Monday, September 12, 2011

Jessica Fletcher: TV's Greatest Female Character

As I was reading recent articles discussing the new Fall 2011 TV season, and how many of the new shows with female leads have them in highly sexualized roles, it made me think about my newest TV rerun obsession, “Murder, She Wrote.”  I must admit that when “Murder, She Wrote” originally ran on CBS in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t really follow it.  I didn’t think it was cool enough to watch the weekly adventures of elderly, widowed mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (played brilliantly by Angela Lansbury) as she traveled the globe, solving one murder after another.  And the TV promos highlighting the guest-stars each week gave it a “Love Boat/Fantasy Island” aura that made it seem even stodgier.  Now that I’m much older, and have a different set of values as to what constitutes entertainment than the people who follow the flock of reality shows, I have a greater appreciation for an hour-long, scripted drama with a strong, older female lead who was intelligent, assertive, principled, humane, gracious, and polite; who was involved with solving literate and thoughtfully-written cases; and who dealt with a gallery of victims and suspects every week played by veteran actors who were too often overlooked by a youth-obsessed industry.  She did it all while being attractive and stylish without being overly-sexualized or objectified in any manner.  In my humble opinion, I would argue that Jessica Fletcher is possibly the greatest female TV character of all time.

While watching the 12 seasons of “Murder, She Wrote” on DVD or Hallmark Channel reruns, I have noticed the gradual, steady development of Jessica Fletcher from the beginning to the end of the series (and through the four “reunion” TV movies that were made after the show ended).  Jessica started out as a widowed High School English teacher, slightly plump and plain-looking, who wrote her first mystery novel to keep her busy after her husband’s death.  She was not looking to create a new life or career for herself.  However, in the first scene of the pilot episode, when Jessica attends the rehearsal of a mystery play about to open in her sleepy Maine village of Cabot Cove, she guesses the identity of the killer before the play is over.  This simple, beautifully written scene, establishes in short-hand manner Jessica’s thoughtful ability to take in her surroundings and other people, and to be able to draw logical conclusions from what she has witnessed.  It also establishes her as a vibrant, alert individual who is ready to begin the next phase of her life.

As the series establishes Jessica’s street credentials as both a respected mystery writer, and a skillful amateur detective, Jessica’s personality slowly develops in unique ways over 12 years.  “Murder, She Wrote” was not a serialized-drama depicting the inner psyche, nor the trials and tribulations at home, of Jessica Fletcher.  It was clearly a plot-based drama where Jessica was in a different locale, involved with a different situation, each week.  In a sense, this structure allowed the show to take on an “anthology” feel per episode.  The show, like Jessica, was allowed to continue evolving and maturing.  Her adventures allowed her to travel the world and make new friends (or enemies) wherever she went.  Eventually, she abandoned the New England tweedy attire that defined her character in the early years, and developed an elegant, tasteful, stylish wardrobe that allowed her to cut a sleek, attractive, striking figure wherever she went.  (The costume designers on “The Golden Girls” could have taken cues from “Murder, She Wrote’s” costume designers on how to dress a mature woman in attractive clothes without being gawdy or tacky.)  Through the years, Jessica had occasional, mild romances with some of the distinguished guest stars on the show (including Arthur Hill, Len Cariou and Howard Keel) but these relationships did not define her and merely went to show how she was still attractive to men. 

Angela Lansbury richly deserved the 12 consecutive Emmy nominations the earned throughout the run of the series, just like the show itself deserved its nominations as Outstanding Dramatic Series during its first three seasons on the air.  The fact that Lansbury, nor the series itself, never took home the statuette reflects the screwy, flavor-of-the month values of Emmy voters, who seem to confuse shows with a “social significance” with anything of true value or lasting appeal.  (It is interesting to note how shows seen merely as entertainment like “Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas” were overlooked during their runs, while “Hill Street Blues” and “LA Law” took home the Emmys.  Nevertheless, it is “Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas” which are still watched and remembered today, not those Steven Bochco issues-oriented treatises.)  


Lansbury achieved the right blend of authority, gravitas, and whimsy, and created a character who was more assured and heroic than the now-cliched, one-dimensional “ass-kicking” action heroines of movies and TV during the last 15 years.  Lansbury, and her skillful team of writers, producers and directors throughout its 12 year run (who include the series’ original creators/producers Peter S. Fischer, William Link, and Richard Levinson; underrated TV directors like Walter Grauman, John Llewellyn Moxey, Seymour Robbie, and E.W. Swackhamer who were as good as any directors working in feature films; and Lansbury’s own family of talented artisans including her brother, writer/producer Bruce Lansbury, and son, director Anthony Pullen Shaw) all deserve kudos and credit for creating a consistent, dynamic vision of Jessica Fletcher as someone who outmatched her enemies with humanity, wit and intellect, rather than brute force.  In her own quiet way, Lansbury’s presence on the series could be as reassuring and authoritative as John Wayne. 

In later years, Jessica established a second home base, outside of Cabot Cove, by taking on a job in Manhattan teaching criminology at a local university, and living out of a stylish New York apartment.  Her circle of friends broadened to include spies, politicians, wealthy businessmen, artists, and designers of all nationalities and ethnicities.  But the character never became elitist or snooty, and never lost the common touch.  She looked as comfortable being home in Cabot Cove as she did circling the globe.  Eventually, law enforcement officials, who initially rejected her efforts to assist them in early seasons of the show, grew to welcome her participation in solving the mysteries as her reputation for solving crimes grew to a near-legendary status.  It is sometimes amusing to see certain episodes where the other characters are fawning over Jessica’s reputation as a writer and/or a detective.  How could one person accomplish so much?  But I think it was good for people to see an older person, especially a mature woman who, instead of being in her waning years, was actually entering the most rewarding phase of her life during her 60s and 70s, rather than relegating her to the sidelines as most media portrayals of the elderly (especially now) are susceptible to doing. 

What I also liked about “Murder, She Wrote” was that the show was smart enough to not allow Jessica to always be perfect or that she always had the correct perspective.  An interesting episode from 1987 called “When Thieves Fall Out” had the town of Cabot Cove up in arms because a mysterious stranger (played by John Glover) has arrived seeking justice and revenge.  Glover’s character served over 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and is in Cabot Cove to ferret out the real culprit.  In the course of the episode, Jessica comes to the painful realization that the true perpetrators include her own friends and neighbors.  This leads to tragic consequences as she is forced to bring her own loved ones to justice.  At the end of the episode, Glover comes to her home to thank her and say goodbye.  Jessica, unnerved at how this stranger has caused tragedy and made her send her friends to prison, sanctimoniously says that she would prefer he didn’t come to say goodbye and wishes he didn’t come to Cabot Cove.  When Glover challenges her by saying “What would you have had me do?” it causes Jessica to stop and rethink her own sanctimony and double-standard on that particular case.  The episode ends with a more somber, reflective Jessica at the closing freeze-frame shot, not the usual jolly, almost comically goofy Jessica who laughs jovially at the end of almost every episode.  Usually, in television, the perspective of the main character is meant to reflect the “right” or “moral” attitude of the situation in the storyline.  For once, Jessica is forced to consider her own hypocrisy and bias favoring her friends, and that even her usual quest for justice has its limits. 

Much has been made about how CBS, in the final season of the show, moved “Murder, She Wrote” to Thursday nights at 9:00 PM from its Sunday 8:00 PM timeslot to go head-to-head with ratings juggernaut “Friends.”  This disasterous move effectively sounded the death knell for the series, and it ended in 1996 after 12 seasons.  However, looking at the episodes from that season, it is obvious that the writers and creative personnel were still at the top of the game and used this as an opportunity to challenge themselves and further broaden the scope of the show and Jessica’s character.  Because “Murder, She Wrote” was now bumping heads with a hot sitcom involving 20-somethings, many episodes that season involved a murder mystery among characters that were considerably younger than what Jessica was used to dealing with.  One episode dealt with Jessica investigating a murder involving the hip members of a hip Latin music group.  Another episode involved Jessica solving the murder of the lead singer of a contemporary rock band performing a benefit concert in Cabot Cove.  Another one had Jessica solving a murder that involved an illegitimate baby and a love quadrangle among the 20-something youths living in Cabot Cove.  The funniest, perhaps most bitingly-satirical episode that season had Jessica out in Hollywood solving the murder of the creator/producer of a popular “Friends-type” TV series called “Buds.”  


In these episodes, the young people Jessica becomes involved with no longer see her as an authority figure, nor address her only as “Mrs. Fletcher.”  Many of them refer to her by first name as she has become more their peer and their confidante than ever before.  This may have been an attempt by the show to broaden its appeal to younger viewers, by having storylines involving younger characters, but it works.  It helped expand the scope of the stories by involving Jessica with characters and situations that were fresh to the series, and also further broadened Jessica as someone who was in-tune with contemporary, modern society.  Nevertheless, I still smile during one episode where Jessica listens to music playing from a stereo and opines that it sounds like a song from Metallica.  But it reflected that Jessica was not stodgy and was someone still open to new ideas and experiences. 

If you watch “Murder, She Wrote” reruns, keep a look-out for two of my favorite episodes.  One is the very tense women’s prison-based segment “Jessica Behind Bars,” where Jessica solves a murder while she is held hostage in a prison locked-down during an inmate riot that features a motley cast including Vera Miles, Yvonne DeCarlo, Barbara Baxley, Eve Plumb, Susan Oliver, Mary Woronov, Linda Kelsey, Janet MacLachlan, and Margaret Avery.  The next is the two-part, near-epic “Death Stalks the Big Top” where Jessica solves a murder at a circus and her guest stars included Jackie Cooper, Martin Balsam, Pamela Susan Shoop, Lee Purcell, Alex Cord, Charles Napier, Florence Henderson, Greg Evigan, Mark Shera, Gregg Henry, Ronny Cox, Barbara Stock, Laraine Day, and Courtney Cox.  (Every time, I see these episodes, my jaw drops at the roll call of guest-stars listed during the opening credits.)  These episodes reflect the adventurous, vibrant spirit that “Murder, She Wrote,” and Jessica Fletcher, have to offer. 

No comments:

Post a Comment