I’ll admit. I’m biased. Our TV time was limited to one hour/day, and I spent my middle and high school years with J.B. Fletcher. I was odd – all the other girls were watching Beverly Hills, 90210. But here was a woman to behold! Rational, calm, a true skeptic, smart and persistent, Fletcher embodied the kind of person I wanted to be. In Angela Lansbury’s own words, Jessica Fletcher “is a rare and very individual kind of person.”
While there’s occasional reference to Fletcher’s late hubby, it’s no more than a side note. Is it widowhood that allows Fletcher incredible freedom our female protagonists even thirty years later don’t seem to have? Fletcher has the freedom to work hard, to travel far and wide, and not to have her marriage or her emotional and sexual desires limit her. Let’s face it, our current leading women – even lesbians – can’t help but crash and burn over a man. Fletcher, our 1980s auntie cougar, is routinely the object of affection. She’s a “little more coffee for the lady” lady. But that doesn’t deter her from her tasks: to write her bestseller, take a jog, and solve a mystery, in that order. She’s fierce – a “hey, lady, just shut up” lady.
What’s more, the formative, early episodes construct a world that doesn’t just conform to social norms and stereotypes, but challenges them. In the pilot, a black man follows Jessica off the bus. She gets mugged, but not by him. He turns from a stereotypical threat into a savior… and fan: “I recognized you as soon as I saw you back on the bus. I read your book. It’s terrific.” The secretaries are mostly women, but in “Lovers and Other Killers,” David, a student looking to work as Fletcher’s assistant, argues: “Surely, Mrs. Fletcher, you’re not going to hold my gender against me.” In the first half dozen episodes, the detectives, while all male, are racially diverse. And in “Birds of a Feather,” Fletcher’s niece finds out her fiancé works in drag. Does Jessica (or her niece) think it’s detestable or even peculiar? Not a bit.
It seems clear to me that the folks of Murder, She Wrote made a conscious effort from the start to diversify the set, play with our assumptions, and push against social norms. And in the center is the astute, worldly, self-determined and determined lady-lady, J.B. Fletcher.