Judge Cynthia Boris joins Jessica Fletcher in the garden for tea and murder as they chat about Murder, She Wrote: The Complete Second Season
"I think there's something we'd all like to know…"—Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury)
I love a good murder. My family suspects that I was a killer in a former life. I live for Law & Order, C.S.I., and any and all "ripped from the headlines" TV movies. So when I sit down to watch TV, they expect to see a full complement of splattered blood, sirens wailing, and screeching tires. What they never expected was to hear a bouncy, happy tune playing over a montage of an elderly woman biking through a lovely New England landscape. To quote my son, "This is a murder show?"
Ah, how does one explain the "cozy" mystery genre? Easy—just watch Murder, She Wrote: The Complete Second Season.
Facts of the Case
Mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is back for round two of a twelve year run. This semi-retired wordsmith loves to garden, bike ride, and solve murders. Lucky for her there are plenty of them around that need solving! Whether she's at home in Cabot Cove or off on a vacation, or visiting with relatives, there's always a body and at least a half a dozen suspects waiting to be found. And that list of suspects is quite impressive—you'll find classic movie stars such as Cyd Charisse (The Band Wagon) and Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), solid TV character actors such as June Lockhart (Lost in Space) and Dick Van Patten (Eight is Enough), and up and comers of the era such as MacKenzie Phillps (One Day at a Time) and Linda Hamilton (The Terminator).
Backing up Jessica in this second season are seasoned veterans Tom Bosley (Happy Days) as Sheriff Amos Tupper and William Windom (The Farmer's Daughter) as Dr. Seth Hazlitt. They both add a real folksy charm to the series, which keeps it firmly embedded in that cozy genre.
Twenty-two episodes make up this season; you'll find them on three double-sided discs. (And don't mind me while I point out some of my favorite TV actors.)
Murder mysteries that make you smile would appear to be an oxymoron, but this series manages to carry it off quite well. The characters are a little larger than life, the situations patently ridiculous—but week after week we buy into it, hook, line, and sinker. Why? Because Angela Lansbury makes it so. After a long career on stage and in the movies, Lansbury's move to TV was a magic charm. She represented a category of women rarely ever seen on TV (let alone in a starring role), and she brought a vitality and energy that I wish I had now at my age!
Of course, if I were a friend of the charming Jessica Fletcher, I'd pack my bags and rescind any offers to have her visit before I ended up either dead or suspected of murder. Over the course of the second season Jessica's look-alike cousin fakes her own death to avoid being killed, her dear old school chum gets gas lighted by her daughter, and her niece becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a TV executive. Being Jessica Fletcher is easy—being a friend or relative is very hard!
Like Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote is all about the guest stars and this season has some real TV-land gems. Sometimes the line up is so lengthy, guest stars have only a few lines or a single scene in order to fit them all in. But guest star spotting is one of the joys of watching the show. "Wasn't he on…?" "Didn't we see her in a movie…?" "Hey, that's…you know…" With all these semi-famous faces whizzing by on screen, whodunnit isn't the only mystery that needs to solved each week!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the world of Jessica Fletcher, one might believe that there isn't a well-trained law enforcement agent on the planet. No matter where she goes, the police (including London's venerable Scotland Yard) are incapable of solving a crime without her assistance. While I might buy this in Cabot Cove, I find it hard to believe in the case of the big city murders that happen throughout the season. But, having made the complaint, I let it go on a breeze, because despite the subject matter, cozy mysteries by nature are about the puzzle and not the procedure.
Which brings me to my other complaint.
When I was a child, I used to read Encyclopedia Brown books. These mysteries for kids gave you the crime, the clues, and a solution (hidden in the back of the book so you couldn't spot it by accident). Though it's true that the clues to the culprit were provided in the body of the story, they were always so small and insignificant that they left me annoyed and not satisfied in the end. And I get that same "Encyclopedia Brown" feeling from Murder, She Wrote time and time again.
"Susan stirs her tea clockwise when everyone knows that people from Australia stir counter clockwise, so obviously she's an imposter!"
Okay, so maybe that's an exaggeration. Wait, no. That's not an exaggeration! Many of the solutions come down to clues just like that.
Finally, let me take a moment to praise the wonderful job that Universal always does when putting out DVDs…NOT. Murder, She Wrote has been a Universal Studios staple for dozens of years and the treatment it's given on DVD is shabby at best.
Three plain plastic snap cases with graphics that look like they were printed on a home computer, in a slip cover (the only nice thing about the packaging) that has a bookish quality to it. The discs themselves have no labels. I assume this is because they are double sided, but that makes me crazy. The print around the spindle hole is so small, it's impossible to tell which DVD is which without getting out the magnifying glass. DVD makers need to find a way to etch a graphic into the disc so it doesn't interfere with playback or something because I want to be able to tell my Murder, She Wrote from my Emergency at a glance.
No, as in zero, extras. What's up with that? The Universal Studios tour mentions Cabot Cove on the tram ride, and even my son recognized the theme from how often it's played in the park. This is no flash in the pan series for Universal, and yet they couldn't come up with two minutes of extra film, bloopers, interviews, nothing. Sad. Very sad.
As for quality—again Universal takes the cake. Though I didn't experience the problem myself, I've seen dozens of complaints from people about discs in this series being pixilated and unwatchable. This technology isn't that new. There's no excuse for damaged discs turning up over and over again in the same boxed set.
After you shed a tear for Universal's flagrant disregard for quality products, cozy mystery fans will enjoy Murder, She Wrote: The Complete Second Season. The storylines are inventive, full of red herrings and crazy characters. The murders are solvable if you pay attention. But the real reason to watch this series is to see one of the all-time great leading ladies, Angela Lansbury, living and breathing as Jessica Fletcher.
Thanks to Ms. Fletcher's keen eye for detail and powers of detection, Murder, She Wrote: The Complete Second Season is cleared of all charges. The court is considering filling charges against Universal Studios for negligence. Case closed (for now).
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