As a kid, I didn’t get the appeal of Jessica Fletcher, the widowed detective played by Angela Lansbury. Then I grew up.
By Crystal Arroyo
Throughout its original run, my mother watched “Murder, She Wrote” every Sunday night. I was 6 years old in 1984 when it premiered, and by the time I was around 10, I’d developed a love of mysteries and shows like “Matlock” and Quincy.” Yet I had no interest in the detective Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher and her adventures at the time. When my mom turned on “Murder, She Wrote,” I’d leave the room.
My only explanation for this serious lapse in judgment is that I had no idea who Angela Lansbury was. Andy Griffith and Jack Klugman were American figureheads in my eyes, thanks to old reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Odd Couple.” I couldn’t have picked Lansbury out of a lineup.
But in 2014, I learned that the entire series was streaming on Netflix and decided to give it a try one day when I was bored. I expected I would probably watch half an episode and turn it off, but I was drawn in immediately. The two-part pilot, titled “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes,” felt like it could have been written by either of my favorite classic mystery authors, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It introduces Jessica as a schoolteacher and widow who has just written a best-selling debut novel and gets tangled up in a murder investigation at her publisher’s estate.
In the episode, Jessica travels from her small town of Cabot Cove, Me., to New York to promote her book. Her publisher invites her to a costume party, where someone ends up dead. Jessica reluctantly investigates the case after her nephew, Grady, is accused of the murder. She solves the case and proves Grady is not the killer. A gumshoe is born.
And with that viewing, some three decades removed from my childhood, a die-hard “Murder, She Wrote” fan was also born. The pilot felt surprisingly fresh. As I burrowed down this rabbit hole, I soon recognized that the entire series, which aired for 12 seasons, was very forward-thinking, with episodes about abortion, women in male-dominated careers and prisoners’ rights.
What really drew me to the show, however, was Jessica herself. Brilliantly embodied by Lansbury, she is a sassy, smart and funny older woman who — despite not knowing how to drive — is totally independent. As she travels the world, she seems as comfortable in Cairo as she does back home in Maine. While she has many admirers, she doesn’t have any interest in moving on from her dead husband Frank. She has no children. This is not as sad as it sounds; she’s genuinely happy with life.
Her contentment without kids made me feel more secure about my own choice to not become a parent. When it comes up in conversation, I’m often told I will regret the decision, and some wonder who will take care of me when I am older. But Jessica, who seemed to have an abundance of friends and extended family, showed me that being a senior woman doesn’t mean that you will be alone in the world. Setting aside the dead bodies and the half-serious fan theories imagining her as the real killer in each case, she might be the healthiest, most stable character I have ever seen on television.
Eventually, the show permeated my life. I became a bit obnoxious. That show you are talking about is great, but did it run for 12 seasons and four TV movies?
My obsession became a bit of a joke among the people I know. One day, a colleague dubbed me Angela Fansbury, and this time, an idea was born: I started an Instagram fan account a few days later. Every day for almost two years, I posted screenshots of my favorite scenes from the show, until I ran out of content. These days I keep it going by reposting old content for fun.
Eventually my enthusiasm began to rub off on my husband, who has never been a fan of crime shows but started watching “Murder, She Wrote” on his own. It was a chance for us to share a genre I loved — we would often talk about the silly plotlines and the wild ways in which Jessica would catch the killers. (In one episode, she impersonates the sister of a murdered brothel owner and winds up running the brothel herself during the investigation.) We’ve even traveled to Washington just to see Lansbury in a play, and have begun watching her old movies, like the Disney feature “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
How did I miss out on her earlier work? Can I blame my parents for this? (My mom, who’d wanted me to watch “Murder, She Wrote” with her when I was younger, is amused by my 180-degree pivot. She doesn’t remember any of the plotlines, but I still like to discuss episodes with her as I rewatch them.)
One of my favorite episodes came late in the series, right before it was canceled. In the 12th season, “Murder, She Wrote” moved from Sunday nights to Thursdays where it aired against “Friends.” The series, which had never ranked outside Nielsen’s Top 20, dropped to 67th place. The writers had their fun, though — the 16th episode of the season, “Murder Among Friends,” featured Jessica solving a murder on the set of a television show called “Buds.”
It’s that kind of wit and self-awareness that makes the show infinitely rewatchable for me. As a child, that humor would have gone over my head, but now I’m older, wiser and — hopefully, like Jessica — just a little bit sassy.
Seasons 1-5 of “Murder, She Wrote” can currently be found on Amazon Prime.
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