For many years now, I have believed that nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions you can experience. Nostalgia is defined in the dictionary as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” I am certainly someone who finds comfort in revisiting things from my youth. (As I write this, I am wearing a Johnny Fever T-shirt.) And one of the things attached to the happier memories I have of my childhood is watching the wildly successful hit series Murder, She Wrote with my grandmother.
If you are unfamiliar with Murder, She Wrote, let me give you a quick intro: It was an hour-long mystery show that aired on CBS from 1984-1996. It starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a widow living in Cabot Cove, Maine, who became a bestselling author after her husband died. She wrote popular mystery novels, and she was also handy at solving murders, which was a good thing because people seemed to die wherever she went. (Life hack: If you want to reach old age, never hang around with Jessica Fletcher.) Like a cozy mystery novel, the show had very little sex or violence, and it featured a slew of famous guest stars on every episode.
At its most popular, 40 million people were tuning in each week to watch Jessica Fletcher catch the killer at the end of the hour. (More like Jessica Catcher, am I right?) Jessica Fletcher was America’s Sunday night darling for many years. She brought civility and cleverness back to murder mystery shows after years of lurid police dramas in the early 1980s. For her performance, Lansbury was nominated for—but never won—the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series every year the show aired. She also holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations and wins for Best Actress in a television drama series. (She did get four of those.)
Since the show ended in 1996, there have been four television movies, two video games, and an ongoing spinoff book series of Murder, She Wrote cozy mysteries. The show is also one of the most-viewed television series airing in syndication around the globe today, introducing one of pop culture’s most beloved sleuths to a whole new generation of viewers. I recently watched the first five seasons for the purpose of this piece, and here are several reasons why I think Murder, She Wrote has such staying power:
Jessica Fletcher: If there was ever a more even-tempered, innocuous detective on television, I don’t know who it would be! Jessica Fletcher had a glamorous career, fame, and lots of money, but she preferred to live in her sleepy little hometown with her old friends. She was a modern-day Miss Marple. She always showed compassion for everyone involved in a case, even the murderer, and offered emotional and sometimes financial support to as many people as she could. She also had a keen eye when it came to spotting clues, and sharp powers of deduction. I admit I was a little concerned at her seeming lack of self-preservation as I rewatched the show. She attends clandestine meetings in remote locations late at night, in the interest of solving the case, and also single-handedly faces down murders at the end of most episodes. But I suppose the show wouldn’t have been as exciting if she just called Sheriff Amos and let him make all the arrests. As it was, she rarely got credit for her legwork. But at least her adventures made for good research for her mystery books.
It made us feel smart: Solving a crime sounds like a rewarding adventure, doesn’t it? But few people have the qualifications needed to actually do it. Police detectives go through rigorous training for their jobs. So the idea of a regular citizen not only helping the police in their investigation but being the one to solve the cases appeals to regular citizens everywhere. It’s the reason the age of the internet has spawned thousands of web detectives, who spend time searching through old cases looking for new clues.
The guest stars: What great fun it is to see all the familiar faces on each of the episodes! It like a nostalgia turducken: older stars of the silver screen working alongside popular stars from television shows, all stuffed inside a newer hit show! I watched a lot of television as a child, so it was a scream to see all these beloved character actors and big-time stars on episodes of Murder, She Wrote. For instance, in the episodes “Birds of a Feather,” Jessica Fletcher works alongside Mr. Kotter, Laura from General Hospital, Kenickie from Grease, and Bela Lugosi. (Or as they are known in real life: Gabe Kaplan, Genie Francis, Jeff Conway, and Martin Landau.) What fun it is to see Greg Brady (Barry Williams) as a tattooed bad boy, Jan Brady (Eve Plumb) as an inmate at a women’s prison, Mr. Brady (Robert Reed) as a snooty author, or Mrs. Brady (Florence Henderson) as a meddling millionaire mother-in-law!
It was silly: Despite how brilliant Jessica Fletcher may be, and how clever the mysteries get, there’s no getting around the fact that the show was sometimes silly. Starting with Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher’s homicidal hometown. The internet figured out that in 264 episodes of Murder, She Wrote, there were 274 murders in Cabot Cove, despite having a population of only 3500 people. In real life, if a small town had that many murders, the government would send in the National Guard and a team of scientists to study the tap water, and change its name to Murdertown. (Also, as a native Mainer, I give the accents spoken in Cabot Cove a C+ at best.)
Another delightfully silly aspect is that not only were there murders everywhere Jessica Fletcher went, but they almost always involved her family and friends. By the beginning of season four, Jessica had three nieces and a nephew-in-law accused of murder, and a nephew who was a top suspect in killings not once, but twice! (The show never took itself too seriously, though: The episode “Witness for the Defense” even poked fun of her seemingly homicidal family.)
In all, the show provides a wholesome, lovable main character, plus fun and mystery, which allows viewers to get invested and feel smart while providing quality entertainment.
But if you ever see Jessica Fletcher at a party, you better run, just to be safe.
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Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, co-host of All the Books, and above all else, a ravenous reader. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, who hate to read.