Murder, She Wrote was one of the most successful mystery series ever made. It starred Angela Lansbury as mystery author/amateur detective Jessica Fletcher, and ran on CBS for 12 seasons, from 1984 to 1996 — a total of 264 episodes were made. It spawned four TV films and one spin-off series (The Law & Harry McGraw), and at its peak was regularly watched by an audience of nearly 23 million viewers. It was a CBS Sunday night primetime staple for ten years.
Lansbury was nominated for ten Golden Globes and 12 Emmys, and won four Golden Globes. Murder, She Wrote won three Emmy nominations but was shut out of the winner's circle in the Outstanding Drama Series category. It faired better in the Golden Globes, snaring six nominations and two victories.
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After it ended in 1996, a series of four MSW TV movies were released between 1997 and 2003, as well as a computer game (PC only), which came out in 2009. A second one came in 2012. A spin-off book series, written by Donald Bain, continues to be developed.
Murder, She Wrote might never have seen the light of day if its producers (Richard Levinson and William Link) had succeeded with their TV series Ellery Queen, which folded after one season. Despite their setback, the two remained enamored with the concept of a bestselling murder-mystery novelist who also solved real murders. They changed the gender of their hero, and transformed her from a handsome, absent-minded young pedant into a middle-aged, salt-of-the-earth widow.
Contrary to rumor, Murder, She Wrote was not an American version of Miss Marple -- though the speculation was understandable, given the similarity of the series title to that of a film adaptation (Murder, She Said) of one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels, 4:50 from Paddington.
The role of Jessica Fletcher was first offered to Jean Stapleton, but nine years of playing Edith Bunker on All in the Family (and Archie Bunker's Place) had worn her down -- she didn't want to commit herself to another TV series. Doris Day was also offered the part, but she too said no.
The producers then turned to Angela Lansbury, who they thought would be perfect -- but they also assumed she'd never be interested in a TV series. They sent her a pilot script and were surprised to hear that Lansbury was indeed interested. So began Murder, She Wrote's amazing 12-year run. It debuted on Sunday night, September 30, in 1984, and would make Lansbury (previously known only for her film and Broadway roles) a household name and a cultural icon.
The show follows the day-to-day life adventures of Jessica Fletcher, a retired English teacher who, after becoming a widow in her early fifties, turns to mystery writing -- and becomes fabulously successful at it. Despite rising to fame and fortune, she continues to live in her beloved Cabot Cove, a bucolic coastal community in Maine, and stays loyal to all of her old friends.
Typically each episode begins with a preview of events, and Jessica saying: "Tonight On Murder, She Wrote..." Without fail, Jessica proves herself more perceptive in analyzing a crime than investigators, who inevitably fixate on the most obvious suspect -- who always turns out to be a red herring. By painstakingly examining clues and asking probing questions, she unerringly uncovers the real murderer. Many well-known guest stars made appearances on Murder, She Wrote, but the show's writers worked hard to keep viewers guessing; guest stars could be the actual murderer, a murder victim, or just one of the supporting cast.
Jessica's relationship with law enforcement officials was, of course, problematic. Cabot Cove's two sheriffs had no choice but to resign themselves to her (admittedly skillful) meddling in their work. Nor were detectives and police officers pleased when she showed up. But her accurate deductions eventually win them over, and some are even smart or confident enough to welcome her right away. Many of them are fans of her books. Over time, Jessica wins friends in police departments across the country, and even overseas, with word of her exploits reaching as far as Scotland Yard.
In its eighth season, more of Murder, She Wrote's episodes were set in New York City; Jessica moved to an apartment there part-time in order to teach criminology.
By 1988, Lansbury was weary of the show, and observers expected the series to end by 1990, but she soldiered on. After the 1994–95 season -- Murder, She Wrote's 11th -- Lansbury found herself content to continue with the show, although her age (she'd just turned 70) was starting to become a concern to producers. CBS made the decision for her. After 11 years on Sunday nights, network brass shifted their longest-running weekly series to Thursday nights at 8 p.m. into direct competition with rival NBC's highly-rated Must See TV lineup.
Murder, She Wrote never recovered. It plunged from eighth to 58th in the ratings, bleeding nearly 6 million viewers as the audience showed itself unwilling to follow it to its new night. The network tried to soften the blow by agreeing to air the last four episodes in its original Sunday night time slot. They also commissioned four Murder, She Wrote movies over the next few years, the first of which aired in 1997 (the others followed in 2000, 2001, and 2003).