Some nights after supper, I tune into old episodes of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ to see J.B. Fletcher do her thing.
I usually watch long enough to see some of the old stars like William Windom and Polly Bergen in some of their final roles, or a young George Clooney or Bill Maher, all awkwardly delivering their corny lines with steely sincerity. The series reflected the times (1984-1995): when right and wrong were starting to blur, cell phones appeared on TV for the first time and where, over the course of the series, Angela Lansbury switched from a typewriter in the opening credits to a desktop computer and printer in the last year or so.
The show also reflected the television standards of the day: no nudity or explicit violence, women and minorities starting to headline, and every ending a happy one. The series went on and on until Angela Lansbury couldn’t stand it any longer and it got to be a joke that anywhere J.B. Fletcher showed up, there was bound to be a murder.
Each night after Murder, She Wrote, the TV line-up is over-populated by the various iterations of the successful CSI franchise. Reruns of Miami and Las Vegas, the more recent New Orleans and Los Angeles, and the brand new Cyber. (Have I missed any?) They’re all alike in most ways, with attractive investigators and geeky technicians. The casts are diverse. The action is fast and engaging.
But as I watch it often strikes me that we’re not in Cabot Cove anymore. The crimes are graphic, especially when viewed on a big screen in HD. And things don’t always end well – at least two of my favorite characters had been killed in action when the actors who portrayed them wanted too much money or just to get sprung from the show. They didn’t have Angela Lansbury’s patience.
Jessica Fletcher would be horrified by the lack of civility on these shows. I am too, a little.
I know that TV has changed, how could it not? The world has changed. But how did I change? How did I go from once being satisfied by an off-camera shooting in Cabot Cove to now needing to see the bloody mess on the coroner’s table after some poor soul has been butchered by a serial killer in Dade County? I don’t have a good answer, but I know one thing – there’s no going back.
Where I live, the truly vintage murder mysteries are shown on a channel called Vision TV. No one under forty would spend much time watching Vision TV. You have to push the channel button on the remote about twenty times to get past the so-called reality programming, and the house hunting shows to find Jessica Fletcher. It would be easy to give up and be seduced into watching something more “modern”.
As an aside, formulaic programming has taken over our TVs for sure. Singing contests, solving murders (fictional or real), property renovating or selling or buying, obsessive behaviours (like couponing or hoarding), following families of various kinds as they fight, and shop, and even make love – you’ve seen one couple looking for a home, you’ve seen them all.
Why am I watching all this junk? Why would anyone watch? Do I really think I have so much time that I can afford to waste it? I can think of half a dozen things that are more important and more satisfying than being mesmerized by someone else’s idea of entertainment (like writing a blog post). And that’s without even trying.
Tonight as I capture these thoughts, the TV has been playing in the background. Murder, She Wrote was on when I started, then Castle, and now CSI Miami. It’s all been white noise.
Or has it?
As I wrap this up, I imagine having a conversation with Horatio Caine:
Maya: “All the explicit violence and cheapening of life – how bad can it be? It’s just TV, after all, just a form of art. We aren’t dehumanized by it. It can’t be as bad as it all looks.”
Horatio Caine puts on his sunglasses and lowers his head. “ No,” he says, “it’s not as bad as it looks. It’s worse.”
I’ve watched enough episodes of CSI Miami to know H very well. He’s always right.