Question: I know you in the TV world frown on old fogies like us, but we've got a Murder, She Wrote question. Obviously, Jessica Fletcher was a writer on the show, but my friend says that's all she ever was. I say she was a teacher before that. Who's right? We're not betting people, but each of us would very much like to lord being right over the other one. Thank you for your time.
Answer: Before I get into that, Carole, allow me to distinguish between myself and those flighty showbiz folks. I am not of the TV world; I'm an outsider. And I call on my television powers to help those of all ages, not just those impertinent young 'uns with their too-loud music and too-low jeans.
That said, it's a shame you're not a bettin' woman because you could've gotten at least a free lunch out of this one. On the successful CBS series, which ran from September 1984 to August 1996, Jessica Fletcher (the thoroughly wonderful stage and screen workhorse Angela Lansbury) was a former substitute English teacher who didn't truly hit her stride in life until she began penning mystery books. Of course, a weekly show focusing on a woman at a keyboard wouldn't have been very compelling viewing, so the well-traveled widow Fletcher did plenty of amateur detective work on the side. Each week, the formula applied: A body turned up, suspects were identified, and our brainy heroine sans gun, big muscles or even a big muscle car solved the crime with instinct, intelligence and attention to detail. The show called for viewer concentration, too anyone trying to do the crossword and solve the mystery before Jessica did was probably out of luck.
Jessica lived in Cabot Cove, Maine, a town whose other residents showed up periodically to help move things along. Among them were Sheriff Tupper (Happy Days' Tom Bosley); Sheriff Metzger (Ron Masak), Tupper's replacement; Grady Fletcher (Michael Horton), nephew to Jessica; mayor Sam Booth (Richard Paul); and Jessica's chess partner, Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom).
If all of that sounds very sedate to you youngsters and your flashbulb attention spans, that was the point. It was a thinker's show (as much of a thinker's show as network TV allowed at the time, anyway) and between its regular characters and the constant inflow of guest stars, it helped provide work for some of TV's noteworthy senior talent, who frequently acted rings around the younger talent who showed up. "This show of Angela's is the only dramatic series that stars one no-nonsense, absolutely professional individual," veteran Robert Culp (I Spy, The Greatest American Hero) told TV Guide in 1986 after turning in a performance as a Culp-rit (sorry) on the series. "She's a very rare animal in television today. The networks like ensemble casts of four or more stars, so they cancel each other out in terms of getting better contracts. As a consequence, there has been a propensity for sudden discovery to hire immature people who haven't had time yet to learn how to act." Jayne Meadows Allen seconded that opinion, adding that the show provided work to "seasoned" talent: "We're being hired again for the first time in years."
CBS scheduled Murder, She Wrote as a Sunday-evening companion piece to 60 Minutes; executives wanted to give the audience who tuned in for the venerable news show a reason to stick around for another hour, and the strategy worked beautifully. For 11 years, the mystery series was a fixture of Nielsen's Top 20, climbing as high as No. 2. Then, apparently deciding to fix something that wasn't broken, the network moved it to Thursday nights opposite Friends, where it was promptly, well... murdered. And as far as Lansbury was concerned, the ageist fix was in.
"CBS has made it abundantly clear that they no longer want anything to do with my demographic," she said in 1995, adding that all the networks "have put themselves into the hands of the advertising agencies." (As regular readers know, I have my own very strong opinions about how boneheaded the networks are for buying into Madison Avenue's crackpot theory that those old enough to buy beer aren't a viable target market because they're too ancient and stubborn for advertising to grab. I'll spare you a repeat rant.) Still, she had to admit that the viewing populace was becoming more down-market, and not just in age. "People are not as patient about their entertainment as they once were. They want a result, or a violent climax instant gratification and if they don't get it, they're gone."
She had a point, unfortunately. Thursday's younger-skewing viewers opted for NBC's laugh-a-minute (well, joke-a-minute, really, since the giggle quotient was and is spotty at best) "must-see" lineup. So Murder, She Wrote's viewers were indeed gone. Soon after, so was Lansbury's show.