Tag: TV Detectives

DVD Review: Father Dowling Season Three


After a TV movie and two partial seasons, ABC gave the Father Dowling Mysteries a regular season of 22 episodes in 1990-91.

The same cast of regulars from Season 2 returned with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell), Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.

The series maintained a pleasant, family friendly voice tone with likable characters. Steve does a lot of undercover work and handles most tasks well, but you don’t get the impression she’s unrealistically super competent in everything like during Season One.

Some of the past seasons had episodes that could more rightly be called “adventures”  than “mysteries,” but these are true mysteries. The plots are thought-out but never too intricate.

The one thing I did miss from Season Two was the little touches that made Father Dowling and Sister Steve seem more like a real Catholic priest and nun. Except as discussed below, they don’t do anything to cut against that idea other than the fact that the two can always run off to investigate a mystery.

My favorite episodes of this season is, “The Christmas Mystery.” It’s a nice mystery with a few suspect twists, but it’s a fun Christmas treat and there aren’t enough good Christmas mysteries out there. In, “The Moving Target Mystery,” a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill him. He is backing out because he won’t kill a priest but somebody else will. It’s a good set up for a story.

The “Fugitive Priest Mystery,” finds Father Dowling on the run thanks to his evil twin Blaine, and he has to clear his name and find out what Blaine’s up to. “The Hard-Boiled Mystery,” is my favorite episode of the season. Father Dowling goes to have words with a writer who decided to write a story based on Father Dowling. It’s set during the 1930s with Dowling as a hard-boiled priest-detective. We flash from the present to the hard-boiled detective scenes and they’re absolutely hilarious.

On the downside,  some stories just didn’t work. After having an angel in Season 2, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we were given, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery.” What we get is a Hollywood version of the devil who is defeated by a plot ripped off from, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The story introduces an older brother for Steve and contradicts a previous season’s story featuring Steve’s younger brother. Further, it has the characters acting really out of character. It’s the worst episode of the series.

“The Consulting Detective Mystery,” is a bit of clunker. Father Dowling makes a deduction as to who committed a crime. He’s wrong, leading to an innocent ex-con losing his job. This leads to Sherlock Holmes appearing in order to restore Father Dowling’s confidence. It’s not a great setup and the actor playing Holmes doesn’t work. It’s not as bad as, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery,”  but it’s weak and poorly executed.

The rest of the box set is serviceable and fun. Father Dowling was never a big budget show, and it never featured television’s most clever mystery writers. It was a show you could enjoy with the whole family. Another reviewer described the show as “cute,” and I’ll go with that. This season, in particular, features Father Dowling and Sister Steve working to save a cute zoo monkey framed for murder. It’s easy viewing with a bit of nostalgia for simpler times thrown into the deal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series One

Pie in the Sky  is a British TV show that aired for five  series between 1994-97 and chronicles the adventure of Detective Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffiths) who would like nothing more than to retire and run his restaurant with the help of his account wife Margaret (Maggie Steed). Instead, while he opens his restaurant and serves as its chef, he’s subject to constant recall by his boss Assistant Chief Constable Freddy Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair.) This set collects the ten hour long episodes in the First Series.

The pilot episode is included, and  it was the worst episode of the first series. In fact, it tempted me to take the whole box set back to the library and be done with it. I’m glad I stuck with the series but the first episode was a hurdle to get over.

The writers had to get the concept of the series written, and it’s that Crabbe wants to retire after twenty-five years to open his own restaurant. However, things go awry on his last case.  He’s framed for taking a bribe from an escaped criminal. Fisher knows Crabbe’s really innocent but there’s no proof and Fisher instead proposed to hold an inquiry into the bogus charges over Crabbe’s head like a sword of Damocles. If he continues to be “on leave” and available at Fisher’s whims, Crabbe can run his restaurant most of the time. If on the other hand, Crabbe decides he’d rather not, then he can prepared to get accustomed to the joys of jailhouse food.

The plot was fine, but the episode got bogged down in giving us way too many details about everything. The lighting was terrible, and the character’s motivations were somewhat unclear.

However, once Pie in the Sky got past its first episode, it took off and became quite enjoyable.  The big change were the characters.

Inspector Crabbe became far more clearly defined. The first episode couldn’t quite decide if he had been frustrated by his inability to move up the ranks as Fisher had. Unlike Fisher,  he wasn’t a Machiavellian schemer. Thankfully, the idea of Crabbe acting out of envy for Fisher was dropped which made him more appealing.

Griffiths  does a great job portraying Crabbe as a crusty, wise eccentric with a strong ethical core that leads him into constant conflict with Fisher. At one point in this series, he’s offered retirement if he drops a case, and he takes  a firm ethical stand. Time and time again, he’s shown to be good-hearted and trying to do the right thing.

Mrs. Crabbe grows quite a bit from the series opener, where she was defined as an accountant unimpressed by good cooking.  Steed and Griffiths have an incredible chemistry and she shows herself a smart and well-defined character with a great sense of humor and opinions of her own. She also is tender and supportive of her husband in a way that makes for a sweet relationship.

I should also give some praise to Bella Enaharo who plays Detective Constable Cambridge. At first glance, she’s little more than a respectful, low-ranking officer on the police force. However, she really grows to be an interesting and fully developed character.

The strength of the show is its characters. The stories are mostly solid tales that are good Comedy Dramas with mystery an occasional and less-developed element.. The writers have strong political viewpoints that work their way into the story. Most of the time, it’s not too strident. Indeed, the series is an example of how to soft sell your political ideas. However, sometimes the writers’ political views make the plots more predictable than they otherwise would be.

If you can get past that as well as the pilot,  this is a very enjoyable and pleasant series with great characters, a good premise, and some fairly interesting stories.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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TV Series Review: Broadchurch Series 1


In the first series of Broadchurch from 2013, a small English town is shaken by the death of eleven year old Danny Lattimer (Oskar McNamara) and Alex Hardy (David Tennant), a detective inspector newly arrived in Broadchurch and lifelong local Detective Seargeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) are charged with investigating the case, and along the way they unearth many buried secrets of Broadchurch’s citizens.

While Tennant is the best known star in the series internationally, it’d be a mistake to assume that this a series about the investigators alone or primarily a David Tennant vehicle. The series is just not about the mystery, though there are plenty of clues and red herrings, but how this affects an entire community and then there are separate plots that work their way through Broadchurch: How the family handles this as well as learning of the husband’s infidelity, a discouraged minister, an ambitious young reporter, a self-proclaimed psychic telephone repairman, and then the suspects: some are hiding something, but in a few cases, we learn that people we’ve been suspecting have only been trying to hide a very painful past. It’s not a story with disposable characters.

As such, the middle four episodes feel like an ensemble piece and a very good one at that. What Broadchurch does is make characters who feel like real people.  There are secrets but most of them aren’t off the wall things. There’s real human conflict at work.

My favorite character outside of the leads was Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill of Doctor Who) who was really revealed to be a strong character despite starting off looking much more like

In the hands of an amateur or a weak creative team, this type of story becomes a mess of characters running around. At the same time, the series succeeds on a directorial level. The way the story of Broadchurch is told is superb and nearly flawless with music, acting, and storytelling working together to tell a narrative. This is brilliant filmmaking and art on television which is just not something you see.

The mystery is good, although it’s probably the weakest part of the series. There are a lot of clues and red herring thrown in throughout the series. It’s hard to sort through, and the most important clues are ones that Alex Hardy knows but doesn’t share with the audience. Still, there are a few clues to the killer that the attentive viewer can pick up.

While this is a great series, it’s one that really requires parental discretion and is definitely not for the whole family.  The series deals with serious issues that surround the death of a child and what could motivate it. While it was produced for broadcast television, it was produced for British broadcast television which has different standards than broadcasts in other countries. There’s very little sexual content or  violence  but some language that would not make it on American broadcast television.  For the most part, , the use of these elements in the series were not gratuitous which is a tribute to the talent of the creative team to tell a good story.

Overall, this is a great example of what Television can be but so often isn’t.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun constantly finding themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 Movie, “The Fatal Confession” as well as the seven episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries or bone-chilling suspense, or CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonist and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating that balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throw back to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He was truly good and kind, and also didn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do usually in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though it times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens) who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular. As for the episodes themselves:

“The Fatal Confession” had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishoner, but the last quarter of it or so was just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature length first episode of the 1989 series begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery,” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery,” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives such as “it was the right thing for me” don’t really ring true. It’s impossible to believe a nun would say or if someone wanted to be a nun with such weak reasons, that the Catholic church would allow it. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part, “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family becomes Father Dowling’s new Assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business but is drawn into an effor to help his brother Peter go straight and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about half away through the second episode but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery,” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is  a great cat and mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with, “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marked the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written family friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Telefilm Review: Murder on the Links

We continue our look at the the great Poirot Telefilm series over ITV as I eagerly await the new episodes coming later this year. Murder on the Links was the third of four films released during Poirot’s sixth series.

In Murder on the Links, Poirot while vacationing in Deauville France is approached by a wealthy man who has received certain undisclosed threats. The next day, Captain Hastings finds the man murdered and lying in a sand trap. Poirot sets out to solve the murder and this time he has the rival, the pompous Inspector Giraud and the stakes are high: if Giraud solves the case first, Poirot must shave his trademark mustache.

This was another solid story with the battle with Giraud being played for great comedic effect. In addition, Captain Hastings holds back information from Poirot and it’s open question as to whether Captain Hastings has helped a murderer escape. The solution is satisfyingly complex and exactly what we expect of Agatha Christie and this series.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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