Murder, She Wrote: Season Four Review

In 1938 James Watts complained to his sister-in-law that her murders weren’t bloody enough. Indeed, he went on, they were positively “anaemic,” and that what he really wanted to see was “a good violent murder with lots of blood.” Although slightly doubtful, his sister-in-law said that that she would give it her best shot and so that autumn, when she bumped off the master of Gorston Hall Simeon Lee, she made sure that the scene of the crime was as brutal as she could make it. When the locked door of Lee’s room was broken down, his body was found lying “in a great pool of blood” and “there had clearly been a terrific struggle. Heavy furniture was overturned. China vases lay splintered on the floor… Blood was splashed all around.” Having committed such carnage, she then calmly wrote to her brother-in-law and dedicated the foul deed to him, saying “I hope it may please.” Watts’s response to the violence he had unleashed was, as far as I’m aware, never recorded, but it didn’t really matter because he had managed to spectacularly miss the point of why his relative killed people in the first place. She wasn't in it to relish the unpleasantness of human misery and suffering, but rather to simply entertain her fans, none of whom would have been in the least bit delighted to have the bare-faced facts of homicide laid before them in such a graphic (for the time) way.

For of course his sister-in-law (and I’m guessing you’re ahead of me here) was the great Agatha Christie, and the brutal murder of Simeon Lee perpetrated only in the pages of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. It was a well received book, but reviewers seemed utterly uninterested one way or the other in the fact Lee had bled rather more than the traditional Christie victim, her regular readers even less so. This was because of the great paradox of the classic murder mystery genre, namely that the actual process of dying itself is of little interest to even the most dedicated fan. How the person is killed is, of course, a different matter (Revolver? Dagger? Lead-piping?) but the fact a person is dead is in itself rather insignificant, simply the mechanical necessity which allows the rest of the story to proceed. One of the main (if unrecognised) reasons why detective stories of this era have such poor, cardboard characterisation is that if the people involved could actually invoke our sympathies the jolly romp of working out whodunit would suddenly seem a rather callous attitude. That wouldn’t do at all; it's clues rather than blood that readers want liberally splashed around, with anything not pertaining to the unravelling of the puzzle uninteresting and an unwanted distraction.

It’s the same way with Murder, She Wrote which, more than any other US television series, is a direct descendant from Christie (and I include all of the official US television adaptations of Christie’s work there). A calculated homage to the more innocent Golden Age of murder mysteries designed purposefully to appeal to fans of Christie and her contemporaries such as Dorothy L Sayers or Ngaio Marsh rather than Cagney and Lacey and Ironside it’s a show which doesn’t go in for characterisation, or depth, or nuance, or anything other than providing a simple problem for viewers to amuse themselves with. Jessica Fletcher herself is the direct lovechild of Christie and her creation Miss Marple: although superficially it might appear she’s a Christie model, given they are both crime writers, she is in fact far closer to the elderly resident of St Mary's Mead. Not only are they both ladies of a certain age who live an apparently sheltered life in a sleepy, old-fashioned town, but their modi operandi are virtually identical. Jane Marple spends her entire career being underestimated by those around her, with both the official police and the villains themselves treating her with amused condescension, a fact she uses to her advantage. Playing the naive little old lady act to its hilt, she lulls those around her into a false sense of security, leading to much indiscretion on their part, while using her innate understanding of human nature, gathered through a life-time of watching small-town intrigue in all its many forms, to successfully suss out the killer. This is what Jessica does too - she loves playing the fool, constantly saying things like “Oh, I must be mistaken because I thought…” before finally cornering the guilty party.

And, like Marple was to a certain extent, Jessica acts as a Mary-Sue for a large proportion of her audience (the same audience that have made murder-weekends such an enduring success), which is why we shouldn’t analyse the series too deeply. As has often been noted, in real life Jessica would be a psychological wreck - heck, the woman can’t even go to the local hair salon without someone dropping dead in front of her - but in MSW-land it's to be expected, for it's murder ahoy! and just a bit of fun. Indeed, the series panders to its targeted demographic by making Jessica's life almost perfect. Not only does she have all the fun of solving a weekly murder, but she's also got the largest coterie of pals and chums across the US of anyone I've ever encountered (she must have to start writing her Christmas cards around June), has two gentlemen admirers at home gently competing with each other for her affections (Cabot Cove’s Doctor Hazlitt, played by William Windom, and the future Father Dowling Tom Bosley as Sheriff Amos Tucker), and is liked by everyone she comes into contact with. It’s a perfectly geared fantasy in all regards to its intended, conservative audience, a very comfortable show for its watchers to dream of being Jessica themselves.

It was also a comfortable show for its star, Angela Lansbury. Fittingly, shortly before the series began she had played Marple in the generally execrable The Mirror Crack'd (reviewed here) and evidently learnt some lessons - whereas in that film she gives a pretty one-note performance that often borders on the terrible, here she fits the character like a glove. Like everything else, she's non-controversial, and while it's a bland, mildly irritating character and she gives a bland, mildly irritating performance, it's exactly what is required. One has to feel a bit sorry for her; all twelve seasons she was nominated for the Best Actress Emmy and all twelve seasons she went home empty-handed, although I do wonder whether it was in part due to the fact she has the unfortunate habit of mugging furiously at times, pulling exaggerated faces at moments of high drama. It's difficult to imagine Jean Stapleton or Doris Day, the first two actors in line for the role, doing the same, but perhaps that's part of her charm. All detectives have to be mildly eccentric, and if this is hers so be it. Her audience certainly lapped it up.

Indeed, it feels a bit fruitless criticising her performance, just as it feels like there's no real point in reviewing Murder, She Wrote the series. Not only is it comfortable in its own mediocrity - indeed, geared precisely to being the show it is and not anything more - but as everyone knows what it’s like anyway with most people having seen at least one episode, it's unlikely anything that is now written about it can be particularly revelatory. For at least two generations Mrs Fletcher been a constant presence in viewers' lives, first as a prime-time star then as the mainstay of afternoon fillers beloved of students and OAPs plugging the gap between This Morning and Countdown. Whether one likes it or not, MSW is part of the fabric of western popular culture - heck, I wouldn't be sure that if you took a picture of the Cross and a picture of Jessica Fletcher into the jungle you’d get fifty-fifty recognition, with the fifty percent knowing our hero either beginning instantly to hum the theme tune or run away screaming. The very fact that these DVDs are being issued around the world shows the enduring popularity of the series, and indeed, they are selling so well that starting with Season Five the sets will have their own especially commissioned featurettes. As for your present reviewer, it entirely depends what mood he’s in as to how he reacts to the series and decides to indulge or condemn its style. (The crucial test is always that scene in the opening titles where she cycles by waving to us: depending on what mood I’m in I either think “Good old Jessica, off to catch another evil killer,” or “Get stuffed Jessica, you smug old bat, I hope the poor sod gets away with it.”) On any critical level it’s the very definition of trite, formulaic nonsense (albeit professionally made) but that’s what its audience is looking for and as such one can hardly say it doesn’t fulfil its remit.

So, instead here’s a survey of what you can expect to see in Season Four. Made at the height of the show’s popularity, there’s a definite swagger in the season, the episodes showing a confidence that given its ratings is entirely justified. As such it has a playful air at times: you have Patrick McGoohan, making one of several appearances during the show's run, hamming it up as an abrasive lawyer (with, bizarrely, Arthur Dent himself, Simon Jones, playing second-fiddle to him) in Witness for the Defence, an apparently cursed ruby causing all sorts of trouble in Curse of the Daanay, an Indian Chief attempting to oust the residents of Cabot Cove in Indian Giver and an episode in which Jessica becomes a consultant on a television detective series (how ironic!) There’s also a return appearance for her English cousin (also played by Angela Lansbury) in It Runs In the Family, a marvellous example of Americans Doing Awful English Accents which, perfectly, also features a young Jane Leeves practising her Daphne Moon. One of those things that everyone knows about the show is that Jessica’s nephew invariably runs into trouble (unlike Miss Marple's, who just sends his aunt on holiday) and so it is in a couple of episodes here, Doom With a View and Just Another Fish Story, while, speaking of holidays, Jessica travels to, amongst other places, Savannah, New York, Washington, Connecticut, Quebec and Paris. Fully showing up the excesses of the era it was made in, every episode peppered with big hair, bigger shoulder pads and handsome men with grey hair, making for a weird cross between the English whodunnit and Dynasty. Worryingly, the fan site The Definitive Guide to Murder, She Wrote suggests that this is the first season in which there aren’t any “Must See Episodes” but it seemed to this uneducated viewer to be fairly standard stuff for the series.

Indeed, I have to be honest and say that it is not really my sort of show. Any sort of production line television is anathema to me, and MSW is in many ways the epitome of such a creative process. But there’s no denying it knows exactly what it’s doing, and this season shows enough spark and impishness about it not to have made ploughing through the episodes a total drag (as well as the fact in every episode you can play Spot the Hasbeen or Spot the Future Star). In the pantheon of Great TV Detectives Jessica Fletcher is up there with such luminaries as Columbo and Perry Mason, and is in a different league to the pale imitators that would copy MSW’s successful formula such as Doctor Sloane and the afore-mentioned Father Dowling, but she's got there as much through sheer longevity as anything particularly remarkable in the series itself (the writing, for example, is not a patch on Columbo's witty scripts). As for me, the further I got into the set the more sympathy I began to feel for James Watts, and the more I longed for a good violent murder. That would have made her pull a couple of faces alright...

The DVDs
Not only do you get all twenty-two episodes of MSW's 1987-8 season, but also a "Bonus Episode" from the next year as well, Snow White, Blood Red. Spread over six discs, with four episodes per disc, the layout is simple but fairly attractive. The Main Menu has a picture of a typewriter (will later seasons show Jessica's PC?) with paper coming out on which short clips from the series appear, while in the background the theme music tinkles along. The two options are Play All and Episode Selection. Each episode is split into six chapters.

Amazingly given that this set must be aimed at, let's say, the older end of the market, there are no subtitles at all, which is a flaw for discs at the best of times but seems particularly sloppy and thoughtless here.

The presentation of the episodes themselves is not the best either. The Video is grainy and resolutely soft-focus, with colours looking faded. Detailed scenes are sometimes blocky, compression artefacts abound and any fast movement makes everything go blurry. The whole thing is not a joy to watch frankly, although serviceable in the way a second-generation VHS copy is. The Audio is better, although has a cluttered, mildly muffled quality to it - no dialogue is lost

Here's a thought: as the longest-running murder-mystery series in television history, Jessica has encountered no less than 286 murders (again, according to The Definitive Guide...) As even Hercule Poirot was known to off at least one of the victims in Christie's books, surely Jessica must have had a hand in at least a couple…? As for the set, it's exactly as you would expect, with a cheap transfer and no extras.

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