Sunday, September 29, 2013

Guilty pleasure theater: Murder, She Wrote

The Hallmark Movie Channel is showing a "Murder, She Wrote" marathon, and like a boob, I'm catching as much of it as I can.

It's a guilty pleasure and here's why:

The bad:

It's so bland: The dialogue, the characters, Angela Lansbury. Would it have killed them to throw a few witty quips in there? Yes, it would have; I think the whole point of the show show was to be background noise as you folded laundry.

(Yes, I know it's supposed to be a "cozy," and by the very definition of cozy it's not supposed to be too challenging.)

Think of another Levinson and Link detective show: Columbo! A show with a captivating, hilariously disorganized detective battling wits with extremely handsome, intelligent and charming murderers. Angela Lansbury is too bland-grandma.

Allegedly Jean Stapleton turned down the role of Jessica Fletcher. Imagine what she would have done with it. I can see her putting an edge to this character.

Overuse of the Universal back lot: Watch a few episodes in a row and you keep seeing these familiar sets and outdoor scenes where Cabot Cove signs are posted. I like the stock footage New York City establishing shots that cut to Universal's New York City street set. Also look out for terrible rear-screen projection driving scenes.

The good:

If you stop folding laundry and pay attention, the clues are there and you have a chance to solve the mystery. That's the fun part. A lot of mysteries pull clues of nowhere when the detective explains everything at the end.  MSW always gave the viewer a fighting chance.

The guest stars: So many comfortable faces. Character actors whose names you never knew, though you've seen them in hundreds of TV shows, or old movie stars lured out of retirement for a quick check. And a lot of the better-known character actors turn up as different characters 2, 3 times.

Random thoughts:

Len Cariou was a frequent guest star (playing the same character), and it's interesting to think that he and Lansbury were the stars of "Sweeney Todd," on Broadway. The stars of Broadway's edgiest musical reunited for TV's blandest show.

In interviews with co-creator William Link, he said he was proud of the fact that there was very little gunplay, no chases scenes, and the lead was a middle-aged woman, not a 22-year-old blonde. I see his points, but, some of those things might have made things a little more interesting.

And speaking of middle-aged women, you have to give CBS credit, up until a few years ago, they never had any qualms about casting old people. The other networks see a 36-year-old actress and cast her as grandma (see Martha Plimpton in 'Raising Hope"). CBS didn't care about luring the kids. (at least not until "Two and a Half Men.")

I wish for once they had hired an Indie director like John Sayles to write and direct, and bring in his repertory players.

Keep an eye on the "bookend" episodes toward the end of the run. After you get to be a big TV star, you can put it in your contract that you don't even have to show up for work (see Johnny Carson). In several episodes toward the end, the show would begin with Jessica Fletcher gardening and holding a letter in her hand, and she'd speak directly to the camera and say, "I got a letter from a friend of mine today, it seems he's solving his own mystery..." Then we cut to a lead character we never met before solving a mystery. Then after it's over, we cut back to Jessica gardening again. "Wasn't that interesting?"

Man...that's just lazy!

(The entire cast of "Gunsmoke" didn't even bother to show up for that show's last episode. Can you imagine doing that today? Bryan Cranston not showing up for the finale of "Breaking Bad," or the cast of "Cheers" not showing up for their finale?)

(There was a bookend episode starring a young Bill Mahr though which was actually kind of funny. If it were a backdoor pilot, CBS should have picked it up.)

The show ended two ways, a freeze-frame of Jessica smiling, or a freeze-frame of Jessica frowning. I like the frowning ones better because in the smiling ones, the funny comment someone makes to make her smile is never that funny.

Watch for a lot of '80s poodle perms.

One episode did require a lot of work though. They reunited the cast of a 1950s Universal pictures B noir (I can't remember the title) and made a sequel to it, interspersing clips from the old movie into the new episode. How clever is that? So I will give them a little credit.

Anyway, another thing the show had going for it was it's a whodunit, a genre we don't have anymore on TV. It was an homage to  the mystery series of the 40s and 50s, like Charlie Chan, and Miss Marple. Done on the cheap, but a lot of fun.

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