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Retro TV: A Serial Killer Stalks Cabot Cove

Ever wonder what happened to whodunnits outside of the cop/doctor procedurals? The answer, in part, is that suspension of disbelief killed them. The answer in full is that Jessica Fletcher killed them.

To the first point, every show on television — heck, every work of fiction — requires the audience to eventually accept something that is otherwise unacceptable; to believe the impossible, as it was once posed. You have to believe that after umpteen seasons of Hell’s Kitchen there will still be half-witted delusionals who will render a half-cooked chicken and then get up in Gordon Ramsay’s grill about it. You have to believe that the entire cast of New Girl, their characters anyway, would actually do the things they do all the time and would never once be hauled downtown on suspicion of drug abuse. You have to believe the 2013-2014 slate of new programming for NBC isn’t going to suck outright (okay, that might be impossible, but just go with it, okay?)

For a whodunnit to work, the investigator has to have access to evidence. That means either physical evidence (police) or forensic evidence (doctor), and ever so rarely the evidence the accused offer up behind the scenes, no matter how hard they try not to (lawyers). But in the ’60s and ’70s there was a truckload of would-be sleuths bopping around, most of which had no sane business offering their services of investigation. You had pop stars who also solved mysteries such as, “The mystery of where the groupie lost her virginity,” or “the case of the purloined panties.” Then there’s the gang of young adults with the talking dog who had to crack the mystery of, “Why is the damn dog talking,” and “Who do we sacrifice to Belial to get the dog to stop talking: Velma or Daphne?”

Sorry, Velma. The Magic 8-Ball says it is you.

"I know where you live too, sonny!"

“I know where you live too, sonny!”

Yes, in many cases the suspension of disbelief over this gorge of ludicrousness is balsa slats strung together with dental floss, but that didn’t stop Murder, She Wrote from running for twelve freaking seasons on CBS. Oh, you no doubt remember Murder, She Wrote, the show where kindly mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) welcomes new homeowners into the sleepy New England town of Cabot Cove, Maine only to later find the homeowners have dropped dead. Well, isn’t it fortuitous we have a mystery writer in town! She used to be a school teacher! Or how about when ol’ Mr. Cedric down the road lips off to one of Fletcher’s closer neighbors and he is later found plugging a shallow hole in Beekeeper Stan’s back yard? In each case, it is up to Fletcher to solve the crime, which she happily does. This would be a fine bit of pre-prep for her next mystery novel, would it not?

And you really are bought in by Lansbury’s performance. What a lovely lady she is. Why…she wouldn’t harm a fly. But when she goes to talk with her literary agent in New York City, a guest in the hotel where she’s staying never wakes up in the city that doesn’t sleep. She goes out on a cruise and the gal from four cabins down is sent to float off just like a Princess Cruise from hell. Paperboy says “Boo” to Fletcher, paperboy dies. Do I need to draw a picture? I can’t. Jessica Fletcher stole all my red markers!

Let it now be told that the greatest of all crime dramas took place under our noses and we never raised an irritated nostril. Angela Lansbury may have played some dastardly roles in her time — the murderous baker in Sweeney Todd, the corrupt mother in The Manchurian Candidate — but I defy you to find a more bloodthirsy, more savage character on television today than Jessica Fletcher was from 1984 to 1996. And I equally defy you to turn away from the charm machine that was Lansbury in the role. Come on, now. You knew something was hinky when no matter where this little old lady was popping up, ol’ Jack Reaper was slicing his scythe close behind, and yet you could not bear to think the unthinkable, even for a moment…maybe Mrs. Fletcher was knocking them all off?

Lansbury won four Golden Globe awards for her masterful portrayal of saintly intuition and grace under pressure-most-foul, all the while hiding more blood than Lady MacBeth could ever attempt to scrub out. Walter White ain’t got nothing on her.

And so my initial statement, dear reader, should be plainly evident now. The modern whodunnit needs some basis in a dark, data-driven atmosphere or else it simply falls apart. It is otherwise a dead creature we’re not likely to see again any time soon, and only serves to remind you of how fragile a thing suspension of disbelief can be. Because, damn, Jessica Fletcher sure could cut a sucka.

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