April 23, 2019

Murder, They Wrote

Before there was a television show known as "Murder, She Wrote" (the long-running CBS TV show that starred Angela Lansbury for a now-unimaginable 12 seasons) on U.S. broadcast television which was created by Richard Levinson (who unexpectedly passed away at age 52 in 1987) and William Link, there was at least one prior trial effort.

A one-season TV show known as "Ellery Queen" which ran on NBC from 1975-1976 was that trial, although there were some relevant lessons learned which the duo used to help make "Murder, She Wrote" much more successful than their first whodunnit effort. In some respects, "Ellery Queen" itself was a reboot. The long-defunct old DuMont Television Network ran a series for three seasons from 1950-1952 called "The Adventures of Ellery Queen". But the 1975 NBC reboot was more recent, and the original filmed recordings managed to make the migration to digitization (albeit, just barely), whereas the entire original 1950's series did not (at least not it its entirety, although apparently some clips exist on YouTube https://youtu.be/hRfv-cK4jI4 and its possible that old celluloid copies of those may still exist someplace, although quality tends to deteriorate over time so exactly what condition those might be in is anyone's guess).

The air time for "Murder, She Wrote" also contributed to its success: it aired on Sundays at at 8:00 PM (immediately following the ever-popular news magazine program "60 Minutes") since its inception in 1984, with only the final season (airing in 1996) being mysteriously moved to Thursdays to go head-to-head against "Mad About You" and "Friends" which ran on rival network NBC, and at that point, Ms. Lansbury opted to resign. She had worked the series for more than twelve years, and her close personal friend Bea Arthur had recently quit "The Golden Girls" so the time felt right for her to leave the show.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, during the twelfth and final season of "Murder, She Wrote", there was an episode titled "Murder Among Friends," where a TV producer is killed in her office after planning to get rid of a member of the cast of a fictional television show called 'Buds'. Complete with a coffee shop setting remarkably similar to the one featured on the sitcom "Friends" and snarky repartee, 'Buds' was a not-so-subtle stab at "Friends", coming at a time when "Murder, She Wrote" was placed right against the then-hip ratings juggernaut.

Critics were not especially kind to "Ellery Queen" when it was released. Richard Schickel, reviewing the series at its premiere in September 1975, called it "a garage-sale period piece"; he said "the presence of Guy Lombardo, some ancient autos and the oldest of detective story conventions (all suspects are assembled in one room to await the results of the detective's ratiocinations) are supposed to evoke nostalgia. They do not—and the format's stasis is numbing."'

NBC, which ran the original "Ellery Queen" on television evidently agreed, and cancelled the series after its one-season run.

Following the cancellation of the original TV show "Ellery Queen", Levinson and Link wanted to rework the Ellery Queen concept, so they collaborated with Peter S. Fischer, one of the original producers of the "Ellery Queen" show, which resulted in "Murder, She Wrote", which went on to became one of the most successful television mystery series ever produced.

Like the character Jessica (Beatrice) ("J.B.") Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote", the character of "Ellery Queen" was also a mystery writer and amateur detective loosely based upon a long-running book series and magazine of the same name, only that series was set in New York City in the years after World War II ended (specifically, 1946). The series starred Jim Hutton as the titular character, and David Wayne as his father, Inspector Richard Queen.

Angela Lansbury accepted the role of J.B. Fletcher on "Murder, She Wrote" in part, because she felt the series was appropriate for an accomplished actress of her age. She was in her fifties at the time, but had a very long and successful acting career on Broadway (she co-starred with Bea Arthur in the show "Mame" and both actresses won Tony Awards for their performances as Mame Dennis and Vera Charles, respectively, the start of a life-long friendship), and did a fair number of movies, including a combination live-action and animated Disney movie named "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (she would do the voice of a character in the animated movie "Beauty and the Beast" for Disney years later).

Among the other notable similarities of the two murder mystery series' was regular guest stars. In some respects, due to the longevity of "Murder, She Wrote", there were nearly as many guest stars as shows like Aaron Spelling's "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island", though not the same number in every episode. The predecessor "Ellery Queen", for example, featured: Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, George Burns, Troy Donohue, Eva Gabor, Roddy McDowell, Ed McMahon, Sal Mineo, Donald O'Connor, Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Walter Pidgeon, and Barbara Rush as guest stars. In fact, most of those guest stars are now gone as well, which only adds to the sense of going back in time with each episode of "Ellery Queen". "Murder, She Wrote" featured even more guest stars given its 12-season run on TV.

While "Murder, She Wrote" and "Ellery Queen" shared more than a few similarities, "Murder, She Wrote" was still  a rather creative re-imagining of the central character of Ellery Queen as a small-town female, the now much-loved character of Jessica Fletcher. The character Mrs. Fletcher was a retired high school English teacher turned mystery-writer brilliantly portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who was also in her fifties at the time the show aired, and she was able to more effectively translate Levinson's and Link's vision better than a dominant male detective really could, which was a key reason for its success.

Another was setting "Murder, She Wrote" in modern times in the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine (in reality, the external scenes of the show were shot in the town of Mendocino, in northern California, even though the vast majority of the show was actually shot in a Southern California television studio; the house Jessica Fletcher supposedly lived in is a bed and breakfast where guests can actually stay known as Blair House) and rather than a retrospective look-back in time as "Ellery Queen" was, the "Murder, She Wrote" series was supposed to be set in modern times, which also made the series somewhat more relevant to television audiences.

Aside from changing the gender of the main character, another key change was to have the central character to explain the outcome to viewers, rather than to challenge to the viewer to try and solve the murder themselves. In many ways, passive entertainment was far more relevant for television than in print. People most frequently watch television to wind-down, and they want the lead characters to do the work, not do the work themselves, although for the few viewers who are sleuths, all relevant clues must be provided in the script to enable them to solve the crime at home if they wish.

That said, although I am slightly more fond of the Angela Lansbury portrayal as J.B. Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote" than I am of Jim Hutton's portrayal as Ellery Queen (I definitely enjoyed David Wayne's portrayal of his father, Inspector Richard Queen), Mr. Hutton's acting was fine, but I think the retro-staging of the show was a more limiting factor. Its not that Mr. Hutton or Mr. Wayne didn't live up to the characters, but the era they were playing in simply wasn't as entertaining or credible as the more modern take of Ms. Lansbury's were. All of the actors and actresses (including the many guest stars) in both shows were quite good; some even better than great.

Now, although the entire twelve-seasons of "Murder, She Wrote" has been long digitized and sold on DVD and various other streaming platforms (it is reportedly being considered for a new digital streaming platform owned by NBC Universal as well), it also continues to air on cable television as I write this, while "Ellery Queen" almost never made it to digitization (almost being the word to note). The series has occasionally run on cable including on TV Land, but the limited number of episodes (just 26 to be precise) made it somewhat more difficult for network programmers to schedule because some alternative needs to exist once all the "Ellery Queen" episodes have run.

But in September 2010, the "Ellery Queen" series was finally released on DVD by the Canadian company E1 Entertainment, and became available to U.S. viewers after a very long television hiatus. The original content is still owned by NBC Universal, but it had less interest in commercializing an old property so it sat in its vaults. Although "Murder, She Wrote" remains a popular mainstay on the cable network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, as well as on Chicago-based super-station WGN and even on other cable networks and a few independent television stations, currently, none are airing the "Ellery Queen" Mysteries from 1975. But while the DVD release is still available, some public libraries also have the set in their collections for borrowers to watch. But, I also see that its available on streaming services including Amazon and TVGuide.com, so the content owners are definitely taking advantage of its more recent digitization, so its worth investigating those, too.

As noted, you can see some very obvious overlaps between the two shows, including in the show's introductions. Both include old typewriters to symbolize the lead characters' occupation as mystery writers (although in later episodes of "Murder, She Wrote", we do see Mrs. Fletcher migrating to a word-processor (for an unrelated post I did on vintage typewriters and modern keyboard attempts to simulate the user experience of those, visit HERE). But, apparently the overlap did not end there.

Rather than bore my followers with all that, I created a short playlist which includes the advertisement created for the DVD release of both "Ellery Queen" and one done for the eighth season of "Murder, She Wrote" followed by an interview with co-creator of both shows William Link discussing "Ellery Queen" and another discussing "Murder, She Wrote". That playlist can be viewed below, or by visiting  the link to the playlist I created at https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfSNYYNU6TvG3GoE--sqrPS-ia_pVMt4v:


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