Let the Bodies Hit the Floor
It’s my husband Alan’s birthday, and his sister sends us a package in the mail. I assume it’s a gag gift, because it’s a DVD box set of Season 9 of Murder, She Wrote. “Why season 9?” I ask. He jokes that critics agree it’s the criterion season.
“Do you want to throw it out, or should I?,” I ask him.
“Oh no you don’t,” he says, “I used to watch this with my gramma. We’re doing this. Trust me.”
It’s 2007 and Alan’s in the army and we’re stationed in rural Louisiana, so we have nothing better to do. I’m unemployed to the point where I’ve given up looking. Highlights of my day-to-day include getting hit on at the gym, and getting hit on at the commissary. Our regular bar is a strip club because it’s the only bar. My favorite stripper there has adorable grandkids, we follow each other on Flickr. I drink tequila in the mornings now! Why not ironically watch this wholesome murder show for olds!
So later that day we settle in with our bottle of Military Special whiskey, an actual brand of secret army bourbon aged 4 years and priced at $9 per liter at the on-post gas station, and we pop in disc one. The first episode in season nine opens with two entire minutes of stock footage of the city of Milan, and eventually cuts to a tight crop of a fountain in the foreground, serving as a handy distraction from what is obviously a cheap set in Burbank behind it.
A reporter in voice-over explains that in case you missed it they are in Milan, covering “one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting film festivals.” Which film festival? No matter! The Film Festival.
The camera cuts to a cherry red Ferrari rolling to a stop in front of “The Paradisio Hotel.” The car door opens and a super tall blonde in the world’s shortest dress gets out of the driver’s seat, crotch facing conveniently away from the camera, into the mob surrounding her car. A grinning paparazzo steps into the shot and, from a foot or so away, takes a picture of the back of her head. She walks away from her Ferrari leaving the door open. Signs behind her car read “FILM” in all caps.
Cut to two nondescript hot girls mugging for paparazzi photos. Pan out, and we find the reporter who’s been supplying our voice-over. He leans conspiratorially into a couple he describes as the “hot and I do mean hot young director and his beautiful ingenue lead,” for an interview meant to introduce the two of them as characters, but mostly meant to explain the plot. The Ingenue is wearing a tea length palazzo pants jumpsuit in a muted floral print reminiscent of funeral parlor wallpaper, topped with a comically over-sized sun hat, although they are indoors. Her face bears a similar expression to the groundhog on TV who doesn’t understand why everyone’s so interested in its shadow. We learn, because we are told in so many words, that she’s the most beautiful and bewitching actress ever to grace the silver screen.
Mid-conversation, the reporter walks away from the people he’s interviewing to tell us that the film sweeping *The Festival* is called “All the Murderers,” and it is, of course, an adaptation of a J. B. Fletcher novel.
We are now three minutes into the episode, including the two minutes of stock footage, and Alan and I are rapt.
Maybe it was the Louisiana humidity, or the isolation, or maybe I’d been drinking too much breakfast tequila, but we watched the rest of the season that weekend. When we ran out of discs, we found the whole series on Netflix, and our fate was sealed. “Are we still watching ironically?” I asked on Sunday. “Never were!” Alan replied, without taking his eyes off the teevee.
The big guest star in season 9 episode 1 is Cesar Romero, the dude who played the joker in the old Batman show. Other Murder, She Wrote guest stars include: Ernest Borgnine, George Clooney, Mickey Rooney, Ned Beatty, Robert Goulet, Tippi Hedren, Florence Henderson, Caitlyn Jenner, Piper Laurie, Rue McClanahan, Kate Mulgrew, Leslie Nielsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Joaquin Phoenix, Courteney Cox, Bryan Cranston, Marcia Cross, Anthony Michael Hall, Neil Patrick Harris, Bill Maher, Megan Mullally, and Cynthia Nixon, among dozens of others. This is a fun list to rattle off at parties if you prefer to spend parties alone in the corner with your drink.
But guest stars big and small all dissolve into the background the instant Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher appears, blazer be-brooch-ed and hair be-shellacked, busybodying homespun wisdoms to listeners both eager and annoyed.
For the uninitiated among you, Jessica Fletcher is a teacher-turned-widow-turned-author-turned-amateur detective. She penned her first book in the years following her husband’s death, and it was unilaterally beloved on every continent including Antarctica, so she was instantly elevated to ranks of celebrity beyond even the Stephen Kings and Agatha Christies of our blue world. She managed to write a total of 25 #1 best-selling mystery novels during the show’s 12-season run while her loved ones were murdered by the dozens, without ever uttering a single swear word or developing a serious drinking problem.
She hails from a fictional town called Cabot Cove, Maine, a place that’s sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting if there was a dead body in every closet. Cabot Cove has an aging population, a bustling community center, and a single working doctor. It’s a place where — and these are real numbers — all 3,560 residents know your name, and also a place where just over 5 corpses per year turn up, slain NOT by drunk drivers or rogue owl attacks, but by coworkers, neighbors, and family members in cold blood. For context, 51 people were killed in San Francisco in 2015. If Cabot Cove had the population of San Francisco, 1,197 people would have been killed last year. You know, downeast values.
When Jessica travels beyond Cabot Cove, she is called upon to help every police force in America and beyond due to the sheer, unbridled brilliance of the detective work in her novels. This is handy for all parties, because you know when our girl JB shows up, someone is definitely going to die. Her powers of deduction handily outstrip MI5 agents, hitmen, earnest campaign hat-wearing sheriffs, and even one Thomas Magnum, Private Investigator, in a two-episode crossover special that’s like The Jetsons meet The Flintstones, if it took place in Hawaii and half the cast died. t’s impossible to outfox her: whether she’s locked in a car being driven remotely by a sadistic criminal, or discovering that someone slipped barbitals into her famous New England fish chowder nearly killing all her dinner guests, JB keeps her chill — and the balls of this week’s ne’er do well — firmly grasped.
Example: In the pilot episode, Jess attends a party at her publisher’s mansion in upstate New York (by the way, publishers have mansions). She learns only after arriving that the party is a costume party. An over-the-shoulder wink and a cheeky joke about attending as Lady Godiva, and she scampers off to “improvise” a costume. As the party she only learned about a few hours earlier begins, Jessica Beatrice Fletcher descends the staircase as Cinderella’s Godmother, wearing a shimmery pink ball gown with a fitted bodice and cleavage just this side of tasteful. Her costume is complete with sleeve puffs up to her ears, a magic wand, and an enormous crown. Can she improvise? Yes, and.
There’s a murder at that party, of course. There’s one at every party. If Jessica doesn’t discover the body herself during her morning jog, she’ll be there to shield the eyes of whichever weak constitution-ed unfortunate stumbled upon it as they scream and smear mascara onto her tailored windbreaker. But the bodies aren’t scary — no need to avert your gaze, gentle viewer! Angela Lansbury didn’t want to be on a show with gratuitous violence; after all, murder is no excuse for rudeness. So, in addition to having virtually no vices beyond the tendency to kill their neighbors over contract negotiations, Murder, She Wrote denizens also just die neater. A single thump to the temple, a slump into a dignified position, and a tiny stream of blood trickling away from the body, but never onto the carpet. Aunt Jess’ll have it cleaned up in time for the wedding to go off without a hitch!
The crims JB collars are, to a person, never EVER doing anything so gauche as dealing drugs or abducting children or or being poor. Instead they are upstanding citizens, driven to one-time madness by mean bosses, being blackmailed, or being blackmailed by mean bosses. They’re exceedingly polite about having their plots foiled by a sexagenarian retired substitute English teacher in a jaunty scarf. After Jessica shows them a button she “found” at the scene (to which, of course, she has unrestricted access), they’ll simply confess the entire murder, at which point Jessica will smugly reveal that the button was from an old sweater of hers. Somehow the entire case hinges on this single moment of coercion, and now it’s solved forever. Take him away, boys!
To wrap it up, cut to Mrs. Fletcher’s dining room table. Someone proposes to someone else, or maybe the corpse’s daughter announces she’s finally going back to college, or maybe the phone rings just as JB finally sits down to finish that overdue last chapter, and then we all have a laugh and eat some ice cream.
So that’s it, that’s the show, and this formula somehow earned Murder, She Wrote Emmy nominations for each of its 12 22-episode seasons. Angela Lansbury, by the way, was up for Outstanding Lead Actress every year from 1985 to 1996 and never won.
She won our hearts, though. For the next several years Fridays meant Cabot Cove and Chill, Alan inventing elaborate theories about how Jessica’s late husband Frank died — something that’s suspiciously never explained on the show — while I tried (and failed) to map the Fletcher Family Tree based on the relatives she visits or who visit her in almost every episode but who are mysteriously never present at OTHER family weddings, funerals, or reunions.
Then, a few years ago, while doing some compulsive travel bargain hunting, I learned that the exterior shots of Cabot Cove, Maine were filmed in Mendocino, CA, a few hours’ drive up the coast from San Francisco. I booked us a weekend stay at the big yellow hotel that served as the bank on the show.
HOLY SHIT, i screamed on g-chat to Alan, WE’RE GOING TO CABOT COVE.
I SAID, PACK YOUR TRENCH COAT, YOU AND ME ARE GOING. TO CABOT. FUCKING. COVE.
I told my Dad we were going to Mendocino for the weekend and he asked if we were going to score some really great weed. The area apparently has a reputation for that, a fact that my father — who lives in New York — managed to know, though I did not. I sheepishly explained we were going because it’s the town in which they filmed Murder, She Wrote, and his voice betrayed the disappointment most parents might have shown had our interests been reversed.
The village of Mendocino is a single strip of shops on a succulent-ruddy cliff hanging over the Pacific. Signs bearing Angela Lansbury’s handsome visage are in the lobby of every hotel, in coffee shops, even in the post office. It both looks and feels like a small New England town, down to the white clapboard church and pasty-faced retirees.
The citizens of Not Cabot Cove politely ignored our three day giggle fest as we ran through their empty streets like teenagers pilfering from a Hot Topic, recreating scenes from the credits and taking photos of storefronts and houses we recognized. That’s where the preacher found the body of the abusive step-father! We squealed, Oh my god, and THAT’S where the mayor was giving a campaign speech and got interrupted by someone claiming to be his estranged wife!
The shining jewel, of course, is the house JB called her home on Murder, She Wrote, a huge white Victorian bed & breakfast called the Blair House. It sits on a corner across from a big field, perfect for filming. In the yard outside the house, chained to a tree, is an ancient bicycle with two flat, rotting tires and a huge wide seat, a rusty homage to the fictional detective who never learned to drive because Angela Lansbury didn’t want to be on a show with car chases.
“I stipulated that there should be no scenes of gratuitous violence, with blood and gore and car smashes,” Lansbury is quoted as saying of her role. Only endless, endless murder, I guess. And did she ever get it.