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How Murder She Wrote Led to the Hit Poker Face

Natasha Lyonne says her new show Poker Face is loosely patterned after Murder She Wrote. Because who doesn't love a good female detective?

I still remember having dinner one night—some 40 years ago—when my husband and I told our companions we wanted to get home by 8 p.m. to watch Murder She Wrote. “Wow, you skew old!” said one friend, who was in the television biz and spoke like that.

We said, “Skew you!” and raced home to watch.

And now, many of us are watching—or rewatching. A pivotal reason is the actress-creator Natasha Lyonne, 43, whose new limited series, Poker Face, is all the rage. Demand for that case-of-the-week murder mystery rose by nearly 50 percent in one week, making it the fourth most in-demand series among recent premieres. Lyonne has said that the show is loosely patterned after old favorites like Columbo with Peter Falk and Murder She Wrote, which starred Angela Lansbury as crime novelist Jessica Fletcher.

Both Angela Lansbury and Natasha Lyonne use their own intuition to find the answers.

While many mention Columbo as most similar to Poker Face—due to when viewers learn who did what to whom—I prefer to think it most resembles Murder She Wrote. After all, we watch a woman come up against constant and seemingly unsolvable situations. Because she is not a police officer, she uses her own intuition to find the answers. As one critic pointed out, “Any time Jessica took a vacation or went on a simple business trip, bodies began piling up. She couldn’t even attend a good old-fashioned Canadian rodeo without encountering yet another tragedy.” The same is true with the new series.

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Murder She Wrote and Poker Face 

Another reason for this old–new love affair with Murder She Wrote is that we have a million networks to watch at any time, and some of those are smart enough to take us way back. Peacock, for example, offers all 12 seasons of the show. (Makes sense since Universal produced it and owns Peacock.) YouTube TV also airs Murder She Wrote three times in the weekday mornings. Dare I confess that I find it hard to change the channel? (Especially, for another helping of Morning Joe.)

Okay, one more episode, I think: just to see where Jessica is that week (Hong Kong! Ireland!), who gets murdered and how (Cyanide in that sashimi!), and who the guest stars are (George Clooney, Joaquin Phoenix, Bryan Cranston).

The small town of Cabot Cove is where we all want to live, especially these last few years.

This past week, I watched one that featured the still-active Dakin Matthews, about whom I wrote two articles in the past few years. “I think I may be one of the few, if the only, actor to be both victim (twice) and killer (once),” Matthews told me of his episodes. The series remains a who’s who, or who was, or who was to become.

My friend Vicki, who was only turned on to Murder She Wrote because she is so enjoying Poker Face, has another take. “Where Jessica lives, that small town of Cabot Cove, is where we all want to live, especially these last few years,” she says. She’s speaking of the kind of community where everyone knows everyone, and there is basically one of everything. (Sounds like a movie title.) It is friendly, safe, (the murders generally happen elsewhere) and no one is talking trash or Twitter or Trump. Remember phone booths? Remember remembering without help? Even the events that Jessica dealt with feel less threatening, somehow, than those your favorite true crime podcast would offer these days.

Why Jessica Fletcher Still Rules

Yes, much of this has to do with the actors. Peter Falk could not have been more bumbling and wouldn’t know a chokehold if it, well, bit him on the neck. Lansbury, who died last year, was beloved on and off screen. “She was a consummate professional,” says Matthews, “but what really moved me was her humility and kindness. She actually came to all the supporting players and apologized for not being off camera for our closeups, as she had already put in a 12- to 13-hour day and needed her rest.”

I think people continue to watch not just because they like a good story, but because Lansbury’s presence is so reassuring.

As for why we’re back in Cabot Cove, he opines, “I think people continue to watch not just because they like a good story, but because her presence is so reassuring.”

Perhaps there is cause here for hope. That we can still admire brains over guns. That we are all hungering for some basic niceness. That we applaud women—beyond ingenue status—proving they are smarter than all the guys in the room. That long ago fans were ahead of our time. That we are all skewing older. Hey, it’s nice that something may be bringing us together.

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Michele Willens is a theater critic and the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause.

By Michele Willens


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