News has broken about NBC remaking the murder mystery series, Murder, She Wrote. This time around, Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in The Help, will star as Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher, mystery writer and angel of death*. A few changes are being made to the series, beyond having an actress younger than Angela Lansbury was when she played Jessica. First, instead of the main character being a widow who wrote mysteries to supplement her income and getting a break, the new JB Fletcher will be a hospital administrator in her day job. With Jessica having a regular job, she won’t be able to travel around as much as in the original series. Second, Jessica will be a self-published author instead of going through a publishing company. This reflects the huge changes in the publishing industry since the original series left the air.
The usual question when anything is remade is, “Why do a remake?” In this case, NBC is still rebuilding after the fiasco of moving Jay Leno to a 10pm time slot, losing five dramas including the long-running Law & Order. NBC is still rebuilding, trying to regain the lost audience, a tough chore when the options available are almost boundless. The network has already cancelled one remake, Ironside, after three episodes, replacing it with Dateline for the most part in the time slot**.
The difference, though, between Ironside and Murder, She Wrote is familiarity. The original Ironside starred Raymond Burr, who was better known for Perry Mason. The old series, while falling one short of having 200 episodes over eight seasons, never received much syndication beyond the 70s; Murder, She Wrote lasted twelve seasons with 284 episodes, plus came out when syndication was far more established with the 500 channel cable line up looming. Murder, She Wrote had a larger impact, and, having ended its twelve season run in 1996, is better remembered. NBC may be counting on people wondering about the differences between the original and the remake to get a decent number of viewers for the pilot episode.
There will be complaints. With the Internet and social media, people have many places to vent about a series sight unseen. There are three areas of contention that I can see. First, Jessica has a day job. The original series was more an anthology series featuring whodunits, and with JB Fletcher being a successful author able to live off her royalties, there was no need to anchor her to any one location. If one episode needed her in LA one week and the next week’s show needed her in Miami, the script writers could hand wave her being in both cities as being on a book signing tour. Or she could visit friends and relatives anywhere in the world*** for any number of reasons. The new Jessica Fletcher, though, has a day job – hospital administrator. The new Jessica can’t gallivant around the country. Being self-published, she can’t yet live off her royalties. Book tours would either be self-funded or virtual. However, being at a hospital means that she would see the bodies that come in, giving her a chance to notice that the odd death isn’t of natural causes. This also means that, in a large enough city, she’s not going to be the harbinger of death. In the original Murder, She Wrote, everywhere JB Fletcher went, someone died, to the point where people could call her Entertainment’s most successful serial killer.
The second area of contention is the choice of actress in the new series. As mentioned about, Spencer is an Oscar winner. However, Angela Lansbury was much beloved in the role. It may be difficult to separate her from JB Fletcher. I’d have called it unremakable, alongside Columbo, for the same reason; the lead character and her actress have become one and the same to many viewers. Spencer will have to bring her own interpretation to the character and hope that people are willing to accept her version.
The third issue is tone. Remakes tend to go in one of two directions, the comedic approach or the dark and gritty approach. The original Murder, She Wrote was light fare. Sure, there was at least one body per episode, but to have a murder mystery, there needs to be a murder. At the same time, Jessica made the rounds, talking to suspects and investigating the crime scene, giving the viewers a way to solve the mystery alongside her. The end reveal showed the clues, letting viewers know that there wasn’t anything pulled out of thin air. The new series needs to keep the mystery aspect, keep the viewers following for clues. The level of gore might be raisable, thanks to shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and still remain light entertainment.
This isn’t to say that the show will be bad. Nothing has been filmed yet. The show can still succeed or fail on its own merits. NBC needs to have a deft touch with the new series, to bring in fans of the original, while still satisfying new viewers. Best of luck!
* Everywhere Jessica went, someone died. Her hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine, was probably happy to see her leave for a book signing; it gave the townsfolk a breather from waiting for the next murder.
** Also coming up in the Ironside timeslot, a live version of The Sound of Music.
*** World being, for the most part, the Lower 48 States with maybe a detour into Canada. Maybe.