Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees likes Mrs. Fletcher a lot, but she'd never dare invite the amateur detective to dinner. Someone would undoubtedly die before the dessert course.
Suspect: You ask a lot of questions.
An audience favorite during its 12-year television run, Murder, She Wrote showcased the adventures of mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate), a sixtyish former schoolteacher whose curiosity, observational skills, and initiative solved many a murder. Whether investigating crimes in her own Cabot Cove, Maine, a charming small town populated with lovable characters, or traveling to a seemingly endless array of other locations, the spunky Mrs. Fletcher proved that life—and television—still had plenty to offer for those who had reached middle age and beyond. Although the show never got much respect in critical circles, and its parent network later caused a furor by callously pulling it from its traditional Sunday-night slot and then axing it altogether, this DVD collection now makes it possible to experience this cozy series again.
Facts of the Case
Best-selling mystery writer Jessica Fletcher has a gift for murder—detecting it, that is. Whether she has to get a relative out of a sticky situation, or whether she stumbles upon a crime during her many travels, sooner or later Jessica always seems to end up having to solve a mystery. Often she has to step in when the local police goes off in the wrong direction, but sometimes law enforcement will ask her for help, since her reputation for detection keeps growing. Even in her quiet little home town of Cabot Cove, Maine, she often ends up helping out mild-mannered Sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) with tricky cases. Jessica's specialties are keen observational skills, determination to ferret out the truth at all costs (even at the risk of making herself disliked), and the courage to use herself as bait if necessary to trap a killer into confessing. With Jessica on the case, the killer will always be unmasked, the mystery solved, and justice done.
It's ironic that a character who encountered death almost everywhere she went should be so full of life, but that's exactly what Jessica Fletcher is. Energetic, independent, and quick to take the initiative, Jessica is exactly the kind of woman I'd like to be at that age—heck, the kind of woman I'd like to be now. She was that rare creature in TV land: a retirement-aged woman who was active, interesting, and capable of carrying an entire series. As both a role model and a counterpart for the often ignored older demographic of TV viewers, she filled a need and brought something fresh to television—and the audience response was overwhelming. Even today I'm hard pressed to think of other prominent female TV characters that defy television's obsession with the younger demographic and show that life doesn't end at forty.
Another way the show attracted older viewers was by including a substantial roster of older actors in guest roles. Not just contemporaries of Lansbury but also fans of older movies, like myself, will find it delightful to see familiar faces from Hollywood's golden age, like Stewart Granger (King Solomon's Mines), Eddie Bracken (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), Virginia Mayo (White Heat), Eddie Albert (Roman Holiday), and even Lansbury's costar from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield. At the same time, the series also featured actors that would be familiar to younger viewers of the time, like Jeff Conaway of Taxi and Linda Blair (The Exorcist). The wealth of prominent guest actors adds to the pleasure of the series; seeing familiar actors in often unfamiliar ways is tremendous fun, whether it's Leslie Nielsen (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) playing it straight as the captain of a cruise liner or William Conrad (Jake and the Fatman) putting on a Russian accent as a courtly KGB agent. There's even a very, very young Joaquin Phoenix in one episode.
This DVD collection includes the complete first season as well as the 90-minute pilot film, The Murder of Sherlock Holmes. The pilot establishes the quaint little fishing village of Cabot Cove and introduces us to Jessica while she is still working as a substitute English teacher; over the course of the story, her nephew Grady submits her mystery manuscript to a publisher, and from there she's launched as a writer. (By the time the series begins, she has published six best-selling novels.) It's particularly fun to see the sequence during which Jessica experiences fame, New York style: condescending or misguided interviewers, calculating book buyers, and the inevitable plagiarism lawsuit. No wonder she prefers the peace and quiet of Cabot Cove…although even during this first season, Jessica travels a lot. Various episodes take place in such far-flung locations as an island in the Mediterranean, a cruise ship, New Orleans, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Texas, and Seattle. Later in the series she would spend much more of her time in New York and take on a more sophisticated veneer, but I always liked the Cabot Cove setting and the unpretentious Jessica of the earlier seasons.
The 21 episodes and pilot are presented on three double-sided discs, each with its own keep case. Each regular episode runs about 48 minutes and includes the "Tonight on Murder, She Wrote" preview montage that appeared during the original TV airings; these teasers are unnecessary and sometimes give far too much away, so you may want to mute them, as I do. Here are some of my favorite episodes from this season:
• "Hooray for Homicide": Jessica learns that the film adaptation of her novel The Corpse Danced at Midnight is taking drastic liberties with her book and sets out for Hollywood to give the director a piece of her mind. When a murder occurs that threatens to shut down production, she becomes one of the suspects. This episode stands out for putting Jessica under suspicion (in the eyes of the police, if not the audience) and particularly for its pointed depiction of the film industry's callous, mercenary attitude toward the source works it adapts. When the producer tells Jessica enthusiastically that her book is going to become "a cross between Halloween, Porky's, and Flashdance," you'll find yourself nodding (and wincing) in recognition.
• "It's a Dog's Life": I'm a sucker for a cute dog, and the beagle who inherits a fortune in this episode is adorable. The plot is also enjoyably absurd, since not only does the dog become the heir to a fortune, but he may be responsible for a murder as well. (Bet you never thought you'd see a lawyer try to determine if a dog can be declared of unsound mind.) Guest star Lynn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters) turns in a strong performance too.
• "Lovers and Other Killers": I always enjoy the episodes that show us Jessica (and Lansbury) in a different light, and this story takes Jessica to a college campus to be a guest lecturer on mystery fiction. Not surprisingly, she's an entertaining and effective speaker, and one of the highlights of the episode is her class lectures. Another distinctive feature in this episode is that it ends on a note of ambiguity instead of tying up all the loose ends: An enigmatic character is every bit as enigmatic at the end of the episode as he was at the beginning—we still don't know whether he's blameless or a sinister plotter. There is also a sobering running assumption that Jessica, as a woman of what the French call a certain age, is starved for love and easily hornswoggled by any handsome young man who cozies up to her. Evidently even the stalwart Jessica couldn't single-handedly demolish the stereotypes about older women.
• "Death Casts a Spell": A clever variation on the locked-room mystery, this episode finds an egotistical hypnotist (José Ferrer) murdered in a room full of witnesses—all of whom were under hypnosis and can't remember what took place. This episode also benefits from a charming supporting performance by Diana Canova as the impulsive Joan, an assistant editor at Jessica's publishing house whose enthusiasm keeps plunging Jessica into unexpected situations.
• "My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean": An unusual episode in that the murder takes place quite late in the proceedings, this episode sees Jessica accompanying her recently bereaved niece on a cruise. When the dead man seems to be haunting her niece, Jessica decides to get to the bottom of things—even over the objections of self-important ship's captain Leslie Nielsen. Be sure not to miss Lansbury's drunk scene.
• "Tough Guys Don't Die": Jessica helps hard-boiled private investigator Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach, Law and Order) track down his partner's killer in this richly plotted episode. Orbach and Lansbury make a fun contrast, and Orbach is a PI in the classic noir tradition: "When a man's partner gets killed, he's supposed to do something about it," he rasps, à la Sam Spade. The two also have a stimulating discussion about whether murder can ever be justified by extenuating circumstances. Orbach's character was later spun off for his own series.
• "Murder Takes the Bus": An excellent example of a classic mystery format, this episode finds Jessica and Sheriff Tupper on a bus trip that's halted by stormy weather. The motley assortment of passengers take refuge in a roadside cafe, where they are soon cut off from the world by the storm and discover that there's a murderer in their midst. The solution to the mystery is pleasantly complicated, and the episode is unusually suspenseful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's frustrating that this series should receive no more love on DVD than during its television run. For a start, audiovisual quality is rather disappointing. There is no fading, but the picture suffers from a lot of damage, speckling, and grain. Audio quality varies greatly; at its worst, there's buzz, flatness, and tinniness; at other moments it is respectably clear and shows adequate fidelity. The audio is surprisingly robust for mono, but its quality can change greatly from scene to scene. Overall this looks and sounds no better than a television airing. There was also a serious digital glitch in disc three, evidently a burn error, which rendered part of one episode unwatchable.
And honestly—no extras? That's inexcusable for this groundbreaking and much-beloved series. It hasn't been long since Lansbury appeared in a behind-the-scenes featurette for the DVD release of Gaslight, the film in which she made her Hollywood debut, so surely she would have been available for a featurette and commentaries about this, her most widely recognized role. Sure, it's nice to have episode summaries on the discs, even though they're already present on the DVD cases, but it's outrageous that a series with such a large and devoted following should get dumped onto DVD with no goodies at all. Universal, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Even the insertion of chapter stops is subpar—there's no stop after the opening credits, and the 90-minute pilot is divided into only four chapters. It's enough to make this normally mild-mannered reviewer very grumpy.
I should also acknowledge that, as pleasant as this show is, it doesn't represent Emmy-caliber writing and acting, except for Lansbury's Emmy-nominated performance. Lansbury is always excellent, but often supporting characters tend to hamminess. While the plotting of most episodes is solid, sometimes dialogue is stilted and unnatural, leading characters to talk in ways they wouldn't in real life. Some viewers may find these drawbacks insurmountable, but if you can get past them, you'll have many hours of enjoyable viewing in store.
Despite the barebones treatment and the iffy audiovisual quality, this set will be welcome to the many fans of Murder, She Wrote. It's a pleasure to have the plucky Mrs. Fletcher among us again, and these cozy mysteries make a gentle change of pace from the current proliferation of gruesome forensic crime shows.
Thanks to the evidence turned up by Mrs. Fletcher, the court can with confidence declare the accused not guilty. But Universal is sentenced to six months' community service in Cabot Cove for failing to come through with any extras.
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