Arts·Pandemic Diaries

Being Jessica Fletcher: How binging Murder, She Wrote in quarantine is helping me be a better person

Writer Shawn Hitchins gives credit to the classic TV show for helping him reclaim a sense of decency in dark times.

Writer Shawn Hitchins gives credit to the classic TV show for helping him reclaim a sense of decency

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. (CBS)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

In mid-July, the world remained on fire, my contracts stayed cancelled, and my bike entered a three-week queue for repairs after hitting a Toronto pothole. My brain needed cooling down after delivering the second draft of a manuscript. My heart was heavy with concerns about my finances. My fingers needed to respond to an email from my immigration lawyer that read, "Are you sure you still want to move to California?"

And so, I binged season one of Murder, She Wrote.

I was hoping to escape with some "easy fix" television — narratives that have a clean resolve at the end of each episode. The campy 80s murder mystery show starring Dame Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher holds a nostalgic place in my heart; it reminds me of a Hollywood era when actors didn't paralyze their expressions with Botox. But when viewing the world through the all-seeing eyes of Jessica Fletcher, I realized that reality can't be escaped so easily.

From #MeToo to workers' rights to autonomous vehicles, the issues confronted in season one feel ripped from the headlines of today. Jessica Fletcher has dealt with a world on fire since 1984, and she might be a useful symbol for us in this crucial moment. My intent in saying this is not to make light of or to oversimplify the complex challenges we face, but to offer a foothold for those feeling paralyzed or overwhelmed — for those, like me, who have no idea who they are anymore, who they want to be, or the world they aspire to want. We can point to a pop-folklore character who understood herself, her privilege, and the social context that created her into being so wholly that she could confront the challenges of her time. Jessica Fletcher knew her values, and she liberated those caught in power structures without acquiescing to the killer Karens or Coreys. The affable widow practised radical kindness while wearing a blue velour tracksuit, carrying an oversized tote bag, and riding a bicycle around Cabot Cove.

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. (CBS)

Miscategorized as a Sherlock archetype, Jessica Fletcher is the Teacher who helps people off the ladder of capitalism. She challenges the police and their practices, and she leverages her privilege by placing her body between authority and those in need of protection. She deescalates potentially violent scenarios by practising empathy and by creating room to voice shame. There is a sharp understanding of her own shaping that allows her to see people as they are and deal with situations as they are. She enters difficult conversations about addiction, suicide, and abortion without reacting from her bias or judgment; she listens with compassion and holds room for silence, multiple narratives, and contrasting viewpoints without overwriting her own experience.

Fletcher does not entertain the benefits of her work beyond pleasure or joy. Neither fame nor money can shift her principles, and because she is unanchored in the rewards of capitalism, she can step outside of her own experience. This is how she connects the dots and sees the broader systems in place that create the behaviours and actions of others. Jessica Fletcher is a deeply embodied person who takes skilful action as she moves between communities and spaces. From a Louisiana jazz club to a Hollywood film set to a NorEaster bus, she remains consistently true to herself.

Being a 'Jessica' involves doing personal detective work and investigating our conditioned tendencies. Only through self-reflection can we begin to deal with today's problems; this is not scholarly work but the work of listening, capacity-building, and awareness.- Shawn Hitchins

In one particularly powerful example from the first season, the strength of Jessica Fletcher's character proves rock solid when she is forcibly confined by Horatio Baldwin, a horror-theme park magnate. Baldwin uses an NBC executive-type secret button to trap the author inside his office and, in a Shakespearean exchange of power, demands the exclusive rights to exploit the oeuvre of JB Fletcher. Baldwin threatens to destroy Fletcher at all costs if she doesn't give in to his demands. Fletcher refuses, flips the dynamic, and calls out Baldwin's toxic behaviour as disgraceful. When Baldwin grows flustered at Jessica's moral outrage, she retorts, "I write for people who read. You, apparently, stage your bloodbaths for tots who have not yet learned to differentiate between your sordid charades and the real world. That's quite a difference!"

It is quite the difference. For me, this is the defining characteristic of Jessica Fletcher: the clarity with which she sees, in this case the difference between reality and entertainment. To be a Jessica is both to connect the dots and to reclaim a sense of decency by leaning on the values which you know to be true.

James Coco as Horatio Baldwin in Murder, She Wrote. (CBS)

A few weeks into the pandemic, I made a list titled, "Things I Value Being Revealed As True." It was a list of my fears and the discomfort I was noticing in my body as my structures and resources crumbled around me. The list included: basic income, living wages, protection of the environment, universal healthcare, universal housing, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous communities, science and fact-based leadership, and more. Recently, I added to the list: connecting the dots, reclaiming decency, upholding values.

It is a gift to know your work, but finding your approach can be difficult. For me, this includes asking myself the tough question, "What kind of white person do I want to be in the world?" A helpful start in any big question includes looking toward archetypal characters that we know and admire — like Jessica Fletcher. Being a "Jessica" involves doing personal detective work and investigating our conditioned tendencies. Only through self-reflection can we begin to deal with today's problems; this is not scholarly work but the work of listening, capacity-building, and awareness.

If Jessica Fletcher can do this while dealing with Russian interference, taking ownership of a problematic football team, saving a San Francisco drag bar, surviving a self-driving station wagon, and stopping "Big Canning" from destroying Maine, all while displaying healthy relational boundaries with a gorgeous man (read: serial killer) 40 years her junior and publishing best-selling books...so can we.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shawn Hitchins is a Toronto-based author and California dreamer who is currently editing his second memoir "The Light Streamed Beneath It: A Memoir of Grief and Celebration," available for pre-order Oct 12 (ECW Press). His comedy special Ginger Nation currently airs on OUTtv, and his book A Brief History of Oversharing is available through major retailers across Canada.

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