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Postcards from Cabot Cove
Monday, 23 December 2013
The 2013 Definitive Guide to MSW Christmas Card!

 

Top row, left to right:

Grady Fletcher (Michael Horton), Mayor Sam Booth (Richard Paul), Deputy Floyd (Will Nye), Deputy Andy Broom (Louis Herthum), Sheriff Mort Metzger (Ron Masak), Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury), Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom), Eve Simpson (Julie Adams), Loretta Spiegel (Ruth Roman), Phyllis Grant (Gloria DeHaven), Ideal Malloy (Kathryn Grayson).


Bottom row, left to right:

Dr. Wylie Graham (Robert Hogan), Jean O’Neill (Madlyn Rhue), Sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley), Corinne (Sally Klein)


Qualifications for inclusion in this year’s Christmas card group shot:

You have to be from Cabot Cove (Grady counts - he was raised there)

You have to have had more than one appearance (i.e., be a Cabot Cove “regular” - this disqualifies a _lot_ of the citizenry, unfortunately)

You have to have not been killed by the end of Season 12, either canonically or in my head-canon (sorry, Ethan Cragg)

You have to not have been a murderer (sorry, Adam Frobisher, Harry Pierce, and Ellis Hilgate)

You have to be smiling in at least one of my screenshots (sorry, Silas Cobb)


Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. :)


Posted by jesmaine at 9:13 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 23 December 2013 4:07 PM EST
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Sunday, 27 October 2013
The Murder, She Wrote Reboot: A Few Random Thoughts
Mood:  not sure

 

I have to say, I didn't see this coming.

And I still don't know how I feel about it. 

On the one hand, I'm delighted. Very few franchises are capable of continuing to spawn new material thirty years after their birth (Star Trek comes to mind - that's the sort of longevity we're talking about here). 

On the other hand, I'm worried. Like many fans, I am fiercely protective of my fandom, and I don't want anyone screwing around with it.

Very few details of the proposed reboot have been released as of this writing, so we’re working with a lot of unknowns here. We know the central character to be played by Octavia Spencer is younger (Ms. Spencer is 43), works as a hospital administrator, and, in a nod to how much the publishing industry has changed since the 1980’s, self-publishes her first mystery novel. So much for what we know. Questions that remain unanswered so far: will the character also be named Jessica Fletcher? (I hope not.) Will she drive? (Again, I hope not, but that may be asking a lot in this day and age.) What’s her relationship status? (Single, please.) Will she be from Maine or someplace else? (No preference here.) Will this be a sequel to the original series (like Star Trek: The Next Generation) or a complete reimagining of it from the beginning (like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie)? And was this the reason Netflix dropped MSW from it’s streaming line-up? (If so, that would be NOT COOL.)

Since the news broke, I’ve been keeping an eye on the responses from fans, and while some are excited to see what Octavia Spencer can do with the role, most of the reaction has been negative. The most frequent reason given by an overwhelming margin is that without Angela Lansbury there can be no Murder, She Wrote because Angela Lansbury WAS Murder, She Wrote. More to the point, Angela Lansbury so perfectly embodied Jessica Fletcher that imagining anyone else in the role has become impossible. And let’s face it: Jessica was the reason most of us watched. There was something magnetic about Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of her, and I know I’m not the only one who will tell you that the first time I set eyes on Jessica Fletcher, it was love at first sight. While the storytelling and the guest stars were also very, very good and very, very important, I don’t think it’s understating things to say that what fans wanted more than anything else was the opportunity to spend an hour once a week with Angela Lansbury. The show’s lowest ratings were during the sixth and seventh seasons, two years that are still remembered best for their “bookend episodes” in which Jessica barely appeared. Once Ms. Lansbury resumed appearing in all twenty-two episodes a season, the ratings rebounded.

I am not entirely certain that this fact has registered with the Powers That Be at NBC who dreamed up this reboot idea.

All that being said, I think this reboot could work provided three criteria are met. One, let Octavia Spencer be herself. She is a very talented actress - give her a chance to win fans over on her own terms. She, too, has the potential to become a wonderful role model. Second, please, please give her character her own name, not Jessica’s. For most fans of the original series, the Angela Lansbury=Jessica Fletcher equation is unbreakable. We’re far more likely to accept Ms. Spencer’s new character if her character is actually new, and free of all the expectations that come with being Jessica. Third, make damn sure the writing is top-notch.  It will be very difficult for lightning to strike twice if the scripts are sub-par.

Can NBC pull this off? I don’t know. This is a network that has a terrible track record with reboots, and as far as I’m concerned the only things they’ve gotten right in the past twenty years or so are Seinfeld and Law & Order. I’d feel a lot better about things if CBS were in charge instead.

I will keep an open mind, and I will probably watch the pilot episode when it airs. I take comfort in the fact that the producers had the good sense to sign on an actress with proven talent, and I will cross my fingers that they will let her character have her own name and her own story. The reality of the situation is that except for the possible connection to the Netflix debacle (and this connection is only one theory among many so far), we really can’t lose. We will always have the original series. If the reboot does well, we may gain new stories and a worthy successor, but even if it doesn’t, we will still have the original series. 

Nothing can ever change that.

 


Posted by jesmaine at 6:19 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 27 October 2013 6:59 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Remembering William Windom

William Windom passed away last Thursday at the age of 88.  Now, if you’re reading this blog you probably knew him best, as I did, as Murder, She Wrote’s Dr. Seth Hazlitt, Jessica Fletcher’s best friend and arguably the second most popular character in that long-running series.  But this is not a eulogy for Seth.  It is, rather, a tribute to the actor behind the character.  Could another actor have played the role of Seth as successfully as Mr. Windom did? Possibly, but I doubt it.

William Windom made an early start at collecting a lifetime’s worth
of varied experiences.  As a child he had the somewhat dubious distinction of being kicked out of kindergarten by his teacher, who happened to be Margaret Hamilton, later known best as the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.  He enlisted in the US Army and was a paratrooper during World War II.  He attended no fewer than seven institutes of higher education: Williams College (my alma mater), Antioch College, the Citadel, the University of Kentucky, Fordham University, Columbia University, and Biarritz American University in France, where he got his first taste of acting. I’m not sure he graduated from any of them, but hey, at least he was in there pitching.

He was married five times, but it should also be noted that his marriage to his fifth wife, Patricia, lasted for 37 years, and that’s a long time by anyone’s reckoning. He was the father of four children.

His acting career was long and colorful, beginning with that first experience at Biarritz as Richard III in Richard III and not ending until 2005.  In that span of time he played a dizzying array of roles, everything from the prosecuting attorney in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird to the president in the not-so-classic Escape from the Planet of the Apes to Judge Hoffman in an episode of Mathnet on Square One TV (yes, I watched this show as a kid - I liked math).

When he wasn’t acting, he was pursuing - and excelling at - tennis, sailing, and chess, the last of which was an avocation he shared with his character of Seth Hazlitt.  He was so good at chess that he was twice written up in the chess enthusiast’s magazine “Chess Life.” On MSW Jessica and Seth are portrayed as being more-or-less evenly matched in skill, but the reality is that if Jessica had been going up against Mr. Windom and not his character, she probably would have lost, big time.

The role of Seth Hazlitt was not Mr. Windom’s longest, even at fifty-two episodes - back in the 60’s, he appeared in 101 episodes of The Farmer’s Daughter.  Nor was it his most critically acclaimed performance - that, most would agree, would be his role as John Monroe in My World and Welcome to It.  But it is the role for which I, at least, will remember him best.  I can’t even begin to imagine anyone else as Seth, Jessica’s friend, emotional anchor, and overprotective guardian, the personification of Cabot Cove and all that was good about it.

Writers create characters; actors give them life and substance. This bestows upon the actors a curious immortality: the actor may die, but the characters they embodied live on.  There’s a trade-off, of course - typecasting springs to mind - but hopefully most actors find that it’s worth it.  A good character is a gift to their fans that continues to give so long as their name is remembered, and some of Mr. Windom’s characters will be remembered for a very, very long time to come.

And so Trekkies will always have their Commodore Decker.
Followers of the works of James Thurber will always have John Monroe.  And fans of MSW will always have Dr. Seth Hazlitt.

William Windom has passed away, but Seth Hazlitt is still with us.

He always will be.

Posted by jesmaine at 10:31 PM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 22 August 2012 11:04 PM EDT
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Saturday, 28 November 2009
#40 Enduring Legacy

On November 12th Legacy Interactive released their long-awaited Murder, She Wrote computer game - five new stories encompassing around 80 puzzles, most of which are hidden object games (HOGs) that require the player to locate several objects in a busy, complicated scene. If you’ve downloaded this game and have bothered to read the credits, you’ll see that the five stories were written by me.


I must admit that I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I was first approached by the game’s producers, who were looking for a fan fiction writer willing to pen five original stories. But I was game to try - my first paying gig! I pitched eleven potential story ideas, the producers settled on the five they liked best, and the writing began.


Unlike fan fiction, which knows no limitations, the stories written for the game had to adhere to a fairly strict pre-determined structure: only five or so locations could be used in each story, and each location had to be revisited at least four or five times.  This makes sense when one considers that the artists can’t be expected to draw countless detailed backgrounds - five is plenty! The challenge, then, was to come up with a plot that didn’t need to range beyond five specific locales, and a trail of clues that would logically lead the player through those five locales again and again and again (though not necessarily in the same order each time). This was not easy to do! The other big challenge was to present the clues almost entirely in the form of physical objects, as opposed to presenting them as verbal tidbits dropped in dialogue. I quickly realized, as I tried to plot out my stories, that in my normal writing I depend a lot on dialogue. Not being able to use the old “slip of the lip” method for advancing the plot felt like writing with one hand tied behind my back. But after the first couple of stories, I had the format down well enough to be comfortable with it.


The editor that was reviewing my work was fantastic; she really pushed me to make the stories as tight and logical as possible. After submitting a rough draft that essentially just sketched out the locations, the characters, and a rough outline of the plot, she would send the draft back with suggested changes. Once the structure of the story was set, the next step was to write in the dialogue, which went through more back-and-forth for editorial review and revision. And when that was settled, the story was finished.  The case notes that went along with each story (the summaries of each completed scene that the player can click on to track their progress) came next - these were not written by me, although I did proofread them and suggest some changes.  After that, aside from penning some snippets of additional dialogue on request, my work on the project was finished.


From the beginning, my hope was to present five original MSW stories that were as authentic as possible despite the fact that they were being presented in an entirely new medium. Getting the sound of each of the characters right was important, as was presenting as real a Cabot Cove as I could given a limitation of showing only five bits of it at a time.  Early reviews would seem to indicate that I succeeded. If I didn’t, let me know! There’s already a sequel planned, and yes, I will be writing the stories for that as well.


Posted by jesmaine at 7:58 PM EST
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Wednesday, 4 November 2009
#39 "A Little Night Music" Brings Angela Back to Broadway

 

Angela Lansbury hasn’t wasted any time getting back into the Broadway scene. Mere months after finishing her run in “Blithe Spirit,” she is already in rehearsals for a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical “A Little Night Music,” this time in the role of Madame Armfeldt (originally played by Hermione Gingold in the original Broadway production). 

In an interview with Broadway.com (brought to my attention by SarahB - thanks, Sarah!), Ms. Lansbury summarized the plot of the musical thusly: “It’s the story of a house party, a group of people who know each other (some of them know each other illicitly). It’s a story about romance. It’s a story about all of the qualities that people find very fascinating and interesting. And I guess it’s about love, and the various kinds of love.” 

And since it’s Sondheim, it’s a can’t miss. “Steven Sondheim is like Shakespeare,” Aaron Lazar (playing Carl-Magnus Malcolm) says. “It’s all there, as I’m just beginning to explore. So it’s like we get to make some magic. I think we really get to show people a little night music in a way they’ve never seen it before.” The production’s director, Trevor Nunn, adds, “It’s complex, yet it’s extraordinarily uplifting, and nothing about it is out of place, and everything in it is necessary.” 

“A Little Night Music” will be greatly enhanced by Ms. Lansbury’s participation. As Mr. Lazar comments, “Angela is theatrical royalty as far as I’m concerned.” It also gives her an opportunity to sing in a musical again. “For me to start to sing again is very exciting,” she says in the interview. “You know, I haven’t sung for almost thirty years. So I’ve been singing along in the shower. We’ve got some lovely young singers and actors and actresses in our production today. We’re rehearsing, we’re getting ready, we’re going to be opening in December. It’s a thrilling opportunity for them to be working a Sondheim musical, singing this lovely music, this breathtaking music.” 

The Walter Kerr Theatre will play host to “A Little Night Music,” which is set to begin previews on November 24th and officially open on December 13th.


Posted by jesmaine at 4:16 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 4 November 2009 4:18 PM EST
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Saturday, 24 October 2009
#38 First Kiss ...?

 

***SPOILER ALERT: This blog posting contains mild spoilers for the B plot of Donald Bain’s A Fatal Feast. If you don’t want to know details of things that happen in that B plot, go forth and finish reading the book before coming back to view my commentary here.***


You don’t have to be a J&G ‘shipper (that’s fan fiction parlance for a fan who favors pairing Jessica and George Sutherland in a romantic relationship) to realize that Donald Bain’s latest MSW novel, A Fatal Feast, is a different sort of book from others he has written. After many, many books of hewing to the “just friends” status of George and Jessica’s relationship, this book unexpectedly blooms with a romantic B plot the likes of which has not been seen since George first confessed to Jessica that he was in love with her back in The Highland Fling Murders - a book that was published more than twelve years ago.

Seeing as how this is the first book to more-or-less officially declare them to be an item - even if Mr. Bain never actually comes out and says so in plain English - I proclaimed this scene at the end of Chapter 8 to be their official First Kiss:


I walked him to the door, where we kissed good night. I watched him get into the car and start the engine. He looked back at me, and for a moment I thought he was about to get out and accept my offer of a nightcap. He didn’t. He blew me a kiss and drove off. 

I closed the door, leaned against it, and smiled. Despite all the recent stresses and strains, I felt truly happy. (p 94 [hardcover edition])


Not so fast, my friend Sarah responded before reminding me that George does kiss Jessica in a previous book - 2004’s A Vote for Murder. Being more familiar with that novel than I am, she was able to point me to the exact chapter and verse were it happens, a scene that I had completely forgotten about:


“Sleep tight, Mrs. Fletcher. And remember that you don’t have to single-handedly solve the murder of Miss Nikki Farlow.”

“And you remember that although you’re a big, strong Scotland Yard inspector, it doesn’t make you immortal. The crime rate in Washington, I’m told, is far above the national average.”

“Jessica, I -”

“Just don’t let anything happen to you, George. Good night.”

He leaned down and kissed me gently on the lips. “Good night.”

I stood for a moment, watching him leave the hotel. He turned just before the door and smiled.

I smiled back. (p 106 [paperback edition])


In my defense, that kiss good night happens so quickly and with so little fanfare that it was easy to forget. And if we’re going to count quick, fleeting, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it kisses, then the actual first kiss happened at the end of 1997‘s The Highland Fling Murders:


There was that awkward moment of silence when two people who like each other very much search for final words of parting. George finally said, “I won’t put you in an awkward position, Jessica. Go on. Get out. The porter there will take your bags. We’ll be in touch.”

He said it without looking at me.

“George.”

He faced me. “Yes?”

“Thank you for being you.”

My lips brushed his, and I squeezed his hand. “Until next time,” I said.

“Ay. I pray it comes fast. Safe home.”

“Yes. Safe home.” (p 288 [paperback edition])


As far as potential first kisses go, these are both pretty tame - almost dull. The near misses - times when they try to get a kiss in but are interrupted - are much richer scenes with more suspense, more emotion, more ... well, everything. Take the near miss at the beginning of A Vote for Murder:


George pulled a fresh handkerchief from his pocket, tucking it into my hand. He leaned close and placed his fingertips next to my closed eye. “Maybe we should go back into the house,” he said, “and take care of that.”

I blinked rapidly and opened my eye, dabbing tears away with his handkerchief. “It feels better now.” George’s face was close to mine. We looked into each other’s eyes. “We probably should go back anyway,” I whispered.

“In a minute,” he murmured.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” The voice came from the direction of the French doors. George and I jumped apart.

“You didn’t,” George said, clearing his throat. “Mrs. Fletcher had a mote in her eye.” (p 51 [paperback edition])


It’s especially true for the aborted attempt in 1995’s Martinis and Mayhem, a scene which featured a very thoughtful, very moving, very substantive build-up that took them to the very brink before they were interrupted:


"George.”

"Yes?"
"You do know how much I appreciate everything you're doing for me."

"I've done nothing."

"Moving over here to the St. Francis, listening to me, understanding me."

"I only wish we had more time together, Jessica, to develop that understanding." We stood close to each other. I looked into his green eyes, gentle, kind eyes as I remembered them being the first time we met in London, over tea at Brown’s Hotel. Even though he’d been interrogating me at the time, and had actually considered me a possible suspect in the murder of my dear friend and reigning queen of mystery writing, Dame Marjorie Ainsworth, he was kind and considerate.

"I would like that, too, George," I said, averting my gaze and pretending to rearrange books that didn’t need rearranging.

"You might have noticed, Jessica, that I'm quite fond of you.”

I continued to focus on the books. He came up behind me and said, "I know I'm not the most handsome of men. Nor am I the success that you are. I am just a copper. But I sense a certain kinship between us. It's the sort of feeling I haven't enjoyed since my wife died so many years ago."

I turned. "George," I said, "you are a very handsome man. And you are a great success. I would be less than honest if I didn't admit to strong feelings for you, too. A kinship, as you put it. But we really don't know much about each other. We really don't know each other at all."

"You make my point exactly, Jessica.  All I'm suggesting is that we create the opportunity to get to know each other better. It might turn out that familiarity truly does breed contempt. But I rather think it won't.  I think of you a great deal, Jessica, as I sit in my office, or take a holiday at what was my family's home in Wick. And when I do, I can't help but recite Robbie Burns to myself."

I smiled. "And what did Robert Burns write that I remind you of?"

"A small ditty - a tribute to his wife.  Let me see: 'Of a' the airts the wind can blaw, I dearly like the west, For there the bonnie Lassie lives, The Lassie I lo'e best.'"

"That's - that's very touching, George."

"Ah, good old Robbie Burns.  Putting into words what we feel, but cannot say."

He placed his hands on my shoulders and looked deep into my eyes. His lips came close to mine. I took a breath, and closed my eyes.

The phone’s first ring sounded as though it had been magnified a thousand times. It jolted my eyes open, and caused me to flinch. (p 145 [paperback])


This begs the question: with the near-misses getting so much ink, why are the actual times when they do kiss glossed over, thus making it difficult to identify what was, in fact, their true “first kiss?”

The most likely explanation is that if Mr. Bain were to attempt to write a genuine, significant first kiss scene, something worthy of following in the footsteps of that lovely scene in Martinis and Mayhem, it would set off the alarm bells over at Universal’s editorial censor department, resulting in it being struck from the manuscript. This is exactly what may have happened to 2007’s Coffee, Tea, or Murder, a book that clearly suffered from overzealous editing on the part of Universal. According to Mr. Bain himself, the book failed to live up to its pre-publication hype because the folks at Universal didn’t approve of what they read:


I keep trying to advance [Jessica and George’s] relationship, but MCA-Universal, which owns the Jessica Fletcher character, wields a fast and vicious blue pencil on those scenes. ... I created myriad scenes between Jessica and George, many of which had to be toned down in the final manuscript. ... I do feel, as you do, that they go to extremes, and my editor at NAL shared my disappointment that certain scenes in Coffee, Tea, or Murder? had to be cut or edited. (Donald Bain’s website Discussion Page, 2007)


It has always been my pet theory that one of the cut scenes was George and Jessica’s first proper kiss, though of course I’ll never know for sure.

The irony, then, is how Universal, after doing such a hatchet job on Coffee, Tea, or Murder, could allow so much to get by in A Fatal Feast. There is a lot of light romance-related activity going on in A Fatal Feast - at least two good night kisses that I counted, together with a lot of non-Platonic touching, a fairly intimate massage, and some unusually open discussion about marriage. It makes one wonder: where exactly is the relationship bar set on this series? Does it vary from censor to censor at Universal, or was there a thawing in their attitude towards letting Mr. Bain make Jessica and George a couple?  Are they fine with everything as long as the relationship remains officially ambiguous (true to series canon), even if it’s ambiguous in name only?

Because let’s face it: you’d have to be pretty dense not to see what’s really going on in this book when you read between the lines.


Posted by jesmaine at 1:17 PM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 24 October 2009 6:52 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 30 September 2009
#37 Twenty-five Years Young

Wow. This is a momentous anniversary - a whole quarter of a century has passed since MSW debuted on this very night (in ten minutes, actually - it's 7:50 pm EDT as I write this). As this day approached, I felt certain that I would have something profound to say about it, and yet now that it's here, mostly what's going through my mind is, "Wow. Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! Twenty-five years?!?"

 

It feels like a long time ... and yet like very little time at all, at least when I sit down to watch my MSW DVDs.  This is to the show's credit - its writers, its producers, and of course to Angela Lansbury. An online reviewer speaking of the show (I wish I could remember which one) noted that except for the cars and the hairstyles, the episodes stand the test of time surprisingly well, playing just a well today in 2009 as they did back in the mid-80's. I find that this is largely true.  The exception is that back in the day, most of the crime dramas on the airwaves shared MSW's relatively benign handling of violence and cozy story lines - think Matlock, Diagnosis Murder, Crazy Like a Fox. Now such shows are rare. In the current age of graphically violent, angst-ridden dramas (think The Sopranos, Law and Order: SVU, the entire CSI franchise) one must look long and hard to find a series that can legitimately claim to hold aloft MSW's torch. Only two spring to mind, both of which are products of the USA Network ("characters welcome"): Monk, and Psych. 

 

When "The Murder of Sherlock Holmes" debuted, I was eleven years old, my family still pulled in a couple of handfuls of channels with a roof-mounted antenna for free, and reality tv was the evening news. Now I'm thirty-six, I pay for fifty-odd cable channels (the basic package), and get my news via the internet, courtesy of the online edition of the New York Times. But are we really better off? What do we have to show for our hundreds of cable channels?  A relentless, mind-numbing horde of "reality" shows, for the most part. Sure, there are some gems out there - Psych and Burn Notice on USA and Dirty Jobs and Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel are the four I follow these days. But as much as I love the Discovery Channel, if I see them produce one more reality-based reiteration of Deadliest Catch, I think I'll swear off seafood forever. How many real-life shows about commercial fishing do we need?  

 

It's enough to make anyone a bit nostalgic for the fall prime time lineup of 1984, and Murder, She Wrote, now twenty-five years young, in particular.


Posted by jesmaine at 8:41 PM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 30 September 2009 8:42 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 29 July 2009
#36 Cloudy Days and Silver Linings

We’ve been having a terrible summer so far here on the coast of Maine - it’s been cool, rainy, and generally unpleasant. In June we had only a handful of sunny days; July has not been much better. It has taken its toll on my garden: yesterday we pulled out twelve beautiful tomato plants that had been doing quite nicely until they were struck with a fungal infection commonly known as Late Blight. According to what I read on the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s website, the fungus that causes Late Blight is the same one responsible for the Irish Potato Famine - ah, well, if one is going to lose one’s tomato crop, it might as well be to something historically significant.


The upside to all this rain is plenty of time to stay inside cozied up to the computer to write. For the past year most of my writing time went to penning the five mysteries that will make up the new MSW interactive computer game being released this fall by Legacy Interactive. I set aside my own projects so I could work on those five stories without distraction - necessary, because honestly, I can’t keep that many creative balls in the air all at once. But now the Legacy project is pretty much over with (at least as far as my contribution goes), so I have finally been able to go back to my “Works in Progress” file and pick up where I left off on some stories of my own.  It’s about time, too: not counting entries for the FanFic 100 writing challenge, the last full-length story I finished was “Taken Out at the Ballgame,” which I published on the Definitive Guide in November of 2007. Where did 2008 go? Oh, yeah - Legacy Interactive. 


These days it takes me a very long time to complete a story. A few years ago - I guess at this point you could call it several years ago - I was able to write tight, relatively short stories averaging around 20 pages or so, single spaced. After the Big Hiatus (during which I got married, purchased my own veterinary clinic, and moved) something changed and the stories started getting longer and more complex. I know part of what changed was the incorporation of the Jessica/George relationship as a major theme - giving page time to that as well as to the fundamental mystery has definitely resulted in longer works. But even my non-relationship stories have gotten longer: “Taken Out” is nearly forty pages long, and George isn’t mentioned even once. Does this mean I’m maturing as a writer? Maybe, but it’s equally likely that it just means I spend too much time writing about relationships and baseball these days.


Anyway, in my “Works in Progress” file I found two unfinished stories begun in 2007 and one of more recent vintage (I’m not going to detail what they’re about, because that’s just how I roll). Leaving aside that last one, which doesn’t interest me much at the moment, I’ve used my rainy days to take up the other two once more. I used to work on one story at a time, but I think I actually prefer having two or more going at once. I like the flexibility it gives me - I can bounce from one to the other depending on my mood, and play around with them until one seriously grabs my attention and demands to be finished.  The shorter one (“short” is a relative term here, as I think it will ultimately weigh in at about 80 pages) is probably the one I’ll finish first, which is just as well because it precedes the other chronologically. As for that other, it looks like it’s going to be another book length monstrosity; it will be awhile yet before it’s completed. But all this rainy weather means that something, at least, will probably be completed before fall - and that is my silver lining.


Posted by jesmaine at 4:21 PM EDT
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Saturday, 27 June 2009
#35 What Did We Do to Deserve This?

I don't know why it is, but MSW fans can't catch a break from cable. Despite the fact that we constitute a wide and varied demographic, for the past several years now it has been a battle - usually a losing one - to get the series aired at predictable intervals and in reasonable time slots. Since the Hallmark Channel got hold of the syndication rights, things have not gotten any better.

Have you looked at the schedule on the Hallmark Channel's website lately? After not showing any MSW at all for pretty much the entire month of June, they have brought it back - but only once a week, and only at one and two o'clock in the morning. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm asleep at that time of night. The eleven o'clock and midnight airings they had before were irritating, but at least I could occasionally stay up to watch if I didn't have to work the next day. Now? The only way I'd ever catch these airings is if I TiVo-ed it - and I don't own TiVo.

And what, exactly, has taken MSW's place in Hallmark's line-up? Golden Girls, which now airs not only at 11 and 11:30 PM, but also runs in solid blocks from 12 to 2 AM and 8 to 11 in the morning. Now, ordinarily I'd say that Hallmark (or its advertisers) are afraid of the MSW demographic, which for some bizarre reason they sometimes feel isn't worth advertising to - this has been raised as an excuse for its cancellation on more than one occasion. But that argument falls flat when one considers that Golden Girls targets the exact same age groups. Actually, it probably has a more narrow audience than MSW enjoys - I'd be willing to bet that more teenagers and young adults have become fans of MSW since it went into syndication than have become ardent followers of the Golden Girls, Bea Arthur's wonderful portrayal of Dorothy notwithstanding.

I'm not sure what is to be done, or if anything can be done. The wails and protests on the Hallmark MSW messageboard has been significant, but the executives in the front office don't appear to be paying any attention. We could write to the advertisers directly ... but who's willing to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to find out who they are? Our only source of consolation may be the DVD sets (Season 10 is due to be released on July 7th). Once MCA/Universal finishes releasing all twelve seasons and the post-season movies on DVD (fingers crossed that they do), then we can watch episodes of MSW whenever we darn well please, and turn our backs on these fickle cable stations - a just reward for them turning their backs on us.


Posted by jesmaine at 10:20 AM EDT
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Tuesday, 9 June 2009
#34 Five Guys Named Tony

The 2009 Tony Awards were given out this past Sunday night, and amid all the hype and fanfare surrounding uberproduction Billy Elliot, the most wonderful moment came when Angela Lansbury won her fifth Tony - best featured actress - for her role as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. If the open emotion she displayed is any indication, Ms. Lansbury was not expecting this accolade, which ties the record for the most Tonys won set by Julie Harris. I missed the broadcast of the awards ceremony myself, but thanks to a YouTube poster going by the name Indy7888, I was able to find a video of her acceptance speech online. Here's what she said:

"This is amazing …who would have thought? Who knew, at this time in my life, that I should be presented with this lovely, lovely award. I feel deeply grateful. I can’t believe that I’m standing here. And because I am standing here and some of you are sitting there I must take this moment to send my love and my congratulations to the other nominees in this category. It wasn’t fair. Bless you all. Thank you to all of my costars in Blithe Spirit, our producer, Jeff Richards, everybody in concern. They said at the party before the Tonys, 'Don’t talk about anybody just say how you feel.' Well, you know how I feel – I am the essence of gratitude and happiness and joy, and being back on Broadway and being with all you Broadwayites is the greatest gift in my old age that I can possibly imagine. Thank you for having me back."

 

Afterwards, Ms. Lansbury took questions in the press room backstage; a video of her remarks was also posted online thanks to Tom O'Neil. This is what she had to say in the wake of the event:

 

In response to the inevitable question, "How do you feel?"

 

"How do I feel? About three feet off the ground at this point, really. ... It [Tony #5]'s going to be great on this little shelf that I have in my living room, because I needed that fifth to fill it out … I’m only kidding. I never believed in my wildest dreams that I’d have another opportunity to get another Tony, and therefore this is such a complete surprise and thrill for me, shall we say, allowed to come back to Broadway at this time of my life, and to have another opportunity to do a piece of good work. After all, you know, Blithe Spirit is an old-fashioned play, but it has a great role in it, which is Madame Arcati. And I just never envisioned myself doing it – it just fell into my lap, and this is how life is sometimes – you don’t always know where the good stuff is coming from. So I am very, deeply grateful."

 

The next question she took was about her reaction to tying Julie Harris's record for the most awards in Broadway history:

 

"Well, I had no desire to tie Julie because I have such great admiration for her. However, I feel I’m in the best company because she was and still is in all of our minds just the greatest actress in the world of theater in our time so I am very lucky and happy to be there along with her having five Tonys. Of course, four of them were for musicals and leading roles, and this was for a featured role – it doesn’t make any difference, it’s still silver, it’s still got my name on it – it’s okay, it’s big stuff."

 

Another questioner asked how the 2009 award ceremony differed from the other ones she had attended:

 

"Oh, it’s huge. I was enormously impressed with the numbers, with the musical numbers going back to the old numbers and showing pieces of the new. It’s really wonderful, and it’s so great for me to be on Broadway with so many of the new young stars who are just on their way up, you know, and they’re doing great work, and they’re so brilliant in every possible way. It’s great to have Elton John composing for us on Broadway in a show like Billy Elliot with those kids, it’s a thrilling show, and Hair, bring back Hair at this time and having it such a huge success is wonderful for Broadway."

 

And then someone asked, "What are you going to do next for your sixth one?" "Don’t count on that," she answered wryly, but continued, 

 

"I really have no idea. You know, I go where the work is oftentimes, and I feel that there are some roles that I can still play, so I’m going to keep an open mind and ear, and hopefully be back on Broadway or off Broadway, just working and keeping at it because that’s the only thing I really know how to do."

 

The next question: "If you could work with anyone …"

 

"Who would it be? That’s a good question. I’d love to work with James Gandolfini – that would be very nice. I’m such an admirer … But there are so many people – goodness Jeffrey Rush - there are so many wonderful actors at this moment working on Broadway, and just being in that community is terrific, heady stuff for all of us. We all feel it and share it together, and talk about it. Broadway life is pretty special."

 

Indeed it is.

 


Posted by jesmaine at 7:46 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 10 June 2009 8:04 AM EDT
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Monday, 18 May 2009
#33 Local Girl Goes to the City or, How I Came to See "Blithe Spirit"

On May 14th, I had the privilege of seeing Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, the revival of the play by Noel Coward that made a big splash on both sides of the pond when it first debuted in 1941. It was an event a long time in the planning - since August of 2007, actually, when I realized that I had let the opportunity to see Ms. Lansbury in Deuce slip through my fingers. I kicked myself hard for that oversight, and vowed that I would not let another such opportunity pass me by. When my friend Sarah (fan fiction writer and author of the "Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment" blog) notified me that tickets for Blithe Spirit were officially on sale, I wasted little time in purchasing a quartet of them for a performance in May - a nice time to visit New York City. My husband Bob, good sport that he is, elected to come along with me and even did most of the online research required for picking out a hotel.  He selected an excellent one - the Washington-Jefferson on 51st Street, right in the heart of New York’s Theater District. Small rooms (if by "small" you mean "tiny"), but very nice contemporary en suite baths, reasonable rates, and a fabulous Japanese restaurant on site. We arrived on Wednesday, having successfully negotiated the subway from JFK (again, thanks to Bob’s thorough research).  

I should note that aside from passing through during travel, I had only been to New York City once before in my life, back in the late eighties. My family had been visiting my aunt and uncle in Westchester County at the time - I think it was for a family reunion, but I’m hazy on the details now.  Anyway, one morning we drove into Manhattan: we went to the World Trade Center, took the elevator to the top, took pictures of the city spread out below us beneath a hazy, overcast sky, went down again. Having done this, we drove back out of Manhattan, and that was pretty much it. Coming back now was essentially like visiting for the first time. 

After taking it easy Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Bob and I set out to experience as much New York City as we could in essentially two days. Bob had managed to score reservations to the Late Show with David Letterman online, so after a late breakfast of bagels and lox we headed over to the Ed Sullivan Theater at the corner of 53rd and Broadway to pick up our tickets.  53rd Street bears the honorific “Jerry Orbach Way,” after the late actor who was a fixture on Broadway (and later well-known to MSW fans as Jessica’s Boston PI friend Harry McGraw). Mr. Orbach also has a theater named after him, as does the late Helen Hayes.  

Back to the Late Show: tickets are always free - now those comments Dave sometimes makes to the audience - “Yeah, well, how much did you pay for these tickets” - make perfect sense. You stand in a long line to get your tickets inside the theater, then they tell you when to come back and kick you out again. In our case we reported back at 3:30 for the 4:30 taping of the show. After a long pep talk by Late Show underlings they finally let us into the actual auditorium, which was much smaller than I expected it to be, considering that this was the place where the Beatles made their American debut. But the set is a sight to behold - there is no way you can grasp the complexity of it on television. The colors of the lights, the three-dimensional quality of the models of the New York skyline serving as a backdrop ... all of this is far more vivid in person.  And Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra - wow. 

But as cool as attending a taping of the Late Show was, that was not the main event of the evening. Blithe Spirit - and Ms. Lansbury’s performance in it - was the pinnacle of the evening. After dinner on 44th Street with Sarah and her friends Noah and Steve, we headed across the street to the Shubert Theater for the 8 o’clock curtain. The tickets I’d managed to land were fantastic - front row mezzanine, right in the center. Best seats in the house. Although two casting agents (acquaintances of Noah’s) that we ran into outside the theater dismissed it as a “big room with a tiny chandelier,” I thought the set was very beautiful and very realistic, right down to the uncannily natural-seeming lighting effects. I’m not sure what I expected – painted flats, I suppose – but the set positively took my breath away. 

Sarah, having already seen Blithe Spirit once at the beginning of its run, said that since then the performance had become much more polished as the actors became more comfortable with their roles and started to have fun with them. She was right - all of the characters sparkled. But although I am admittedly biased, I thought that it was Ms. Lansbury’s performance that was particularly stand-out. It was my first chance ever to see her act in person, and the occasion did not disappoint. The New York Times summarized the challenges of playing Madame Arcati best: "She needs to be simultaneously preposterous and entirely serious, and Angela Lansbury in her Tony-nominated performance in the current revival at the Shubert Theater, is a whirlwind of dottiness with a ramrod spine of practicality." It is also a very different performance from what fans of MSW would be used to: aside from the fact that both characters prefer bicycling as their primary mode of transportation, there is very little, if anything, in common between Jessica Fletcher and Madame Arcati. Jessica is a grounded, practical character, not at all superstitious. Madame Arcati is the polar opposite, an eccentric with one foot planted firmly in both the physical and spiritual realms. She has been communicating with the dead since her childhood – she notes that her first ectoplasmic manifestation occurred when she was five – and uses a deceased fourteen year old girl with a head cold as her go-between with the spirits on the other side. She is very specific about what she is and what can and cannot do (no fortune-telling!) and at the same time is accepting of the fact that most people she encounters are skeptical of her skills. The rituals she engages in when holding a séance (including awkwardly dancing to music played on the gramophone) seem whimsical to the other characters, but she is entirely in earnest, and they take her lightly at their peril. Mystery writer Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) discovers this the hard way: he invites Madame Arcati to his house to perform a séance simply to gather first-hand material about mediums upon which to base a character in a novel, but comes away with much more than he bargained for when the séance successfully summons his deceased, flighty first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole) back from the other side of the Veil.


We didn’t linger after the performance was over; it was raining outside, which Sarah told us made it unlikely that Ms. Lansbury would linger to sign autographs outside the stage door. So Bob and I parted company with Sarah and Noah and headed back to the hotel, in time to see the broadcast of the Late Show we’d attended that afternoon. The camera panned over the audience too quickly for us to pick ourselves out of the crowd. 

The next day, Friday, was devoted to seeing the sights. After a brief trip through Times Square - a place of such sensory overload that I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like on New Year’s Eve - Bob and I followed Sarah’s suggested walking tour of Lower Manhattan, starting with a free round trip on the Staten Island ferry for the close pass of Liberty Island. Upon disembarking back at the southernmost tip of Manhattan we walked up Broadway, passing by Bowling Green (oldest park in the city), Trinity Church, the Ground Zero construction site, Wall Street, finally ending up in Little Italy for lunch. We finished up the evening with drinks in an Irish pub and excellent shashimi in the Japanese restaurant back at the Washington-Jefferson.  

If Angela opts to do another Broadway production, I will gladly make the trip to see her perform again.


Posted by jesmaine at 2:52 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 18 May 2009 2:58 PM EDT
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Monday, 13 April 2009
#32 Murder, HE Wrote?

I often take the pulse of what my fellow MSW fans are thinking about by keeping a close eye on Donald Bain's website discussion page, and yesterday (happy Easter, by the way), a very interesting tidbit was dropped by Mr. Bain himself. Yet another debate has been stirring among readers about Mr. Bain's controversial (but apparently much-loved) character of George Sutherland, and the pros and cons of Jessica taking her arm's length involvement with him to another level. In response, Mr. Bain noted that

"... enthusiasm for George Sutherland as a recurring character in the series is shared by many readers. Even those who don't want to see Jessica become too romantically involved with him seem to like George as a character. There's even been talk of spinning off a new series featuring him."

Oh, really? It's an intriguing concept, to say the least. What would a book series based on George be like? And would it be worth reading?

The idea certainly has merit. But although George is a very interesting character, to me he is at his most interesting when he's interacting with Jessica. Any book featuring him alone would probably be more police procedural than lighthearted mystery since he is, after all, a policeman. Part of what makes Jessica's adventures so interesting is that as an amateur, she is not bound by the same rules, regulations, and protocols as the police - this gives her a lot more latitude when she investigates, and gets her into all kinds of trouble, which is why we love her. There's nothing wrong with the police procedural as a genre, but I think that by nature they're a little dryer, a little stiffer, than what I'm used to reading. That being said, as a fan of George myself I would certainly read anything that was put out there about him, no matter what form it took. But I don't think a novel featuring him would be as effective - or as popular - as a book about Jessica would be, at least not for the Murder, She Wrote crowd.

What do you think, Gentle Readers? Would you read books featuring George as the main character, even if Jessica never made an appearance? I'd love to hear your responses.


Posted by jesmaine at 7:38 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 13 April 2009 2:50 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 1 April 2009
#31 Sometimes You CAN Please All the People ...

As of March 30th, Universal Studios announced what they planned to do with "Amsterdam Kill," the episode with an identity problem (produced in Season 10, aired in Season 11). According to an article written by David Lambert at TVShowsOnDVD.com, Universal received a lot of responses to their request for fans to weigh in, and the opinions were fairly evenly split between putting in on the 10th or 11th DVD sets. What they ended up doing surprised (and impressed) me: they put it in both seasons. Amazing! It's added as a bonus episode to the Season 10 set, so for folks who feel its place in the production order is important, there it is. It's also going to be the second episode of the Season 11 set, so for those folks who value air date order, there it is. In my wildest dreams I didn't expect them to do something that would make everybody happy, but they did.

Thanks to everyone who responded to Universal's request for feedback - now that they realize we're still out there (and we still care), hopefully our opinions will be sought for future enterprises as well.

Speaking of which ... I wonder if they've given any thought to re-issuing the four MSW movies on DVD?


Posted by jesmaine at 2:17 PM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 1 April 2009 2:23 PM EDT
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Saturday, 21 March 2009
#30 To Be or Not to Be ... on the 10th or 11th DVD Set

 

My friend Ryan, who keeps an eye on things and sends me alerts whenever there is news regarding upcoming release dates for the MSW DVD sets, ran across an interesting piece of news regarding the Complete Tenth Season. A debate is being waged in the hallowed halls of Universal, and the Powers That Be are actually asking for feedback from fans of the show (!) to help them make a decision.

He sent me a link to the story on the website TVShowsOnDVD.com. The problem is the episode "Amsterdam Kill," which was produced in Season 10 but didn’t air until the second episode of Season 11. Should it be included as part of the tenth season, as its production number (69532) would indicate? Or should the order in which it actually was aired be preserved, in which case the episode would wait for release with the rest of the eleventh season? The website includes a link to its Contact Us form so that fans can have their say.

As the story’s author, Gord Lacey, points out, since Murder, She Wrote was more episodic than serial in nature, whether “Amsterdam Kill” is included in Season 10 or 11 doesn’t make much difference as far as the arc of the series is concerned. The much more significant fact is that Universal is bothering to ask the fans which they prefer, acknowledging that where they place it may, after all, make a difference to us. I would encourage all of you to head over to the page on TVShowsOnDVD.com and cast your vote, if only to validate the fact that we matter.

 


Posted by jesmaine at 12:21 PM EDT
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Saturday, 31 January 2009
#29 A Movable Feast - Updated!

Back in Post #26 I related some very interesting information passed on to me by astrology enthusiast David concerning the hypothetical date of Jessica’s birthday. He tried to reconcile the various hints dropped throughout the series (few of which consistently agree with each other) and concluded that she was, most likely, a Pisces as stated in the Season 2 episode “Dead Heat.”


This month David wrote to me again, with some new information he found: “Just some more fun with Jessica's birthday by the writers,” he said.


“In the episode “To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee” (the 17th episode of season 8, originally broadcast March 15, 1992), Jessica is invited by her friend, Sean Cullane, to Fenian’s Chase Irish Pub to celebrate her birthday that evening. Jessica has the Tuesday special for dinner.”


Why is this significant? Because in 1992 the Tuesday that fell closest to the March 15th air date was March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. David concludes, “Although no one wishes anyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and the leaves on the trees in New York are green, if Jessica’s birthday was March 17th, she would be a Pisces.”


After thinking about this I came up with a slightly different conclusion, which I ran by David to see if it still bore out his overall conclusion about Jessica’s birth sign:


“If the episode “To the Last Will ...” aired on 3/15/92, then the events taking place therein theoretically would have happened in the days leading up to March 15th, not afterwards (assuming that air dates bear any correlation to when the events in the episodes were happening)” - because if we’re watching the story on a given day, what we’re seeing must have already happened, unless we’re going to get all Star Trek with the fluidity of the space-time continuum and so on. “If this is so,” I went on to ask, “then would Jessica’s ordering the “Tuesday night special” in the pub not indicate that the date is March 10th, and not the 17th? It would explain why no one was wishing anyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day (and why there was nary a drop of green beer in sight). Would March 10th still make her a Pisces?”


Indeed it would was David’s reply: “If JB’s birthday was March 10th, she would still be a Pisces.” 


Sounds like case closed to me!


Posted by jesmaine at 8:30 PM EST
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