Don’t Call It A Reboot: The Strange Case of Murder, She Wrote

Was Angela Lansbury threatened by Octavia Spencer, or the very word "reboot"

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Murder, She Wrote
NBC / Getty Images

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher

Cabot Cove can add another death to its long list, with the news that NBC‘s Murder, She Wrote reboot won’t be going ahead after all. Announced last year to much excitement, there was one person in particular who didn’t share in the optimism about the show, which leads to the obvious question: Did Angela Lansbury kill the brand new Jessica Fletcher because she thinks “reboot” is a dirty word?

“I think it’s a mistake to call it Murder, She Wrote,” Lansbury said about the project during an interview with the Associated Press last year, “because Murder, She Wrote will always be about Cabot Cove and this wonderful group of people who told those lovely stories and enjoyed a piece of that place, and also enjoyed Jessica Fletcher, who is a rare and very individual kind of person.”

Though there’s no evidence that NBC took its cues from Lansbury, it’s easy to understand where she was coming from, even outside of whatever territorial feelings she may have about the pretender to this particular televisual throne. Whatever the new murder mystery series would have ended up becoming, it wouldn’t have been an exact replica of Lansbury’s — especially if it wanted to be a success with today’s audiences.

The original Murder, She Wrote seemed unrealistic even at the time, filled with coincidences and melodrama that stretched credulity for all but the least demanding viewer. The “cozy mystery” genre that it sat squarely within doesn’t even really exist on TV these days, with arguably a couple of exceptions. (And even something like Fox’ Bones is considerably more graphic and gory than anything that Mme. Fletcher would have put up with once upon a time.)

Then again, on a very basic level, the proposed show starring Octavia Spencer shared a basic concept with the Lansbury series: Both center around a female writer of mystery novels who ends up being an amateur sleuth solving murders each week. That core concept, surely, is what defines Murder, She Wrote more than the Maine setting or Lansbury herself. And, if the new Spencer series hadn’t used the title officially, critics would’ve been happy to nonetheless. (Well, that or “It’s like a female Castle.”)

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the very idea of the “reboot” that has become so much a part of the cultural landscape over the last few years — or, to be more precise, the very language of the reboot. In earlier times, such projects would have been called “revivals,” perhaps, or “remakes” — terms that suggested some kind of relationship with the original, but one that was entirely separate and respectful towards its source material. A relationship that was less aggressive or adversarial, as well.

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“Reboot,” however, brings to mind something altogether more dismissive. The word suggests a do-over, starting again and wiping out what’s already been created — usually out of necessity, because something has gone wrong in some way with the earlier attempt(s). Most people know the term from its connection with technology, and you reboot computers that have crashed, after all.

The idea that Spencer’s reboot would have somehow invalidated Lansbury’s original Murder, She Wrote may have been behind this particular objection about the new series. That’s an understandable concern, in a way. When someone talks about Battlestar Galactica now, for example, it’s rare that people think they’re talking about the show with Lorne Greene and Richard Hatch as opposed to the one where Edward James Olmos frowns while political allegories explode in the background. Of course, that isn’t always the case; multiple attempts to reboot The Twilight Zone have done little to replace Rod Sterling’s original, and audiences have proven to be able to keep the many different big-screen incarnations of Batman separate in their heads, allowing both Adam West and Christian Bale to co-exist despite their many contradictions when it comes to how dark a dark knight should be. Perhaps reboots are instead examples of pop-culture Darwinism, allowing the strongest to survive and quietly banishing the rest to YouTube.

Nonetheless, there remains something almost disrespectful about the verbiage of “rebooting” something, especially given the opportunity to use the terms “revive” or “remake.” Whereas “rebooting” bring a harshness and suggestion that you’re managing to approach the material in a dismissively superior way to what has come before, there’s an oddly positive quality to those other terms (with “revive” going so far as to sound gentle, almost).

“Reviving” a project sounds as if you’re assisting it in some way, nursing it back to health after a sickness, while “remaking,” suggests that there was something so good, so valuable about the original that it’s worth trying to recapture the magic using whatever method possible. If NBC had announced the new Murder, She Wrote as a remake, or a revival, instead of a reboot, would Lansbury have recognized a coded compliment and not come out so strongly against the series? NBC is reportedly not ruling out another go at Murder, She Wrote — maybe if they stop calling it a reboot it will have a better chance at life.