The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote

My life has changed in many ways since working for my own company, but perhaps the biggest is that I can now watch Murder, She Wrote over breakfast and/or lunch. This is great, but it’s also ingrained the show’s weirdly specific formula in my brain, and now I feel I must write it down. The following is how about 70% of its episodes go – the exceptions are kind of nuts.

Office, day

NEEDLESSLY DICKISH BUSINESSMAN:
Your company is garbage, Desperate! Once I buy it despite hating it, I will change everything you like about it!

DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN:
Go to hell, Needlessly! The merger’s off!

NEEDLESSLY DICKISH BUSINESSMAN:
Without me your company is nothing (but I still want to acquire it)!

DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN:
That’s for me to tearfully acknowledge later and for you to shut up!

NEEDLESSLY DICKISH BUSINESSMAN:
I’m a jerk in my personal life too! (Leaves)

Office, day

REASONABLE SUBORDINATE:
Dammit Desperate, we need this merger or we’re done for!

DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN:
Shut up, closest friend with my best interests at heart! Besides, soon we won’t need Needlessly Dickish OR his money.

REASONABLE SUBORDINATE:
Dammit Desperate, don’t do anything desperate!

DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN:
I don’t have a CHOICE except the one you just mentioned!!

Car, day

JESSICA:
I’m so glad you invited me to Place Where You Live.

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
It’s so lovely to see you Jessica! How is your book tour going?

JESSICA:
Very well, thank you. I am a literary titan known to over 75% of humanity and my work is to everyone’s taste.

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
That’s great. I just hope you don’t get wrapped up in the FLASHPOINT OF LOCAL TENSIONS going on while you’re here.

JESSICA:
(Raises quizzical eyebrow)

Apartment, day

HANDSOME YOUNG MAN WHO WORKS FOR SOMEONE BUT IS OTHERWISE NOT REALLY INVOLVED:
I love you PRETTY YOUNG WOMAN WHO IS RELATED TO SOMEONE.

PRETTY YOUNG WOMAN WHO IS RELATED TO SOMEONE BUT OTHERWISE NOT REALLY INVOLVED:
Oh, but it’s no use HANDSOME YOUNG MAN WHO WORKS FOR SOMEONE! In some obtuse way this business merger makes our love impossible!

HANDSOME YOUNG MAN WHO WORKS FOR SOMEONE BUT IS OTHERWISE NOT REALLY INVOLVED:
This is weird but accurate.

Docks, night

SHADY CONTACT:
I got the stuff, where’s the money?

DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN:
I didn’t think this through.

SHADY CONTACT:
Hey, you’d BETTER have my money!

DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN:
I didn’t think this through.

SHADY CONTACT:
You messed with the wrong Shady Contact, Desperate! I will definitely and literally kill you! Not a figure of speech! If you’re murdered soon, it was me! You hear that, witnesses who heard the victim arguing with someone around this time?

Docks, day

POLICE IDIOT stands over DESPERATE BUSINESSMAN’S BODY. JESSICA arrives immediately somehow.

POLICE IDIOT:
Looks like an open-and-shut case, Mrs F. Witnesses heard Shady Contact threatening to kill him, and as a police officer I don’t like to look for further evidence or consider any other possibilities.

JESSICA:
I’m not so sure, Idiot! Can you get me his phone records?

POLICE IDIOT:
OK, for some reason it’s fine for me to share that private data. But I’m telling you Mrs F, this time you’re wrong. I know I have a 0% success rate and you solve all of the 22 murders that happen near you every year, but

Office, day

NEEDLESSLY DICKISH BUSINESSMAN:
With Desperate out of the way, this merger will definitely go through! Yes, I had a motive to kill him alright.

IRRELEVANT CHARACTER WHO LOOKS CONFUSINGLY FAMILIAR:
I reply, but say nothing of substance and never become relevant to the plot, although I look enough like someone who is that you’re no longer completely sure of what’s happening.

Lovely house, day

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
What’s that?

JESSICA:
Hm? Oh, just Desperate’s phone records from the night he died. Do you know, he didn’t make a single call to his wife that night? Don’t you think that’s odd?

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
I like you but no.

JESSICA:
All the same, I’m going to keep looking through these records.

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
Well, this isn’t at all the right context for this phrase, but a rolling stone gathers no moss.

JESSICA:
Moss… that’s it!

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
That’s what?

JESSICA:
The missing piece of the puzzle!

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
What puzzle?

JESSICA:
The puzzle of who killed Desperate Businessman!

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
It’s getting weird that you won’t just tell me what you know.

JESSICA:
I have to get to the police station immediately! (leaves)

JESSICA’S LOVELY FRIEND:
Jessica, for fuck’s sake!

Docks, night

SOMEONE’S WIFE, YOU FORGET WHOSE is rummaging through a bin at the crime scene.

JESSICA:
Looking for this? (She holds up an earring)

SOMEONE’S WIFE, YOU FORGET WHOSE:
Jessica! No, I was just… I thought I heard a dog, in the bin.

JESSICA:
I’m afraid it’s over, Someone’s Wife. You killed Desperate for basically the same mundane, practical reason as one of the male suspects, but you didn’t get much screen time so it still seems like a surprise. I found your earring at the crime scene, and when I give it to the police I’m sure they’ll prove it was yours.

SOMEONE’S WIFE, YOU FORGET WHOSE:
Not if I happen to have a gun on me and draw it now, honestly planning to kill an old lady over some fairly flimsy evidence but for some reason wanting to warn her first!

POLICE IDIOT:
(Emerging from the shadows) Drop it, Someone’s Wife!

SOMEONE’S WIFE, YOU FORGET WHOSE:
Oh for God’s sake. Why do you let her do these things as a weird piece of theatre?

POLICE IDIOT:
Her chain of evidence is always hopelessly weak, so we just have to hope you’ll either kill her or confess.

JESSICA:
It’s true. I have no reason to mention this beyond simple smarm now, but I never found any earring.

SOMEONE’S WIFE, YOU FORGET WHOSE:
Then how?!

JESSICA:
Oh, it was quite simple, really. The moss. When I saw you at the funeral earlier, the camera focused weirdly on a piece of moss on your shoe. I happened to remember that this moss only grows in one place in the world, the crime scene, and it only sticks to murderers.

But I had to wait for someone to mention the word ‘moss’ in a different context before I made this trivial extra step as if it was a moment of serendipitous inspiration, which for some reason is how we want crimes to be solved.

SOMEONE’S WIFE, YOU FORGET WHOSE:
I regret stepping in the murder moss.

Always an elevator for some reason, day

HANDSOME YOUNG MAN WHO WORKS FOR SOMEONE:
Jessica, we wanted you to be the first to know: we’ve set a date!

JESSICA:
Oh, that’s wonderful!

PRETTY YOUNG WOMAN WHO IS RELATED TO SOMEONE:
I hope you’ll come to the ceremony!

JESSICA:
Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Just so long as you don’t expect ALL of your guests to survive!

(All laugh)

JESSICA:
Hundreds of people have died around me.

(Freeze frame)

32 Replies to “The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote”

  1. As somebody who has also worked from home (for the better part of far, far too long), I can fully appreciate the mind altering effects that daytime TV can have on you.

    I commend you, Tom. God speed.

  2. Have you seen the one that jumps back to an old black and white film? Or the one set in Virtual Reality? Whenever I’m home I do much the same.

    It’s just a pity that Murder She Wrote isn’t part of the Tommyverse. Or is it?

  3. Yes, the only serial killer ever to approach my own record was that terrible woman; Jessica Fletcher! Why, she didn’t even have the advantage of most of her crimes being investigated by her own son… I can’t imagine how she remained undetected for so long.

  4. Thank you. The numberless hours in which I watched that show, unable to account for the strange spell it cast over me, have been redeemed from the abyss of meaninglessness. Have you ever watched QUINCY? It has a lot of ACTING in it mostly by JACK KLUGMAN and nobody else seems so mind or notice that he SHOUTS ALL THE TIME.

  5. As someone who translated the entire runs of Poirot and Marple for Israeli TV, I enjoyed this thoroughly.

  6. I laughed so much at this…that I must actually watch an episode some time. I feel it may be even funnier if I had the actual show in my mind :/
    Excellent

  7. Thank you for this buddy – funniest thin I’ve read in a while -bid anything it’s made me want to watch the show even *more* :)

  8. Hi Tom I think you missed the key aspect. I accuse Jessica Fletcher of being the mass murder who is actually framing people as she goes and writing spin fiction nailing people for what only she could have achieved. The correlations of murders and her vicinity lead to no other rational conclusion, really!

  9. IRRELEVANT CHARACTER WHO LOOKS CONFUSINGLY FAMILIAR!! You have thwarted my ability to enjoy a video narrative continuously for far too long!

  10. Ah, Murder She Wrote. It ran daily at around 7.30am in the weeks after I had my first baby, so I’d watch it and either fall asleep and miss a major plot point (not really an issue, though, as you illustrate) or be irrationally envious of her tidy house.

    Great piece. It had me laughing out loud :)

  11. This was great. My favorite part is that you can set your watch on the time she declares that it’s a murder (for the episodes where the death was mistaken as suicide)

  12. Very, very funny breakdown of the show, but as a die hard fan, I feel that I should explain that MSW is meta fiction, as explained in the opening sequence. The real Jessica Fletcher is actually just a widowed teacher turned author who never really solves murders. She invents many characters to solve murders, but during the writing process she imagines herself as the crime solver. That’s why at the typewriter she is unfiltered reality, but then she is seen in dream like sequences with a foggy border. Notice after the bang we clearly see the words “door opened” on the page, then in fantasy scenes you see Jessica beside an opening shining a flashlight, trying to pick a door lock, peeking through a door, and running through a door. Then at the end we can read “Arnold raced out the door”. We can infer that Arnold is the character to actually solve the crime, so by that point she has replaced herself with the character. What we are watching in the episode Is the fantasy, before she replaces herself.

  13. I adore when Jessica is thrown about and a man in a wig takes over as body-double. The reuse of actors as different characters adds a thrilling additional layer for the MSW devotee (wasn’t he a salesman and now he’s the sheriff?). The ones based in Oireland are hilarious, 4th generation Irish-American actors that have never heard an Irish accent in their lives.
    The dinner parties where a guest is introduced to Mrs Fletcher but they ignore her and create a scene by launching into an unexpected diatribe and threaten vengeance on another guest before leaving others to apologise for them. MSW/Magnum cross-over failed to live up to expectation but still worth a watch

  14. Having a wife who loved the show, I found this especially LOL. It deserves a staged reading of some sort, perhaps with hats or something to precisely identify the players. ” I regret stepping in the murder moss” is a line for the ages!

  15. You missed a critical move: 35-40 minutes in, Police Idiot must arrest Red Herring so JF can shake her head and say, “I think you’ve got the wrong man.” Red Herring is usually JF’s nephew or her niece’s boyfriend/fiancee. JF has thousands of nephews and nieces, her siblings bred like rabbits.

  16. Mhmm…I feel you (and Matlock, too–anyone?).

    Murder She Wrote Viewing Primer:

    Admire Angela Lansbury, and–in particular–JB Fletcher’s grace in social situations.

    You must guess the killer before what could be called the “second-act turn” and stick to it.
    With time, your guesses will be far more accurate.

    Please pay attention to Jessica and her friends’ “Champs Lexicaux”: (See, “I dare say…” “Why, I’d be delighted”)

    To truly enjoy the subtleties of the formula, and thereby really “get” the show, it is important within your career of episode-watching to track:

    Why JB happens to be in the situation where someone is murdered.

    What is the setting (circus, horse racing, archeological dig).

    Who hits on her (for example, the most preserved oldie of a suitably comparable age with a good job).

    The manner in which the plot is orchestrated so that the police chief/detective/interested party needs her unwilling help (new to the job, not smart enough to do it himself, wants to keep the authorities out of it).

    How she entraps the guilty party.

    Keep in mind the intended audience (senior citizens) and note general topics tailored to the dreams and fears of said audience, how “young people” are represented, the frequency of multi-generation relationships, and references to and representations of the big city, etc. vs. Cabot Cove, etc.

    Point out actors you recognize from other things, especially in regard to whose careers were more/less/as successful post.

    Commentary on clothing and set design is heavily encouraged.

    Ultimately, the successful viewer will feel themselves in some part a meta-JB, never permitting to let lie unremarked upon even the smallest of details.

  17. What’s amazing is how Angela Lansbury, w/some help from William Windom in the Cabot Cove eps, carry the show despite the usually weak plots. There’s actually some great writing in their scenes, which is partly why I prefer the Cabot Cove episodes and wish they made up more than 1/5 or so of the total.

    For me, that’s it’s formulaic is not a problem, but rather the flimsiness w/in the formula. But, eh, not too much of a problem because we’re watching for the wonder that is Jessica Fletcher, not great mystery writing. Columbo is arguably more formulaic and more ridiculous. But we watch it to see Peter Falk do his thing over and over.

  18. Oh! And once in a blue moon, it’s like they called in a completely different bunch of writers and there’s a great episode. The two that come to mind are “If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Beverly,” and “Tinker, Tailor, Liar, Thief.” The first is like a 1930s/40s farce with great goofy timing; the second is completely different, one of the international intrigue ones, but really tight and smart and a bit Hitchcockian. Really a delight.

  19. Completely accurate! I’ve always said that, before Angela Lansbury pops her clogs, they should make one final episode where it’s revealed that Jessica Fletcher is the world’s most prolific and clever serial killer and that she’s got away with thousands of murders. I see her lying on her deathbed, recounting her evil plots using clips as flashbacks. Her final words would be: ‘People were dying all around me everywhere I went but you were all too stupid to see! Stupid! Stupid! Ha ha ha ha ha! Urrrgh.” Clutches chest. The heart monitor flatlines. Beeeeeeeep. Freeze frame on her evil grinning corpse.

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