Saturday, December 18, 2010

WWJFD (What Would Jessica Fletcher Do?)

My grandmother was crazy about Murder, She Wrote. I used to think that was very grandma-ish of her; it made sense that she’d like Jessica Fletcher, a plucky detective who was roughly her age. And a bonus was that she could follow the plotline without having to see the TV screen—my grandmother was legally blind. So, in my mind, Murder, She Wrote joined The Lawrence Welk Show and Gunsmoke as another TV dinosaur that only my grandma could love.

But one day about ten years ago—probably when I was sick, because that’s when I watch reruns from the ’80s—I happened upon an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I’d never really watched it before, but a guest star caught my eye, some comforting face from my childhood like Ben Murphy or Shirley Jones. The plot was a tidy puzzle, with clues scattered like treasures at a mildly intriguing garage sale. It was fun and soothing in a perverse, murder-y sort of way. I watched another. And another.

Before long, I was a full-on fan—an easy thing to be because that show, a darling of syndication, was on freakin’ all the time. But I didn’t go around telling people I watched it; my friends were all coked up on their Sex and the City and NYPD Blue. But most nights found me parked in front of the TV at 7:00 with a plate of burrito on my lap, tuning in to see what tangle Jessica would think her way out of this time.

Eventually I began to think of Murder, She Wrote as a self-contained universe with its own peculiar laws of physics. There, as sure as gravity, the loudmouthed bully always got whacked, the young hunk was accused but always found innocent, and the victim died tidily in the parlor, with a dribble of fake blood on a dress shirt.

But the real attraction became Jessica herself. She handled every twist and turn—every sexist police detective, every ill-mannered eyewitness—with grace, kindness, and aplomb. In a word, she was polite. And as the bodies fell around her and the widows grieved and the families schemed to get the money, her politeness was an anchor that everyone clung to—even me, balancing beans and rice on a fork and thinking about my own exasperating co-workers and family members. The lesson here seemed to be, Politeness may not cure everything, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

I still think of Jessica whenever someone’s rude to me, or when a friend needs a pep talk. I know that the reason she’s wise is because a roomful of writers made her up, but that’s nothing new. In its own way, Murder, She Wrote is like Aesop’s fables, or Greek mythology, or, one might argue, the Bible. They’re all just stories about how we (humans, gods, tortoises) should treat each other. And if the lesson is taught against a background of murder and mayhem, that’s nothing new, either. We humans have always taken the good with the bad, the sweet with the bloody. Such is literature. Such is life.


  1. Oh my gosh. I'm a semi-out-of-the-closet Murder She Wrote fan as well (I've gone so far as to find it on streaming Netflix) and this post is just a well articulated version of my thoughts on the show, exactly. I'm so glad that I'm not the only one.

    Wait, you're not a grandmother, are you?

    Do you know how many times I have mentally asked myself "What would Jessica Fletcher do?" in trying situations? Unfortunately, the inevitable answer is generally "Jessica Fletcher would NEVER be in this situation." The thought process is still somehow comforting, though.

    I was even going to name my first cat Jessica Fletcher. It seemed perfect until she got knocked up even though she was supposedly spayed. "Mary" probably would have been most appropriate, but I switched it to "Dolores Haze."

    But anyway, I digress from the subject at hand which is how much I love Jessica Fletcher.

  2. Katie! Thanks for your comment and glad you're semi-out of the closet -- welcome to Fletcher Nation. I too often find myself in situations that Jessica would never let herself get into. And she would be better dressed.

  3. I'm in my mid 30s, and also recently rediscovered the series that would have found me leaving the room when my grandmother was around.
    You have said in a nutshell what I've realized is so interesting about Jessica Fletcher. She never loses her cool, and quickly handles every awkward situation with little fuss - even if she's being kidnapped. Through the daily routine of life, and before making a hasty decision, I too have found myself asking WWJFD, silently to myself, and can almost hear her response ;-)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Alex! It's handy to have a role model in case we're ever kidnapped, isn't it?

  4. I love this post! I frequently watched Murder She Wrote with my mother when I would visit her. And then I kept watching. She was polite, funny and even ran in her pumps. She reminded me of my mother, who was the queen of politeness, but Jessica wa much more curious and asked many more questions than my mother's politeness would have ever allowed. And I never saw my mother run. But who knows, maybe when Mom was with her friends she asked herself WWJFD, and revealed herself an entirely different person! Ther are some signs that point to that.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Amy. Yes, I think you're onto something -- maybe a lot of us watch because Jessica is likes our mom, or like the mom we wish we'd had. There's definitely something archetypal at work there.