I’ve sometimes thought that it would be great to see a show devoted to an ingenious detective who only solves decidedly minor mysteries, but with all the gravity and dedication normally reserved for homicide investigations. In this show, a missing stapler might occasion a full forensic analysis of the surrounding desk, exhaustive analysis of fingerprints, and all-night interrogations.
In part, I just love absurdity, but I also conceived of the show as a kind of response to the incredible preponderance of foul play in the world of prime-time TV. Murder is so frequent on TV, so deeply baked in to multiple genres, that it seems almost preposterous to me that shows don’t regularly address the unlikelihood of it all.
I had never seen Murder, She Wrote until this week, but from what I can tell, the show is the acme of the near-ubiquity of murder on television, as lots and lots of people have already noticed. The sheer number of murders in Cabot Cove, Maine — the tiny town that Jessica Fletcher calls home — is enormous, and to watch the show on anything but a completely incredulous level, you need to accept the fantastical statistical anomaly that is the town’s murder rate.
And you need to do it as thoughtlessly as its fictional inhabitants do. It seems to me, two episodes in, that there’s another thing you need to do to watch Murder, She Wrote successfully: You have to find the concept of death almost completely impossible to grasp, or you will be bewildered by how casually its denizens consider the implications of the Long-Duration Dirt Nap we all must some day take. This could be the central contradiction of the show: While in theory about crime, the show is, of course, really a light-hearted romp, a show you watch and forget moments later. It’s the prime example, at least in America, of the cozy mystery genre, where the divorce of murder and its usual attendant darkness is just a matter of convention. You can easily imagine its primary desideratum being just to create a pleasant feeling in the viewer. It’s as though Cabot Cove is situated in a universe where murder victims, much like your childhood dog, don’t die — they just go to live on a farm upstate, never to be heard from again. Watching it, you feel that both you and the characters have been given an indefinite deferral on the disturbing implications of death.
(An aside: One of the only things I remember of several adolescent readings of John Updike – don’t ask – is a scene out of The Witches of Eastwick that does pretty much the opposite of what I’m describing. Updike takes you through the moment-by-moment conscious states of a man committing suicide, ending in blankness. And yes, it’s as horrifying as Murder, She Wrote is comforting.)
As much as the show feels too light to really be about death, though, it seems to need deaths in a steady flow to keep its story machine humming. It trades on our natural fascination with murder and death, but then turns around and treats death so lightly as to negate its psycho-spiritual significance. It wants to us to come for the murder but stay for the cheer. I don’t know that I’m disapproving of this contradiction — I can think of a few vague problems with the idea of happily ignoring the thought of death in favor of being entertained – but at the least it creates a faintly bizarre atmosphere if you care to think about it much. Of course, I’m mostly just talking here about how once we’ve recognized a convention in a show, we can accept almost anything. This involves a sort of perverse paradox: A single murder in the rustic town of Cabot Cove would be plausible, but week after week it becomes completely outlandish. And yet, week after week the show establishes the simple rule that we shall ignore this point and happily forego any sustained contemplation of our mortality in favor of quality time with Jessica Fletcher.
In fact, I like the show a bit more for going all out — if it played the crimes and their unraveling any closer to being a serious affair, it might have easily landed in some strange middle ground. As it is, it nicely skirts the contradiction that would threaten to make it ridiculous: A stream of homicides and sordid affairs is unwound by a smiling, charming woman any right-thinking person would love to share a pot of tea with. It requires some suspension of disbelief, of course, but that’s a trade-off I’ll happily take.