Growing up on the esteemed Dame Angela Landsbury’s performance as J.B Fletcher provided me with a role model, outside of my immediate circle of amazing women (that’s you mom!), to whom I could aspire to be. From steering Amos Tupper, Cabot Cove’s cheerful, but slightly sleepy Sheriff in the right direction, to standing in for the murdered Governor of Maine and telling his male media assistant not to treat her like an addled aunt from east nowhere, JB Fletcher told the world: “I am an older woman who can, and who will tell you when you’re letting your patriarchal impressions of me get to be downright boring.” <<Insert delightfully sassy smile>> Not only did JB Fletcher show young girls, like me, that women could stand up for themselves, she also showed us that women could be fearless. Fearlessness is not simply walking down a dark alley and solving murders, it is going for a run every morning, it is riding your bike into town, it is drinking more coffee as you tackle the last chapter of your book, it is offering a warm meal to someone who needs it, and it is standing up to someone you know did wrong. J.B Fletcher taught me, as I flicked to A&E at 6am to watch her solve another case, that I could have a meaningful career in one life and swan onto another if I wanted. That’s one thing JB taught me, always keep learning. Sure, she didn’t know what poisons could do to you, as a high school English teacher, so she picked up a book and continued to learn. I can be teacher; I can be writer; I can be detective; I can be artist; I am “woman.” (And woman can be defined in whatever terms you feel is right for you because, as Judith Butler says, gender is performed).
It surprises me to think that Murder, She Wrote was competing with Friends. Yet, what should astound and humour us, is that an episode aired that mocked Friends and its coffee-shop culture (Buds was the name of the show in that episode) in favour of a more ‘high-brow’, Agatha Christie-style television show with an American Miss Marple at the helm. Murder escapes no one, not even friends, and perhaps murder isn’t always the literal act of killing someone, it is also the symbolic act.
Recent shows, such as Castle, try to mimic and re-vitalize JB Fletcher as the Canadian heartthrob Nathan Fillion in the role of Richard Castle, who is more of a teddy-bear version of a clumsy James Bond than an articulate and educated JB Fletcher. Castle’s success is predicated upon the many years of Angela Landsbury’s hard work. Not only did she star in the show, she was one of the executive producers from 1992 to 1996. But I digress, Castle uses the same formula that provided success for Murder, She Wrote. Of course, ironically, by adding some day-time Soap Opera love affairs, Castle appeals to the more contemporary audience, 18 years to 49 years right?! This is also likely because the amateur mystery writer is a man–the American Hard-Boiled Detective, archaically drenched in machismo. I do not want to sidestep Detective Kate Beckett in the show because she is truly badass, but the show isn’t called Beckett, it’s called Castle. It wasn’t until Season 5, Episode 4, that the show finally paid homage to Murder, She Wrote with an episode, aptly called, “Murder, He Wrote.” To be honest, while I was waiting for it to happen, that was the last episode I ever watched. For years I watched the citation of Murder, She Wrote play before my eyes. I even yelled, “FINALLY!” when I saw the title of the episode, but that was also the moment I got angry. It had taken them THAT long to own up to it? FIVE SEASONS AND FOUR EPISODES. So, I shook it off and walked away before the episode finished. Castle was not teaching me how to be a strong woman–I know you can argue that his mother and daughter occupy those roles–but JB Fletcher was a single character who could and did do it all. Castle was numbing my brain and keeping me locked up in its imaginary, insular world of privilege, slut-shaming, and the objectification of women. And, after all, He has been doing all the writing throughout history; I prefer Murder, SHE wrote.
The most amazing thing about Murder, She Wrote was that the show gives you all the clues you need to solve the case yourself. A character will say too much, or you can start to plot timelines as the show runs to the last 7 minutes….whodunit?! In more recent years, shows such as CSI or Criminal Minds focus on the professionalization of the detective, entrenched in a world of science, tweezers, DNA, and BAU training. Of course, that’s what we all want from the world, justice served up to us through the illusion of rationality. I say illusion because science and rationality are taken to be truths because of the Enlightenment…. so put that in your pipe and smoke it. These more recent shows give the viewer a spectacle; it reminds you, you cannot commit the perfect crime–science will be there to find you. <<Science>> our new God complex.
Indeed, many of Murder, She Wrote’s plot lines were questionable and spectacular themselves (for instance the orientalist episode with the Indian jewel–Wilkie Collins, much?), but they always engaged the viewer. They asked you to try and collect clues and build your own powers of observation. The show placed JB Fletcher in an honoured seat of intelligence, and if you could, through observation and creativity (perhaps some of you will shake your fist and say but, surely, that is scientific too…. nah, cool your beans) solve the case, then you, too, were aligned with JB Fletcher.
Whenever the show starts to play, I always sing along to the opening melody. It is a simple piano tune without words or any outrageous promise of spectacle, and I am okay with being sold that reality by my television. I know I am being sold something. But that something is aspirational, educated, and wise. Additionally, it sold Maine as a place to go on holiday. Anyone want to go to Bar Harbour with me? I’ve been dying to go since I was a child.
(P.S this post does not cover themes of race and privilege. I promise in the future to comb through the episodes more meaningfully to bring about some ideas on this. Of course, her New York episodes deal more with race and privilege.)