Pop Culture

Meatloaf, She Wrote: The Comfort and Subversion of JB Fletcher

In the recent film Haunter, teenage Academy Award nominee Abigail Breslin’s character is trapped in a premise somewhere between The Sixth Sense and Groundhog Day. Over and over, she wakes in 1985 and does the same chores, eats meatloaf for dinner, and gathers around the TV with her family to watch the same episode of Murder, She Wrote. The mundanity, as Breslin starts to realize her predicament, is palpable.

Murder, She Wrote was the meatloaf of prime time television in the eighties and early nineties. For twelve years it served up the warm comfort food of a formulaic narrative. Angela Lansbury starred as Jessica Fletcher, a recent widow in her late-fifties who used the time on her hands to become a bestselling commercial mystery writer.

Breslin may have been stuck in 1985, but the Sunday-night ritual of gathering around TV to watch Murder, She Wrote lasted, for some families, decades.

In 1991, my mother and I moved in with my grandmother to help her around the house after my grandfather died. My mother moved back into her old room, in the drafty pre-war home that had been in my grandfather’s family for generations, and my grandmother became our landlord. Another reason for the move went unspoken: it was getting too hard for my mom to raise me alone on her teacher’s salary.

We were three women who didn’t know how to deal with ourselves, let alone each other. My grandmother and I had to shift from our roles as spoiler and spoilee—we had to learn how to function as roommates. My grandmother had a lot of rules, which she had used to raise a tidy nuclear household. I, on the other hand, was used to the rules of a single mother: a recipe thrown together with whatever ingredients you had on hand.

I never cleaned my room and struggled to remember to set the table. Despite my quiet exterior, a fiery stubborn streak (inherited from the sulky Croatians on my father’s side of the family) stomped around the house. I was a fury of pegged jeans, fresh braces, scattered books, and tom-boyish gait. I was, basically, your average middle school nightmare, only without any restrictions.

With my newly adversarial stance towards my grandmother, the role of spoiler fell on her older sister, Betty. Aunt Betty paid for my piano lessons, took me to Yosemite, and bribed me to do the simplest of tasks, like memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. It made me resent my grandmother’s new role as a second mother even more.

After going to battle during the week, we both needed meatloaf, in any form. Every Sunday night at eight, my grandmother and I would assemble on the Victorian settee that had been in my grandfather’s family for several generations and watch Murder, She Wrote. It put the disorder of our thrown-together family unit on hold, if only for an hour. Instead of an Abigail Breslin-like disdain for the tradition of Murder, She Wrote, I looked forward to its accompanying cease-fire.

Murder, She Wrote took its title from the movie Murder, She Said, which itself was adapted from an Agatha Christie novel. Each episode held to a familiar formula, replete with stock characters and tidy resolutions. Each week, someone Fletcher knew or had recently met was murdered, accused of murder, or in the vicinity of someone who had been murdered. (The cast had to accommodate the ever-expanding body count. Its guest star list was long and distinguished, a twenty-year-old Bryan Cranston, a Killer Tomatoes-era George Clooney, Florence Henderson, Neil Patrick Harris, Megan Mullally, Linda Hamilton, Julianna Margulies.) Whether the cops were competent or inept—or simply Jerry Orbach—Jessica would solve the mystery before anyone else. You always could count on her sharp attention to detail, her practicality, and every episode ending with a freeze-frame of her vaudevillian smirk. She was like clockwork.

The murders followed Fletcher into every outlandish scenario: while she visited one of her hundreds of nieces or nephews, as she protested at the mansion of a Hugh Hefner-type who bought a literary magazine, and while she hid two East German defectors. The murders even followed her home to Cabot Cove, a small, fictitious fishing village in Maine. The New York Times once calculated that two percent of Cabot Cove’s residents died during the show’s twelve-year run. In some years, more people were murdered in Cabot Cove on the show than were murdered in the entire state of Maine in real life. It had a murder rate higher than Honduras.

Despite all that violence, Murder, She Wrote had a propriety that kept it safe. The murders were often crimes of passion (read: intimate partner violence), inheritance disputes, or related to redevelopment schemes in Cabot Cove, but never as salacious as the crimes on other procedurals like Law & Order or CSI. And definitely not as grotesque as Bones or Hannibal Lector. The violence always happened off-screen. When a good old Wyoming cowboy is hanged in season two, you see only the legs dangling from the barn rafters, never the full corpse. The violence of Murder, She Wrote acknowledged the evil of the world—though maybe not the true nature of evil—while remaining innocuous enough to watch with all generations of family.

It was a kind of class fantasy. The murder victims were all fairly well-heeled, WASPY, and caught up in the kind of drama that only affects that subset. I felt safe knowing that, given my mom’s single-parent income, none of their problems would ever be my problems. I took comfort in that one Murder, She Wrote truth: if you were rich, at some point someone was probably going to try to kill you.

Like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, my grandmother was just beginning a new life as a widow and still grieving. Like Jessica, she lived in a house drenched with the memories of her husband. However, unlike Jessica, my grandmother had a pre-teen terrorizing her grief-stricken nest with Madonna and piano scales.

I didn’t understand my grandmother’s grief. I missed my grandfather and his gentle architecture. Jessica made widowhood seem sophisticated, full of publishing parties decked in scotch, shoulder pads, and intrigue. Her grief over her husband was wrapped in a neat bow and only trotted out when the plot demanded it. Widowhood seemed like it was nothing but the next, glittering chapter.

My mother kept talking about how she had wasted a chapter of her life with my father, and I wanted to make sure that no one else wasted their life, whether my grandmother thought she was wasting hers or not. I thought my grandmother should be treating this time as the opportunity for a second life, like Jessica and my mother and, also, like Aunt Betty.

Betty had been widowed not once, but twice. She spent her widowhood traveling, playing bridge, and at the theater. As far as I could tell, if Betty passed Jessica Fletcher on the street, they would share a knowing nod—and perhaps trade gossip about a mutual friend. Betty kept inviting her sister on to go see California or the Grand Canyon, but my grandmother would only say, “Another time.”

Betty had been my Murder, She Wrote cohort in the Sherriff Tupper years of the eighties, before I moved in with my grandmother. Betty would often babysit me after school or whenever my mom had a date. Watching Murder, She Wrote with Betty was like a putting a gourmet spin on meatloaf. We lounged on recliners with lambskin throws, and drank juice out of glasses etched with delicate birds.

By the time I moved in with my grandmother, Sherriff Tupper, played by Tom Bosley, had been replaced by the (relatively) younger Sherriff Metzger. Metzger was a decent substitute for Tupper, but he and Jessica didn’t have the same chemistry. Metzger often tried to tell her what to do. Bosley knew his place, and when to get out of the way.

I had thought I preferred the Bosley years.

Despite its British, conservative meatloaf-ness, there was some underlying subversion to Murder, She Wrote. Jessica lacked a few of the traditional signifiers of womanhood. She was a never mother (although she was a prolific aunt—I once counted twenty nieces and nephews). She had a career instead of staying at home like many women of her generation. How many episodes of the show began with a male character expecting author “JB Fletcher” to be a man?

She was a student of the Joan Didion style of investigation: using her slightness as a secret weapon. She often played up her little old lady-ness, tricking killers-of-the-week into confessing as the police eavesdropped around the corner.

Angela Lansbury has said that she took the part because the character was “strong-willed” and “her own person.” Jessica refused to mind her own business. Always more perceptive than the official investigators—mostly men—her help was rarely welcomed. Jessica was called every stereotype of a woman who didn’t stay in her designated lane: meddling, nosy, busybody, know-it-all. But instead of being put off by their put-offs, she used their prejudice and assumptions to her advantage.

Jessica Fletcher is a character you rarely see on-screen now. The actresses over sixty who come to mind are treated as rare birds. See: Catherine Deneuve, Betty White, Pam Grier, Meryl Streep. The unbridled Diane Keaton on Ellen, somehow more at ease with herself in her sixties than she was in the ’60s.

Jessica never remarried, though she had “romantic offers”—there’s no other word for them—from dapper salt-and-peppered men, including an MI6 officer, and even a well-tanned grad student at least thirty years younger than her.

In some ways, the lack of romance on Murder, She Wrote stays true to the stereotype that women of a certain age aren’t interested in sex. Or, even more dangerous, it possibly carried a puritanical message that idealized staying “true” to a dead husband. But in the days of Scandal and Homeland, where the only type of romance that manages to push through the narrative is grating and juvenile, the lack of any shred of romance in Murder, She Wrote is refreshing. Finding a man was not at the heart of the show. It’s about Jessica Fletcher finally finding her passion: being JB Fletcher.

In most episodes Jessica was researching, meeting a deadline, on a book tour, or giving a class lecture. Writing was her romance. She had the workhorse ethic necessary for writing—there was barely any time to tidily solve murders, let alone make time for romance.

I liked that she didn’t need—or more importantly, want—a man, since my family seemed so defined by the absence of them. Jessica had a jetsetting lifestyle, a scarf for every occasion, and literally, hundreds of friends—even if their ranks did thin from week to week. She was good at her new career and her amateur sleuthing, and an unwavering confidence got her what she needed.

The last skirmish of the generational war with my grandmother happened on a Sunday. The night before, four of my new friends and I piled on the Victorian settee to watch the scariest movie Disney ever released: The Watchers in the Woods. Halfway through the movie, the protagonist sees a girl in a blindfold reflected back at her in a funhouse mirror. We all jumped and the combined weight of our tween terror broke the frame of the settee in two.

I wouldn’t apologize to my grandmother the next day. I was terrified to admit out loud that it was my fault, because she might realize that I was too much and ask us to leave.

But it was almost as bad. “No Murder, She Wrote tonight,” my grandmother said as sternly as her petite frame would allow.

She watched Murder, She Wrote by herself that night, while I sat in my room, glaring at the transom windows that let in snippets of sound from the television set downstairs. After Jessica had wrapped up the problems in Cabot Cove, my grandmother brought me a Klondike Bar as a peace offering.

“You know, I still miss Tom Bosley,” she said quietly. I was a mess of hormones, but even then I knew that she was really talking about my grandfather. She looked as easily torn as the wrapper on the Klondike Bar. She looked defeated, and for the first time, I realized that I must have done that to her.

I looked around the room, which never quite felt like my own. My posters were still rolled up in the corner. “Me too.”

The settee was fixed and reupholstered with a bright floral brocade, and we returned to our weekly schedule. But it wasn’t the last time we watched Murder, She Wrote in different rooms. After that, she and Betty went to California, and then the Grand Canyon.

Though Angela Lansbury was nominated for the Best Actress Emmy every single season of Murder, She Wrote, CBS struggled to keep the ratings up in its later years.

In its twelfth season, the show moved from a Sunday night staple to Thursday nights, where it had to compete with Friends. The final episode of Murder, She Wrote was titled “Death by Demographics.”

The episode focused on a radio station in San Francisco that was trying to refresh its image by moving to a rock format. Jessica’s friend, a classical DJ, is accused of disemboweling one of the new, younger DJs with a fireplace poker.

I missed it, though, because I was watching Friends that night.

Around the time that CBS did away with Murder, She Wrote, Betty started to show signs of Alzheimer’s and had to be confined to a nursing home. My mom had finally saved up some money and moved the two of us into our own place. My grandmother, freed from the responsibility of raising two generations, sold the house and moved across the street from Betty. She and Betty didn’t travel together anymore, but my grandmother ventured across the street every day to visit.

In my new house, I reverted back to the makeshift rules of a single-mother. My grandmother gave me her old Sears console TV for my room, and I fell prey to the shows for my own demographic.

We no longer had Jessica Fletcher to keep us together, but I still saw my grandmother every Sunday. I’d often catch her sitting outside on the porch, gossiping with the other women in her condo. Or sometimes she was on a walk around the block, counting deer. She didn’t wind up in parties in New Orleans mansions, solving the murder of a prominent senator, or in the middle of a women’s prison riot, but by god, there was bridge.

NBC, once Murder She Wrote’s rival, recently announced their plans to re-make the series with Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer in the Fletcher role. It fits NBC’s recent programming strategy of pulling old hits out of the attic—of trotting out Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes, and others.

Spencer could have been doomed to play a series of mothers, aunts, or sassy friends. She is an actress who has struggled with a film world that rarely puts a woman, especially a woman of color, front and center. Like Lansbury, she’s an actress whose career is beginning at an age just when society expects her to recede, though Spencer is only forty-three compared to Angela Lansbury, who was fifty-nine during her debut as Fletcher in 1984.

Spencer’s vast emotionalism and expressive beauty will challenge the squareness at the heart of Lansbury’s version Fletcher. Spencer will crack open the part, and bring a warmth to the reserved world of Murder, She Wrote, and make the part her own. It’s more exciting for a show to be reborn than to be rewarmed. Besides, that world of JB Fletcher doesn’t exist anymore—if a world where Linda Hamilton is a polo-shirted tennis pro ever existed in the first place. The meatloaf that we want from prime time has changed, thank god.

The only essence that the show should keep of Murder, She Wrote: a woman in a romance with becoming herself.

Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.