her a Tony Award, followed by three more for Dear World (1969), the revival of Gypsy (1975), and Sweeney Todd (1979). Ironically, as with the Oscars, the Emmys eluded her grasp, despite her 12 nominations for Murder, She Wrote.

Lansbury labored tirelessly to mold Jessica into an unconventional character, despite confessing early on that she felt she was playing "an older Nancy Drew." She lamented the character's lack of emotional involvement in the action, and the necessity of leaving most of the dramatic scenes to the guests, but the drive and sincerity of her performance paid off. By the third season, however, Lansbury gained weight and became depressed about her appearance. In the process of overcoming the problem, she wrote a book on health and fitness and made an exercise video. Her commitment to the show escalated when Peter Fischer left before the ninth season and she became executive producer. Surrounded by family—her husband as an advisor, her son as a segment director, and her brother as producer and sometime scriptwriter—and ably supported on screen over the years by faces familiar to the show such as Tom Bosley, Ron Masak, William Windom, Jerry Orbach, and Len Cariou, the series flourished.

Originally set in the fictional small town of Cabot Cove, Maine (filmed in Mendocino and other locations in northern California and Oregon), in its eighth season the series shifted its primary locale to Manhattan. The plotlines had often taken the amateur sleuth traveling the world on various pretexts from visiting friends to attending conferences. The varied locations acknowledged the need to keep the series fresh, as did such devices as a crossover episode with Magnum P.I., and the presentation of a dramatized version of one of Jessica's "novels." During the sixth and seventh seasons, in a ploy that gave the star a needed rest, she merely narrated stories featuring other recurring characters, thus appearing herself in only 13 of 22 and 17 of 22 episodes respectively. In one memorable episode, she played Jessica's British cousin Emma, a music hall performer. Another prominent feature of the series was its casting of veteran actors and actresses in guest roles, many of them playing offbeat characters who served as red herrings to mask the murderer, but, as years went by, a deliberate effort was made to cast younger performers in order to draw a more youthful audience.

From the outset, Murder, She Wrote found favor with the majority of critics, who praised its cleverness and sophistication, its lack of violence, and Angela Lansbury's polished portrayal. The public quickly became devotees of the show, but it garnered its share of negative criticism. Detractors attacked the solve-it-yourself plotting as patronizing and objected to the heavy quota of elderly characters. The star did not escape. Referred to in one instance as "granny Mary Poppins," in another, a reviewer complained, with justification, that Jessica, in a ladylike way, was "the most intrusive butt-insky on prime-time television." Yet the show's high ratings and longevity attested to its strengths, as did the modest merchandising products that evolved from it—a computer jigsaw puzzle, a cookbook, and numerous novelizations.

The final seasons, however, brought problems. The series' perennial appeal to older viewers, coupled with increasingly expensive production costs, weakened the network's confidence and support and in 1996 the show was moved without warning from Sunday nights to Thursdays. Aired opposite youth-oriented programs, including Friends (which was spoofed in one of the last episodes), Murder, She Wrote sank in the ratings. The final show, "Death by Demographics," served as a subtle but pointed reference to its situation. Though the last four installments reverted to the Sunday slot, it was too late and the final curtain rang down on 12 years of Jessica Fletcher et al. A TV movie appeared in 1997, and the original episodes went into syndication. In an article in TV Guide, Angela Lansbury thanked her fans and expressed the hope that Jessica Fletcher would be remembered as courageous, independent, and "a champion of the wrongfully accused."

—Stephen L. Thompson

Further Reading:

Collins, Max Allan, and John Javna. The Best of Crime and Detective TV: Perry Mason to Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files to Murder, She Wrote. New York, Harmony Books, 1988.

Edelman, Rob, and Audrey E. Kupferberg. Angela Lansbury: a Life on Stage and Screen. New York, Carol Publishing Group, 1996.

Parish, James Robert. The Unofficial Murder, She Wrote Casebook. New York, Kensington Books, 1997.

Riggs, Karen E. "The Case of the Mysterious Ritual: Murder Dramas and Older Women Viewers." Critical Studies in Mass Communication. Vol. 13, No. 4, 1996, 309-323.