by Kaitlyn Dunnett
Series television has a very peculiar view of Maine. I’m the first to admit that this state makes a great setting for stories of mystery, humor, and horror. We have plenty of published novelists to prove it. Most of them get the details right. But somehow television series that claim to be set in Maine diverge from reality in an even more radical way than does your normal work of fiction.
I was aware of this, although untroubled by it, as a fresh-out-of-college first-grade teacher in Lewiston, Maine back in 1969. Students of all ages and their teachers arrived home from school and turned on the TV to watch the next installment of Dark Shadows, the ongoing saga of a vampire, a werewolf, and other paranormal characters living in or around Collinwood, a Gothic mansion somewhere on the coast of Maine. The town, in which a few scenes took place, was called Collinsport. I have no idea where the series was filmed, but obviously the producers thought that Maine was a suitably remote and spooky place to set their tale. In those uncritical days, I thought it was, too.
Flash forward to 1984. The newspapers were full of stories about a new television series to be set in Maine. The producers had come to the state to gather local color and make sure they got all the details right. As I recall, they were said to be looking at real police uniforms so that their deputy sheriff could be correctly attired. They were not, however, scouting locations. The series would be filmed in Mendocino, California, a small town founded by New Bedford whalers and full of homes that made it look like a New England village . . . if you didn’t notice that the ocean was on the wrong side.
That series, of course, was Murder, She Wrote, and Cabot Cove, Maine not only made an impression on the national consciousness but gave us the term “Cabot Cove Syndrome” for stories of amateur detectives whose small towns are decimated by the time the sleuth gets through solving all the murders that have taken place there. To my newly-minted Maine writer’s mind, a high death rate wasn’t the only problem with Cabot Cove.
On November 26, 1985, I wrote a letter to Peter S. Fischer, the show’s executive producer. Among other things, I pointed out that Cabot’s Cove should not have a sheriff. Sheriff is a county office. The correct law enforcement officer for a place as small as Cabot Cove would be a constable. I also pointed out that the state police would be the ones called into solve a murder in a small town in Maine, not the local authorities. In defense of sheriff’s deputies, the job my husband held at the time, I commented that real deputies were not “as stupid as the deputy recently shown searching a lake for a body, and none would use the police radio as he did.”
I had three other complaints, too. The first had to do with accents. Angela Lansbury did not attempt a Maine accent to play Jessica Fletcher, so I had no quarrel with her. But several of the series regulars did try to sound like Down Easters, with results that would make any true Mainer wince. The second had to do with Jessica traveling home by train. Good luck with that in 1985! At that time, only freight trains ran north of Boston. And last, but not least, I pointed out that the lights on the patrol cars in the show were blue and red. In Maine we use only blue on police vehicles. Red is only for fire trucks.
I sent copies of this letter to Richard Levinson and William Link, the co-producers. Having let off steam, I felt much better. I never expected to receive a reply.
Imagine my surprise when I received an answer from Mr. Fischer, dated December 2, 1985, thanking me for my “thoughtful and constructive letter.” He then went on to write a thoughtful two-page letter of his own, explaining things that I now know, lo these many years later, to be very true. “I confess,” he wrote. “We bend accuracy to fit our format but we are first and foremost trying to entertain in a lighthearted way.” He also explained that they filmed in California because the East Coast unions made it too expensive to film in Maine. It was a very nice letter, and I’ve come to appreciate his points since (although I still find phony Maine accents jarring!) but he did let me down in one respect. In the last paragraph, he promised to have the production’s transportation department fix the lights on Sheriff Tupper’s car so that they were all blue, “at least for the last Cabot Cove show of this season.” Unfortunately, later seasons still had both red and blue lights. Oh, well. It was an interesting exchange and, in hindsight, I can understand his point of view much better than I could as a newbie with only two books under my belt.
For more on Cabot Cove and where in Maine it might be, with pictures, take a look at http://jesmaine.tripod.com/mswcabotcove.html.
Moving up to the current season on TV, we now have Storybrooke, Maine, the setting for a show called Once Upon a Time, where all the residents are really fairy tale characters condemned by a dark curse to live with no memory of those previous lives in the most hellish place the evil witch who cast the spell can imagine. That would be in modern-day Maine, apparently. Uh . . . excuse me? I can think of so many places that are worse. I won’t name them. I have friends living in most of those cities. But Maine? Really? Of course, Storybrooke doesn’t particularly look like a Maine town. I don’t know any apple trees that produce apples that look quite like those the town’s mayor (shown here) grows in her back yard. She doesn’t look like a typical Maine mayor, either. The buildings in Storybrooke look more like Santa’s Village than downtown Wilton or Farmington or Rockland.
Then again, this series is billed as fantasy. It really doesn’t have to try very hard to be true to life. And we can be grateful for one small favor: absolutely no one is trying to fake a Maine accent.