Murder, She Wrote was created with the CBS Sunday night prime audience of older viewers in mind; An audience that CBS had reveled in for countless years due to 60 Minutes. Well, I was not one of those older viewers.
I was 14 when I started watching Murder, She Wrote in 1984. Having grown up with shows like Columbo, Matlock, Remington Steele, Hart to Hart, Charlie’s Angels, (the short-lived) Ellery Queen, and many others, I was very intrigued by this new show. I didn’t know who Angela Lansbury was or how the show would be structured. All I knew was that I would get to play detective along with the lead, and that was all I needed to hear. Created & written by the same team (Peter Fischer, Richard Levinson, and William Link) who’d created shows like Columbo, a deviously clever made-for-TV movie called ‘Rehearsal for Murder’ (which I had just seen the summer before MSW premiered), plus a whole slew of other shows to their credit, I knew MSW was bound to be a hit. And a hit it was.
Filled with more celebrity guests than Oscar night, the show played fair with its audience, giving them the clues they needed to solve the crime(s) before the final 10 minutes of the show. The flashbacks, helping to remind you what you may have missed, were an especially nice touch. The writing was sharp, the storylines fun & original, and the production was first rate. Of course, none of this would’ve mattered if the lead wasn’t someone we liked. Cue: Angela Lansbury.
Originally, the part of J.B. Fletcher was supposed to go to Jean Stapleton; Edith Bunker from All in the Family. But Stapleton didn’t want to do another series, so she turned the part down. Lansbury was the studio’s 2nd choice. A veteran of stage and screen, Lansbury was the perfect fit for the role of J.B. Fletcher, a retired High School English teacher turned writer by her somewhat naïve but absolutely adorable nephew, Grady, who turns in Fletcher’s manuscript she wrote to fill the lonely times following her husband Frank’s death to a New York publisher. After becoming an immediate success, Fletcher is whisked off to her publisher’s mansion where a costume party leads to the ultimate death of 2 of the stars of that evening’s show. Using common sense, some logic, and perseverance, J.B. solves the crime in the final 15 minutes and her fate is sealed. She becomes the writer everyone adores who seems to find a murder (or two, or three…) to solve no matter where she goes.
Lansbury’s charm was subtle but immediately contagious & recognizable. She played Fletcher perfectly. J.B. was no-nonsense but never derogatory. She was practical, but not a stick-in-the-mud. She was fun but she knew her limits. She was fallible, compassionate, funny, smart, susceptible to deceit, and an all-around nice person. In other words, she portrayed someone who could exist. Someone we could root and care for. Sure, there are countless many who couldn’t believe the show’s characters would even invite J.B. to an event given that there always seemed to be death following close behind her. But, hey. This was television. And that was the whole premise of the show: A mystery writer turned murder solver. There had to be some suspension of disbelief. And in the end, it was great television; watching what most criminals thought was a helpless old busybody foiling their crimes in a cool & calm style.
What most people may not know is that MSW was not a runaway hit during its 1st season that it eventually turned into. The 1st season ratings were okay, but nothing stellar, and there was a time when it looked like MSW might not return for a 2nd season. It was only during the first season’s reruns that the show began to find its audience and pick up steam. And by the time Season 2 started, the show was primed for broadcast. After it did, there was no stopping it.
Never let it be said that Sunday nights during the mid to late 80′s or early 90′s were boring. For 11 seasons Murder, She Wrote ate up the ratings on Sunday nights following 60 Minutes. Unfortunately, its 12th season pitted it against Friends on Thursday nights when the then head of CBS, who didn’t know what to do with the show after so many [successful] years, wanted to bury it for good. And good he did. Murder, She Wrote just couldn’t survive the onslaught of Friends. The show was cancelled after the 12th season, with the aptly entitled final episode `Death by Demographics’. Lansbury did go on to appear in 4 Murder, She Wrote 2-hour TV “movies” over the next 6 years, (South by Southwest, A Story to Die For, The Last Free Man, and The Celtic Riddle). None of them included members from the show (like Seth, Mort, or Grady), but they did help fill the void felt when Murder left the air in 1996.
Now the show seems to be finally making its way to DVD soon. However, there are rumors on Universal Studios’ website that the…
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Saying that the upcoming DVD release of Murder, She Wrote is long overdue is like saying chocolate is only an “OK” treat — a world class understatement! In fact, “world class” describes this venerable series perfectly, from its multi-talented cast, interesting stories and production value. Murder, She Wrote is arguably the most beloved American TV mystery series, and for good reason.
The series began in 1984 when Angela Lansbury was 58 and continued through 1996 producing 264 episodes for CBS, and easily winning its time slot for most of its run.
The fabulous Ms. Lansbury, who as a distinguished career on Broadway and in the movies, portrayed the lead character of Jessica Fletcher, a widowed, childless English teacher from the fictional small seaport of Cabot Cove, Maine. (The exteriors of the homes, seaport and ocean scenes were actually shot on the opposite coast — in Mendicino, Calif.)
In the series, Jessica’s quiet and predictable life is abruptly turned upside down after her nephew submits a mystery manuscript she wrote under the name “J.B. Fletcher” to an East Coast publisher without her knowledge and the book is published. (In the show, Jessica’s middle name is Beatrice.) The book becomes an instant bestseller, and Jessica-the-author continues to write similarly popular yarns until she becomes internationally famous. Equally famous is Jessica’s uncanny knack at solving crimes as an amateur sleuth who is called upon to help by law enforcement from Cabot Cove to Europe and beyond as the series continues. (It is interesting to note that Jean Stapleton, who portrayed Edith Bunker on All in the Family, was first offered the role of Jessica but, thankfully, declined.)
Show creators Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S. Fischer (Lansbury’s real-life husband) brought an impressively combined resume that included Columbo, Mannix, Alfred Hitchcock Present and Ellery Queen.
In the show’s premiere (included in this DVD release), Jessica’s nephew Grady (portrayed throughout the series by Michael Horton) submits that fateful manuscript to a New York City publisher. Not only does that launch his beloved aunt’s career, it quickly embroils her deeply into her first homicide investigation as well as a tragic love affair.
Each week, viewers were treated to the often murderous happenings in small town, quiet Cabot Cove, which ended up having at least 50 murders investigated by Jessica over the course of the series. Jessica helped the local constabulary there, initially bumbling Sheriff Amos Tupper, portrayed by Tom Bosley, then a more credible Sheriff, Mort Metzger, portrayed by Ron Masak, to solve whatever crime occurred.
Viewers also followed “J.B.” around the world as she promoted her books on tour. Viewers were also treated to a fabulous character progression by Ms. Lansbury that took Jessica from a somewhat dowdy widow to a chic, sophisticated and internationally famous author of means and influence who helped citizens and governments alike. (She also helped a seemingly endless stream of nieces, nephews and other family members get out of trouble.)
Along the way, Ms. Lansbury was supported by brilliant charactor actor William Windom who portrayed crusty Dr. Seth Hazlitt and Jessica’s closest friend. Hazlitt felt more than friendship for Jessica as the show continued, but unfortunately, the two were never officially brought together.
Broadway legends Len Cariou and the late Jerry Orbach (both friends of Ms. Lansbury) had recurring roles as British Intelligence Agent Michael Hagerty and Chicago Private Detective Harry McGraw, respectively. It was this role that provided Orbach with the opportunity to move on and join the cast of the celebrated Law & Order.
When the show began, Jessica was inexperienced and naive, the opening title sequence featuring an old manual typewriter upon which she pounded out her novels. When the series went off the air, Jessica maintained a second apartment in New York, had dined with kings and queens, been involved in international intrigue, dressed in the most stylish fashions — and the opening sequence featured an up-to-date computer and printer! But, at the heart of the series was the heart Ms. Lansbury endowed her alter ego of Jessica, who never forgot her humble beginnings or her friends and remained a woman of integrity, compassion and warmth.
On the series, Ms. Lansbury was often able to showcase her many talents. Twice she played the dual role of her cousin Emma MacGill, a London dance hall performer. It is no coincidence that the singing and dancing Ms. Lansbury’s given name is Angela Brigid MacGill Lansbury.
We can only hope that the remaining seasons of this fine series are released in full and very, very soon!
I don’t know what to make of Universal Studios? On the one hand Universal has done a pretty good job of making some of the older and classic television shows available to their fans. MSW is definitely a show that fans have been waiting for. I’m one of the more casual fans. As a teenager, when the show first aired, I enjoyed watching the first few seasons, after that I found that the shows were still good but the novelty had worn off. However, when I heard that the first season was making its way to DVD I knew I would have to purchase a copy. I don’t remember having ever seen the pilot movie, “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”, and that was an unexpected treat. These early episodes are my favorites. I enjoyed the Cabot Cove crowd that made up these episodes. Claude Akins, Capt. Ethan Cragg, as Jessica’s friend that will do anything to help her. Tom Bosley, Sheriff Amos Tupper, was my favorite Cabot Cove Sheriff, I greatly missed him when he departed the show. Also, each show was packed with multiple, and recognizeable, guest stars. My favorite episode from season one is “Murder takes the Bus.” A nifty “who-dunnit” that keeps the viewer guessing as to who the killer(s) is. This brings me to my compalint on the other hand of this issue.
During my viewing of “Murder takes the Bus” my DVD froze and then skipped an entire chapter. This is the fourth Universal DVD that I will have to take back for this problem. I have no real knowledge of what causes a disk to freeze or skip but I’m willing to bet that it has to do with the way Universal crams eight shows on each disk, four on each side. I’m sure that Universal is attempting to save money by limiting the amount of disks for each shows DVD release. Well they can’t be saving money, the shear amount of money they must be loosing in returns and exchanges is probably eliminating any savings they think they are making by using 3 disks instead of 6 for a seasons release of shows. I’ve noticed that Anchor Bay, who released HUNTER and THREE’S COMAPANY only use one side of their disks and I have never had to return any of their DVD’s. Using one side of a disk makes them a lot easier to handle and I’m guessing that having less material crammed on the disk helps reduce the skipping and freezing.
I would have given this DVD set a 4 star rating. I deducted a star for the cheap Univeral DVD packaging and lack of extra features. I would still suggest that fans buy this set but make sure you watch all the episodes as soon as you can so that you can return or exchange the set if you encounter viewing problems.