Murder, She Wrote (But Not Very Well)

I happen to be in Maine at this writing, which also happens to be the birthday of Dame Angela Lansbury (b. 1925), so how I could I NOT do a post on Murder, She Wrote? (1884-1996). I caution you from the outset: I am a critic, not a fanboy (of anything). If you love this show, you will likely dislike this post. I think I will refrain from heavy social media sharing of this one in anticipation of the onslaught of weeping emojis and chagrined rebuttals I would be obliged to erase without reading.

Lansbury, the daughter of an English politician and the sister of a Broadway producer (both named Edgar), had 40 years of stage and screen credits by the time the show was devised for her. She was normally a supporting player, cast as tarts and proud beauties in her youth, later as small town busybodies and domineering mothers. Many of the films she appeared in were classics. They include: Gaslight (1944), National Velvet (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), State of the Union (1948), Samson and Delilah (1949), The Court Jester (1956), The Long Hot Summer (1958), Blue Hawaii (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Harlow (1965), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

Long about the late ’70s however she began to home in on something close to Jessica Fletcher turf. She did two Agatha Christie adaptations, Death on the Nile (1978) and The Mirror Crack’d (1980), and Hammer’s last gasp remake of Alfred HItchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1979). She was now a bibbidy-bobbidy biddy in mysteries. Murder, She Wrote was crafted especially for this new persona. The title is a play on Murder, She Said, a 1961 adaptation of Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington. The premise was that Lansbury was a successful mystery writer from the small seaside town of Cabot Cove, Maine, with an endless supply of old friends and nieces and nephews who keep dropping in, concurrent with an inexhaustible supply of murdered corpses. The character was in the vein of Miss Marple (though less geriatric): a cuddly, seemingly vulnerable old dear who enters the most dangerous situations and always bests the perpetrators.

I love old school mysteries and I also like Angela Lansbury. Why don’t I like the show? Oh any number of reasons. I was about 21 when it debuted, not only disinclined to watch shows in which the hero was a little old lady, but also scornful of what I considered a highly derivative, hackneyed concept at the heart of it. There was next to no originality to it. It’s fine if you want to do an homage or work within a well-established genre, but you have to do SOMETHING with it to spark interest and justify its existence, (beyond sitting around and gushing over images of Angela Lansbury for an hour, which seems to be enough for some people). I had grown up on the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, of which Columbo was the well known gold standard, but which also had The Snoop Sisters, featuring crime solving crones Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick — a decidedly similar concept to Murder She Wrote, but a decade earlier. As another example, I enjoyed the distinctly retro, theatrical Ellery Queen mysteries, which played with the concept of mystery writer/sleuth, but was set in the 40s and asked the audience to solve the mystery. A good show needs good writing, but also a good angle. Murder, She Wrote borrows well worn EXISTING angles. Along with the fact that the dialogue seemed written for children, and the mysteries were not complex journeys, the show looked cheap in that way that was so ubiquitous in the 1980s: unreconstituted video with no style or atmosphere to it.

Yes, I know it won lots of awards. So did the giant chicken at the county fair. The show represents a cultural decline. Read early 20th century mystery novels, then watch this show. It will seem like you’ve just entered a kindergarten class. It’s more like an idea of a mystery show than an actual mystery show. Or like the mystery show that is on television in the background of a real show. Also, Tom Bosley’s Maine accent is atrocious, unlistenable, and on the show it’s pretty unavoidable, at least for the first few seasons. I went back and watched some of the early episodes recently. A saving grace is of course all of the famous guest stars, unavoidably stirring nostalgia. But that would be the only reason. And for my Angela Lansbury fix, I’d choose Beauty and the Beast.