Thursday, June 22, 2017

TV on DVD Review: Murder, She Wrote - Season 1

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Angela Lansbury is a delight in these mysteries
Cons: Look at the number of stars for a clue
The Bottom Line:
Come meet Jessica
Famous writer solves murder
Still delightful show

"My Occasional Exploits Are Grossly Exaggerated, Believe Me."

Not too long after I got out of college, A&E started showing reruns of Murder, She Wrote.  Being the good mystery fan I am, I started recording and watching them, and I was quickly hooked.  But that’s been years, so I was curious to see what would happen when I sat down to rewatch season 1.  Within minutes, I was smiling and remembering just why I love this show so much.

In the pilot movie, we are introduced to Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury).  When her nephew Grady (guest star Michael Horton) finds a mystery she’s written for her own amusement and submits it, she finds herself an instant bestselling author.  By the next episode, she’s written another couple mysteries, all of which just increase her fame.

Unfortunately, her life as a mystery author isn’t all glamor and book signings.  It seems everywhere she goes, someone is murdered, and more often than not, a friend or relative is accused of the crime.  Between her sharp mind and her observation skills, Jessica winds up solving the mysteries.  Over the course of the season, she clears her nephew-in-law to be of killing his boss in San Francisco, solves the murder of a jazz musician down in New Orleans, figures out who killed a friend on his island off the Greek coast, and solves the murder of a movie producer who wants to turn her first book into a slasher.

You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about Jessica’s home town of Cabot Cove, Maine.  In fact, this show is famous for what has been dubbed Cabot Cove syndrome, an impossibly small town that has more murders than your average large city.  I always maintain that the show gets a bad rap since most people forget how much Jessica travels.  Rewatching this season, I was actually surprised at how many episodes start with Jessica in town until she is called out for some reason.  However, there are really only two and a half episodes that truly focus on Cabot Cove in this season, and only one involved any citizens of Cabot Cove.

With all the traveling Jessica does, she really is the only main character on the show.  That means this is really Angela Lansbury’s show.  And she is fantastic.  I’d forgotten just how much fun she is to watch.  She is charming and delightful, everyone’s favorite aunt.  She has no problem with letting someone under estimate her.  She just keeps going and proves her point.  It really is a shame that Angela Lansbury’s 12 nominations for this role didn’t land her one Emmy.  Since she carried the show by herself, they were well deserved.

That’s not to say that we don’t have some recurring characters here.  Jessica’s nephew Grady appears in two episodes.  Back in Cabot Cove, we’ve got Tom Bosley as Sheriff Amos Tupper, and Jessica’s friend, captain Ethan Cragg (Claude Akins).  Longtime fans of the show will get a kick out of seeing William Windom, who would recur as Dr. Seth Hazlitt starting in season 2, and Ron Masak, who shows up as the new sheriff after Tom Bosley left the show at the end of season 4, playing different characters here.  Each episode features a long list of guest stars to play the suspects.  Among the famous faces that pop up here, we have Martin Landau, Lynn Redgrave, a very young Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Reed, Jo Anne Worley, Leslie Nielsen, and Linda Blair.

I have to highlight two episodes in particular – “Tough Guys Don’t Die” not only introduced Harry McGraw, a PI played by Jerry Orbach who would show up again and star in a short lived spin off, it is also an obvious tribute to The Maltese Falcon.  (And trivia fans will also note that Jerry was Lumiere to Angela’s Mrs. Potts in the original Beauty and the Beast.)  Meanwhile, “Murder Takes the Bus” feels the most like an Agatha Christie tribute as a passenger on a bus full of strangers is killed.  Slowly, Jessica pieces together just how most everyone is actually connected to the victim.

Some people say they can identify the killer as soon as they walk on screen.  I’m not that sharp and never have been.  Heck, I can’t remember who the killer is most of the time, and I usually can figure out what the important clue is, but I can’t piece together who it points to until Jessica reveals all.  Or, if I can remember the killer, I miss the clues.  Either way, I know this show influenced my take on mysteries since its fair play is exactly what I look for in the books I read today.

This season premiered in the fall of 1984, and it is definitely dated in a few references and fashion.  However, as long as you expect that going into the show, you’ll be fine.

Season one consisted of 21 regular one hour (less commercials) mysteries plus the two hour pilot.  They are all preserves here in their native full frame and stereo sound.  (Remember the date I just mentioned.)  You won’t find anything in the way of extras here, but the shows look and sound good for their age.

Okay, I’ll stop gushing now.  Obviously, I enjoy Murder, She Wrote just as much today as I did when I first started watching it.  If you haven’t seen the show or want to revisit an old friend, I highly recommend you catch up with season 1.

Season 1 Episodes:
1. The Murder of Sherlock Holmes (2 hour pilot)
2. Deadly Lady
3. Birds of a Feather
4. Hooray for Homicide
5. It’s a Dog’s Life
6. Lovers and Other Killers
7. Hit, Run, and Homicide
8. We’re Off to Kill the Wizard
9. Death Takes a Curtain Call
10. Death Casts a Spell
11. Capitol Offense
12. Broadway Malady
13. Murder to a Jazz Beat
14. My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean
15. Paint Me a Murder
16. Tough Guys Don’t Die
17. Sudden Death
18. Footnote to Murder
19. Murder Takes the Bus
20. Armed Response
21. Murder at the Oasis
22. Funeral at Fifty-Mile


  1. I didn't realize that Angela Lansbury never won an Emmy for this role. Hard to believe!
    I may go back and rewatch this first season. It's one of my all time favorite shows and since I haven't seen them since the eighties the episodes will be all new to me.

  2. In recent months I had been watching on Netflix, skipping around, instead of watching in order (mostly looking for episodes I didn't remember. But I was impressed with how well the quality of the show held up over its many seasons, since many series begin to decline after the first couple of seasons. I'm definitely a Jessica fan!