It Seems To Me

An Old Couch Potato’s Lament

Now that I have time to watch, there’s nothing I want to see (or: Where are the nonirritating, guilt-free programs like, well, Murder, She Wrote?).

I watch lots of television. If you are as long in years and short in energy as I am, watching television is the second-best occupation. The best, of course, is sleeping, but you can’t sleep all the time.

I watch many kinds of television, but some kinds I don’t watch. I don’t watch cop shows. If I wanted all that violence, I would watch the local news at 10 or 11 p.m. I do not watch sitcoms. They seem to me to consist entirely of juvenile leering about sex. I am weaning myself from the talk shows about public policy that I used to think it was my duty to watch. I have concluded that they are all games of Pin the Tail on the Donkey–blindfolded journalists trying to stick pins in evasive politicians.

I watch the evening news because it comes on at dinner time and serves as background music to which we–my wife and I–don’t have to pay much attention. I think I could do with about three minutes of news a day. I watch some sports, especially Sunday afternoon professional football. I love seeing something done extremely well, and I think that throwing a pass 20 yards down the field to a precise point where the receiver catches it amid a forest of defenders is doing something extremely well. I like to watch with the sound off, because the sports pundits are no better than the policy pundits, and if I fall asleep during the game, that’s fine.

I watch the occasional symphony concert broadcast on television. I can hear better sound on the radio or on a CD, but there is something special about the TV performance that is connected with doing something extremely well. When I only listen, I can hear Mozart or Haydn doing something extremely well. But on television, I can see 100 musicians doing something extremely well. In the course of an hour, they play–I don’t know how many–say, 100,000 notes, and all those notes come out right. I look at the second clarinet player. He’s no genius. He probably makes his living by giving lessons. But he always comes in with his “duh” at the right time. As the former second clarinet in the Schenectady High School orchestra, I appreciate that.

The heart of our TV meal is the detective story. Properly done, with little violence and much detection, a TV detective story is the ideal nonirritating, guilt-free interactive program. I am not sitting passively on the couch while gales of canned laughter blow over me or waves of fake blood wash over me. I am doing something. I am helping the detective find or prove who did it. If I don’t find the answer–and I never do–I don’t feel stupid about it. And if I do find a little piece of the answer–noting a clue or narrowing down the list of possible perpetrators–I am pleased with myself.

But, here is my lament. The detective story is disappearing from the TV screen.

F or many years, Great Britain has been the source of TV detective stories. I am grateful to the British for that, but their stories have never been entirely satisfactory. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the father of the British detectives, and when he began to appear on PBS in the ‘80s, we watched him regularly. But he does not inspire repeat watchers. As played by Jeremy Brett, Holmes was so eccentric, so mannered, that all attention was drawn to him, rather than to the story–and after you had seen him several times, he elicited giggles rather than puzzlement.

Hercule Poirot was my favorite among the British-detective-story detectives who made their U.S. TV debut on PBS. Perhaps that reflects a connection formed 50 years ago when I used to pass the time on the train between Washington and New York reading his adventures. Anyway, in the TV incarnation, the stories were the right length–one hour–and Poirot spoke clearly. The clues, moreover, were not too obscure for the occasional one to be recognized by the viewer. But there have been no new Poirot stories for a long time–and although we still watch the reruns, I have the feeling that his shiny mustache is getting shinier and his mincing steps even more mincing.

The two British detectives now appearing in new series on PBS are Chief Inspector Morse and Cmdr. Dalgliesh. We appreciate and watch them, but we are not entirely happy with them. Their stories run for two to four hours, in two installments separated by a week. That is too long for even a couch potato to sit still. Dalgliesh mumbles. Surprisingly, an English actor speaking with what he thinks is a Belgian accent speaks more clearly than an English actor speaking in his own accent. The clues are too faint–too understated. I don’t feel that I am coming closer to the solution, even after three hours. Maybe I am just not smart enough for a modern British TV detective story, as I am not smart enough for a British crossword puzzle. But I often think that even Morse and Dalgliesh don’t have a clue until the whole thing is revealed in the last 15 minutes.

My favorite detective stories are American, and the most favorite of all is CBS’s Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher. Murder episodes are almost always one hour in length. Everyone–whether a French detective, an Indian chief, or a Chinese banker–speaks clear English. The clues are not obvious, but they are not too hard to get either, especially after a second or third rerun. The “production values” are high. The setting–wherever it might be–always seems authentic, not as if it were a Hollywood back lot.

The stories are set in different walks of life–a TV studio, a rodeo, a bank, an advertising agency, a toy factory–and each one seems to reflect the setting accurately. (Having seen so many episodes and observed the formula, I have thought it would be amusing to write an episode set in a think tank. But I have been unable to visualize one think-tank scholar killing another. For what–a citation in a newspaper column?)

B ut best of all, there’s Angela. She always says the right thing, does the right thing, wears the right clothes. She is an example of doing something extremely well. She does not rely on eccentricities to create a recognizable character, and that is why you can watch her over and over again. Time cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite normalcy.

Alas, no new episodes of Murder, She Wrote have been made for several years. We are living on reruns. That is all right for now. True fans can enjoy seeing the same episode four or five times. They will discover something new each time. But that cannot go on much longer. I fear that when we reach the sixth or seventh repeat, it will have become boring. And what shall we do then?

CBS allegedly gave up programming new episodes of Murder, She Wrote because of the “demographics.” We fans of Jessica Fletcher are too old to be a good market for advertisers. It is not because we are old that we like the polite, civilized detective story. My generation liked that when we were young; we liked Nick and Nora Charles in the movies and Ellery Queen on the radio. In our middle age we liked Perry Mason on television. We are of the generation that likes to have its intellect teased. Later generations like to have their emotions aroused. But it is true that we are not a good market for advertisers. We have money, and spend it or invest it. But we have been around too long, and have had too much experience, to buy something or invest in something just because we see it advertised on television.

Perhaps in the era of 500 TV channels there will be one devoted to new episodes of Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, Perry Mason, and to other newly conceived, civilized detective stories. But for many fans of that genre, time is running out. For the present, we have to try to learn to understand the British detectives. And we have to nurse the supply of old Murder, She Wrotes, rationing ourselves to not more than one viewing a week, hoping to preserve the fascination until the need for such entertainment has passed.