Murder She Wrote: The Bottom Line is Murder

Late in Season 3 of Murder, She Wrote we get an episode set in a Denver TV sation called The Bottom Line is Murder.

As is fairly common with titles, it’s something of a pun on the episode itself—the TV show in the enter of the episode is called The Bottom Line.

It is a hard-hitting investigative journalism show which focuses on faulty consumer products. The show feels like a reference to something, but as it originally aired in February the year of our Lord 1987, I don’t know what it was referencing. I wasn’t even 10 at the time the episode originally came out, and even if I remembered much from that time I wouldn’t have watched the sort of TV shows this was referencing.

I was tempted to say it this was a generalized Dateline: NBC, as I have a vague memory of them having done the sort exposé journalism that The Bottom Line does, but Dateline: NBC first aired in 1992. Even if the writers could be that prescient, they would not have referenced something their audience wouldn’t know for another five years, so that possibility is right out.

It does seem like it was quite prescient, though. I looked up Dateline: NBC on Wikipedia and there was a section about a show that Dateline did about a GMC pickup truck purportedly exploding on impact because of poor design. The only problem was that their demonstration was completely fabricated. They planted remote control incendiary devices on the truck that they crashed and those were what caused the explosion that Dateline showed the public. An investigation actually found the burned husk of the vehicle in a junkyard and did analysis on it, finding that the fuel tank had remained intact. As a minor detail, they drove the truck into the barrier at about forty miles per hour but lied and said that it was at thirty miles per hour. It turns out that sanctimonious people are not always honest.

Actually, the entire format has a problem designed into it. A show which is focused on finding outrageous things can only find as many outrageous things as the world produces; if this is fewer per year than the number of episodes the show has, it must either cancel episodes or fabricate outrages. Worse, if someone looks at thirty outrages a year (one per week), they will become numb and require a higher dose to achieve the same level of outrage. Since the world can be relied upon to not produce ever-growing levels of outrageous material every week, either honesty or the show will have to give. (It should be noted that this also forms a selective pressure for bad judgement, which is more effective than outright dishonesty.)

Anyway, the show opens with a graphic demonstration of a bulletproof vest that doesn’t stop bullets.

The only problem is that the vest does stop the bullet, which causes the host doing the demonstration, Kenneth Chambers, to go into a meltdown. In fairness to him, though, he claims that they tried it ten times before filming and the bullet went through every time when the cameras were off. He then yells at everyone for everything, establishing that he’s a self-centered egomaniac without manners or human kindness. In other words, we establish who is 98% likely to get murdered in this episode.

We’re then introduced to a few more characters:

The guy on the left is Steve. He’s the producer of the show. The woman has a name I’ll remember at some point but she’s played by Adrienne Barbeau, which is far more memorable. (If you confuse her with Sigourney Weaver, you’re not alone.) This is Ms. Barbeau’s second (and final) appearance in Murder, She Wrote. She’s a tough-as-nails career woman who doesn’t like anyone and isn’t afraid to let them know. A few moments later we get introduced to another character, Ryan, but even though his introduction establishes that he was probably dallying with a female staffer in a closet, he’s so minor I’m going to use the shot which only shows the back of his head. We almost never see his face again, anyway:

Adrienne chews Ryan out and sends him to Mr. Chambers. Ryan is some sort of assistant and Mr. Chambers clearly needs assistance. Then we finally find out what Jessica has to do with this bunch of people:

The woman driving the car is Dr. Jayne Honig. It’s likely that Jayne isn’t one of Jessica’s many neice’s as there’s a reference made to Jayne’s wedding seven years ago and how she rescued Jessica from a dance marathon with Jayne’s Uncle Buck. Jessica also asks “how is your dear husband” which suggests that of the two it’s Jayne she knows better.

This question brings up an awkward moment, apparently the couple are having trouble related to Steve constantly being stressed and working late. Jayne has given up her career as a psychiatrist to be a full time wife in order to save the marriage, though why this is necessary as the problem is that Steve is never home is unclear.

Also, it turns out that Jessica is in town because she’s going to do a book review segment for the TV show. It’s not spelled out, but presumably this is a favor to Jayne. This was during the days of broadcast television when local TV stations were common and KBLR (the name of the station) certainly seems like a local affair. Maine to Denver is an awfully long way to go in order to review books on a local TV station.

Next we get more establishing of what a sleazeball Kenneth Chambers is. There was a segment where the police chief, acting as an expert for the show, said that while the Acme bulletproof vest (the vest from the opening of the show) is cumbersome, in a dangerous situation it’s the best safety equipment he knows. Kenneth had “the boys” do some editing, and he changed the testimonial around to have the police chief say that in a dangerous situation, he wouldn’t put it on his dog.

Steve objects that this is dishonest and unethical. Kenneth asks who cares, because it’s great television. Steve, defeated, says that he cares. Apparently no one stopped to think that this is the sort of thing which can generate lawsuits and, if nothing else, make an enemy of the chief of police which doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

Adrienne Barbeau then walks in saying that after weeks of intensive effort, she has finally dug up the evidence on some cheese producer that will “throw them into the fondue, as it were”. Kenneth declares that the story is dead, which does not please Adrienne.

Kenneth walks out, Adriene storms out, then Jessica and Jayne walk in. As a side note, these offices are really huge. It takes Adriene twelve steps to get from Steve’s desk to the door of his office. Adriene Barbeau is 5’3″ tall, so if we assume she has a 5′ stride, that makes it 30′ from the desk to the door. My house, which admittedly is not large, is shorter than that from one side to the other. This is one heck of an office.

“*Ahem* Got a minute for a famous author?” Jayne asks. Warm greetings ensue, and then we meet the final character who will make up the suspects cast. His name is Robert Warren and he is the station manager. He begins by asking Jayne when she’s going to leave Steve for him, and then remarks, after some banter, that when your best friends steals the love of your life it’s either “Laugh, Clown, laugh” or slit your wrists, and he had no blood to spare. He then charms Jessica, kissing her hand and saying that if there’s anything she wants, she has but to command. The character is played as flamboyant and over-the-top, but even so the professions of love for Jayne are far too sincere to just pass over. It’s a clue, of course—if someone is not the main suspect, background information about them is just about guaranteed to be a clue—but it’s not that well disguised. Especially because a TV station manager couldn’t plausibly be that light-hearted and unserious.

He then offers to take Jessica on the “fifty cent tour”. I’m genuinely unsure whether that’s meant to be a grand tour or a meagre one. Throwing fifty cents from 1987 into an inflation calculator, that’s worth approximately $1.15 now (it would be worth $1.19 if we use 1986, presuming that the script was written at least two months before it aired, but what’s $.04 between friends?). On the other hand, it sounds like a throwback phrase, though to when I’m not sure. If we were to go all the way back to 1925, it would be the equivalent of a $7.44 tour today. At the end of the day I don’t often go on tours that I have to pay for, so I’m out of my element here.

Either way, Jessica goes on the tour. She’ll soon get to see how unpleasant Kenneth Chambers is for herself, but first we get the semi-obligatory scene of a tough guy threatening the victim.

The tough guy, who is the owner of toy bears that Mr. Chambers is going to do an exposé on, demonstrated on the bear how he would touch Chambers if Chambers did a show about his bears. This character does show up again, but not as a suspect. For the most part people who were heard to threaten the victim are only suspected by the police if they are a friend of Jessica’s.

Shortly after this we get a scene of Mr. Chambers yelling for his assistant because his assistant was supposed to fix his TV.

This is a clue, of course—I would be hard pressed to think of a time in a Murder, She Wrote episode where a piece of technology was broken that wasn’t a clue—but it is disguised fairly well as a scene of showing just how awful Kenneth Chambers is by how he is short-tempered and yells at his subordinates.

There’s an argument that Robert Warren has with Chambers about the toy bears, saying that the tough guy (his name is Rinaldi) spends a lot of money advertising with the station and maybe they should cool it with the antagonistic episode. Chambers stands firm on principle. Then we meet someone who is, technically, a member of the cast, but she so consistently seems to be unambitious, reactive furniture that it’s impossible to consider her a suspect.

She lets it slip that she has a romantic relationship, as well as a business relationship, with Kenneth Chambers because she calls him Kenneth and then corrects herself to Mr. Chambers. This is something of a dated way of letting that information slip, since even at the time the transition from last names to first names in workplaces in America was well underway. In this case it’s especially strange since she appears on the show with Chambers, helping out in his demonstrations. Being both a mousy secretary and an on-air personality is really weird, almost to the point of saving on casting. I suppose giving her a romantic relationship with Chambers gives her some sort of motive for killing him, making him a suspect, but I don’t think that at any time it’s plausible. (Of course, the very fact that it’s implausible can be a red herring; one should always be on the lookout for the least suspicious person in a murder mystery.)

There’s some small talk, Mousy Girl says that Mr Chambers has been looking forward to her coming because he’s such a fan, etc. Then we get another clue. Kenneth leans back into his chair, knocking over the cup of coffee that Ryan the assistant was holding while fiddling with the knob on a sound system in order to get the VCR to give a video signal to the TV.

I know I always hold coffee while fiddling with nobs. How else would the detective be able to tell two identical chairs apart? There’s an attempt to disguise this clue by having Chambers fly off the handle and fire Ryan but if you’re at all familiar with the habits of Murder, She Wrote, there’s no missing this clue.

What the clue means is a different matter, though. You know that this chair and another chair will be switched, but—credit where credit is due—you don’t know why they will be switched.

Next we see Jessica, Jayne, Steve, and, for some reason, Robert, at a restaurant. Jessica works it into the conversation that Robert was a former patient of Jayne’s. Steve says, speaking of a racketball game he played with Robert, that Robert is competitive to the point of compulsion. Jessica then says, “Oh, perhaps your former psychiatrist could give us some insight into that.” But Jayne demures, saying that there are strict rules about doctor-patient confidentiality. Yeah, no kidding. Of course Jessica knows that; I don’t think that the attempt to disguise this clue as dinner banter works at all. The actors do a good job making it feel like trading wit but it really stands out.

Steve excuses himself because he has to go back to the station to work. Kenneth Chambers has demanded it, though how Chambers is in a position to demand it is not clear, since Steve is, in theory, Chambers’ boss. Shortly afterwards Robert says that he can commiserate with Steve, having worked at the station every night for the past week he can say that the station is a very lonely place when you’re the only one there. Robert then goes off home to get a good night’s sleep.

As he drives off, Jessica notices that Jayne looks upset. Asked, Jayne says that Steve had said he had worked late at the station every night that week, but Robert just let it slip that he had been there all alone.

In the next scene George Takei, sorry, Bert the janitor, discovers Kenneth Chambers slumped over in a chair. He turns the chair around and then is horrified, though of what we can’t see. It’s dark, and the bullets didn’t seem to penetrate through to the front of Chambers, so we don’t see any blood.

In the next scene Jayne is driving Jessica to the station in the morning.

Curiously, they both forgot to wear their seatbelts. This is consistent with other times that they’re shown in the car. I wonder if it was deliberate or if the actors just forgot because they were filmed in a stationary car with the driving just being a rear-projected film. The rear projection is pretty good, except that they’re on a two-lane highway that ends in the parking lot of the TV station without any kind of turning off. The station parking lot is filled with police cars and camera crews, so Jayne and Jessica discover that something happened.

We then meet Lieutenant Lou Flanagan, the police detective for the case. He turns out to be the expert that Chambers had dishonestly edited, though he never actually learns this and nothing comes of it.

He tells the reporters that Chambers was shot twice, and Jessica manages to get out of him that Chambers was shot between 10pm and midnight before he asks who she is. She is familiar, but he can’t place her, but thinks that she’s part of the media. She says no, she’s just a friend, but when he loses interest in talking to her, she pretends to be a reporter (though with plausible deniability in her wording) and was impressed that he “saw through” her.

Steve shows up from a run he was on—the man is certainly dedicated to exercise. Despite having gotten to be after 1am, he was up in the morning before his wife so he could go on a run in a sweatsuit. It’s a bit of an odd choice to do that early morning run and return to the office in need of a shower, rather than to return home, take a shower, then go to work. Nothing really comes of it, though, since it was his absence the night before which makes him a suspect. (He’s a friend of Jessica’s with no alibi, so the Lieutenant is, of course, convinced that he did it.)

During the investigation, Lieutenant Flanagan helpfully shows an ashtray with a large cigar ash in it to the camera, but it’s so blatant an action that even Jessica notices.

He then blows on the cigar ash (for good luck?) and puts the ashtray back on the desk. It’s instincts like that for bringing clues to the attention of other people which got him all the way to Lieutenant!

Then another clue turns up. The murder weapon (a revolver) was found in the back seat of Steve Honig’s car! A deputy spotted it when he looked in the window!

Flanagan asks if Steve has a permit for the gun, but Steve dismissively says that it isn’t his. Flanagan doesn’t believe him, and Jessica has had enough. She goes on a tirade about how there’s no common sense here. Why would Steve, if he was the killer, come to the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in plain sight in his car when he had hours to dispose of it?

Before he can answer, Robert Warren shows up in an exercise outfit that puts Steve’s to shame.

Warren asks what’s going on and Flanagan says that he is taking Steve into custody on suspicion of the murder of Kenneth Chambers. Apparently Flanagan has a very short memory. Warren says that he will send a lawyer along with Steve.

We’re almost halfway through the episode and the middle of a Murder, She Wrote rarely contains any clues. I think that this is to give the audience some time to think over the clues that they were already presented with. We’re given a bunch of suspicious stuff, of course. Jessica asks Jayne when Steve actually came home and it was around 1am. Adrienne Barbeau talks the blond assistant to become the new host of The Bottom Line.

Jessica walks onto the set of the new The Bottom Line and talks with Adrienne, who is the new producer. She observed that Steve never wanted the job anyway. He really wanted to be the producer, but Kenneth Chambers had made sure that Warren got that job. This might have been an interesting sub-plot, but we never learn any more about it.

Jessica talks to the blond assistant, but not much comes out. The subject of Rinaldi (the teddy bear thug) comes up. They look for the tapes of the show, but can’t find them. Jessica Fletcher talks to Rinaldi about the missing tapes, and he tells her that he paid Chambers twenty five thousand dollars in cash to buy the tapes and kill the show. This leads to a scene of a bunch of people standing around while Lieutenant Flanagan opens a safe in what I assume was Chambers’ office.

It turns out that Kenneth Chambers accepted bribes to kill stories. The cheese maker story that was killed towards the beginning of the episode was also in the safe. The blond assistant is disillusioned, and Adrienne Barbeau is excited because now she knows why the story was killed and as the new producer she’s going to run it.

This new evidence should have opened up the possibility of Chambers being killed for some reason relating to his criminal enterprise. It doesn’t, though. Flanagan gives Jessica a ride to somewhere and while riding they talk about the case and Flanagan comes up with the theory that Steve planted the tapes and money to smear Chambers’ good name and Chambers surprised him to Steve had to shoot him. How Chambers ended up sitting in his chair and turning his back to Steve isn’t mentioned, and the idea is so absurd Jessica just asks to see pictures of the crime scene instead.

Jessica notices that the chair was shot in the back, meaning that his back had to be to the door. Unfortunately for this revelation we already saw it when George Takei found the body. Flanagan says that he must have been watching TV, but Jessica points out that this is impossible since his TV was broken. Somehow it never occurs to either of them that he could have been shot while facing another direction then his chair rotated afterwards, e.g. to make people think that he was doing something so as to delay the finding of the body. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case so our sleuths not thinking of it doesn’t matter.

The next morning Jessica talks with Robert Warren to get some more information. It turns out that it was Adrienne Barbeau’s idea to revive the show with the blond assistant as the star. Warren went on to say that Chambers wanted to take the show to the national network and leave everyone behind, but with him dead everyone comes out ahead, especially the blond assistant. Personally, I don’t think that this red herring is very plausible based on the character herself, but I do have to admit that the motive was a decent one and innocents with big doe eyes have turned out to be murderers before and will again.

Jessica then steps in to watch the filming of the new Bottom Line, with the blond assistant as the star.

Claire flubs a line and they move on to another scene. Jessica runs into Ryan, who Chambers had fired by Adrienne Barbeau re-hired. Jessica says that she finds it perplexing how much better off everyone his. Ryan tells her the secret of show business. “The secret to this business is hustle. Any boob can do these jobs. You just have to make sure that you’re the any boob who gets hired.” There’s another minor interaction, but that’s the last we see of this character. He had a good line before we went, at least.

Now we finally move on to the last act before the denouement. Jessica meets George Takei, who has a bunch of evidence to give her. Jessica tries to throw away her coffee cup but George grabs it before it lands in the garbage.

It turns out that he has a collection of trash from famous people, which he offers to show her. Jessica agrees to see it because she would like to talk to him. Pleasantly, he not merely collects trash but he preserves it in a way that sanitizes it.

I thought that the embedding the trash in lucite was a nice touch. (He also bronzed an apple core someone threw out.) I suspect that this would have been funnier back in the late 1980s because there was more of a trend for preserving things in bronze and lucite back then—more typically things like baby shoes and comic books—but it’s still amusing now.

During the course of the conversation George reveals three important clues. The first is that he cleaned Steve’s office when Steve and Kenneth were fighting. The second was that Steve actually was working late every night for the past week. The third was he spilled coffee from his coffee mug, making Jessica think to look for the chair with the coffee stain, which turns out to be in Steve’s office.

Can you see the coffee stain? I can’t. We just have to trust Jessica that it’s there.

Jessica runs over to police headquarters and gets Lieutenant Flanagan to let her look at the murder chair.

Personally, I don’t see a coffee stain here about as much as I don’t see one on the other chair.

No coffee stain! That proves it!

What does it prove? We’ll have to wait for Jessica to set a trap for the killer to find out.

George helpfully plants the bait. He very conspicuously says that the chair in Steve’s office needs to be replaced because of the terrible coffee stain that no power on earth can get out. So, of course, the killer will come to take the chair away at night once everyone has left in order to… OK, I’ve got nothing. Once it’s publicly known that the chair had an awful coffee stain, removing it will accomplish precisely nothing. Still, someone has to go to the trap and threaten to kill Jessica to hush her and her flimsy evidence up.

Jessica actually waited in the chair, in the dark, for the murderer. You’ve got to give it to her—when she sets a trap, she’s willing to use herself as bait. And the murderer turns out to be…

Robert Warren!

But, there’s a twist. He wasn’t trying to kill Kenneth Chambers, he was trying to kill Steve Honig. All those things about being madly in love with Jayne? Yeah. It turns out that they were true. Robert wanted Jayne for himself and tried to kill Steve to make room for himself. But when he discovered that the man he shot in Steve’s chair was actually Kenneth—who was watching Steve’s TV because his own was broken—he figured that framing Steve for the murder would serve the same purpose.

Steve does what any Murder, She Wrote killer does when Jessica presents him with extremely flimsy evidence alone, at night—he announces his intention to kill her.

He doesn’t say it, but one gets the distinct impression he’s planning to strangle her with his necktie. Jessica asks if his solution is to kill her too, and he replies that it shouldn’t be too hard to find another writer for their book review show.

Jessica then says that he needs help. Specifically, help from Jayne. I really don’t get that last part; she’s given up her practice and a man who is madly in love with his psychiatrist probably should get help from just about anyone but the object of his fixation. However that may be, as is the case in about 9 out of 10 episodes, Jessica has witnesses waiting in the wings to hear the killer’s confession. As is often the case, one of them is the police detective.

Oddly, the other witness is Jayne. This is a very odd choice for a witness, but it gives her the opportunity to talk to him. She says that violence didn’t work before, and it won’t work this time.

Yeah, no kidding. That’s kind of the meaning of that police offer standing there in the background looking glum.

He says that she shouldn’t be there and she asks why. Would he kill her too? Then she caresses his face.

This seems wildly inappropriate no matter which way you look at it—as a psychiatrist or a married woman or the woman he murdered someone for or the wife of the woman he framed for the murder. Maybe that’s why, when she looks over at Jessica, Jessica just looks down.

The next morning Jessica talks to Steve and Jayne on the front stairs of the television station and explains why she set the trap. Steve says that he can’t thank her enough, both for getting him off of the murder charge and also for the brilliant interview she gave. Apparently they didn’t bother talking about what happened the night before until after they filmed her book review show. That’s show biz for you, I guess.

Lieutenant Flanagan then walks out of the station, followed by a gaggle of reporters. What he was doing in the station or why the reporters were in their with him, I cannot imagine. He stops at the top of the stairs and tells the reporters that it takes a trained eye to spot something like the switched chairs because of the coffee stain. He’s going to take credit for it but then spots Jessica. However, she gives him her blessing to take credit.

Which he does, with aplomb. The episode ends with Jessica, Jayne, and Steve laughing when Flanagan said, “I said to myself, ‘mere furniture? I think not.'”

The Bottom Line is Murder is, overall, a strange episode. It is very memorable, but not really for the mystery, which was not all that well crafted. Don’t get me wrong, it holds together well enough, minus it being a bit strange that the janitor didn’t hear the gunshots and the direction the chair was facing in no way being an indication of the direction it was facing when the victim died. The coffee stain indicating the switched chair was solid enough, though it was extremely contrived that the chair had a coffee stain. Likewise the broken TV causing the victim to be in the wrong place was fine, if the significance of the broken TV was a bit telegraphed. (Also fairly coincidental. It isn’t very plausible that Chambers would have had hours of footage to watch, so the odds of catching him in Steve’s office, sitting down and watching, would not have been very high. Granted, it’s fine for coincidence to be involved in the murder itself, but only up to a point.)

I think that what really makes the episode so memorable is that it has so many talented actors playing well defined—if not always sensible—characters. Adrienne Barbeau’s tough, ambitious producer leaps off the screen, even if she is barely related to the plot. Barry Corbin’s Lieutenant Flanagan is, despite his foibles, deeply likable. Judith Chapman’s Jayne makes you feel all of the trouble and pain her character is going through; one believes that she was a magnificent psychiatrist before she gave it up. She is plausible as a woman worth killing for. George Takei’s janitor was a fascinating character. He’s almost like a happy grouch, with a completely unrelatable love of garbage. One might almost want to see his collection of immortalized trash. Even Pat Klous’s blond assistant was a vivid character—so innocent, fragile, and trusting. That makes no sense for a woman who was romantically involved with a man like Chambers, not to mention being both his secretary and an on-air co-host makes absolutely zero sense. Still, she was a vulnerable almost-child, and you felt that. And then there’s Morgan Steven’s Robert Warren. He is plausible as a charming psychopath, especially the charming part.

So, ultimately, the story structure doesn’t make much sense but the setting is great and the actors are phenomenal. To some degree they’re under-developed because there are so many great characters, development takes time, and there is only 47 minutes divided by the number of characters available to develop them. None the less, it makes for a very memorable episode. I am almost fixated on structure, so I have trouble regarding it as a really good episode, but it is certainly an extremely memorable one.

I also have to say that I found the set decoration very interesting in both Steve and Kenneth’s office. (It was pretty clearly actually the same set just redecorated, with the TV/sound equipment on the back wall not even being different.) The cavernous office was so large it had quite a lot of furniture in it, so there was plenty to look at. Wall sconces, art on pedestals, five varieties of things to sit on, statues, paintings—there was a ton of visual interest. It was just an interesting place to watch a murder mystery.

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