Apr 29, 2020

Murder, she Wrote

In West Hollywood we didn't watch a lot of tv -- there's not much time when you're working three part-time jobs, taking classes, spending two hours a day at the gym, cruising, dating, going  to parties, and just being alive in a gay neighborhood.  When we watched, we tended toward shows with gay subtexts, drag queen-camp, or beefcake.

In 1988-89, for instance:
Monday: Newhart, Designing Women
Tuesday: Who's the Boss
Wednesday: Head of the Class, Night Court
Thursday: Cosby, Cheers
Saturday: Golden Girls
Sunday: 21 Jump Steet... and Murder, She Wrote?

I knew several guys in West Hollywood who were obsessed with that show, who made room on their calendars and watched religiously.

Broadway great Angela Lansbury starred as Jessica Fletcher, a retired schoolteacher who started a new career as a mystery writer, and keeps stumbling upon (and solving) real-life murders, usually at family gatherings ("Don't invite Aunt Jessica to Thanksgiving Dinner, or somebody will die!").

I was always in the other room, watching Married...with Children, Get a Life, The Simpsons, or anything other than Aunt Jessica clattering away on her typewriter, so I have only seen one episode.  I still don't understand the interest.

Beefcake:  The full cast and crew takes so long to load on IMDB that it freezes my computer, and I have to reboot (the show aired for 12 years, after all).  But I don't think so.  No one ever mentioned any.

Gay subtexts? No.

Gay characters:  Only two episodes feature veiled, closeted allusions to gay people:

At a mystery writers' convention: One of the suspects is Robert Reed as a lavender-scented poof who writes mysteries about "Greek boys mincing about."  But he's not out: "The young man I was dining with last night was a reporter."    Can't go much farther into offensive stereotypes than that!  At least he's not the murderer.

At Jessica's niece's wedding in San Francisco.  One of the suspects is the fiancee, who is secretly working as a drag queen.  But he and his fellow performers are all straight;no gay drag queens exist.

There's also a reference to gay people in one of the mystery novels that Jessica published (ghostwritten of course): "You have heard that we have a few homosexuals here in San Francisco? Well, Lana is pretty well known in the Castro.  Works as a waiter there."

That's a relatively poor gay connection, even for 1980s television.

Angela Lansbury is a gay ally.  In 1945, when she was 19, she married 35-year old actor Richard Cromwell, not realizing that he was gay. The marriage lasted for only nine months, but they stayed friends for the rest of his life.

But Angela didn't start outing him in interviews until the 2010s, so we would have had no way of knowing in the 1980s.

Maybe Murder, She Wrote was popular in West Hollywood precisely because it was lacking in beefcake, gay subtexts, or gay characters.  It was so utterly unlike anything we experienced in our daily lives. that it became exotic, a glimse into a weird alien world.

Where Jessica rode her bicycle up and down the hills of small-town Maine, then sat at the kitchen table to work on her latest novel, only to be interrupted by a telephone call: "Aunt Jessica, can you come to Thanksgiving Dinner?"  And the game is afoot.


  1. I was a little kid, but I vaguely remember watching Murder, She Wrote with my grandmother.

    A few are "heard ofs" like Head of the Class and Night Court. Newhart is one I remember from Nick at Nite when they moved into 70s and 80s shows.

  2. Perhaps Angela Lansbury was given the status of camp, so everything she did had to be watched. In fact, I remember Murder, She Wrote as a lovely and quite innocent series. No pushing of hetero-romance, no need to read between the lines. Occasionally Jessica had to save a handsome nephew from a false accusation of murder - but it was possible that he appeared to be the murderer in the end. In any case, he would remain fully clothed, just like all handsome young women: no use of skin to attract audience.

    1. Is it like "The Cat Who" mysteries? There the private detective and his cats live in a remarkably nice small town full of remarkably nice people, except, in each installment, for one nasty person who is murdered, and another who turns out to be the murderer.You can always tell who it is, the one who said something rude in Chapter 1.


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