by Matthew J.X. Malady
People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, Whisper head of news Slade Sohmer tells us more about the things you might discover by watching every single episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote.’
Just finished Murder, She Wrote. No, the whole series.
Slade! So what happened here?
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?
Ok, the floor is yours! Make the expanded case for Jessica Fletcher as a feminist TV icon nonpareil. (Also: What was the best ‘Murder, She Wrote’ episode ever and why?)
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.
Lesson learned (if any)?
You all can keep Beyoncé, Angela Lansbury is the one true queen, king, dame, diva. At eighty-eight years old she just got done doing eight shows a week on the West End in London in Blithe Spirit (of course we sat in the first five rows and waited for her to emerge from the stage door after attending a performance), starring on the very stage where her mother made her own debut. She did her time in Hollywood, killing it in The Manchurian Candidate and Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray. She’s hosted the Tony Awards more than anyone, winning five awards in the process. She had twenty million people tuning into her every Sunday night for a dozen years. And she’s done it all with beauty and charm and humility, bringing something different to every role. I routinely have this daydream that when NPH ties her Tonys hosting record, the opening number will be a spoof involving Doogie’s murder, with A-Lans coming back to the show to solve it. (Hey, it’d beat that Hugh Jackman hopping number from this year!)
Just one more thing.
Everyone makes this big fuss over Betty White, and deservedly so. But Lansbury needs this same treatment. While she is still with us, the world needs to come together and recognize greatness. So go, throw on a ‘Murder, She Wrote’ tonight, watch a little ‘Law & Order’ With a Hint of Jazz Hands, see the world through the eyes of the impressive woman who can teach you everything you need to know about growing old with class. Tell ’em Jessica sent you.
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor who was in New York but is now in Berkeley.