"OVER MY DEAD BODY" IS the show CBS hopes will make mystery lovers forget "Murder, She Wrote" when Angela Lansbury takes her last bow as Jessica Fletcher at the end of this season.
Based on the two-hour pilot, which airs at 9 tonight on WBAL-T(Channel 11), that looks like mostly wishful thinking. Then, again, there is Edward Woodward, one of the series' co-stars. The question is whether Woodward's talent is enough to make up for the many other problems with this show.
Start with the co-star, Jessica Lundy, and the character she plays, Nicki Page. Ms. Page is supposed to be a cub reporter on a San Francisco newspaper. She writes obituaries. She tells us several times her position is an "entry-level job." The idea is that we are supposed to see her as a young, plucky reporter with only her ambition and determination between her and the unemploymentline. We're supposed to be rooting for her.
Yet, she has an assistant who fetches her coffee, takes her messages and runs her errands. Ms. Page also does about 10,000 things that legitimately should get her fired by the paper. The bottom line is that instead of rooting for her, you find her kind of annoying. And Ms. Lundy's one-note (bouncy) performance doesn't do much to rectify the problem.
Ms. Page is in almost every frame of tonight's pilot. She sees the murder of a prostitute through a window across a courtyard at her apartment building (sound like Hitchcock's "Rear Window"?), but no one can find the dead body.
In desperation, she seeks out Maxwell Beckett (Woodward), a former Scotland Yard inspector now living in San Francisco and writing mysteries. She believes Beckett can find the body.
But Beckett wants no part of her. He's got his own problems -- an ongoing divorce and bad reviews (everybody keeps telling him his last two books "lacked grit"). He's also got a secret of his own connected with the exact nature of his duties back in Scotland Yard and his current public image.
There are times tonight when Woodward seems to be merely going through the motions. Overall, though, even a middle-range Woodward performance is better than most of the acting in weekly series television. When Woodward is on his game, he and James Earl Jones are in a league of their own. Maxwell Beckett will grow on some viewers through the evening.
It will probably surprise no one that Beckett and Page ultimately team up to solve the murder, with the promise of more bickering, friendship and crime-solving next week. Most viewers will probably come back for another look at Beckett. The question is can they stand another evening with Page.