"Remember: the truth is rarely popular."
The real mystery is: why didn't we get Seasons Seven and Eight to review around here? Universal hasn't abandoned their long-running Murder, She Wrote DVD series to pick-up distributors like Shout! Factory, instead releasing Murder, She Wrote - The Complete Ninth Season in-house, and it's great to see the fabulous Angela Lansbury back in action. With 14 shootings, 6 blows to the head, 2 strangulations, 2 stabbings, 1 poisoning, and 1 gassing, it's nice to know that mystery writer-turned-super sleuth Jessica Fletcher hasn't lost her "Angel of Death" touch whenever she walks among us, with corpses dropping like flies wherever she appears. The formula still works, even after eight seasons, with the writers, producers, and cast able to effortlessly entertain us with these crackerjack mysteries from this 1992-1993 season.
For those of you living on the moon during the 1980s and 1990's, Murder, She Wrote chronicled the always deadly adventures of one Jessica Fletcher, a widowed, retired schoolteacher from tiny hamlet, Cabot Cove, Maine, who became an international celebrity as J.B. Fletcher, the author of a series of best-selling murder mysteries. During the first few season of the series, Jessica's supply of relatives and friends who were either bumped off or accused of bumping someone off, was seemingly endless. And Cabot Cove vied with Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. as the murder capitol of the United States. Now, when Jessica isn't puttering around in the garden, visiting with longtime friend Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom) or consulting with town sheriff, Mort Metzger (Ron Masak) about the latest Cabot Cove atrocity, she's living part-time in a comfortable New York City apartment, where she conducts classes in crime fiction writing, while doing her part to elevate NYC's already-high murder rate. And when she's not in New York City or Cabot Cove, she can be found all over the world, in foreign capitols or other American cities, often appearing on book tours or other functions related to her literary endeavors - travels that of course carry the stink of death with them, as well, whenever Jessica Fletcher blows into town.
I exaggerate the show's violence, of course (this family series is exceedingly tame by design, particularly when you see the pornographically violent police procedurals that have replaced Murder, She Wrote on CBS), but there's no getting around the fact that the series deals in murder. How it believably chronicled 22-odd murders per season for 12 years is another matter, and one that viewed from a distance, makes Murder, She Wrote's accomplishments all the more remarkable. As I've written in the past about the series, Murder, She Wrote is like a machine: a beautifully-designed mystery manufacturer that reliably cranks out one suspenseful, polished whodunit after another. My first sentence grumble at the beginning of this review is only half-in-jest, because in order to write about the evolution of the series, and view Season Nine in as complete a fashion as is possible, it would have been nice to see where Season Seven and Eight went in terms of Lansbury's participation and the overall direction of the formula. As it stands, it's obvious from the last season I reviewed (the 1989-90 sixth season) that the producers and Lansbury (who by this point co-owned the show and executive produced it) have dropped the "visiting sleuths" format that gave Lansbury a break from appearing in each episode. She's here in every episode, but it's also evident that the writers and producers have cannily managed the plots to allow Lansbury to not appear in almost every scene, no doubt freeing up the time necessary for her to actually be on the set (I wonder if she employed the famed, notorious "MacMurray Method," used by crafty Fred MacMurray for My Three Sons, where all of her scenes, regardless of episode, were cranked out in as few weeks as possible?).
The mystery settings are almost evenly divided this season between Cabot Cove, New York City, and other U.S. cities (San Francisco appears a couple of times), with Jessica only venturing overseas twice this go-around. Certainly Jessica's apartment in New York City opened up new possibilities and characters for the series, one that the writers and producers must have preferred, since the New York City stories outnumber the more traditional Cabot Cove ones. There also appears to be an effort to move at least some of the episodes towards a more urban, gritty tone, with stories revolving around the heavy metal recording industry (The Sound of Murder), the scourge of slumlords, crack houses, and drug dealers (all off-camera, of course, in Double Jeopardy), treacherous turn-coat cops (The Survivor), and even a parody of then-controversial shock jock, Howard Stern (who's even mentioned by name in Killer Radio). Almost all of the New York City-based episodes have a harder edge than the more comfy Cabot Cove mysteries, providing the viewer with a nice contrast between the two styles, week after week (or hour after hour, since these episodes play great as multi-hour marathons on Saturday and Sunday afternoons).
Watching Lansbury, I'm impressed again with the absolute economy she employs in service of a character that admittedly, wasn't much of a stretch for her outsized talents. Certainly by this point she has the "character" of Jessica Fletcher down to a fine point, so the audience can just groove along with the plots, focusing on trying to spot those microscopically telling, all-too-brief, fleeting clues that are present, but which I, for one, always seem to miss (and which are patiently explained to dolts like me, during Jessica's grave summing-ups). What always strikes me with the Jessica character is how positive she is, as well - a role model that essays a perpetually upbeat, hopeful tone (a tough thing to do with the stench of death hanging around all the time) as she jets from one place to another, always delivering a final capper to troubled friends and new acquaintances when the mystery is solved - with her message often resoundingly plain and honest: you make your own life, and you reap what you sow. Thankfully, Lansbury was allowed to grow the character, making sure she never became a busybody (which after a few seasons would have been insufferable); in almost every episode, there's a situation where a character will ask Jessica to intervene in a matter, or she'll be asked to offer her opinion of someone or their actions, when it's really none of her concern. And the Jessica character invariably employs this cool, almost ninja-like deflection of the character's entreaty, letting the person (and us) know that our problems in life are better handled on our own. Unless, of course, a dead body shows up, and Jessica Fletcher is the only person who can prove your innocence.
This ninth season turned out to be one of the series' most popular in terms of Nielsen ratings - an impressive 5th out of all series on television for that 1992-1993 programming year. CBS' Sunday line-up that year proved unstoppable: Murder, She Wrote's lead-in was number one-for-the-year 60 Minutes, while its lead-out was The CBS Sunday Movie, which wound up 8th for the year. Murder, She Wrote faced no serious competition in its time slot, with ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos and People, NBC's I Witness Video, and Fox's In Living Color and ROC getting squashed by the Murder, She Wrote juggernaut. Stand-out episodes this go-around include Family Secrets, a Cabot Cover that has the requisite class envy/family skeletons plot that make up the best homegrown Murder, She Wrotes; The Wind Around the Tower finds Jessica going to Ireland (with Universal's excellent set decorations creating a seamless fit with the brief, economical - and Angela Lansbury-less - location shots); The Dead File has an intriguing plot concerning fake - and threatening - comic strips that implicate Jessica in a murder investigation. Night of the Coyote has Jessica enjoying a couple of margaritas and talking about love (while she solves an enjoyable mystery set in New Mexico), while Sugar & Spice, Malice & Vice sees Len Cariou's always entertaining espionage agent character, Michael Hagarty, return for a really twisty, suspenseful episode. A Christmas Secret is a rare Christmas-themed Cabot Cover (with a nice subplot about Seth's disappointment with the holiday), while Final Curtain and Love's Deadly Desire are two more excellent Cabot Covers; the first with a theatrical backdrop, and the second with an appropriately over-the-top performance by Carroll Baker.
Here are the 22, one hour episodes of the five-disc box set, Murder, She Wrote: The Complete Ninth Season, as described on the backs of their hardcase shells:
Murder in Milan
The Wind Around the Tower
The Dead File
Night of the Coyote
Sugar & Spice, Malice & Vice
The Classic Murder
A Christmas Secret
The Sound of Murder
The Petrified Florist
Threshold of Fear
The Big Kill
Dead to Rights
Ship of Thieves
Love's Deadly Desire
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.