There is going to be a Murder, She Wrote reboot

If I had my own internet, there would certainly have been talk about Affleck-Batman, but that talk would now, obviously, be eclipsed by talk about Spencer-Fletcher. 

Most people are focusing on the fact that this reboot demonstrates that NBC is the network version of the saddest, most desperate, most unimaginative person who has ever existed.

Few people are discussing the fact that this re-envisioning of the long-running HIT SERIES might as well just be called Sort of Like Castle: With Octavia Spencer Instead of Nathan Fillion for all the resemblance it bears to the original. This isn't being discussed much (or at least not with much intensity) because the original show was not very good and most of the people who really liked it are now long dead—but damn it, I have proved on a mystifyingly regular basis that I love it deeply (it has its own category in this blog), and I would argue that even the most terrible shows are about things and have actors in them and so can be disrespected when networks remake them and change them so that they become unrecognizable.

If there's one thing everyone knows about Murder, She Wrote, it's that J.B. Fletcher was old, and old people liked her (that might actually be two things). Angela Lansbury was 59 when she took on the role in 1984. And J.B. Fletcher was a retired school-teacher and widow who expected to sink into quiet obscurity in Cabot Cove, Maine, but instead became a famous mystery author and international super-sleuth. It's the whole point of the show: this woman is (a) old, (b) a widow, and (c) living in Maine (although in later seasons she does keep an apartment in New York). She has already lived a whole life, and she never expected to have a whole other life. I would be willing to wager that old people liked this show not only because Lansbury was also old, but also because it suggested it's possible to have a second good and fulfilling life after your first one has ended.

I have absolutely nothing against Octavia Spencer, except for the fact that casting her as J.B. Fletcher is like casting Matt Damon as Matlock (Spencer and Damon are the same age). I also have nothing against hospital administrators (that's apparently what the new J.B. is going to be), but Jessica DID NOT HAVE A JOB ANYMORE, BECAUSE SHE WAS SO OLD. I still haven't heard anything about where this will be set—but if she's now young and a hospital administrator, I'm betting she won't be busy being both of those things in some small town in Maine. So if this show is about the crime-solving adventures of a young-ish hospital administrator/self-published author in some big city somewhere, it could really be called almost anything else. It could be called Remington Steele, for God's sake.

Oh, wait. NBC couldn't call it Remington Steele—BECAUSE NBC IS ALREADY REMAKING THAT SHOW, TOO.

This man is not the handsomest to have appeared on Murder, She Wrote (that was George Clooney), or the coolest (that was Bryan Cranston), or the Christian Bale-iest  (that was actually Jim Caviezel) - and yet, he is the awesomest.

First, there was the role of Rick Rivers in 1989's "Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble." An unscrupulous writer (played by Brad Dourif - Wormtongue. WORMTONGUE!) descends on Cabot Cove to drum up interest in his book about a long-dead Cabot Cove witch (Cabot Cove had witch trials, just as it had the Battle of Cabot Cove during the American Revolution). He has employed a sneaky, unscrupulous, ferrety young media consultant - Rick Rivers - to stage mysterious events in order to make people care more about witches and snooty authors in hats. Someone dies; people are extremely perplexed; Jessica notices something and later remembers noticing it; she identifies the murderer; the murderer inexplicably confesses.

Then, there was the role of Frank Albertson in 1990's "Good-bye Charlie," an episode I've already discussed, because  Bryan Cranston was also in it. Frank Albertson is a sneaky, unscruplous, ferrety young man who decides to identify a random corpse as his uncle in order to claim an inheritance. Someone dies; people are extremely perplexed; Jessica notices something and later remembers noticing it; she identifies the murderer; the murderer inexplicably confesses.

Both roles, as I have already suggested, required an actor capable of conveying a particular kind of sneakiness, unscrupulousness, and ferrety-ness. Both roles also required an actor capable of cultivating a particularly luxuriant, era-specific hairstyle. As Dean Stockwell was too old and shunned mullets, both roles went to Bill Maher.
We know him now as a controversial, atheistic, free-thinking talk-show host, but then, he was simply an atheistic free-thinker who was forced to makes ends meet by appearing on Murder, She Wrote. Twice.

Here he is in action on Murder, She Wrote, saying only "wallet."

I am not posting anything here this week, in part because I feel Murder She Wrote–related anticipation could use more time to really hit a fever pitch, and in part because I recently said some really nuanced and thoughtful things about literature, and they're now posted on my friend's excellent website. I use the word "douchebag" only once.
I realize this countdown is trying the patience of those who would be more excited about Murder, She Wrote if Jessica Fletcher had started, say, making and selling meth during a strangely dark sixth season. I realize that I now have fewer readers than this ACTUAL WEBSITE dedicated to itemizing and appreciating Jessica Fletcher's wardrobe choices (my thanks to Stripes for venturing into the dark heart of the online Fletcher fan community and returning with that link—and, presumably, a more sophisticated aesthetic sense). But if there's one thing, one thing, I start and then successfully finish in my life, it will be this list of magnificent Murder, She Wrote guest stars.

And we're almost there, because we're at number 2, and this list will absolutely end at number 1. And #1 is even better than #2--which is amazing, considering #2 is Andy Garcia.

It was the very first episode of Murder, She Wrote, and Jessica, suddenly thrust into the spotlight and a murder investigation after publishing a bestselling book, takes to wandering the streets in search of malefactors. And because this is 1984 in New York City, she ends up being menaced by thugs. And because every actor celebrated in 1990 had to have been somewhere in 1984, one of those thugs was played by Andy Garcia.

[I did not take or write on that photo: I got that photo from YET ANOTHER BLOG ENTIRELY DEDICATED TO MURDER, SHE WROTE.]

His name was "1st White Tough"
The man with the less thuggish hat is Ned Beatty.
He offers, in a VERY MENACING WAY, to give Jessica a "free blood test," but she is rescued by "Black Youth" before he can do so. You'll note that Garcia is sporting the very same hat he will later wear in The Godfather: Part III.

And "2nd White Tough" also made something of himself, in that he recently appeared in a film called Mansion of Blood with both Gary Busey and Robert Picardo.

I spend a lot of time on That's how I know whom the guy who played Fritz on The Closer was once married to (Teri Hatcher), who Rachel Weisz parents are (mother Edith = Austrian psychoanalyst, father George = Hungarian inventor), and who was unexpectedly vegetarian (Dennis Weaver). I don't even have to be particularly interested in someone to imdb him or her—it's a reflex action now, like blaming my parents for not being Hungarian inventors.

And it's my imdb habit that resulted in my knowing about the obscenely successful secret life of a one-time Murder, She Wrote guest star. I watched an episode from 1989 called "Class Act" a while ago and decided to see whether anyone who appeared in it had ever worked again. A number had gone on to play roles with more descriptive credit lines ("Santa Fe woman"), or to become Rashida Jones's uncle, or to continue to be Robert Pine, but one of them, whom I had unfairly and prematurely consigned to "Santa Fe man"-ness in my mind turned out to have made a not-too-shabby life for himself.

I could find not one photo of him from Murder, She Wrote, despite the fact that this role is one of the least impressive of his career. So I'll have to show you an up-to-date one:
And here is another photo that better illustrates what he's been up to since playing "Bernard 'Bernie' Berndlestein" opposite Angela Lansbury:
So, yes. He directed The Men Who Stare at Goats. He is close friends with George Clooney and produces movies with him (Argo-like movies along the lines of Argo).

Imdb also tells me: "On the DVD commentary for Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), George Clooney says that shortly after he met Grant Heslov in 1982, Heslov loaned Clooney $200.00 to buy his first set of headshots, and they have been friends ever since (and later writing and producing partners)."

Which means that Grant Heslov and George Clooney were already friends when they filmed their respective Murder, She Wrote episodes--so they can remind each other that when they said things like "I feel my artistic potential is not being fully realized through the role of Bernie Berndlestein, but I have faith that I will someday make something of myself," or "I dislike my raincoat and Buddy Hackett is all hands, but I have faith that I will someday make something of myself," they were absolutely justified in doing so.
This will doubtless be the least surprising entry on my still-not-keenly-anticipated list, because this poor man (kind of like Cranston) had a whole other television career before the second television career that launched his movie career. I speak, of course, of the Facts of Life-gracing, Roseanne-enhancing George Clooney—or "Kip Howard," as nobody calls him despite the fact that that was his name in the  Murder She Wrote episode "No Laughing Murder" (1987).

So. Handsome.
But when else in his varied, storied career has he appeared in a totally original reimagining of Romeo and Juliet? (Totally original in that no one else before or since has thought of replacing Montague with Buddy Hackett.)

He and his girlfriend (played by a woman likely so overwhelmed by George's audacious pairing of plaid shirt and taupe raincoat that she soon after retired from acting) are completely in love, but their fathers (one is Buddy Hackett, the other Steve Lawrence) are comedians who were once partners but are now estranged...and someone is killed...and Jessica gazes piercingly at things...and the murderer confesses after being confronted by the kind of evidence that would absolutely hold up in court...and the warring comedians are reconciled...and George tells everyone that in the years to come he will become only more handsome and successful...and Angela Lansbury hisses "you handsome, smirking son of a bitch—I was in Gypsy!"

And then in real life George left to shoot an episode of The Golden Girls.

I was not planning to include this person in my list of the awesomest people ever to appear on Murder She Wrote, but I just watched his episode again, and to overlook it would be to do a great disservice to all hour-long mystery shows that dealt with the possibilities of virtual reality in the '90s.

So in "A Virtual Murder" (1993), Jessica, who is obviously just the kind of author every teen boy wants writing video games, goes to Silicon Valley at the behest of a Cabot Cove wunderkind programmer to write what is obviously just the kind of video game a company would develop in order to exploit the possibilities of a ground-breaking technology: "A Killing at Hastings Rock."

When you try to think of the kind of actor with the credibility and hair to play the role of project manager for this game, I'll bet only one name springs to mind: Sorbo.

You can tell he's not Hercules here because he's wearing glasses and standing next to Angela Lansbury.
Sorbo's undeniable all-round awesomeness has deadly consequences, though, when a lady programmer (I'm pretty sure she was a programmer) kills an unpleasant computer genius for love of him.

This is what a message made by an unpleasant computer genius and then hidden inside a video game looks like, by the way:

And this is what Jessica Fletcher looks like using the technology of the future:
One more.
Really, I suppose it's the episode as a whole I have great affection for and not Kevin Sorbo in particular (although both his voice and massive chest are incredibly soothing).

It's impossible not to have great affection for any show that features a character saying (after Jessica has sensibly and plausibly suggested removing a character from the game in order to avoid a "cascade" of mysterious computer-y glitches poised to delay the launch), "Elegant...a literary solution to a binary problem."

I tried hard to think of a snappy title. And that's why I got. Damn it—that's what I got.

I've been thinking about my friend Tim a great deal this week because he's had about the worst week a person can have. He is also literally the only person in the world with whom I have ever had a serious discussion about how the same actors regularly appeared on both Star Trek: TNG and Murder, She Wrote. So today seemed like a fine day to kick off my long-planned and not-at-all-awaited list of my top five favourite least-appropriate Murder, She Wrote guest stars of all time...

5. Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston damn well deserves all the success he now has, seeing as how he spent the 80s and 90s in the goddamn network tv trenches. CHIPs. Airwolf. Matlock. Walker, Texas Ranger. And, inevitably, Murder, She Wrote. THREE TOTALLY DIFFERENT TIMES.

First there was...
"Menace, Anyone?" (1986)
Bryan Cranston is engaged to a professional tennis player (played by Linda Hamilton) and is tragically killed when her car explodes. Is Linda Hamilton insane? Why does she think her dead sister is still alive? And why is a mystery writer the guest of honour at a tennis tournament?

and then...

"Good-bye Charlie" (1990)
Bryan Cranston is involved in an attempt to falsely identify a dead body. We will return to this one in a later post, because in it he is tragically upstaged by the ludicrousness of one of his co-stars.

and finally...
"Something Foul in Flappieville" (1996)
I confronted and was defeated by the prospect of summarizing the plot of this particular episode. I decided it was simply un-summarizable, but then found this glorious attempt on imdb:

All is not well on the set of a children's puppet show. Jessica is there because the shows latest puppet character, Inspector LeChat, is based on a character from one of her novels. Jessica is delighted at the idea and the general consensus is that the new puppet will likely get its own show. The show's creator, Darren Crosley, finds himself being pulled in a number of opposing direction however. Parker Cranston feels the show is losing its edge and its audience and let's it be known that it may be canceled altogether. What he really wants is to line his pockets. One of the producers thinks his wife may be having an affair while those in the creative department are fighting over credit for creating the new puppet. When a security guard is killed and someone breaks into the locked case where the new puppet design is being kept, it's up to Jessica to find the murderer.

I'm probably fondest of this Cranston episode, because it so perfectly captured the spirit of the first Clinton administration.

Also, "Parker Cranston" is actually Bryan Cranston playing someone called Parker Foreman.
"Menace, Anyone?"
I am still recovering from the 8-hour-long Blitzer-krieg pundit attack that was Tuesday night. It was like an awesome television-drama crossover episode (the classic Magnum P.I./Murder She Wrote two-parter springs to mind)—all my pundit friends were there AT ONE TIME. Jones and Castellanos and Gergen and Crowley! Carville and Martin and some blonde lady I'm pretty sure was Republican! (Gloria Borger could be Jessica Fletcher. Van Jones could be Magnum. David Gergen would obviously be Higgins. I was going to make a crack about how Ari Fleischer could be the person whose murder they'd be solving, but then I decided that was unnecessarily nasty).

And I reaffirmed my sense of the places in America I would not like to live and the people I would not like to live with. I would not like to live with these people (because they're racists) or this person (because he's sexist—he seems to have now made this post private, so I was forced to track down a weird copied-and-then-pasted version). Although I have to thank the sexist Christian man, who credited the "slut vote" for Obama's win, because the only thing liberal sluts have been able to do in large groups together that doesn't involve crazy open-minded sex using birth control is walking, and now they have another option. You know that if this guy had published his reasoned argument about slutty lady voters a week ago, there would have been organized "slut votes," and left-wing women would have gotten all dressed up in their actual, everyday super-slut clothes and gone to the polls together. Maybe they'll still do that four years from now, but it's all too possible someone will call them sluts for doing something completely different, and then they'll start doing that together and forget all about voting in a big old harlot bloc.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you're not entertained, fair enough.
I have always known that if I were to become addicted to any substance, it would be one with sedating, rather than stimulating, properties. I am sufficiently nervy already, thank you very much, without taking something that would make me peppier and full of a burning need to conquer the world of 90s advertising.

I am also, however, tediously law-abiding, and so will never be in a position to lay my hands on whatever my dental surgeon gave me when I got my wisdom teeth out.

So what I needed was to find something non-pharmaceutical that would recreate that post-de-toothing bliss, that calm, carefree, unbothered serenity.

In the end, I found two things: Murder She Wrote and Matlock.

It started innocently enough. Murder She Wrote aired on A&E every few hours when I was younger, before that network was taken over by shows about what Jessica Fletcher would be like if she never went out and spent her time arranging her belongings into teetering, dangerous piles and alienating her family. One day, I caught just the last few moments of it - what I call the "Fletcher freeze-frame." At the end of every show, the camera focuses and then freezes on Angela Lansbury's face while she does something like laugh indulgently, shake her head regretfully, or look generally smug. It was so outrageously awful, I had to watch a whole show. In each and every show, children are innocent and sometimes poor and in need of a free bicycle, an easily-identifiable and generally straightforwardly-Biblical motive leads to murder, and some stupid, stupid person thinks an elderly retired schoolteacher probably doesn't have what it takes to solve a crime.

Before long, I was watching it all the time. 

During grad school, when I was in a vulnerable and susceptible state, some station in Kingston started running Matlock at two in the morning. Did I have room in my heart for another folksy old person who brought order to the chaotic modern
world by solving many murders that somehow often involved Patrick Swayze's slightly less successful brother Don? It appeared I did, because before long I was watching as much Matlock as I could get.

It never ceases to amaze me that it was Murder She Wrote and Magnum P.I. that had the cross-over episodes, and that Jessica and Ben never shook their heads complacently at one another and then brought someone unscrupulous (inevitably played by a guy who also guest-starred on the Love Boat, or Don Swayze) to justice.

When I watch either show, my heart-rate slows and I feel like I am being hugged by a loving grandparent who compulsively brings criminals to justice. I used to tell myself that I watched these programs ironically and so made a point of chortling knowingly to myself during each episode. But how many times can you watch Andy Griffith play his ukulele or trick someone out of money to buy himself a hotdog before your cold, unforgiving post-modern heart is conquered by a warm, forgiving, pre-modern kind of love? 

So I am profoundly grateful for Angela Lansbury and Andy Griffith, even if they have inspired unrealistic expectations about how when I'm older, I'll be really successful and happy while all around me, people drop dead.

Also, I've been planning to write about these shows for days and days, but the post ended up being unexpectedly, and regrettably, timely.

Andy Griffith June 1, 1926 – July 3, 2012

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.