How to Make a Crime Show Without All Those Pesky Cops

Jessica Fletcher started a revolution. NBC/CBS

The question TV development execs have agonized over for years: "How do we make a show in which people who have no business investigating anything solve murders?" This is odd for many reasons. Despite the fact that Americans have their issues with lawyers and police officers, they're all we want to watch on TV.  The endless mixing and matching of motives, victims, killers, and tortured-yet-funny detectives make for sturdy, long-lasting shows like Law & Order, CSI, Columbo, Ironside (the original one, not the Blair Underwood one in which he tortures people), and more. Also, normal people have jobs and if those jobs don't involve the law it's very hard for them to spend all day harassing guest stars and divining clues from lipstick stains and left-handedness. And yet, the gods of Hollywood are wedded to the promise of it all because of Angela Lansbury.

Meet Jessica Fletcher, a nice lady with a seemingly endless number of cardigans who lives in Cabot Cove, Maine, and writes mystery novels. This somehow qualifies her to be the go-to gal for murderer-nabbing in the Northeast. In the seven years Murder, She Wrote was set there (the last seasons took place in New York), she solved 154 cases and knew most of the victims personally. There are fewer people living in Maine than in Manhattan and 154 of them got killed? If I knew more than one person who was murdered I would start to think I was the killer, but this woman meets 154 people who subsequently die and she has a cup of Earl Grey?

To be fair, Jessica was sometimes pulled into cases that didn’t happen in her hometown by an M16 agent (because if the British intelligence network needed help, the obvious person for them to turn to would be a retired school teacher with a penchant for mom jeans). The last thing I’d want to do with a woman who was more deadly than most STDs would be to spread her around, introducing her to unsuspecting people, but cops from Hong Kong to London were happy to play second fiddle to Ms. Fletcher.

Despite the general absurdity of the show, ratings were good; beyond good, they were fabulous. At its peak the show reached 23 million viewers and spawned four movies, dozens of Emmy nominations and a spin-off.

And so a genre was born: the not-a-cop crime show. Dr. Mark Sloan, the chief of internal medicine at Community General Hospital in Los Angeles had a similar tendency to spread death and then be called a hero for solving the murders. He was the lead character in Diagnosis: Murder which ran for a shockingly long time (on CBS, obviously). But that was the late 90—people believed anything back then.

While that show was winding down, The Sopranos came on. Then The Wire, then Six Feet Under, then Arrested Development, then The Office and all of a sudden we were in the Golden Age of television and everything was post-modern and self-referential and people expected a little more from their really stupid network crime shows.

And so the question became: “How do we recreate the success of Murder, She Wrote without the lead character having to go to a prenup-less wedding, a dinner party full of ex-mistresses and business partners, or a weekend getaway in a high-crime neighborhood every week?” The answer: Find an implausible way to pair the lead with a cop, so they are called to a crime scene instead of standing in the middle of one by accident every night. And with that the current shows Castle, The Mentalist, Perception, and Psych were born.

Castle has almost the same plot as Murder, She Wrote except their sound stage is supposed to be New York City, not coastal Maine. In the ABC dramedy, Detective Kate Beckett is forced to work with best-selling crime novelist Richard Castle despite her objections that he has only done this job with imaginary friends. She loses, starts to depend on him, they end up loving each other, etc. Same thing with The Mentalist, (except he’s a con artist instead of a writer and there’s a serial killer involved) and Psych (he’s a con artist too but his dad's involved). Every one of them has a cop who has to wrangle an outsider—a loner who lives on the fringe of society and doesn't play by anyone's rules (sometimes because he's schizophrenic). And these brilliant outsiders who live outside the law but work within it (that's the tagline for my new show so don’t steal it) are all men.

When the plot device went from accidentally-at-the-site-of-a-murder to genius-paired-with-a-cop, that cop became inherently less smart, valued, and interesting than her partner. Since then, no women have been given the chance to be the pestering outsider. (Caveat: Women are allowed to work with police if they’re magic. Women are allowed to be magic.)

Jessica Fletcher started a revolution. She was smarter than the cops and she ran Maine because somebody had to. No matter how ridiculous the plots were (they were not good), she was a tough lady, defying danger and living it up without a man. Now all these outsiders just imprison the women who have to wrangle them. These highly respected female agents/detectives are reduced to babysitting the brilliant and kissing their boo-boos (which are sometimes caused by knife-fights) and do very little actual investigative work themselves. For a television world so threatened by the success of women that this happened, it sure feels like professional gals are being turned into moms and wives on the job. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Murder, She Wrote.

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