by Herbie J Pilato
You never really want Jessica B. Fletcher to pay you a visit because, well, your life just might be in danger.
At least your fictional life…if you were a fictional character, as is Jessica, who was portrayed by Angela Lansbury, the ever-grand dame of the performance world, for 12 seasons on the classic television mystery series, Murder, She Wrote (CBS, 1984-1996).
As a professional mystery-novel writer and a (not really) amateur sleuth based in the fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, Jessica journeys the world conducting research or seminars, making personal appearances, attending conferences, hosting book signings, or just visiting colleagues, friends and relatives on the apparently very successful salary she earns as a writer (go, J.B.!).
Unfortunately, wherever she travels any one individual that comes within three feet of her parameter usually ends up six feet under. (Oh, no, J.B.!)
Be that as it may (or as they lay?), Murder, She Wrote remains landmark programming in the vast landscape of television history.
Produced by Universal Studios, Murder, She Wrote was created by Peter S. Fischer, William Link, and Richard Levinson (the genius writers behind so many other classic television shows, such as Columbo).
Murder, She Wrote was one of the last series to be produced as a nonprocedural program, with a beginning, middle and end to its storyline, which was wrapped up nice and neat (and yes, with a periodically-featured hug or smile between Jessica and a guest or semi-regular character).
Although the series would present the occasional two or three-part episode (as many shows have done since television’s inception), there were no continuous story arcs that would last an entire season (or throughout the entire series, as many such new programs do today).
And unlike many contemporary drama/mystery shows, the lighting was always bright, allowing viewers to actually see the actors performing (unless their characters were supposed to actually be in the dark of night, in a dingy, candle-lit room, etc.).
Two of the more popular semi-regular characters on the show were Cabot Cove’s Sheriff Amos Tupper, played by Tom Bosley; and Dr. Seth Hazlit, as portrayed by William Windom (both of whom have since passed away).
Bosley (not to be confused with the similar-in-look David Doyle who played a character named “Bosley” on Charlie’s Angels) was best known as Mr. C. on Happy Days, and later the lead in his own mystery show, The Father Dowling Mysteries)
William Windom was a renowned actor of countless films and TV shows, including the unique sitcom, My World and Welcome To It, the original Star Trek series, and numerous premiere anthology shows from the 50s and 60s.
On Murder, She Wrote, Tom’s Sheriff Tupper and William’s Dr. Hazlit were pivotal residence members in Jessica’s beloved home base of Cabot Cove, a cozy seaside community…which quickly began losing its population…apparently…because Jessica lived there.
In other words, the people of Cabot Cove were always getting killed off in the behind-the-scenes big-picture scheme of things because Jessica needed inspiration for her murder mystery novels. As the show continued, however, and became a massive hit, its writers needed to expand Jessica’s horizons – and their own creative mind fields.
And there is the rub…the conundrum.
While the Murder, She Wrote wordsmiths would mix things up a bit by frequently plucking Jessica from Cabot Cove, and sending her around the country and the globe, the charm and old-fashioned appeal of her hometown episodes were lost in the process.
Certainly, not every episode of the series could be based on Cabot Cove. That would be like Star Trek never allowing Captain Kirk to “boldly go where no (one) had gone before,” and just setting every episode on the Enterprise in constant “bottle shows” (as certain such Trek segments were known to be called). (I know: second Trek reference).
The countless non-Cabot Cove episodes of the series are indeed fine pieces of TV. But the viewer can always count on the Cabot-geared stories to be some of the show’s best. Even segments like, “Indian Giver,” from 1987, which featured more on-location shooting than usual are optimum showcases; as the best Cabot Cove episodes were filmed and stationed on the Universal lot with fabricated interior and exterior sets (which merely added to the “cozi-feeling” and general presentation).
Some Cove segments also later featured a stable of regular female friends of Jessica’s who she met up with at the beauty parlor (including the iconic Julie Adams, of Creature from the Black Lagoon feature film fame).
But without a doubt the essence of Jessica’s character and Murder, She Wrote in general rested in Cabot Cove, the small-town/community feel of which so intrinsically added texture to the ambience of the show’s core appeal. Ultimately, that is why the Cabot Cove-based segments remain superior.
So, in closing – the moral of the story analysis is this:
TV writers should always create a welcoming sense of community between all of the characters they create, be the characters stationed in one small town or in the large scale, transient big picture scheme of things.
Herbie J Pilato is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about him HERE.