Surprisingly deft, low-key mystery entertainment.
By Paul Mavis
A few seasons back, CBS DVD and Paramount released Father Dowling Mysteries: The First Season, a two-disc, seven-episode collection that gathered together the show’s truncated 1988-1989 premiere season, along with the original telemovie pilot, Fatal Confession, that aired in 1987. A series that was probably noted more for its scheduling and network setbacks rather than ratings, Father Dowling Mysteries‘ first season holds up fairly well within producer Dean Hargrove’s canon (Matlock, Diagnosis: Murder, Jake and the Fatman, and Columbo, among many others), offering up some laid-back, well-tuned mysteries starring Catholic priest and nun crime-solving team Tom Bosley and Tracy Nelson as irrepressibly curious amateur sleuths. It’s a little glum, a little dark, a little meditative, and always very, very calm.
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Based somewhat loosely on the Father Dowling mysteries from noted author Ralph McInerny, Father Dowling Mysteries‘ set-up is relatively straight-forward and unassuming (much like its execution). Catholic cleric Father Frank Dowling (Tom Bosley) operates the financially-stressed St. Michael’s church in a somewhat run-down neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. Filling out his tiny staff is Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski (Tracy Nelson), a tough, resourceful former street punk saved by Father Dowling, and grousing housekeeper Marie Murkin (the delightful Mary Wickes). Both Father Frank and Sister Steve share a passion for crime solving, and every week, they invariably stumble upon mysteries as wide-ranging as international espionage to local drug dealing. Later in this first season, fussy, relatively clueless Father Philip Prestwick (James Stephens) will pop in from time to time, wondering why Father Frank and Sister Steve are always going off on their mysterious errands.
Father Dowling Mysteries is one of those series that, when it originally aired, you kept seeing it pop up unexpectedly on the schedule as you said to yourself, “Oh…is that still on?” Having gone straight from the monster ABC sitcom hit Happy Days in 1984, right into a prominent co-starring role in CBS’s equally successful mystery series, Murder, She Wrote, actor Tom Bosley’s familiar, easy-going TV persona was deemed ideal for number one-rated NBC’s attempt to imitate their own successful mystery series, Matlock. Working with producer Dean Hargrove (whose career included producing stints for series like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., It Takes a Thief, and several seasons of Columbo), a made-for-TV movie pilot based on the popular Ralph McInerny Father Dowling mysteries was commissioned.
Fatal Confession, scripted by no less than heavyweight author Donald E. Westlake, aired on November 1, 1987, where it generated decent-enough ratings to warrant a series commitment for Bosley. Bosley eventually left his popular role on Murder, She Wrote in 1988 (where, theoretically of course, he could have stayed for another eight seasons), and signed on for Father Dowling Mysteries…only to see production delayed by the writers’ strike that year. It would be over a year after the original pilot aired before Father Dowling Mysteries would make it to the small screen, premiering January 20th, 1989 on Friday nights at 8:00pm…where it sputtered out against emerging hits Perfect Strangers and Full House on ABC (even cat lovers deserted Father Dowling for Beauty and the Beast over on CBS).
NBC failed to renew the series that spring. However, ABC (as it would do later with Matlock), saw some life still left in the series, and picked it up as a midseason replacement for January, 1990. Father Dowling Mysteries managed to hang on the ABC schedule for one additional (and equally uneventful, ratings-wise) full season, before it was finally axed in the spring of 1991.
I know I never saw an episode of Father Dowling Mysteries when it originally aired. Murder, She Wrote was certainly required viewing at the time, but if I wanted more mystery, I might have checked out a Matlock now and then, but not Father Dowling Mysteries (frankly, all the delays and the network switcheroo probably signaled to me a troubled-if-outright-failed series, so I skipped it). Having watched this first half-season, though…I rather like its calm, measured style.
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Having heard the concept back in 1987, I also avoided the series thinking that the producers and Bosley might overdo the whole Barry Fitzgerald/”Saints preserve us!” priest shtick (something the Jewish Bosley strenuously avoided, out of respect for the part), further compromised in the “cutesy pie” category by having his crime-busting sidekick be a street tough-turned-lock-picking-nun, Sister “Steve.” Happily, Father Dowling Mysteries largely avoids those clichéd conventions, presenting instead a methodical, analytical amateur sleuth who also just happens to be a priest (trouble with the bishop is always threatened…but the series avoids this obvious dramatic conflict, too). If you 86’d the collar and changed his HQ, “Father” Frank could just as easily been a butcher or a baker.
It’s not that the producers and writers of Father Dowling Mysteries avoid showing Frank in his priestly duties; far from it. St. Michael’s chapel, its confessional, and the priest’s rectory are where about 70% of the series takes place. But interestingly, no one goes out of their way to make the series dependent on that particular angle. Sure, Sister Steve routinely goes undercover as a “party girl,” generating some mild innuendos about the impropriety of these occupational clashes (Nelson is quite sweet in this role, playing well off the avuncular Bosley), and thugs regularly attend impromptu, unwelcome services at St. Michael’s. However, religion and sermonizing and the accompanying rituals of the priesthood and church aren’t as important to the series as one might first expect.
It’s enough that we the audience know that these are two of the most defenseless sleuths ever to be on TV (no guns, no fisticuffs, no car-as- weapon, a la Cannon…not even prayer-for-revenge like the rest of us). They’re helpless, basically, and that generates a lot of the suspense. There’s no need to invent silly, “precious” ways for Father Frank and Sister Steve to go toe-to-toe with the killers they find: they either run away, or call the cops. Simple.
That may sound unexciting, but it’s not, especially since the writers frequently come up with engaging little mysteries and surprisingly deft dialogue and characterizations that we can focus on (just to appease the action folks’ expectations, Sister Steve’s lead-footed car chases are a frequent running gag). We can laugh at that clichéd, classic TV standby of the “evil twin” that Frank has in The Face in the Mirror Mystery, but like all the episodes in this first half-season, it’s handled with admirable restraint, with Bosley (excellent, as always), underplaying both roles and letting the dialogue handle the rest.
Father Dowling Mysteries has guest stars, of course, like Leslie Nielsen or Stella Stevens (in the pilot), but then it backs off from the “spot the faded star” gimmick of Murder, She Wrote to instead concentrate on plots which are for the most part engaging. The opening pilot, shot on location in snowy, evocative Chicago (instead of relatively bland Denver, substituting for the Windy City, in the subsequent series) and featuring excellent scripting from old pro Westlake, is the high point of this season, no doubt (I love how Westlake has Father Frank ask everyone for a donation, regardless of propriety). However, later offerings are entirely respectable—not in the same league with Hargrove’s seasons of Columbo, certainly, but probably better than your average Diagnosis: Murder you’ll catch on MeTV.
Undemanding and yet quite deft within its calm métier, Father Dowling Mysteries is a welcome re-discovery.