momma the detectiveMOMMA THE DETECTIVE (1981) – Happy Mother’s Day to the ladies who brought all of us into this world! Every single one of us alive today was given birth to by a woman, and to help mark their special day here’s my review of a made for tv production about a sleuthing mother in New York City.

This item was the pilot for a potential series to be titled Momma the Detective and is also known as See China and Die, which would have been the individual episode title had this been picked up as a series. The star was the venerable Esther Rolle, most famous for her role as Florida Evans on Maude (1972-1974) and then Good Times (1974-1979).

esther rolle detectiveRolle starred as “Momma” Sykes, a freelance cleaning woman and cook who works for several well-to-do clients in a New York high rise.

When she discovers one of her clients stabbed to death in his bed one morning, she gets the chance to put to use the detective skills that she has honed through years of reading murder mysteries. (It’s television. Just go with it.)

keneMomma Sykes’ son Alvin Sykes (Kene Holliday) is a detective with the New York City Police Department and he happens to be the one assigned to this particular case. His gentle exasperation as Momma persistently pursues her own parallel investigation to his sets the tone for what apparently would have been his “Bert Convy in The Snoop Sisters” role if this had gone to series.

And that observation underlines the only real problem with this telefilm – the dialogue and tone make Momma the Detective seem to be a decade too late. The formulaic situations, lack of authenticity and broad character interactions are pure 1970s “Such and Such Night Mystery Movie.”

This premise would probably have been a big success as part of the 70s rotating Made for TV detective line ups like Banacek, Tenafly, Mrs. Columbo, McMillan and Wife, etc. By 1981, however, Momma the Detective must have felt very “been there, done that.”

momma in shadowsNothing about the production is bad, though, and it’s very pleasant to watch Esther Rolle in action. She gets help sniffing out clues regarding the murder suspects in the high rise by recruiting her own version of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars – in this case Momma’s fellow cleaning ladies and cooks.

Momma and her allies exploit the way that domestics are often virtually invisible to their snooty employers to dig out clues that the NYPD missed. Esther Rolle’s character homes in on the REAL killer, of course, while her son has tunnel vision for the wrong suspect. She even gets to do a long, elaborate “calling out the murderer and proving how they did it” scene while serving a multi-course meal in the climax.

Rolle demonstrates as much showmanship as Peter Falk did during his Columbo resolution scenes in which he would incorporate pool tables and other items into his dramatic reveal. And her son Alvin ends up happy since he gets the official arrest, to the delight of proud Momma.

esther and jean marshBecause this is a murder mystery I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I’ll move on to the supporting cast instead. Celebrities like Frank Converse, Fritz Weaver, Laurence Luckinbill and even Great Britain’s Jean Marsh portray assorted suspects.

Like all of these “quirky detective” stories, the main character has to carry the whole production and Esther Rolle does not let down any viewers, whether she’s verbally fencing with snobbish fools, using unorthodox methods to survive murderous attacks, or complaining to a fellow bus passenger about how easily she solves Agatha Christie’s mystery novels.

esther rolleCult figure Larry Cohen wrote and directed Momma the Detective, and since his entire output always reeks of the 1970s no matter what the real time period is, he bears the blame for the few down sides to this effort. Especially when you consider the fact that Murder She Wrote, another series which was a variation of gimmicky 1970s Made for TV Detective shows became a huge success a few years later, partly because it had a more up to date feel to it.

At any rate, if your mother is still around and you have a good relationship you could do a lot worse than watch this harmless, fun murder mystery together.





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  1. Pingback: MOMMA THE DETECTIVE (1981) FOR MOTHER’S DAY BALLADEERS BLOG – El Noticiero de Alvarez Galloso

  2. I recognized her from “Good Times” the instant I saw her here!

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