Murder She Wrote: Steal Me a Story

Midway through Season 4 of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Steal Me a Story. Having recently watched an episode in which the writers had no idea what they were talking about (The Way To Dusty Death), we now have an episode where I actually believe that the writers know a lot about the subject: it’s set around a TV show.

The show is called Danger Doctor and is about a doctor who solves murders. The show is stylized, of course.

Dr: “If that don’t beat all. See that scar?”
Nurse: “Well, good heavens, Doctor. That looks like an old knife wound.”
Dr: “It sure does. I guess we know what that means.”
Nurse: “I’m sorry, doctor. You’re way ahead of me, as usual.”
Dr: “Unless I miss my guess, Dalton Ramsey was severely wounded… Oh, I’d say no more than two months ago. Which means he was the one who hid in the alley waiting for Agatha Baxendale’s chauffeur to respond to the blackmail note that had been sent to Agatha’s brother-in-law Sidney, the night before Naomi Randall’s elopment with [Sigfried Permutter]”

We’re actually watching the taping, so the actor doesn’t remember the name of the man with whom Naomi Randall eloped, but it gives a flavor of what the show is like.

The camera pulls back from this recording to show two people talking:

The man is Avery Stone, and he’s one of the producers of the show. The woman is Gayle Yamada, an aspiring TV writer. He explains the important parts of the show, that Gary’s down-home easy going style contrasts with Brenda’s big city point of view. She gets the show access to younger female viewers but isn’t so tough that she turns off the male viewers. (He uses the actors’ names; the doctor is “Dr. Steve Valiant,” I’m not sure that the nurse is ever named.)

Basically, Avery Stone is the businessman who doesn’t care about the art and only cares about numbers and dollars. These people seem very much to exist in Hollywood, from everything I’ve read about it. Hollywood writers like to pretend that the businessmen are unnecessary, that “great art” will attract an audience and take care of everything else. Given how few shows ever succeeded this was delusional at best, but for the most part so was the idea that you could make a TV show people wanted to watch as a frankensteinian mish-mash of popular elements, so there were no good guys here.

At the end, she summarizes the series to see if she understands as, “So, every week Dr. Steve Valiant gets involved with a major crime and Dr. Valiant solves the case with foxy down-home common sense assisted by his street-smart big-city nurse. In the end, Dr. Valiant beats up the bad guys and hands them over to the police.”

When he says that’s correct, Gayle replies that she’s not ungrateful for the opportunity, but she doesn’t think that she could come up with a story that he would like. Stone tells her not to worry, as he came up with a great plot last night.

After she reads it, Gayle thinks that it’s very good. The only problem is that “this business with the poison and the dead brother who faked his death and then the switch at the end with the fire at the mortuary” is the same as J.B. Fletcher’s new book. Gayle isn’t sure that she can just steal J.B. Fletcher’s plot.

Stone is astonished. “Honey, what do you think television’s all about? We haven’t got time to think up new plots.”

I said that I think that the writers are writing about something they know about, and I did mean it, but this conversation is a bit absurd. Plots are not proprietary things, that it is stealing to steal them. When it comes to writing, the saying is “mediocrity borrows, genius steals.”

Moreover, it would be very difficult to take someone else’s plot and put it into a very different setting and not change enough things to make it your own plot. Heck, in television, they’d almost have to change the plot just for cost savings. It costs books nothing to be extravagant but TV shows need to economize on settings. One change leads to another, and pretty soon you will have a legally distinct story even if you didn’t mean to.

Even apart from that, writers tend to want to do things their own way. Just think of how many stories are based on a play by Shakespeare—especially Romeo and Juliet. Are any of them better than Romeo and Juliet? Hardly. And yet they keep getting made, because people want to make their own versions of it.

Even more to the point, network interference is almost always in the direction of changing a story to make it more fit for television—to include car chases, fist fights, and sex scenes that were not in the source material. This is true even when a story is billed as a faithful adaptation of the original! The ideal that a network would insist on keeping a plot from a novel exactly the same in a television episode is… far fetched.

I think what’s going on, here, is oversimplification. It certainly is true that Hollywood was not built on respecting people or ideas or ownership—in fact, aside from having plenty of sunlight for filming, a big part of why the movie industry set up in Hollywood was that it was too far away from New York for it to be practical for Thomas Edison to enforce his patents there.

This setup, absurd as it is, also gives the writers a way to bring Jessica in. Gayle, her conscience troubled, finds Jessica at a local book signing.

She asks Jessica if they can talk privately, and Jessica invites her up to her hotel room. I don’t know what happens to the rest of the people who want a book signed by Jessica, though in fairness there doesn’t seem to be a long line. I do wonder who all of the people milling around the hotel lobby are—they look more like an art gallery crowd than a book signing crowd.

Gayle explains her dilemma—she doesn’t want to throw the opportunity away but she feels bad about stealing the plot to Jessica’s book. Jessica, always willing to help, proposes that they work together to come up with a new story. I have to wonder, though: why is Gayle trying to be a professional TV writer if she can’t come up with even one story on her own? She does realize that TV writers have to come up with a new story for each episode, right?

This is a strange case of writers putting the needs of their plot over verisimilitude that should bother them. TV writers love to come up with stories. The chance to come up with so many stories is a big part of what attracts them to television over writing movies or novels or other media where they come up with only one story every few years.

Gayle says that she couldn’t impose on Jessica, but Jessica asks, “why not? I think it would be a lot of fun.” Yes, it would. Why on earth does it not seem that way to Gayle?

The episode then shifts to what I assume is the next day, where we get to meet some more characters in our episodes. Here’s Gary and Brenda, who we saw above from the back:

Gary doesn’t like the lines he’s given in the upcoming episode such as, “You’re out on a ledge, Rocco. Come to grips with your iniquity while you still have a chance.” After they discuss how little they like the dialog, Brenda goes to see Bert Puzzo, the director:

Brenda asks him, “Perhaps you can tell me what the dramatic values are in this scene we’re about to shoot.” He replies, “It’s about two pages long and we have to have it in the can by 4:00 which means we hit our marks and say our lines.” As character introductions go, I’d say this one is pretty good. We get a good sense of how much this guy is here to get the job for which he is being paid done, and how little it’s about art to him.

This scene doesn’t last, though. We next see Gary talking to someone named “Leo” about how Gary doesn’t want to invest any further money into Leo’s business ventures. He then complains to his girlfriend that he only makes $50,000 an episode and 10% goes to his manager, 10% to his agent, and then after a bunch of other fees there’s barely anything left for him.

I can’t help but feel that he’s being set up as a suspect. (Interestingly, by the way, the actor who played Gary, Doug McClure, played the sheriff in Night Of The Headless Horseman.)

We next meet Sid Sharkey, who comes to chew out the directory for being late:

(If Sid Sharkey looks to you like Grover Barth, owner of the now-bankrupt Corned Beef Castles fast food empire from the episode Corned Beef and Carnage, you’re right.)

He chews Bert out for filming being late, and Bert then complains that the crew he’s working with is terrible. He’s got a blind cameraman, the gaffer is loaded by 10am, and Gary can’t remember two lines in a row.

Sid tells him that he needs to straighten Gary out, and then dangles the carrot in front of him of a new show called Undercover Urchins about 5 rag-tag street kids who work for the cops solving crimes, and if it goes he’s going to use Bert—if Bert can straighten Gary out. Bert doesn’t seem to buy it, but the conversation ends there.

This seems to be part of the realism of the episode—from everything I can tell from reading non-fiction about Hollywood written by people who were in Hollywood, it’s a great deal like the Soviet Union: everyone lies and everyone knew that everyone is lying, but there’s no point in calling anyone on it, and it’s not like you tell the truth either. Heck, one of William Goldman’s books is titled “Which Lie Did I Tell?” (William Goldman is a famous screenwriter who wrote a bunch of important stuff like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and A Bridge Too Far, but most importantly wrote The Princess Bride.)

Next, Gayle pitches the story that she and Jessica came up with to Avery Stone. The dialog is very interesting, primarily as a commentary on television:

G: “And then she starts down the stairs into the dark, damp basement. The dark figure in the shadow steps forward but we only see his feet.”

A: “Yeah, yeah, it’s… it’s… it’s nice. It’s very nice. Listen, Miss Yamada.”

G: “Very nice?”

A: “Well, it’s even pretty good. But it’s not our kind of story. Honey, it’s too original. Our audience doesn’t wanna think about what’s going on. They tune in Danger Doctor to see something familiar.”

Gayle says that Jessica was afraid that this would happen, and Avery is appalled that she went and told Jessica about them ripping off her book. She says that she couldn’t, in good conscience— and he interrupts her to tell her that she should do herself a favor and lose the conscience. This seems very realistic advice for Hollywood.

Gayle talks to Jessica, who says that she has leverage because the network has been negotiating for the rights to one of her books as a miniseries. She makes an appointment with Kate Hollander, who is some sort of generic high-level executive:

She’s on the phone with Sid Sharkey, who pitches her the Undercover Urchins show. She dislikes it and she dislikes him. When that call is over, Jessica comes in. As a side note, I love her 1980s giant hair and giant shoulder pads.

Kate Hollander is insincere, though she fakes sincerity better than did Avery Stone or Sid Sharkey. Jessica calls her on it, for some reason, though that doesn’t go anywhere. Kate knows it, so closes the conversation saying that she’s going to deal with Sid Sharkey in the strongest possible terms. Presumably that means that Sid is going to be murdered and Kate will be a suspect.

In the next scene Sid Sharkey calls Avery Stone into his office and accuses him of sucking up to Kate Hollander behind his back. He then fires him, which it seems unlikely that he can do since they’re partners with a contract. Stone threatens to have his lawyer eviscerate Sharkey. I’m now really guessing that Sharkey is going to get killed, and Stone is going to be another suspect.

The one thing which makes me hesitant that Sharkey will be the victim, though, is that there is no way for Gayle to be a suspect, which would be normal for Murder, She Wrote.

The next scene is of a problem on set, where Gary just walked off stage and Bert (the director) wants Sid to handle it. Sid demands that Bert does, and reminds Bert of several years ago when he found Bert half-fried from cocaine in a Tijuana hotel. He makes it clear that he’s blackmailing Bert, so at this point, with 3 credible-ish suspects, I think it’s a certainty that Sid Sharkey is going to be the victim, even if the police can’t suspect Gayle.

Brenda then accosts Sid and says that she needs to be written out of 3 episodes in order to do a part in a movie, and he tells her flat-out no, she’s stuck in the series because of her contract. “Now it may be a trap but it’s lined with mink so as they say, lay back and enjoy it.” So we’re now up to four credible-ish suspects for Sid Sharkey’s death.

Later that evening, Jessica goes to see Sid Sharkey for some reason, but he’s not in. She meets Frieda, Mr. Sharkey’s secretary, though:

Her hair is even taller than Kate Hollander’s! Frieda takes a phone call about a lunch at a polo lounge, then Jessica asks if she can use the phone to call a cab. Frieda instead offers to drive her to her hotel, since there’s nothing waiting for her (Frieda) at home. She leaves a note for Sid Sharkey, though.

Then we find out what will stand in for Gayle as the innocent that Jessica must save:

Jessica. This seals it. Sid Sharkey is going to be murdered and Jessica is going to be accused of it and is going to have to get herself off.

Later on that evening, Avery Stone was working late and is just going home. He’s talking with the cleaning lady while he waits for the elevator, and they hear somebody near Sid’s office.

“That’s strange, I thought that you were the last person still here.” Unfortunately for Avery, Sid Sharkey was in the elevator he was waiting for. Sid wants Avery to deal with all of the trouble, though, so he apologizes for the blowup earlier.

“No hard feelings?” “No more than usual.”

Sid tells him about the various problems going on that Sid wants straightened out, and among them are the director (Bert) being in his trailer with an anxiety attack. Sid says that they’re going to dump him and replace him in the morning, so Avery needs to find someone to replace Bert with.

This is another time when the writers sacrificed accuracy for the sake of the plot. TV shows do not have a single director for all their episodes. They don’t even have just two or three. In the first four seasons of Murder, She Wrote they tended to average, per season, around eight directors for twenty two episodes. Also, individual directors tended to also work on several TV shows at once. John Llewellyn Moxey, the director of this episode, also worked on the following shows during the same years that he worked on Murder, She Wrote: Jake and the Fatman, Lady Mobster, Outback Bound, Sadie and Son, Deadly Deception, Matlock, Magnum, PI, Blacke’s Magic, When Dreams Come True, Miami Vice, Legmen, and Masquerade. Some of those were TV movies, but I think it makes the point.

Still, while it is a dramatic oversimplification (pun, unfortunately, intended), this does capture the spirit of Hollywood: insincere, back-stabbing, cutthroat, and unstable. If one reads about Hollywood as written by Hollywood people who aren’t promoting a movie or TV show, most of the time you will hear people criticized but sometimes you will hear them praised. On those occasions, I have heard people praised for being skilled, thoughtful, patient, and even (rarely) for being kind. I’ve never heard anyone praised for being honest or loyal.

Sid walks into his office and sees a wrapped present on his desk:

He picks it up and beings to open it with an expression of childish glee on his face. We then cut to watching the result from the next room:

We then get an exterior shot of police cars and ambulances pulling up, and we fade to Jessica making her way to Sid’s ex-office. She runs into Gayle waiting in an office nearby, and asks what happened. Gayle tells her what little she knows. Lieutenant Bradshaw, who is in charge of the case, then comes in.

The detective investigating the case in a Murder, She Wrote tends to come in one of several flavors. This one is gruff. He mentions that a few years back he read several of Jessica’s books, but they were a waste of time. (Why, if they were a waste of time, he read several, isn’t explained.)

Apparently the cleaning lady described the footsteps as a woman’s footsteps, so Lt. Bradshaw suspects everyone woman even remotely connected with Sharkey. This is about as far as it goes with suspecting Jessica, though.

In the next scene Gayle drives Jessica home (well, to her hotel) in glorious rear-projection:

They commiserate over Bradshaw’s aggresiveness. Gayle mentions that she was home, writing from 4:00 until 10:00 when the policeman came to get her. Her only witness was a canary, though since there’s no reason to believe that she ever met Sid Sharkey she isn’t exactly a credible suspect. She asks Jessica where she was at the time of the murder, and Jessica was soaking in a hot tub. Gayle suspiciously asks, “was anyone with you?”

This is a very odd turn for her character to take. It’s far more initiative than she’s ever shown before, and even has a whiff of wanting to take Jessica’s place as a murder-solving writer… which she has shown absolutely no desire for before. It would be an interesting bit of character development if they follow through with it—how Hollywood corrupts even those who hate it—but I really doubt that it’s going anywhere. Gayle only really exists as a plot device in this episode, and I fear she’s going to stay that way until she leaves it.

The next day, Jessica goes to the set of Danger Doctor, where everyone is gathered in a moment of silence for Sid. Avery Stone tearfully says that they will be dedicating the rest of the season to Sid’s memory. This is another bit of Hollywood realism—the moment that someone is dead and no longer a threat, everyone loves him, at least in public.

Jessica overhears Avery Stone telling Bert that he doesn’t want a repeat of last night—he heard that Bert went to his trailer a half hour before dinner break and the assistant director had to do the directing work. This is passed off as characterization, but it does establish that Bert doesn’t have an alibi for part of the night—though without knowing when dinner break was, we don’t know if this happened during the crucial time or not.

As a side note: why would the director have a trailer? This is a TV production on a studio lot, it’s not a movie set on location. People in movies have trailers because they need temporary housing for the short time that they’re at a location. In Hollywood TV shows on studio lots, people commute in to work like a normal job. Bert would live (reasonably) nearby. I suspect that this is as much just because people are more familiar with how movies are shot than how TV shows are shot, but it may also be to make things convenient for the plot—to keep people closer than they would otherwise be.

Jessica talks with Avery, but he doesn’t really want to talk with her. He points out that she has no right to be on the set or on the studio grounds—it’s unclear how Jessica even got onto the studio grounds; they tend to have security guards and fences and what not to keep random people away—and asks her to leave. He then walks off, rather than seeing that she does leave, and Diane Crane (Gary’s girlfriend) approaches Jessica and asks Jessica to come talk with Gary. Jessica complies with this request.

The conversation isn’t very interesting except for one bit where Jessica says that she remember’s Gary’s movies and Gary says that he hasn’t done movies in over 9 years. “I don’t care to. Television: that’s where it’s at. Reaching tens of millions of people, week in and week out.”

There was, back in the day, an interesting cycle that existed, where actors would often get their first roles in television, but would pine for the glory of movies. The lucky few would make it into movies, and the lucky few of them would make it big. They’d be stars for a while, but aside from Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts, every star fades and eventually they would come back to television. Angela Lansbury didn’t start in Television—she was too early—but clearly she ended up in television. (In fact the last movie she starred in before doing Murder, She Wrote was Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971.)

He also says, “if you watch television, I’m sure that you know that good writers are scarcer than snowballs in Tallahassee.” He is correct, though I expect that the writers of the show didn’t mean that line seriously.

Anyway, the upshot is that he offers Jessica a job writing for the show. I’ve no idea how he can do this, but Jessica accepts because it gives her access to the studio to investigate the murder. He also claims to have been in his dressing room (or whatever the room is) trying to make sense of his lines from 8:30-9:30 the night before, which is a very oddly specific way to put it. When Jessica asks if he was alone, he clearly lies and says that Diane was with him, and she backs him up.

In the next scene Frieda shows Jessica her new office apologizing that they don’t have any of the good offices but those are given to the movie people.

This is the same set they use for every office, though they redecorate it for every one. It’s cavernous and always has an anteroom with no one in it, I suspect because a hallways would be a lot more expensive to decorate. It’s kind of fun to see all of the different ways they have to make the same office set look different.

Jessica talks with Frieda, who had been with Sid Sharkey for seventeen years. Originally she was supposed to get a chance to produce, but Sharkey never made good on the promise and he paid her too well for her to leave. It’s an interesting bit of character development, and does get to the truth that a great many people in Hollywood never intended to do what they ended up doing but they had to make ends meet while they waited for their chance, which never came, and at least they’re connected to show business.

A clue does come up that Frieda noticed that Sid’s office, post-explosion, had a file drawer that was open, and Frieda would never have left it open. It held Sid’s personal files, such as correspondence, contracts, etc.

There’s a very confusing scene which comes up soon after where Diane finds Jessica and begs her, on Gary’s part, to polish the script for the latest episode. Jessica refuses because it’s a television script, despite having just accepted a job writing television scripts for the show. I really don’t get why Diane is so insistent, and I especially don’t get why Jessica refuses to do the job she just accepted.

Jessica turns the conversation to asking about Diane and Gary, and asks where they really were because obviously they were lying about being together going over a script the whole time, despite Diane’s insistence that they were. I don’t know why this matters much, since her insistence isn’t worth much of anything in a court of law, but in any event Jessica pressures her and she breaks down and admits that she ran home (they live nearby) to get some medicine for Gary, but she was only gone for a short time.

For some odd reason Diane asks Jessica if she thinks that they did the wrong thing by lying to cover up this short absence (since a woman’s footsteps were heard), and Jessica gives the terrible advice to tell the truth to Lieutenant Bradshaw. “He’s a bulldog, but he’s fair, and until he has all the facts, I don’t think that he’ll make any wild accusations.” I don’t think that I’d recommend taking Jessica’s advice about anything, but should you ever find yourself in the odd circumstance of being offered her advice on talking to the police, do yourself a favor and don’t take it. We actually never find out if Diane takes the advice, because this is the last scene that she’s in.

Ironically, though (the irony is intentional), the next scene is of Lt. Bradshaw making the wild accusation that Kate Hollander killed Sid Sharkey.

For some reason there is a reporter and a photographer present for this accusation / interrogation, and Miss Hollander’s publicity agent directs the reporter to take down important information such as how Miss Hollander was about to buy a new series from Sid Sharkey. A mousy guy who might be her lawyer tries to get her to stop answering questions and the publicity guy to stop volunteering information, but to no avail.

Bradshaw asks her if she did or did not say, to Mrs. J.B. Fletcher, “I’m going to deal with Sid Sharkey in the strongest possible terms. You have my word he will no longer be a problem.” I knew that was going to come up again! She laughs, but he declares it to be a threat. He then demands to know where she was from 8 to 10, and she says that she was in bed reading scripts and her secretary was in bed with her, taking notes. That ends the interrogation.

Gayle shows up again in Jessica’s office. She thanks Jessica for her help on their script, and doesn’t want to seem ungrateful, but she’s decided that television isn’t for her. She’s got forty pages of a novel in her desk drawer, and though it means starvation for a while, she wants to give it another try. Jessica wishes her the best and offers to read the novel when it’s finished. They hug and Gayle leaves. It’s interesting that this character gets closure (of a kind), given that she was a very minor character who was basically just a plot device. It also means that what little character development she seemed to have on the car ride with Jessica went nowhere, which is a pity.

After Gayle leaves, Frieda comes into Jessica’s office with the news that she dug through the file drawer and Brenda’s personal services contract with Sid Sharkey is conspicuously absent. Jessica goes and talks to Brenda, who says she doesn’t know what Jessica is talking about. Just then, Lt. Bradshaw shows up.

I really like his line, here. He addresses Mrs. Fletcher: “Maybe we came up with the same three cherries on the slot machine, but I’ve got the warrant.” He arrests Brenda. After arresting her, he interrogates her in Jessica’s office.

No, I’m not kidding. Look:

I can only assume that they didn’t have the budget for a police station set, because this makes precisely zero sense. He’s just placed her under arrest with a warrant for her arrest—he’s supposed to take her to the police station, and from there to jail. He’s not supposed to take her to Jessica’s office. We’re also given no explanation as to why Jessica is there.

He presents the evidence against her, which is that she’s an actress who wanted to do a movie and Sid wouldn’t let her. Motive enough for him.

She replies, “Who says that he wasn’t going to let me off? The fact is: Bert Puzzo told me that Sid was having lunch with Perlman the next day at the Polo lounge. You know what that says to me? Sid was going to sell me off for a big price.” She couldn’t have known that at the time, but no one notices that. (Sid never actually accepted that appointment, either, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter because no one knew that except for Jessica and Frieda.)

She gives as her alibi that she was asleep in her trailer. Jessica plants a trap for her, telling her that the assistant director knocked several times but she didn’t answer. Brenda replies that she herd the knock but ignored it, then Jessica says that she just made it up. Bradshaw pounces and demands the truth, now that Jessica has disproved the hopelessly weak alibi Brenda initially offered.

Brenda admits that she went to Sid’s office to steal the personal services contract, because Sid wouldn’t have copies of important documents like that in a safe deposit box or on file with his lawyers. It was her footsteps that people heard shortly before 9pm. Jessica asks if she saw the pink package, and though she initially said that she didn’t notice, she thinks about it harder and is sure that she did see it on the desk.

Lt. Bradshaw exclaims, “Oh, great. That means anyone could have left it there earlier.”

Apparently he didn’t trust the alibi of being alone in her trailer, but he does believe the alibi of being at the crime scene shortly before the murder. Is that even an alibi? Perhaps he just believes in the force of his imperious commands to start telling the truth?

Be that as it may, Jessica replies, “Not just anyone. Someone specific.” Bradshaw asks her to share, but Jessica instead asks Frieda to come in, after ascertaining that the company is working until midnight. She knows who did it, but they have no proof, so they’re going to need a trap. I love how Jessica puts it: “Look, I don’t know how legal this is or if it’ll work, but without any real proof, it may be the only chance we have to catch the killer.”

I also love Bradshaw’s face when he hears this:

We next see Frieda confronting Bert and telling him that she knows that he murdered Sid, explaining that she knew he was in Sid’s office that night because he told Brenda about the appointment Sid had with Buddy Perlman and that call came in at 7pm, so he could only have known about it when he was putting the bomb on Sid’s desk. She then blackmails him and Avery Stone interrupts saying that he needs some notes typed up. Frieda complains that it will take hours, but Stone insists. Frieda says that she’ll talk with Bert later.

The Lieutenant and Jessica wait in Jessica’s office while Frieda types, but Puzzo never comes in to try to murder her. A police officer comes up and tells them that Puzzo never took the bait. The company broke only once for half an hour to eat, and during that time Puzzo only left to put his briefcase in the trunk of his car. Jessica finds this suspicious, because she has seen his car and it has no trunk.

Technically, she’s right. Earlier in the episode, when Diane was talking with Jessica, we did see Bert get into his jeep. This is the rare case of having to see something in the background of an episode:

A moment later he pulled back, revealing that in fact his jeep does not have a trunk, per se:

That said, saying that he put something into his trunk as a description for putting something into the storage area behind the seats would be a very natural way of describing that. It’s also very curious that they actually worked subtle detail into this scene when something else was going on.

Still, as I said, it’s not very convincing detail. Which is why, I suppose, they had to work into the script that it wasn’t. Jessica asks what kind of car was it Bert put the suitcase into, and where was it parked.

The next scene is a final scene of one of the Danger Doctor episodes:

I find it a little bit amusing that they’ve blocked the actors from our perspective, not from the perspective of the camera which is ostensibly filming. The director then calls cut and it’s a wrap. Jessica urgently talks to Bert. She tells him that something is up with Frieda, but he won’t believe it. When they walk to Bert’s trailer, Frieda approaches them carrying a gun. She demands that they go to her car, as she’s taking Bert in to the police.

When they get into the car, Frieda demands that Bert start the engine. When Bert refuses, Jessica says, “then I’ll do it” and reaches for the ignition. Bert shrieks “no!” and jumps out of the car in a dramatic roll, covering his head:

Police walk in from all angles. Lt. Bradshaw tells Bert that they already removed the bomb from the car that he’d planted. I’m not sure how he’d have planted an ignition-triggered bomb in the trunk, but perhaps he pulled an electrical line from the trunk light switch and wired into that. Bert just looks confused and scared.

The next day, Lt. Bradshaw thanks Jessica for her help. “Well, Mrs. Fletcher, I guess I oughta say thanks. You may not be much of a writer, but you’d make one hell of a cop.” Jessica replies, “Well, I’ll take that in the spirit in which it was intended… I think.” He offers her a ride, but she declines, saying that she needs to go resign as a writer for the show.

On her way to do that, she’s waylaid by Kate Hollander, who pitches the Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour: the real life adventures of a crime-busting mystery writer. It will be “new, different, original… but familiar.”

Jessica replies, “Miss Hollander, I don’t write gun fights, car chases, or bedroom scenes, so who would watch? I’m sorry, but that is absolutely the worst idea that I have ever heard.” Then she laughs and we go to credits.

Overall, it’s a decent episode. It has interesting actors more than interesting characters, but they’re enjoyable to watch. I think that the weak characters were due to the episode having a larger than ordinary cast, so there wasn’t time to develop any of the characters. Frieda and Kate Hollander could have been cut from the episode with very little loss to it, though obviously with some minor changes. Brenda could have blackmailed Bert, and Sid Sharkey could have taken Kate’s role except for her closing joke (since he was dead by then; Avery Stone could have pitched the new show). Gayle could easily have been cut as well, with only a small modification necessary to bring Jessica in, or else her character could have been expanded if some others had been removed. It also would have done very little harm to the episode if Diane hadn’t been in it.

The plot… was also a bit weak.

There were two main drivers of the plot:

  1. Avery Stone stealing the plot of Jessica’s latest book.
  2. Everyone getting the current episode of Danger Doctor filmed.

Neither of these is really very interesting. I don’t care if anyone steals the plot to Jessica’s book for a TV show where they have to adapt it significantly for it to make any sense on the TV show, and neither, frankly, does Jessica. There’s no way that the episode of Danger Doctor would reduce the readership of Jessica’s book by even a single reader. Apart from changing out the detective, they’re going to change the tone and pacing, and leave out most of what people read novels for. They’re also going to have to restructure the story so that Dr. Valiant could solve the case with a fist fight. I doubt the book would even be recognizable in the episode. Jessica only make’s a (half-hearted) attempt to complain to Kate Hollander as a favor to Gayle.

Speaking of Gayle, I think that her career was meant to be a driver of the plot, too, except that it clearly didn’t drive anything except Jessica that one time. She was being forced on Avery Stone in order to have a female writer—for simplicity they leave out all of the male writers the show would have had, because a hit show at the time would have had a bunch of staff writers—and so all she has to do in order to have the job is accept it. So the episode is forced to have her not want the job, which is more than a little strange. However, her career path is that if she wants the job, it’s hers. There isn’t any danger, there, or at least nothing for Jessica to do, nor for anyone else to do. This is all on Gayle, so it can’t really drive the plot in any way. So much so that in order to try to keep Gayle alive in the story they pretended that Lt. Bradshaw summoned her to the scene of the crime in order interrogate her, despite her never having met the victim and having precisely zero motive.

The other main driver of the plot—getting an episode of Danger Doctor filmed—is only slightly more interesting than is the stealing of a plot from one of Jessica’s books. There are several problems here, one of which is just that as pretend within pretend that we don’t see much of and won’t see the result, it doesn’t really matter to us if the episode is filmed on time. A bigger problem is that none of the characters are invested in Danger Doctor. It is supposed to be a popular show, and yet no one on it is any good, and no one on it even cares. The producers only care that episodes get finished, the director only wants to get the producers off his back, and the actors don’t even want to act. And to be fair to the actors, the scripts are pretty bad, or at least the parts we’ve heard them read are. So why on earth should we, the viewers, care if the episode gets finished?

This is a problem that a lot of murder mysteries can fall into. In order to have suspects, people have to have motives. It’s easier for people to have motives when everyone’s relationships are highly disfunctional. The problem with that is that it’s not interesting to read about highly disfunctional groups of people, since everyone is bad and no one deserves any better than they already have. This can be overcome if the detective, in solving the case, fixes everyone such that the disfunction is made functional, but that’s not easy to do and so is rarely done.

Far more interesting is mostly functional people, were the murderer has a lapse where they give into temptation, rather than the murderer being the person among the group who would have done it given time except that one of them happened to do it first.

Which makes me think of another weakness in the plot: the murder didn’t really affect any of the characters, other than making some people’s lives a little more convenient. Catching the murderer didn’t do anything to restore the community damaged by the murder since the community wasn’t really damaged by the murder, since there wasn’t really a community to be damaged by the murder. It takes much of the satisfaction out of the solution.

The last thing I’d like to consider are the jokes about Murder, She Wrote itself. There were a few, but the final one is sufficient. By the time that Jessica says that The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour would never work, Murder, She Wrote was in its fourth season. They couldn’t know it at the time, but it would go on to have eight more seasons. Still, they knew that the concept worked well.

Now, I think the joke would have been funny had Jessica left it at saying that she doesn’t write car chases, gun fights, or bedroom scenes, so who would watch? This implies that there are better things, but perhaps only special people appreciate them. It leaves the door open for most people appreciating them and car chases, gun fights, and bedroom scenes not being as popular as the makers of TV think that they are. When Jessica goes on to say that the Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour is the worst idea she’s ever heard, this feels more like it’s meant to make fun of people who were iffy on green-lighting Murder, She Wrote. It feels like this all the more because it breaks character for Jessica, since it’s rude. You can see this in Miss Hollander’s reaction to Jessica calling it the worst idea she’s ever heard:

I know I harp on it a lot that, despite being from Cabot Cove in about four episodes per season, Jessica is really a big city character. That’s true, but even people from big cities have manners.

It’s even weirder that Jessica’s reaction to hurting Miss Hollander’s feelings with her rudeness is to then laugh. If you scroll back and look at the freeze frame on the closing credit, that was right after looking at the pain in Miss Hollander’s face.

One thought on “Murder She Wrote: Steal Me a Story

  1. Pingback: Murder She Wrote: Deadpan – Chris Lansdown

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