Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury as amateur sleuth and mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, has been the only significant dramatic series on American television to feature an older woman in the sole leading role. Lansbury, who received Oscar nominations and Tony awards over her long film and stage career, started the series at age 58 and is now probably most widely recognized for her television character.
Creators Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S. Fischer brought with them a combined resume from Columbo, Mannix, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Ellery Queen. In Murder, She Wrote, they created a classical mystery program set in the fictional seaside village of Cabot Cove, Maine. The program quickly became one of CBS's most successful offerings and among the most expensive for it to produce. It frequently placed first among the network's lineup in the Nielsen ratings and was a champion in its time slot, 8:00 P.M. Sundays. It finished in the Nielsen top ten during most of its run.
The series narrative has remained fairly stable. Widowed Jessica Fletcher, a retired high school English teacher, became a best-selling mystery author after her nephew, Grady, sent a manuscript to a book publisher. She quickly became world famous and affluent, but she maintains the rambling, old house that she and her longtime husband, Frank, shared in Cabot Cove. Jessica remains close to old friends in the village, including Dr. Seth Haslett, played by character actor William Windom. A few cast changes have occurred; most significantly, Tom Bosley, who portrayed bumbling Sheriff Amos Tupper, left after four seasons to pursue his own mystery series. Familiar former television stars and unknown character actors appear as guests on the program.
In the earlier seasons, a matronly Jessica frequently bicycled across town, boiled lobsters, planned fishing trips on a friend's trawler, or dropped in at the beauty parlor. She wore conservative pantsuits and spoke with an occasional New England influence. Her signature was her ancient manual typewriter, and the opening credits showed her tapping merrily away on one of her mystery novels. Gradually, the character evolved. The manual typewriter eventually shared time in the opening sequence with Jessica's personal computer (which has, itself, been involved in two mysteries). Jessica added a second residence, a Manhattan apartment and the character became more glamorous in appearance coinciding with Lansbury's own personal makeover in the 1988-89 season.
Murder, She Wrote's formula is true mystery: Jessica encounters several people displaying animosity toward a mean person. An innocent person, often a friend or relative of Jessica's, publicly threatens or criticizes the bully. The audience sees the bully murdered, but the killer's identity is hidden. The authorities accuse Jessica's ally, based on circumstantial evidence. Jessica notices--and the camera lingers on--details that seem inconsequential but later prove central to the solution. She investigates, uncovering various means, motives, and opportunities and eliminating suspects. A few minutes before the program ends, she suddenly realizes the last piece of the puzzle and announces that she knows who the killer is. She confronts the killer, privately, in a group, or with authorities observing off camera. Almost always, the killer confesses, and Jessica presents the person to the police. A final scene often shows Jessica sharing a good-natured exchange with someone, often the wrongly accused friend.
Coincidences abound. Nephew Grady (Michael Horton) has been arrested for murder on several occasions, and Jessica always proves him innocent. In fact, each of the many times Jessica's family members or old, "dear friends" have been introduced, one has become involved in a murder. Tiny Cabot Cove has been the site of about fifty of the more than 250 murders Jessica has solved. Rarely has a suspect been shown in touch with a lawyer; Jessica always happens to be on the scene when a murder has just taken place and makes time in her schedule to solve the crime. She usually happens upon the body herself. The police never get it right. Her friend is almost always innocent. Jessica is always present when crucial evidence comes to light.
Despite the formulaic nature of the program, the notion that violent death can invade even the quiet world of Jessica Fletcher connects it to old meanings of the mystery genre. The world, as the profession of the mystery writer demonstrates, is not a safe place. The wisdom and acute mental capacity of this older woman are weapons in an ongoing struggle for order.
On the professional, rather than the fictional level, Lansbury's involvement with the series changed over time. In the 1989-90 season, CBS persuaded her to stay with the show after she announced plans to leave. The network cut demands on her time, and Lansbury made only brief appearances in several episodes. She addressed the viewer directly to introduce the evening's mystery, involving, for example, her sleuthing "friends," Harry McGraw or Dennis Stanton. And she often returned at the end of the hour, explaining how the mystery was solved. In the following 1992 season, however, Lansbury was back in force assuming the role of executive producer. Her sons and brother are also involved in the production.
Murder, She Wrote skews toward older audiences, however, especially older women, and advertisers will pay much more to attract younger viewers. In the 1994-95 season, the show charged lower advertising rates than competitors such as Lois and Clark, appearing in the same time slot on rival network, ABC. Lois and Clark attracted fewer viewers, but was watched by more young viewers, hence the higher advertising rate.
At a time when less traditional programs, such as the quirky, more serial Northern Exposure and the offbeat Seinfeld, were attracting favorable critical notices, Murder, She Wrote did not. It attracted instead large numbers of viewers with its combination of a highly ritualistic formula and its progressive treatment of a 60-plus heroine played by a popular star. Jessica Fletcher is, significantly, an amateur, unlike James Rockford or Thomas Magnum. However, although unfailingly well behaved, she displays a worldliness about modern life, and she has a career that contributes to her vitality. These elements distinguish her from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple character, to whom she has often been compared.
Since her involvement in Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury, the actress, has spoken out on occasion against the tendency for network television to propagate a "masculine mystique" and unfairly favor programs oriented toward younger audiences. (Murder, She Wrote has always followed CBS's other long-running successful program, 60 Minutes, which has also collected large numbers of older viewers.) Because portrayals of older people on American television have traditionally been infrequent and unflattering (in such silly roles as Fred Sanford of Sanford and Son, Designing Women's dotty Bernice, and some of the women of The Golden Girls), Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher is especially significant. She has demonstrated that competent, glamorous older women can draw large prime-time audiences. As a result, Murder, She Wrote is one of CBS's most valued programs.
-Karen E. Riggs
Jessica Beatrice Fletcher..................... Angela Lansbury
Sheriff Amos Tupper (1984-1988)................. Tom Bosley
Grady Fletcher (1985-1990)..................... Michael Horton
Dr. Seth Hazlitt (1985- )........................ William Windom
Mayor Sam Booth (1986- ).......................... Richard Paul
Sheriff Mort Metzger (1989- )......................... Ron Masak
Dennis Stanton (1990-1991)....................... Keith Michell
Robert Butler (1990-1991)......................... James Sloyan
Lt. Perry Catalano (1990-1991)................... Ken Swofford
Rhoda (1990-1991)....................................... Hallie Todd
Dr. Raymond Auerbach (1991- ).......... Alan Oppenheimer
Peter S. Fischer, Anthony J. Magro, J. Michael Straczynski, Peter Lansbury, Angela Lansbury
September 1984-May 1991 Sunday 8:00-9:00
June 1991-July 1991 Sunday 9:00-10:00
July 1991- Sunday 8:00-9:00
Allman, Kevin. "Auntie Angela(interview)." The Advocate (San Mateo, California), 22 September 1992.
Smith, Wallace E. "'Cabot Cove,' California: TV Intrigue on Mendocino Coast." American West (Cupertino, California), December 1988.
Waters, Harry F. "A New Golden Age; The Over-55 Set Flexes its Wrinkles on Prime Time." Newsweek (New York), 18 November 1985.