NBC is dipping into the holdings of fellow subsidiary Universal TV for ideas to rehash and recently they announced plans to revive Murder, She Wrote, this time starring Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer.
If you're too young to remember, the original Murder, She Wrote, was about Jessica Fletcher played by Angela Lansbury, a recently widowed retired English teacher in her late 50s who becomes an overnight best-seller after her nephew sells her first whodunnit novel to a publisher. In between writing new novels she constantly ends up in the middle of murder cases on a seemingly weekly basis.
I can see why NBC would be tempted to revive Murder, She Wrote. The original ran for 12 seasons and over 250 episodes on CBS between 1984 and 1996, and was in the top ten for 11 of those 12 seasons. The show's demise only occurred after CBS changed its time slot to put it directly against NBC's then "Must See Thursday" ratings juggernaut. After the show's cancellation CBS continued the franchise with a string of TV movies between 1997 and 2003, who were also profitable for the network.
So before we look at the revival idea, let's look at the root of the original show's success and demise and see how they translate today.
THE ROOTS OF THE ORIGINAL'S SUCCESS:
1. Star power. A lot of credit can be laid at the feet of the appeal connections of original star Angela Lansbury, who had enjoyed stardom in the tail end of Hollywood's Golden Age, and moved onto a stellar career on Broadway. She also used her connection to that Golden Age to lure a lot of other performers from that time, as well as from Broadway, to appear on the show as guest stars.
2. The writing. The show's creators Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter Fischer, found their niche by bucking what was the predominant trend in TV crime shows during the 1980s. Back then everyone wanted to be the next Miami Vice. I'm talking about hunky, macho detectives, who drove fast cars, seduced hot women, and ended every case with a chase and a shootout. Murder, She Wrote, went back to the roots of the mystery, more Agatha Christie than Michael Mann. Violence rarely occurred on-screen, and instead of chases and shootouts, it centred mostly on uncovering clues, exposing lies, and unravelling a carefully constructed puzzle at the centre of the case. It gave viewers an almost relaxing tale of murder and mayhem.
3. Trendiness. I avoided trendiness. It was anti-trendy. The only hip in the show was the one Jessica Fletcher might have broken if she had to a fight scene. That way it was immunized from the fickleness of audiences of the 1980s and 1990s almost right up until the end.
WHY THE ORIGINAL SHOW DIED
1. Demographics. The show always skewed older than the trendier, shorter lived, lower rated, shows, but therein lies the conundrum. Marketing experts say that the key to success is young viewers because they can be convinced to buy new products while older customers tend to be more set in their ways. That's why networks will charge more for ads targeted at younger viewers, even if the actual number of viewers is smaller. It's the only think keeping MTV afloat. That put original broadcaster CBS in a conundrum. They wanted the higher rates, but couldn't really beat the high numbers, averaging well over 20+ million sets of eyes per episode that Murder, She Wrote was bringing in.
In order to get the space on the schedule CBS needed for the younger, more malleable, viewers, the network had to commit murder via their deadliest weapon:
2. Scheduling. The original Murder, She Wrote ruled Sunday nights and was essentially unassailable in that time slot. So, in order to crash the ratings bad enough to justify its cancellation, they moved it against NBC's then unassailable domination of Thursday nights.
The show went from #8 in season 11 to #58 in season 12 and CBS had the excuse it needed to pull the plug. Though they did toss the creators a bone with the four TV movies that followed.
So let's see look at the Pros & Cons of doing the show now, and how they can make it work.
1. Aging Audience Meets Counter-Programming: Baby boomers are now becoming senior citizens. They may be more interested in something a little gentler than the gore-horror fests found on CSI and its imitators, and the grittier 'ripped from the headlines' attempts at realism of other cop shows.
The Mentalist, and Elementary have had success by putting a modern twist on the old fashioned premise of the amateur master detective. Though I must admit The Mentalist lost me when they did that whole "We solved Red John! Just kidding, no we didn't he's just too god-like to catch" thing that really turned me off.
2. The star. Octavia Spencer's a good actress, seems to be very likeable, and has a Best Supporting Actress Oscar on her curricula vitae.
1. The original's success. The success of the original was based a lot on the appeal of the original star, Lansbury, the significance of the parade of guest stars, and the puzzle-like story lines. Does Octavia Spencer, who toiled in the trenches of character acting for years before her Oscar win, have the sort of connection Lansbury had with the audience? Can the writers be clever enough to top it in the puzzle department?
Octavia Spencer does have an Oscar, but the audience don't give Oscars the credence they used to.
2. The Baby Boomers. Will aging Baby Boomers, the inventors of juvenile dementia watch an updated version of a show they used to make fun of as the show their parents watched? Probably not.
But all is not lost.
There is a way to make the show work.
As the press release states, Octavia Spencer will play a hospital administrator who self-publishes a surprise best-selling mystery novel. Suddenly famous she discovers that her beloved writing teacher, Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury, is actually a serial killer. Fletcher's skill is at killing people and making it look like other people did it.
The series then begins a cat and mouse game where Spencer tries to clear those imprisoned by her predecessor's machinations.
Think about it, it could work. Plus it would explain Cabot Cove's horrendous murder rates.
Call me NBC.