‘Murder She Wrote’ needs no introduction, but just to recap for anyone who’s been meditating in a cave for the last thirty years: it was a smash hit ‘whodunnit’ TV show that ran for 12 years through the 80s and 90s; 12 series and 264 episodes, syndicated all over the world, making a Angela Lansbury a household name.
Its popularity is easy to reason: an instant classic upbeat theme tune, a simple, neat formula repeated every week of: set up/murder/solution; a regular supporting cast and the familiarity/homeliness of the small town, Cabot Cove and its residents; the classy, clever, friendly, female lead in the sleuthing mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher, and a lighthearted, wholesome script and gentle humour the whole family could enjoy, despite the main theme being of course, murder.
The show’s short lived showing on Netflix a few years ago brought a swathe of younger viewers, either revisiting their childhood family favourite, or introduced to it for the first time, bringing the show a second-wave of popularity among millennials, thanks to the now kitsch 80s fashion and styling. Angela Lansbury’s wonderful expressionistic ‘meme-worthy’ face also endeared itself to the social media savvy generation.
The episodes are packed with now-famous stars in cameo appearances, which makes it a fun watch. Look out for the likes of a young George Clooney, Billy Zane, Courtney Cox, Bill Mayer (x2), Megan Mullally, Bryan Cranston, that kid from ‘Big’, and that other guy from that thing x 200.
There’s a fair bit of unintentional humour to the show now it’s 30+ years old – my personal favourite: the use of location shots with obvious JB Fletcher body doubles – which all adds to the naive charm and the nostalgia factor, making it the perfect duvet-day viewing. It’s the anthesis and antidote to the kind of hyper-real, brutally violent TV shows that are now the norm, which have seemingly desensitised viewers to escalating violence on TV for the past 10 years or so. It’s nice to have a reminder of these more innocent times.
I’ve been a fan of the show from its first outing on British TV all those years ago and watching reruns is just a pleasure, not even a guilty one, but what’s all this got to do with Buddhism?
Well, I’m currently studying Lama Shenpen Hookham’s Living the Awakened Heart training within the Awakened Heart Sangha. Due to my studies and practice I’ve been reading more about Bodhisattvas ahead of taking the Bodhisattva Vow myself with Lama Shenpen later this year, when it occurred to me whilst watching an episode of the show: Jessica Fletcher is a Bodhisattva!
Here’s the evidence: She’s kind and compassionate, with the kind of active compassion Bodhisattvas have. She’s always coming to the aid of friends or family who have been accused of murder, whether it’s her hapless nephew Grady, or one of her many nieces, she’ll hop on a plane at a moments notice and come to their aid.
It’s not only family she’ll help. When a former student is jailed for trespass (later accused of murder, naturally) Jessica doesn’t hesitate to jump on a bus and bail her out (The Coal Miner’s Slaughter, S5, ep5). She’ll also help virtual strangers too: when a young waiter at her hotel who she’s only just met briefly, who’s also a keen writer, gets accused of murder she cancels her flight and stays to clear his name (A Little Night Work S5, E2).
You only have to watch a few episodes of MSW to see how skilful JB Fletcher is with practising the Eightfold Path. She’s particularly adept at ‘right speech’ and always seems to know exactly the right thing to say, to friend, foe or new acquaintance. She’s kind in speech, won’t participate in idle gossip, she’s never negative about anyone and is also incredibly diplomatic in her responses when faced with gossip or even direct put downs from others.
She appears to embody many of the Bodhisattva qualities of the Six Paramitas or Six Perfections, qualities of the Bodhichitta (awakened heart) in action which are: Generosity (Dana), Discipline or Ethics (Shila), Patience and endurance (Kshanti), Effort or Enthusiastic perseverance (Virya), Concentration or stability of mind (Dhyana) and The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna).
Over the many episodes Jessica shows her generosity: giving to charitable causes and charitable events, giving her time to those in need, even giving her dead husband’s pipe to a virtual stranger (S1 Ep1) – certainly no signs of attachment there! In one episode she even skilfully disguises her generous gesture of giving an impoverished local child an old bicycle of hers, by saying it was in exchange for some odd jobs, when his mother refuses it as ‘charity’. She takes on the embarrassment herself, apologising that she hadn’t explained herself properly and meant would he accept it in return for doing some work for her? (Simon Says, Colour Me Dead’ S3 Ep17).
She’s tenacious in her crime solving and giving assistance to others, showing great Virya and Shila – won’t give up if she believes the wrong person has been accused of a crime. She always manages to stay calm when, rather frequently, almost meeting her own demise, when confronting and unmasking the real killer.
She has very little ego and doesn’t seek fame or the limelight. ‘In The Bottom Line is Murder’ (S3 Ep15), she happily lets the fame hungry, patronising Lieutenant take full credit for solving the murder, a glory that of course belonged to her. As he proclaims his murder solving prowess to the local news cameras, he falters slightly when he sees her, but she offers him a wink and a smile at the end, as a way of giving her compassionate approval.
She immediately senses a difficult situation and manages to put everyone at ease. In ‘There’s no Accounting for Murder’ (S3 Ep19), she meets her nephew Grady’s new boss, who on meeting her, assumes in an incredibly patronising, chauvinistic way that she writes trashy romance novels and compliments her on them. After seeing the awkward looks between Grady and his colleague, who’s about to have to contradict and correct his new boss, JB steps in and says the perfect response, without correcting him or revealing his error and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Afterwards Grady’s colleague starts to apologise to which she replies “Oh there’s no need, he was very gracious.” To which he replies “He wasn’t the only one.”
She abhors violence, won’t lie and she will always do what is right. She was asked to give a false alibi for for the charming former jewel thief who becomes a recurring character in ‘A Little Night Work’, but she tells him firmly no, standing her ground, despite how charming, flattering or potentially dangerous he is, given that he’s clearly a suspect in a murder.
Despite her preference for truth, she also won’t betray a confidence when asked. When she finds out a new friend and neighbour is a bigamist but in love with both of her husbands (Weave a Tangled Web S5, Ep10), Mrs Fletcher makes it clear she doesn’t approve of the duplicity, but again shows great skill in upholding her principles yet not betraying the promise and trust to not reveal the truth.
She isn’t remotely judgemental either – whilst working undercover, assuming the identity of her friend, after an attempt on her friend’s life, and putting herself in danger, (Trouble in Eden, S4 Ep9) she ‘inherits’ a ‘house of ill repute’! Yet despite it clearly not being something she would ever be involved in, she shows diplomacy, grace and kindness to its ‘residents’.
In a display of great equanimity and equal-ness, a quality of the Four Immeasurables, Jessica shows great compassion to even her ‘enemies’. A rival and jealous mystery writer Eudora McVey – played by the late great Jean Simmons in Mirror, Mirror (S5 ep21-22) – steals Jessica’s new manuscript by drugging her and riffling through her house after being invited in to stay as a house guest. Jessica skilfully, calmly and patiently reveals truth despite poor desperate Eudora’s denials. Even when it looks like the catty Eudora had attempted to kill Jessica by poison, poisoning Jess’s dear friend Dr Seth Hazlitt instead, she remains cool-headed, patient and compassionate and gets to the truth, without judgement, accusation or ever causing a scene. She offers help and support to the troubled lady, not anger or revenge. At the end of the two-part episode she not only drops the manuscript theft charges, but shows great forgiveness and compassion, extending the hand of friendship (initially rebuked) to Eudora.
Jessica Fletcher also has a very playful side. When dressing up to go undercover in her sleuthing, her alter-egos are usually always hilariously, over-the-top colourful characters, revealing a fun, playful aspect to her character. Theres’s often a playful side in the stories of great Buddhist masters too, as humour and playfulness has its place on the path to Enlightenment. The 14th Century Nyingma master Longchempa once said: “Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may as well burst out in laughter.” Indeed!
In Lama Shenpen’s teachings she says that Bodhisattvas can take many forms, appearing in different ways to help us beings stuck in samsara, so perhaps they could even appear as a cowgirl, rich widow or a inebriated barfly?!
Despite the lighthearted, surreal nature of the show and the sheer quantity of dead bodies piling up over the 12 seasons, there’s a warmth, authenticity and genuineness to the character of Jessica Fletcher, played so wonderfully by Dame Angela Lansbury, that transcends the subject matter and medium, and radiates beyond the bounds of a typical TV show. It shows that we can look for inspiration on the Buddhist Path from many different sources, and some unexpected ones!
The qualities that Jessica displays: the kindness, honesty, compassion, patience, generosity, playfulness and equanimity, amongst others, can be a great inspiration to all of us striving to be better people in difficult circumstances, but especially those of us who are mindfully on the Mahayana path and aspiring Bodhisattvas.
It’s heartening to know that in this age of the anything-goes, super violent TV shows, a show that promotes such good, positive qualities in its main character, is still on our screens and is still winning over new fans over thirty years after it was first broadcast.
[Images from Google – no copyright infringement intended!]