A version of this article appeared in 2017.
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 Two returns with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell) and Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries, and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.
The series maintains a pleasant, family-friendly 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 this season all the episodes 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.
One of the best episodes of the 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,” another of my favorites, a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill Father Dowling. 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 has 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 Two, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we are 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 also 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 set-up 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 who is 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