The Well-Told Tale / The Depressive Artist / Seeking the Formula

by Maddy Myers

I watch a lot of murder mysteries in my spare time. I love any TV show with a strong female lead, and the murder mystery genre offers a lot to reckon with in this area, from Castle to Miss Fisher to The Bletchey Circle to Murder, She Wrote. Each of these shows takes place in different time periods and different parts of the world, but there are a few themes that unite them: a whip-smart leading lady (or two, or four) has to constantly reckon with a world that undermines her and doesn't take her seriously. She proves, over and over again, that she is a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes it's serious, like in Bletchley. Sometimes it's funny, like in Castle. Sometimes it's both, like in Miss Fisher.

The best of all is Murder, She Wrote.

The opening credit crawl of Murder, She Wrote features Jessica Fletcher tapping away on a type-writer with a grin on her face. I never fast-forward through this spritely tune. Often, I take a moment to sit and watch Jessica at her work. In some ways, this part of the show is the most important part of all. Why? Because Jessica has a smile on her face as she works.

Jessica's original career, according to the show, was as a schoolteacher. Her beloved husband dies long before the first episode of the show begins; Jessica is now a long retired widow. In that pilot episode, Jessica is shown to be pursuing a new relationship with an age-appropriate man, and also, pursuing a completely new career in life to great success: murder mystery writing. At an age when women are supposed to be hanging around gardening and not taking up very much space or being visible, Jessica is putting herself back out on the market … and succeeding, across the board.

Almost every episode features Jessica flirting with a hot older guy – or, better yet, men of all ages hitting on her while she politely rebuffs them. Almost every episode includes Jessica telling off some sexist dipwit who doesn't believe an elderly lady might be a trillion times smarter than he is. The main beef I have with the show is its occasional pathetic racism, but the show's first couple of seasons manage to avoid most common pratfalls even on this score. Overall, the show is funny, refreshing, and willing to portray a woman who becomes so successful in life that it's a perfect fantasy for someone like me.

I'm a writer, and I'm also a depressive. Many artists will tell you that these two go hand-in-hand. Many media depictions of writers show them as tortured souls, constantly on the brink of suicide, and these depictions will emphasize that this internal desperation is what makes their art good. I remember reading an article in a psychiatric journal as a young person that scarred me for life; this article detailed the lives and treatment plans of several famous artists who suffered from various forms of depression and psychosis. The conclusion of the article was that after these artists began to be treated for their ailments, their artwork suffered. I meet people every single day who believe this, about their own art and/or about artists that they love. It is an extremely damaging belief, and it is one that has permeated our entire society and outlook on how good art is created.

I don't believe this anymore. And Jessica Fletcher, fictional though she may be, is part of the reason why.

Jessica writes her stories with a smile on her face. Jessica meets murderers and horrible jerks everywhere she goes – but she learns how to take those experiences and turn them into incredible stories. Of course, according to the fantastical world of Murder, She Wrote, almost everybody on the planet is a murderer and murders happen all the time ... but also, according to this world, murders can be solved. What's more, murders can be solved by a woman who leads a happy and successful life of hard work and accomplishment.

I haven't read any studies about how watching formulaic, well-told tales can help people with depression, but from my own experience, they do. Watching a murder mystery makes me feel calm in a way that no other form of media does. The fact that every plot point gets resolved and justice gets served, all within a relatively short time period, makes me feel satisfied. Murder, She Wrote manages to do all this without showing too much blood or graphic detail (I'm not so into the Law & Orders and SVUs of the world), and with a light-hearted, it'll-all-be-okay attitude.

Murder, She Wrote also manages to combine the satisfaction of seeing a well-told tale with the feeling of joy that I get from seeing Jessica sitting at her desk. Every single episode is well-told, in and of itself, but Jessica's tales are well-told as well – or so we assume, since she's become wildly rich off of selling them. And she manages to create them in spite of how difficult they are to create (murder mysteries require a lot of planning on the part of a writer), and in spite of how hard her life is (she solves murder mysteries -- yowch). She lives alone, and ultimately, she doesn't settle down with any of the men in her life – but she has many friends, a beautiful house, and a career that she loves.

* * *

I think many people, especially other artists, feel some sense of collective shame about engaging with well-told, formulaic stories. I understand both sides of this argument -- art that makes us uncomfortable can be a great thing. Challenging expectations and the status quo is what art is meant to do. Not all art can or should be "comfortable."

To me, the embodiment of this shame is the viral video "Too Many Cooks," which I do not recommend that you watch if you are a depressed person. Many people I know felt fascinated by this video. To spoil it, in brief: it is a video that deconstructs the TV formulas of 90s-era sitcoms – including "cop shows" and murder mysteries, but also other genres of formulaic shows like Star Trek and Full House.

I should note, I also love Star Trek for not dissimilar reasons to why I like murder mysteries. I don't really care about Full House, mostly because it's very boring, but I believe it hits the same types of satisfied feelings for many other people that murder mysteries do for me, so I understand the appeal.

As a person who lives under the constant spectre of depression, I already feel as though the world is out to get me. I have struggled with thoughts of suicide ever since I was 11 years old. For me, my depression is not situational; I have been quite lucky in terms of my life circumstances, so it "makes no sense" that I have depression. So, instead, for me, it must be some chemical imbalance. Something is not quite right with my brain, compared to other people, and it's been this way for my entire life. Even before I turned 11, I was a morose child. By the time I was 11, I understood the existential crisis of my life well enough to want to put an end to it. I've been fighting, every day, ever since then, to survive.

The real world has no comforting formula. The real world is an unforgiving place where, largely, other people don't give a shit what happens to you. Murders go unsolved. Racism and sexism prevail, unchecked. Attempts to fight the system often end in tears and futility, not neat-and-tidy 45-minute solutions. Attempts to create art often end the same way -- usually in frustration and obscurity and low wages, not success, credibility, and appreciation.

Hence, the comfort of Murder, She Wrote.

I do understand why formulas can be frustrating. After all, the cliché formulas of many media properties are part of why we continue to see the same sexist, racist crap time after time in protagonists and plot-lines. That isn't the sort of "formula" that I am referring to here in this essay, however.

The type of "formula" that I think "Too Many Cooks" attempts to critique is, sadly, the exact type of media that comforts me: well-told tales that leave the viewer feeling safe. Rather than dissecting the props of these tales, or attempting to improve them, "Too Many Cooks" seems to mock their structure: the idea of repetition itself, as though repetition is inherently bad and worthy of mockery.

Repetition can be extremely comforting. As a depressed person, the knowledge that I have to get out of bed every single day and get to work can be terrifying. But if I convince myself that it is a comfort, of sorts – a stability, a necessity, a reliable reality – then it can also feel like a good thing.

I am not yet at a point in my writing career where, like Jessica Fletcher, I spend every single writing session with a smile on my face. But I do keep my laptop in my kitchen, just as Jessica does. And I do sit up straight. And, sometimes, when everything aligns perfectly, I do feel my facial muscles relax away from their typical writer's grimace.

I'm going to keep on being a writer forever. This is the only thing I know how to do; it is who I am. So, it's going to keep being this same grind, every single day, for the rest of my life. And, yes – I am going to write formulaic things. A lot of my stories are going to end up being very similar. After all, they will be my stories, and I only have my own perspective.

But that does not mean my stories will not still challenge expectations. Murder, She Wrote challenges the status quo in every single episode, simply with its depiction of Jessica. Even the fact that she writes with a smile on her face is a challenge. Every day of her life is a challenge.

That's the actual formula, isn't it? Every day is a challenge. Every day is hard.

I choose to see that as a comfort. Or, at least, I try.