Monday, June 22, 2015

MURDER SHE WROTE: Complete Series (NBC/Universal 1984-1996) Universal Home Video

"I always say there are two things in life that I know how to do – one is to keep house and the other is to act. Acting usually takes precedence: the house gets a bit messy."
-        Angela Lansbury
In the annals of great sleuths, one immediately recalls to mind the immortal creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple; vintage crime-fighters, possessing formidable powers of deduction and justly celebrated for their crafty investigative skills. In more recent times, the list has grown considerably, particularly on television to include the likes of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Lt. Frank Columbo, Remington Steele and, of course, Jessica Fletcher; Angela Lansbury’s iconic incarnation of that atypical New Englander cum mystery writer turned amateur crime-solver, without the protection of a badge or the vigilante muscle to ostensibly pull it off. No worries, Jessica Fletcher’s mind is her best defense; keenly agile as her powers of observation. The brainchild of co-creators, Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S. Fischer, Murder She Wrote (1984-1996) effectively teleports the precepts of Christie’s matronly bumbler, Miss Marple, to the fictional hamlet of Cabot Cove, Maine. Yet, it may surprise some to learn Christie’s Marple is not the template for our Miss Fletcher; rather, Levinson and Link’s attempt to reboot their own failed Ellery Queen mystery series starring Jim Hutton. It barely lasted one season on NBC (1975-76).
Parallels between the two series are superficial at best. Whereas Hutton’s Ellery was an almost sedentary ne'er do well and social misfit apart from those moments when his brilliant intellect was fastidiously committed to solving baffling crimes, Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher is antithetically sociable, physically robust and very gracious, employing grandmotherly charm to deflect suspicions she is hot on the heels of catching the bad guys. As the series wore on, Lansbury gradually traded in this more homespun public persona to become a transnationally recognized and extremely well-traveled celebrity, on occasion even romantically pursued by Arthur Hill’s wealthy publisher, Preston Giles and Len Cariou’s international man of mystery, Michael Hagarty. In retrospect, the linchpin to Murder She Wrote’s success is Angela Lansbury’s quaintly domestic take on this retired school teacher, brought unlikely fame and fortune in her emeritus years when nephew, Grady (Michael Horton) inadvertently decides to slip a copy of her unpublished manuscript to his girlfriend, Kit Donovan (Jessica Browne), who just happens to work in publishing as an acquisitions editor.
The cyclical nature of fame had allowed Lansbury’s longstanding appeal as a luminous star of stage and screen to considerably cool by the time this small screen project came to her attention. Indeed, believing Lansbury would never even entertain the notion of ‘lowering’ herself to television standards, Levinson and Link were much more passionate about pursuing Doris Day and/or Jean Stapleton for the lead; the former embroiled in a heavily contested dispute with her agent over misappropriated funds; the latter, newly released from her contract to the short-lived spinoff of All in the Family (1971-79); Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-83). As both actresses turned the producers down flat, Lansbury entered negotiations, committing to Murder She Wrote’s pilot, ‘The Murder of Sherlock Holmes’, on the understanding it was never to be a weekly series; rather, a franchise of ‘special event’ 2-hour movies shot on a more casual slate and spread over the course of the next two or three years.
Alas, the beleaguered CBS, desperate for a hit, had other ideas, particularly after its Sunday airing of the pilot proved a seismic hit in the Nielsen’s. Employing a small army of staff writers to keep the show’s dastardly deaths fresh and coming, for the next twelve years, Murder She Wrote would occupy CBS’s prime time 8pm Sunday night slot, very choice real estate, geared to family entertainment. The series would remain in the Top Ten for its entire run. Lansbury was, in fact, perpetually Emmy-nominated as Best Lead Actress in a Drama – regrettably, an award she would never win. Murder She Wrote proved a double-edged sword for Lansbury; basking in the afterglow of her unanticipated new found success and garnering an entire new legion of fans at an age when most actresses are considered over the hill (if they are even considered – or remembered – at all) and toggling down into retirement. However, it did not take long for television’s breakneck schedule to begin wearing Lansbury down.
Producer/co-creator, Peter S. Fischer (who also penned some of the show’s most memorable episodes) made valiant concessions to work around Lansbury’s increasing frustrations; attempting to spin off a series or two by having Jessica introduce murder mysteries involving other characters. Former Hardy Boy, Shaun Cassidy even made a meager comeback with Season Three’s ‘Murder in a Minor Key’. Ultimately, only Jerry Orbach’s The Law and Harry McGraw (1987-88) was green-lit; the series lasting a paltry one season, though nevertheless paving the way for better things for Orbach on TV’s Law & Order.  However, the public did not take kindly to these deviations from Murder She Wrote’s formula. They wanted more of Jessica Fletcher. So, negotiations with Lansbury continued.  
Several magazine articles at the time suggested an irreconcilable and steadily widening rift of creative differences between Lansbury and Fischer. These were to culminate in a highly publicized rumor Season Five would mark the end of the series. To wrap up the franchise, Fischer wrote a rather brilliant two-part season finale. Mercifully, CBS went into panic mode; suffering the angst of losing their flagship moneymaker at the height of its popularity. Cajoling Lansbury to reconsider her self-imposed retirement with a sweetened money deal – including promises she would receive co-producer’s credit after Fischer’s departure – Lansbury stayed on, necessitating heavy rewrites to the penultimate finale. Two years later, Fischer bowed out. But his replacement, David Moessinger, incurred Lansbury’s displeasure and was reassigned (nee fired) after only one year in the executive producer’s hot seat.  
With its ever-revolving roster of guest stars corralled from a glittery assemblage of old-time Hollywood hams, and, its Cabot Cove exteriors, cobbled together from location work done in Kennebunkport, Maine and Mendocino, California, also incorporating free standing sets and interior sound stages built on the Universal back lot (including the bordello from 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas plainly seen as a substitute for Jessica’s home, redressed and redecorated to mimic the Victorian façade of Blair House; the actual bed and breakfast used as Jessica’s home exterior, photographed in Mendocino), Murder She Wrote became one of CBS’s costliest franchises to produce.
To some extent, the series began to waffle after the executive decision was made to broaden Jessica’s horizons by getting her a ‘real job’; first, as a teacher of literature at a private school; then later, as a criminology prof; permanently moving the series to Manhattan for Season Eight and onward, with only sporadic visits back to Cabot Cove. Logistically, at least, this made perfect sense, since the fictional Cabot Cove had inadvertently become the murder capital of the world; the running gag being, ‘you don’t want Jessica Fletcher at a party because somebody is going to die.’ Alas, lost in this transition was the seaside intimacy of a close-knit New England enclave, beloved main stays like William Windom’s Dr. Seth Hazlitt and Tom Bosley’s Sheriff Amos Tupper (the latter departing prematurely from the series to helm the short-lived Father Dowling Mysteries 1989-91) falling by the waste side. In later episodes, we even lost Jessica's connection to Grady.
Moreover, Seasons Six and Seven suffered a creative ennui brought on by Lansbury’s increasing absence from her own series; Jessica book-ending a handful of episodes dedicated to other crime-fighting cases. In hindsight, Murder She Wrote is not a very consistently plotted show; the writers frequently falling back on clumsy clichés and/or Jessica’s congenial ability to quietly cajole suspects into a confession without actually in possession of anything more than woman’s intuition or a blind hunch about their guilt. Nevertheless, the glue that kept this beloved franchise from imploding was Lansbury herself; presumably, she could just as easily be contented knitting booties for her grandchildren (if ever, Grady Fletcher would get around to producing some) or baking cookies for Cabot Cove’s ladies auxiliary as writing a smash series of mystery novels that garnered her alter ego an enviable fan-base the world over.        
The irony, of course, is Murder She Wrote’s longevity and enduring popularity (it spawned imitators like Diagnosis Murder 1993-02) eventually became its biggest liability; CBS’s brain trust concerned their Sunday night main staple was skewing the Geritol crowd at the expense of ignoring the more lucrative 18 to 39 demographic. Despite being given the axe in 1996 after a formidable run of twelve years, Lansbury’s amateur sleuth would not leave programming altogether; returning to prime time barely a year later for the first of four made-for-television 2-hour Murder She Wrote movies, airing between 1997 and 2003. At age 89, Angela Lansbury is still working hard with a return to her first love – the theater. And despite her initial misgivings about playing the same character over and over again in a weekly television series, in hindsight, Lansbury has grown rather fond of her alter ego, even expressing a sincere interest to make ‘one final’ Murder She Wrote movie. Mercifully, the planned reboot of the series over at NBC with Oscar-winner, Octavia Spencer has been nixed. 
Perhaps because television shows are so much a product of their own time, shot quick and dirty, in hindsight they possess a much shorter than anticipated shelf life as the decades roll on and the socio/political climate evolves, or in some cases, declines. Regrettably, a lot of 80’s TV programming now plays as rigidly silly to quaintly idyllic fluff, not simply made during another epoch in American history, but presumably from another planet; our present-day po-faced disposition feeding a self-prophesizing television landscape populated by serial killers (Dexter, Hannibal), darkly unsympathetic ‘super heroes (Arrow), man-eating zombies (The Walking Dead) and other weirdly supernatural creations (Grimm, Supernatural, Penny Dreadful, et al and ad nauseam). As such, today’s programming is very much at odds with the pie-eyed optimism of the Ronald Reagan years.
However, more recent times, 80’s television has experienced something of a minor renaissance on home video; the publics’ insatiable need for cozy, sweet and familiar ‘feel good’ mercifully never fallen entirely out of fashion, though arguably, no longer the pop-cultural norm. Despite our changing times, Murder She Wrote has remained an iconic and much treasured series from this decade. In hindsight, it has also held up remarkably well under very close scrutiny. It seems very unlikely Angela Lansbury’s particular vintage of homespun Americana will ever fade into obscurity. Let’s face it; everyone loves a good ole-fashioned mystery; particularly one as richly populated by old-time Hollywood stars. Part, if not all of the joy of watching Murder She Wrote today is to enjoy its ever-evolving roster of classic headliners appearing in modest roles; the likes of a Caesar Romero, Jackie Cooper, Cyd Charisse or Martha Scott appearing alongside Adrienne Barbeau and Greg Evigan impossible to pass up. Jessica Fletcher even pitted her wits to the Hawaiian brawn of Magnum P.I. (Tom Selleck) in 1986’s crossover episode, ‘A Novel Connection’.
Any comprehensive summary of Murder She Wrote’s 246 individual episodes is a fool’s errand that this fool in particular is not willing to entertain. Throughout the show’s run, fans have had their enduring favorites (this fan being no exception), beginning with the series opener, ‘The Murder of Sherlock Holmes’. Virtually all subsequent guidelines for the series are well established herein; including an intriguing roster of the ‘usual suspects’ (Burt Convy, Brian Keith, Ann Francis, Ned Beatty) after a private investigator, Arthur Baxendale (Dennis Patrick) is found floating face down in the pool of a wealthy publisher, Preston Giles’ (Arthur Hill) summer retreat. To complicate matters, Jessica has begun to fall in love with Giles. Despite the familiarity of locale and the introduction of Michael Horton’s Grady Fletcher, there is a decidedly different flavor to this 2-hour movie, perhaps because it was never intentionally conceived as the beginning of a series. Not surprising, some of the most beloved episodes in Murder She Wrote’s entire tenure are in Season One; among them, the Mediterranean inspired, ‘Paint Me A Murder’ and folksy, ‘Murder Takes The Bus’ – the latter, inveigling Jessica and Sheriff Tupper on a trip to Portland after when one of the passengers aboard their Greyhound bus is brutally stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver.
Not all of the mysteries corralled into Universal’s practically comprehensive box set are golden, but so many are intriguing, there is plenty for both the collector with fond remembrances and the first time novice to enjoy, admire, absorb and appreciate herein. Season Two’s notables include ‘Widow, Weep for Me’ as Jessica impersonates a well-known socialite to get to the bottom of her best friend’s disappearance in the tropics. In ‘Sing a Song of Murder’ Lansbury also played her twin, Emma MacGill – a London West End actress whose namesake is a nod to Lansbury’s own mother, Moyna MacGill. In some ways, Murder She Wrote truly hit its stride in Season Three; its two-part opener, ‘Death Stalks the Big Top’ justly remembered for its complex structure and ‘greatest show on earth’ circus motif; ‘Crossed Up’ – an obvious send-up to 1948’s ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’, with Jessica overhearing a murder plot while laid up in bed with a bad back during a hurricane no less, and finally, ‘No Accounting For Murder’ – as Jessica travels to Manhattan to visit Grady, whose boss is killed by the resident ‘ghost’ of his old office building.  Season Three also contains the intriguing anomaly; ‘The Days Dwindle Down’ – incorporating actual footage and reuniting the stars from an RKO B-noir thriller, Strange Bargain (1949) to tell a completely new story about a recent parolee Jessica is determined to exonerate of the crime of murder.
‘Indian Giver’ – a tale of native land rights gone hopelessly awry – and ‘Mourning Among The Wisterias’ – in which a popular playwright, loosely modeled on Tennessee Williams, turns up dead, are among Season Four’s most popular offerings. Season Five’s ‘Snow White, Blood Red’ is a particularly harrowing excursion, set in Aspen and with an ever-rising body count culled from prospective Olympic skiers. Season Five’s two-part finale, ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall’ – heavily rewritten to accommodate Lansbury’s last minute acquiescence to return to the franchise for another year, has Jessica’s supremacy as both a famous writer and crime-solver challenged by a vindictive and rising literary star, jealously competing to oust Jessica from her position of fame and fortune by any means at her disposal, even murder. It is roughly at this juncture that Murder She Wrote begins to lose steam with more obvious narrative cracks developing throughout seasons Six and Seven; a slump in overall quality as Lansbury steps aside to serve as the eminence gris; a sort of narrator’s bridge for other crime-solvers.
Returning to the series roots in Season Eight, producers also elected to move Jessica to New York with only sporadic ‘weekend’ getaways to Cabot Cove. As a result, Jessica’s homespun personality began to evolve; her tastes becoming more sophisticated, her friendships much more flamboyant and, alas, fleeting.  To some extent, the idyllic hominess would never return to the series after Season Eight despite Jessica’s respites away from the big city; producers taking the attitude and approach that a writer of Jessica’s caliber would naturally gravitate to more palpably luxurious surroundings. In hindsight, the uncharacteristic cleverness of these later years in the franchise seems more than a slight disconnect from the original elements that had made Murder She Wrote so beloved by fans. For its final Season, Jessica would not return to Cabot Cove, but appear in an entirely different city each week, presumably on business, only to become embroiled in a murder plot along the way; either making her the right gal in the right place at the right time or the unluckiest woman in town.  
After parceling off one of their most lucrative franchises in packaged and repackaged seasons, Universal Home Video has gathered together the whole twelve years of Murder She Wrote into one box set.  We’re still missing the four Murder She Wrote 2-hour movies made after the series official went off the air, making this set being advertised as ‘complete’ something of a misnomer at best. The first four years of these single-season sets were previously stamped on Universal’s notoriously unreliable ‘flipper’ discs; DVD-18s that infamously and repeatedly locked up during playback. The problem was with the discs, never the players, although Universal never entirely figuring out how to harness and weed out the glitches or, for that matter, apologized to collectors by offering a disc replacement program to rectify this situation. For this reissue Universal has created single-sided discs; regrettably, with the same flawed transfer quality as previously available.
Let’s get honest, folks. Seasons One and Two are near disaster ‘quality’; the image muddy and soft; colors muted and/or suffering from moderate to, at times, severe fading; age-related artifacts are everywhere, and there is a lot of digitized grain. Worse, no one doing ‘quality control’ at Universal bothered to check Season One/Disc Two’s ‘Hooray For Homicide’; the episode in which Jessica goes Hollywood to stop a spurious film producer from making a cinematic mockery of her best seller, ‘The Corpse Danced At Midnight’.  This episode, which repeatedly locked on Universal’s DVD-18 flipper disc, succumbs to the same glitches herein. Only this time the repeated freezing and digital combing of the image having been factored into the actual transfer. This disc does not lock up. Rather, the image harvest gleaned from the flawed disc does; the counter on your player continuing to move forward even as the image itself repeatedly stalls, freezes and suffers from severe haloing. Honestly, was no one at Universal aware this was going on? 
It is important to recall Murder She Wrote was shot on 35mm film, not digital tape, so there really is NO GOOD REASON for these episodes to look as awful as they do. Interestingly, the overall quality of the masters takes a quantum leap forward from Seasons Three to Seven; colors becoming more refined and stable; the overall appearance very crisp and solid with minimal age-related artifacts present. From Season Seven to Season Twelve there are other issues that need to be resolved. We get an inexplicable amount of video-based noise plaguing virtually all of Season Eight; severe color bleeding and fading, a lot of dirt and scratches and a general softening of the image. Seasons Ten and Eleven suffer from a considerable amount of edge effects. Season Twelve returns to a more stable and pleasing overall quality; the video-noise and edge effects gone – the issue of dirt, scratches and other age-related debris never entirely resolved. The audio remains consistently rendered across all twelve seasons. It’s 2.0 mono Dolby Digital; nothing to set the world on fire but adequately reproducing and feeling very much like vintage 80’s TV Americana. A word about the Magnum P.I. crossover episode, ‘A Novel Connection’ included herein. It is atrocious and virtually unwatchable: plagued by low contrast, bleeding colors, heavy dirt and digitized grain. Honestly, if this is the only way to see this episode I could have just as easily done without it. Extras have all been ported over from the old DVD releases. No new extras. We get "The Great ‘80s Flashback," "Origin of a Series," "Recipe of a Hit," "America's Top Sleuths," and "The Perils of Success”.
Overall, this is a very inconsistently produced and somewhat disappointing box set. For the whopping price tag Universal has afforded it, we ought to have expected much better than what is here. Murder She Wrote is such a cultural touchstone from the 80s it should have made the leap to Blu-ray by now. Evidently, a lot of work is needed before this can even be considered feasible, much less executed. It is a genuine shame no one at Universal seems to harbor even a modicum of respect for this treasured series. Murder She Wrote deserves better. If you are fan of the show, you should snatch this set up. But be prepared for very changeable transfer quality. While at least half the episodes look better than the old analog days, a goodly percentage look as though my 60inch plasma is suffering from a flashback; and more than a handful of episodes fare much worse. Badly done, all around. Bottom line: wait in the hope of better things.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1-5 – 4.5
Seasons 6-9 – 3
Seasons 10-12 – 3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO

Seasons 1-2 – 3
Seasons 3-6 – 4
Seasons 7-10 – 2.5
Seasons 11-12 – 3

EXTRAS


2.5 

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