A version of this article was originatlly published in 2014.
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 who constantly find 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 by bone-chilling suspense, or by CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonists, and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.
Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating the 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 throwback to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He is truly good and kind, and also doesn’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, mostly 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 at 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 parishioner, but the last quarter of it or so is 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 that the Catholic Church would allow someone with such weak reasons, or inability to articulate them, to become a nun at all. 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 to 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 effort 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 halfway 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 marks 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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