I’ve watched so much Murder, She Wrote that my neighbor learned how to play the theme song on his piano to signal that I should close the windows or turn it down.
When I reach the final episode of the 12th season, I watch the four MSW TV movies on DVD and then return right back to the two-part pilot to begin it all again. On Christmas, I even force everyone to gather ’round the table to play the Murder, She Wrote board game, for which I’ve written out the clarified rules, as the game’s failure is largely due to the copywriter’s inability to explain how it works.
My devotion to Dame Angela Lansbury’s character Jessica Fletcher has gone past fanaticism into familial territory — she is my Aunt Jess, and poor, hapless Grady is my cousin. This is how I felt before the 2016 election, and as implausible as it had seemed to me then, Murder, She Wrote has become even more critical to my daily life since Donald Trump was declared president-elect. At a time when there is only darkness, the merry widow Fletcher reminds me there is truth, justice and literacy in the world, and goodness will be rewarded in full.
I’ve begun recommending MSW binges to people who are still raw from Nov. 8, and even though I’ve told them to watch the show before, this time they’ve taken my advice — and they are happier for it. There are no metrics available for Netflix streaming, but I would venture to say that others have found comfort in this show in the past few weeks. (Note: It's leaving Netflix in January, so watch now. Quickly.) The cozy-blanket quality of MSW is something the series always possessed, but to better understand the provenance of that enveloping, calming effect, all you have to do is look back to the time of its premiere.
In June 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. In July, James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people in a San Ysidro McDonald’s in the deadliest mass shooting in history at that point (until the Pulse massacre). In August, President Ronald Reagan “joked” into a live microphone, “My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Crack cocaine had spread like wildfire. Four unarmed African-American kids allegedly tried to rob a white man, who shot to kill all of them but was acquitted of all wrongdoing, beginning the NRA’s contemporary reign and the drafting of Stand Your Ground laws. Hezbollah car bombs blew up embassies, and gay men infected with HIV/AIDS died by the thousands with no help in sight.
Do you hear the echoes ringing out all around you?
On Sept. 30, 1984, MSW introduced itself to the world with a simple story about a middle-aged woman who’d written a murder-mystery novel called The Corpse Danced at Midnight to pass the time in her sleepy New England town of Cabot Cove. Her nephew Grady submits the manuscript to a publisher without her consent, and Jessica’s suddenly swept up to New York for a fancy costume party thrown by the publisher. When there is a murder, Jessica becomes an unrepentantly curious woman. She doesn’t care who sees her collecting evidence. She doesn’t give a shit when brash male detectives attempt to assert their dominance over her. She’s single-mindedly focused on justice, led by a sense of morality and compassion. And when Jessica discovers that the murderer is a man she's quite fond of, that sense of right and wrong compels her to call him out, even if it means losing her publishing deal or being on the receiving end of hatred from those who are supposedly her new friends. No one else is stepping up, but Jessica Fucking Fletcher will, and no amount of power or money can save you from her judgment.
In every single episode of the show's 12-year run, the world’s most difficult moral quandaries are solved within 49 minutes by a woman who refuses to listen to naysayers. These resolutions are cathartic. Watching her mentally and emotionally manipulate the macho men who try to squash her is still instructive today. Even my husband marvels at the way she draws men in with empathy and sympathy, feeding their fragile egos with measured compliments until they relent or confess, always underestimating the intelligence and confidence of a woman who personally confronts them. She is patience personified, and it is powerful. Her words are more point-blank than the murderers’ guns, so sharp and smart and direct that every killer is shocked to hear them spoken. But, again, this is the force of a middle-aged woman.
She is beautiful because of her age and experience. Every man wishes he could have her, but she’s content to flirt. The memories with her deceased husband, Frank, are sufficient, and she does not settle for less — not in her love life, not in her cases. The older I get, the more I appreciate the virtues MSW has instilled in me since I was a child: To age as a woman is to become forged in fire.
This is a power she wields for the benefit of others. She is friend to the Native Americans whose land is being ravaged by greedy archaeologists. She is confidante to the Pakistani doorman, who’s saving up for college. She’s refuge to the Russian ballerinas escaping communist forces. She’s godmother to the boy with a single mom barely surviving. And she is partner to the African-American historian trying to clear her great-great-grandfather’s name. She’s blessed with privilege and gives freely of her money, home and time, not as a white savior but as a member of the human race. As a retired schoolteacher drawing from her husband’s pension, she could live comfortably, but a passion for literature drives her to write more novels. She doesn’t do it for money; she does it for love.
If there is one place where she falters, it’s in her understanding of feminism. An unfortunate episode from season two (“Tough Guys Don’t Die”) perpetuated the myth that feminism requires a rejection of men and that abortion would result in sterilization of the woman. Jessica Fletcher may be averse to the term and have little understanding of the science behind abortion, but she knows enough to still have compassion for the people and things she doesn’t understand.
It’s difficult for me to separate Jessica from Angela. The actress and producer shaped this bike-loving, mystery-writing character from day one into what she calls the prototypical “everywoman.” She insists that Jessica isn’t really all that special, and maybe this is because her hope for every woman is that they live their lives as openheartedly as Jessica Fletcher does. As I watch the show — whose multiple artistic merits I will debate with anyone who's willing — again and again, and as my neighbor tinkles out that iconic theme song, there is one thing that lingers in my mind lately, both saddening and infuriating, now more than ever. Lansbury has received 18 Emmy nominations, including 12 consecutive nominations for her performance as Jessica Fletcher. And she's never won. Not once. She came so close, so many times, and at age 91, she says it’s always pissed her off.
Hear those nasty echoes ringing out all over the place? If time is a flat circle, we’re in 1984, the world is ending and Jessica Fletcher is the only hero willing to charge in on a Schwinn steel horse of righteousness to save us from ourselves.