The television is once again employed to present students with a variety of contemporary detective personalities, milieu and stories. Four TV shows that have been video taped will be presented, and each show should run about forty minutes (cutting out commercials and closing credits). Students will use clue sheets in this section much the way they did in the “Detectives & Devices” section toward the beginning of this curriculum plan. Each show will be interrupted before the climax, and students will record their whodunit information. After the show is completed, they will discuss their results. Since most of the class time will be absorbed in watching the shows, students will be given homework assignments to write a synopsis for each show. These synopses will later be used in a Bertrillonesque Rogues’ Gallery project (see Lesson Plan 3 on the next page). The shows that will be presented are as follows:
“Murder She Wrote” features Angela Lansbury in the role of Jessica Fletcher, a senior citizen-ish, highly acclaimed author of detection fiction, who invariably gets pulled into ‘real life’ (albeit fictional) cases—which she solves often to the chagrin of whatever police chief’s domain she’s happened to set foot in. She’s an updated counterpart to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Feminism and dogged determinism nothwithstanding, Jessica is a mature woman (probably in her mid to late fifties) with enough life experience to have endowed her with a generous, caring, and compassionate heart.
“Kung Fu, The Legend Continues” features David Carradene as Kwai Chang Caine, a Sholin monk skilled in the martial art of Kung Fu, and living in modern-day California. Caine’s son, Peter, is a detective for the police department. With considerable reluctance, Peter has little choice but to allow his father to do-do, that voodoo he does so well, blending Eastern mysticism with just a touch of hard-boiled forensics. “Kung Fu, The Legend Continues” presents the viewer with a kind of Yin/Yang polarity—a father/son thing; an aesthetic/pragmatic thing; a spiritual/logical thing—often an absurd thing. But to the younger viewer, these polarities can create dramatic tensions that excite and intrigue, and perhaps are not so dissimilar to the paradox presented to children as they are told to act their age when that’s what they think they’ve been doing all along—imaginative freedom versus logical responsibility. The netherworld of teenage existence where one is somehow expected to be a child and a grown-up all at once is frustrating at best. By examining the polar content of the show, students can stimulate creative thought in the attempt to keep the polarities in balance. After all, what’s a yin and yang for anyway?
“Star Trek, The Next Generation,” although a sci-fi TV show about space travel in the 24th century (for anyone out there who might not be a Trekkie), is capable of some artificial time travel via a futuristic contraption called the “holodeck.” Jean Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart), captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, although usually embroiled in mediating turf battles between the antmen of Gamma IV and the catpeople on Beta II—or some such nonsense—occasionally takes a hiatus and visits the holodek where just about any fantasy is possible. In Picard’s case, it’s detective fiction. His detective of choice: Dixon Hill, a 1940s-style, hard-boiled gum shoe, modeled very closely after Dixon Steele, the character Humphrey Bogart played in “The Maltese Falcon” (based on the book under the same name by Dashiell Hammett.) The episode to be shown is entitled: “The Big Goodbye,” and along with the high-tech special effects to be expected in a Star Trek show, there are some film noir touches revealed in two of the mobster characters that appear to closely resemble Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
“Columbo” will take a little longer to watch, and will therefore require two sessions: forty minutes in the first session; approximately twenty minutes of viewing in the second. Peter Falk, in the title role, does a wonderful job of playing the fool—the sloppy, coffee-stained, ash-dropping, seemingly bubble-headed homicide detective, lieutenant Columbo, who surreptitiously (and calculatingly) undermines the confidence of the murderer; tricking him into showing his hand. (Of course, it could be her confidence and hand as well.) But the learning focus for this particular show is not the detective, nor milieu. It is the construction of the story itself. Columbo episodes always begin with the murderer in the act of murdering. The viewer knows from the very beginning the murderer, the victim, the method used, and the opportunity taken. Columbo usually knows, or rather, strongly suspects these things shortly after the viewer has seen them. While there is much satisfaction in trying to determine how Columbo will discover the pieces of evidence and put the murder puzzle together, the challenge to both Columbo and the viewer is to figure out the motive, the missing piece, the “why” of the case.