Season 4 had been murderous, yes, but not as magnificent as previous ones. Yet my wife and I saw "Deadpan," a couple weeks ago, and it is probably the best we've seen in months! So if you're here wondering why I skipped from early in Season 3 to the end of Season 4, just shrug it off and accept it--you know, kind of like some of the plot points in a typical Murder, She Wrote.
"Deadpan" is another "Jess in the Big City" story, with our dear J.B. Fletcher visiting New York to attend the premiere of Mainely Murder, a Broadway play loosely based on her work. When she sees the dress rehearsal, she discovers just how loose an adaptation it is; a veteran producer (Carole Cook) demanded rewrites, and hapless playwright Walter (Miles Chapin) acquiesced without bothering to tell Jessica.
Walt's a beloved former student of hers, but he doesn't come off well in this episode. I want to see the students Jessica didn't care for every now and then. Where is the brooding slacker that showed up on rare occasions and challenged her like a know-it-all?
When our novelist extraordinaire asks why the play now has witches in it, reminding everyone it's set in Maine, not Massachusetts, she is told that they have broadened the setting to include "perceptual New England." This is one of the best lines of the series! You better believe I am using "perceptual ___" in daily life whenever I can.
The play is horrible, and everyone knows it, but a rave review from the city's big newspaper-based drama critic lifts everyone's spirits at the premiere after-party, taking the sting out of the brutal pan by the city's big television-based drama critic. The fun is short lived, though, when the newspaper critic is found dead...and his bitter rival, the TV guy, is found standing over him with a gun in his hand!
As smug, arrogant TV critic (that is, critic of drama on TV) Elliott Easterbrook, Dean Stockwell is brilliant. It's one of the most enjoyable performances I've seen on the series and by far the highlight of "Deadpan." It's fun to see Jessica parry his condescending remarks. You can tell she is pleased with herself when she gets him with a Moliere quote. Tom Clancy wouldn't have done that!
The rest of the cast is distinguished by Lloyd Bochner as a pretentious director and Rich Little playing it straight as the show's PR guy who, in an amusing moment, says he can imitate the writing style of the town's theater scribes and often sends lazy ones prewritten stuff they can use. I don't know how John Wayne and Johnny Carson look when they're penning grocery lists, but I am sure he nails them, too. Eugene Roche is entertaining as the lieutenant who investigates, and I expected him to be a lot crustier with Ms. Fletcher than he ended up being.
"Deadpan" has it all--a goofy premise, snarky insults, oddball characters, and one of the best "I did it" speeches I have seen. Stockwell is hilarious and perfect in his role. All this plus Jessica learning how to use computers (!) in a key plot point makes this a fantastic MSW outing whether you are a fan of the show or just a perceptual fan of the show.
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