A New Vice

As a kid, growing up, I always swapped books with my grandma. Together, we devoured Agatha Christie, especially her books with Miss Marple as the clever leading lady. Then, I fell for Perry Mason. With more than ninety published cases, I still haven’t managed to read all of him.The same goes for J.B. Fletcher and the murders she stumbled into in Cabot Cove. Now, a new character has won my heart: Guido Brunetti, the refined and sightly Commissario. Venice, his daily companion, is the distinctive home for his family, his friends and cases. A place more than an attraction swarmed by millions of tourists each year, pestered by oversized cruise ships and aqua alta. A town as unique as Brunetti himself, used by his creator as a main character. Venice, La Serenissima, the trading town crossed by canals and surrounded by water. A decaying beauty built on logs and land. A lagoon and setting donna-leon_bwthat has inspired many authors, from Shakespeare to Thomas Mann. And, for twenty-two years now, also Donna Leon.

It was a streak of luck that brought Brunetti on paper and into our lives as readers. Donna Leon, once an English professor, has lived in Venice for more than a quarter century. Her passion for literature, opera and Venezia jumps out on every page of her bestselling novels now available in many languages but Italian (upon the author’s insistence). She never expected to write more than one, a crime novel set in Venice with a character she genuinely liked. Twenty-three books later, she’s now a grande dame of mystery and crime. A writer whose protagonists are erudite, sophisticated and often angry at the world and its crimes. It is an intoxicating mix for anyone who enjoys authenticity and reliable characters, for anyone who has a heart for history and critical thinking. Brunetti’s cases are never as grim and gloomy as many Scandinavian novels, but neither are they la dolce vita and cotton candy. For anyone who likes a descriptive style, Italian food and a dash of philosophy, Leon’s books are the perfect pastime told in a pleasant pace. But be warned, once you’ve picked up the first volume, you may never want spend another day without Brunetti and his Venetian life.

Hungry now for more on Donna Leon?! Follow the links below to dive into her world.

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Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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Getting in the Mood

TV themes. Do you remember when they lasted longer than only a couple of seconds? When the sound of your favorite show put you in the mood for an episode of fun, suspense or tears? Did you know the lyrics by heart? Did you recite them or sing along? Do you still find yourself humming those songs while you cook, do laundry or are cleaning up? Do they still put you in a good mood like they used to? Bring back memories of characters once dear to you like friends or relatives?

Today, a lot of shows save up time by using trademark teasers rather than songs that last longer than a mere moment. Castle, Malibu Country, The Good Wife are some of my favorite examples. If you sneeze, you may miss the catchy intro. Sad news for anyone who suffers from hay fever or catches a cold. There are exceptions no doubt: Elementary Downton Abbey or Rizzoli & Isles. I enjoy all of these shows once in a while but the less new programs offer a catchy melody or song, the more I miss that positive trigger classic television used to lure me in. Granted, for the sake of commercials, screen time has been cut down over the years. While a Perry Mason episode still lasted an average of 50 minutes and Bewitched an entertaining 25, most shows only get 43 (or 21) minutes today. So while it was great to hum along to Family Affair or Hart to Hart in the past, it makes sense for Go On to save up time and use those theme song seconds for the storyline.

Although I know the reasons and appreciate a couple of contemporary programs for their beautiful tunes, I still miss those beautiful TV songs that used to stick with me all week. Bugs Bunny, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Flintstones. I Love Lucy, The Muppets, Bill Cosby, Growing Pains. Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, The Golden Girls. Love Boat. Cagney and LaceyScarecrow and Mrs. King. Even shows I didn’t like for anything but their catchy themes such as Family Matters or Full House. Do you still remember your favorite melodies?!

Murder, She Wrote

TV classics: Murder, She Wrote

USA 1984-96, 264 episodes, 12 seasons, 45 minutes each, CBS. Created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, William Link, Producer: Angela Lansbury, Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, William Link, David Moessinger, Music by John Addison. Cast: Angela Lansbury, William Windom, Tom Bosley, Ron Masak, Guest Stars: Julie Adams, June Allyson, Barbara Babcock, Gene Barry, Polly Bergen, Len Cariou, George Clooney, James Coburn, Courtney Cox, Marcia Cross, Mike Farrell, Michael Horton, Kim Hunter, Shirley Jones, Brian Keith, Dorothy Lamour, Martin Landau, Keith Michell, Kate Mulgrew, Leslie Nielsen, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Nixon, Richard Paul, John Rhys-Davies, Wayne Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Jean Simmons, David Ogden Stiers, Loretta Swit et al.

Plot summary: JB Fletcher is a retired English teacher gone bestselling author who writes mysteries for a living and solves real murders after hours.

Review: Already looking back on a renowned career in Hollywood and on the Broadway stage, Angela Lansbury became a household name when she entered America’s living rooms in the fall of 1984. As former English teacher gone mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, she won the hearts of audiences worldwide, solving crimes on paper and in person while sometimes butting heads with the police outside of her hometown Cabot Cove in Maine. Inquisitive by nature, Mrs. F found it hard to resist investigating the crimes she stumbled into, often bringing her own life in danger when she got too close to the truth.

Supported by some recurring characters, Jessica worked with her hometown sheriffs, Doctor Hazlitt, Scotland Yard and an agent from MI6. She solved murders on vacation and on book tours, found crimes that hit close to home but never got gritty. Her way of investigating was suspenseful yet family friendly. Murder, She Wrote was not CSI or Law & Order_ SVU.  The show relied on strong performances and a whodunit story rather than violence and exaggerated action. JB Fletcher was a widow and retired teacher, she didn’t carry a gun or used science jargon. She used her eyes and ears to observe and connect the dots – much like Miss Marple had, solving crimes a different way.

Always savvy, warm and assertive, Jessica Fletcher was a respected member of her community and extended family, always eager to expose the truth behind the crimes she got involved with. Angela Lansbury did a fine job creating one of TV’s most beloved characters, a part that put four Golden Globes on her resumé and a record of twelve consecutive Emmy nominations.

Canceled due to time slot changes in 1996, Murder, She Wrote has remained a popular program in reruns and on DVD. Living on in a franchise that includes mystery novels, games and four TV movies, JB Fletcher is still a beloved member of many households around the world and continues to entertain her fans both young and old.

Murder, She Wrote opening theme

The 80s

The 1980s

Looking back, the 80s seem to have been dominated by aerobics, a blindingly rich pink and shoulder pads. What the decade brought us was yuppies, legwarmers and a 1950s comeback. Blue jeans were stone washed, perforated and often tight, and career women wore sneakers on their way to work and then switched back into their heels before entering their business palaces. Bows were big on prom dresses and wedding gowns, men had mullet hair, women perms, and artificial fabrics and colors were the thing to wear. Madonna released her debut album in 1983, The Bangles were popular and so was REM. Lean cuisine entered the market and dieting was a public motto now along with a general fitness craze.

On TV, Murder, She Wrote with super sleuth Angela Lansbury as J.B. Fletcher was mighty popular, as well as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss. Other famous shows were The Greatest American Hero, Remington Steele, Fall Guy or ALF. Like in the 70s, the list of household names is long and many of these shows are still well received on DVD or in re-runs today. Continuing a tradition that started back in the 1950s and 60s already, the 80s brought us a lot of shows with Hollywood legends, familiar faces and names. Falcon Crest, for example, featured Jane Wyman, Hotel first Bette Davis and then Ann Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck graced a season of Dynasty‘s spin-off The Colbys. In 1985, my favorite Perry Mason returned to TV after almost 20 years of absence and reunited Raymond Burr with Barbara Hale as Della Street for twenty-six star-studded TV movie episodes that lasted well into the early 90s. Women continued to redefine their image on stellar shows like Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls and Designing Women, standing their post-feminist ground as working mothers, single women and retirees.

At the movies, teen flicks like Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club turned into box office hits, as well as dance movies like Dirty Dancing, Fame or Footloose (which was just recently remade). All in all, 1980s cinema was dominated by comedies, action movies and romance, creating stars like Molly Ringwald, Michael J. Fox or Patrick Swayze. Some of my decade favorites are Out of Africa, The Big Chill, Beaches, Mask, Matewan, The Doctor or Steel Magnolias. As the last full decade that knew how to create old style Hollywood momentum, the 1980s brought on many more memorable TV shows and films with a lot of stars that are still around these days, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris or Michelle Pfeiffer only to name a few. The 80s also rediscovered class – now guess who’s fond of that?!

Whodunits

So hands up: who’s as addicted to whodunits as I am?! In writing or on screen – doesn’t matter. To me, the appeal is just the same. When I say whodunits, I mean classic gems like The Thin Man series or Perry Mason, the kind of stories that focus on suspense rather than gore. Not the kind of murder mystery we have seen on worldwide bestseller lists for many years now or the numerous police shows, no matter how successful or gripping they may be.

See, I grew up exchanging Miss Marple novels with my grandma, watching all of Perry Mason and reading Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, as well as The Famous Five. My mom introduced me to The Father Brown Mysteries and I remember falling in love with Hart to Hart when I was peek-a-booing from behind my (grand)parents’ couch. I always loved the hilariously witty dialogue, the thrilling stories and most of all, the shrewd but darling characters, which is why I was probably destined to also fall for Murder, She Wrote in my teens, another show I still greatly enjoy as an adult today. I find myself every bit as drawn to the classic tales of an infallible investigating hero as back in the days when I was as a girl who loved to play detective wherever she went with whomever would humor me. And I find a sparkle of innocence I often miss in a lot of today’s mystery shows paired with a usually clear message of right versus wrong.

One of the few recent shows I feel picks up on my favorite genre and storylines is Castle with its disarmingly charming male lead and love interest policewoman. The show does a beautiful job at never getting too dark, it’s always entertaining and it is simply terrifically cast. Another program I greatly enjoyed was the Lifetime TV movie adaptations of Ellen Byerrum’s A Crime of Fashion novels Hostile Makeover and Killer Hair. Same groundwork on the suspense-minus-gore front with an addition of a vintage-addicted female lead, and yes, you’ve already guessed it, a love interest policeman in that case.

So all right, now may be the time to admit it, I have a rather pronounced weakness for a strong touch of classy romance sprinkled on top of all the investigating and the suspense. But what’s wrong with that?! Isn’t that what makes the characters so appealing after all, that glimpse of an amorous private life in addition to their gritty adventures? I mean, can you really imagine Nick Charles without his Nora or Perry Mason without his Della Street? I surely can’t and gladly confess to preferring Margaret Rutherford’s four Miss Marple stints from the 1960s over any other adaptation because Mr. Stringer was so loyal to her in his admiration. Always a romantic even in the most tenuous of storylines…

Classy TV Ladies

So this is the odd Friday post after I was indisposed last week. Sorry about that! But this week I’m back and on a roll about something a dear friend of mine stirred up over breakfast only yesterday. Whatever happened to the warmhearted, caring and classy TV lady?! Mind you, I may jump decades a little in this entry, but I can’t help it. Where did my darling women go?! You know the bunch: Donna Stone, Samantha Stephens, Jennifer Hart, Elyse Keaton, Amanda King, Claire Huxtable,  JB Fletcher or Maggie Seaver?! All essentially different characters but obviously of undesired making these days. Or are they?!

When the topic arose yesterday morning, I found my friend raving about these shows: The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Growing Pains. All shows with strong working mother types. Granted, all comedy shows and not all too popular in style anymore – at least not production-wise, DVD sales however tell another (more successful) story. So the 1980s may be in vogue and families could be buying these childhood memories for their own kids these days, but isn’t it strange how appealing those stories and characters still are, especially to young women who seem to grow tired of being bombarded with a sexed-up stereotype of power Barbie?!

You see, I greatly enjoy Castle and The Good Wife, both shows with strong, likeable female leads. Brothers & Sisters also featured a motherly type of rare making in today’s shows and a bunch of crazy yet charming (adult) kids.  But these shows seem to be on the endangered species list. How many other popular programs can you name that make you feel like coming home to a family of respectable adults who really nurture their kids?! Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show) and Samantha Stephens (Bewitched) really seem to be from another lifetime when you watch them doting on their families in the 1950s and 60s. But weren’t Maggie Seaver, Claire Huxtable and Elyse Keaton just the same only two, three decades later?! All working moms but always capable and affectionate towards their families despite their equally cherished careers?! And what about those female characters without children, like JB Fletcher, Jennifer Hart or my all-time favorite Della Street?! How come they were so much less neurotic and snotty and able to smile even if they were up to their necks in hazard?!

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but although I greatly enjoy some of what TV has to offer these days, including The Closer with its quirky female characters or Rizzoli & Isles with that team of unalike female leads, I cannot help but wonder why there are so few shows out there who pick up on that yearning for a more mature kind of female characters who are in touch with both, their professional qualities and their warmth. The West Wing did good in its own unique way without the sexual (yet highly entertaining) in-your-face attitude of Sex and the City, granted. But with all due respect for feminism and women’s lib, was Della Street that much less liberated by choosing to be a working girl and dressing adequately for success? Or did Claire Huxtable ever make a secret of loving her family but, at the same time, struggling to combine it with her dedication to her profession?! Hardly so, yet they both never came across as dodgy, moody or condescending. They were charming instead and had a respectful sense of humor about their situation, the men in their lives and the obstacles that came with both, something I greatly value when I now watch DVD reruns of the shows they were such pivotal parts of.

Call me a hopeless romantic or an idealist but I like to see the best of both worlds depicted on screen: female characters who get to prove their skills with implicitness in both their workplace and at home (husband and children included or not). I loved growing up with that image and it has always instilled a sense of tranquility in me that there is more to life than only the choice between Cagney or Lacey, Mary Tyler Moore or Sue Ann Nivens, mother or career woman. And I hope there will be a larger variety of shows which introduce independent yet sane and benign female characters again who make me feel like coming home.