In the mid-’90s, my mother had an important job. She had to raise a little black boy, perfectly. There was no room for error. So, in this process, there were a number of highly purposeful maneuvers to make sure the job was done without hiccups. Where we lived, where I played sports, what conversations we had (and didn’t have), and especially what I was exposed to on television. For every TGIF show there was A Different World, for every SNICK show there was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and for every Rugrats and Doug, a Martin or Living Single.
Every now and then, however, she’d slip up. She wouldn’t realize I was in the room. Or she would think I was sleep, when I really had one eye open. That’s when Matlock would pop up. Or Columbo. Or Perry Mason.
You know, white people.
There’s a pretty phenomenal story of me as a little boy sitting on the toilet asking my mom where white people came from. It was a valid question, because chances are if you lived in Southwest Atlanta in the mid-’90s, you weren’t seeing many. After learning that the answer was less “the moon” and more “the north side of town,” I began to develop a curiosity in these white people. And most of my first main exposures were on television. And in that first wave were four shows centered on middle-aged white ladies that my mother, and eventually I, couldn’t get enough of: Murphy Brown, The Golden Girls, Designing Women, and, of course, Murder, She Wrote.
Because these shows were so present in my home, I grew up with an unfathomable trust and respect for white women in their forties to sixties. I thought they were funny, witty, sassy, prone to getting into sticky situations with their girls, fantastic investigative journalists, and, of course, top-notch amateur detectives who were infinitely more observant than the actual police.
I also had no knowledge of these shows beyond the confines of my living room. I had no idea how much of a cultural phenomenon Murder, She Wrote was. Knowledge of Angela Lansbury as an actor who was winning awards did not register. All I knew was Jessica Fletcher, a really good mystery writer who lived in Cabot Cove, Maine (a town I recently learned was fictional), and was perhaps the greatest crime solver of all time. I respected her for it.
My respect has often translated into a defensive attitude toward the show. The insane passion people have for Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU is what I have for Jessica Fletcher. She has been my old, white lady sleuth for more than 20 years. I’m quick to snap on a Murder, She Wrote hater (they’re out there) and quicker to judge someone who is not well-versed in the show’s arc.
So, naturally, the last thing I’d ever want is anything that tarnished the legacy of my show. You know, like a reboot. Because there’s only one direction to go with a show like this, and it’s down. Right?
Suddenly very conflicted.
Oh my lord, never mind, this is perfect.
Just think about the intro, for a second.
You’d see these brown hands typing away at a MacBook Air, spelling out the word “Murder,” and then Octavia riding her Vespa down a hill, waving at neighbors, and then Octavia on a dock, dressed like the Gorton’s fisherman, and then Octavia picking kale in her garden, and then brown hands typing again, this time “She Wrote,” and then Octavia reading the paper and becoming shocked at what she has seen, and then Octavia buying flowers, and then more typing, and then Octavia running with her groceries across the street, and then Octavia pointing, and then Octavia peeking through a door with gloves on (to look fly while not leaving fingerprints), and then Octavia chasing after a killer in a nice dress at a gala event, and then Octavia holding a candle, and then Octavia teaching a class about the word “motive,” and then Octavia printing what she typed, and then, finally, Octavia putting it in her “Murder, She Wrote” leather-bound folder.
It’s almost too much to handle. And that’s only the intro.
Temporarily, however, the joy has to be slightly muted, because it’s not a done deal yet. It has been granted a pilot commitment and nothing more. But how could this possibly go wrong?
Well, if they changed the intro from classical to a Young Chop beat and renamed her “Dressica Fletcher” and pitted her as a mystery-romance novelist counterpart of Zane and had her solving crimes in Gary, Indiana, this could certainly go very wrong.
But I don’t think they’ll do that?
In the time being, you just have to feel wonderful for Octavia. She has had a noticeably tough time landing roles that weren’t of a similar “typecast,” if you will. Some of her roles, pre–The Help, per IMDb: Roark’s Nurse, Evelyn the Maid, Nurse no. 2, Cashier, Nurse B, Baby Nurse, Waitress, Unemployment Clerk, Check-In Girl, Waitress, Security Guard, Neighbor in Alley, Big Customer, Streetwalker, Nurse, Home Health Care Nurse, Troubled Woman, Detention Teacher, and Nurse Daniels.
And then, in 2011, her big break in The Help. As a maid.
Call me crazy, but I think Octavia has more than earned the right to not serve or care for people in roles and, instead, be a crime-fighting, graceful superhero.