Note: A version of this article was posted in 2016.
This 3-DVD series collects the second short season of The Father Dowling Mysteries, originally broadcast in 1990 when the series moved to ABC after NBC produced its first season. The main cast is Tom Bosley (Father Frank Dowling), Tracy Nelson (Sister Steve), James Stephens (Father Prestwick), and Marie (Mary Wickles).
If I had to describe the difference between this season and season one, I’d have to use the word “authenticity.” In season one, our heroes are people who solve mysteries, who just happen to be a priest and a nun. In season two, they are a priest and a nun who come across mysteries in the course of their lives and duties.
They say prayers, perform ceremonies and deal with church hierarchy and bureaucracy. It plays into the plots. In “The Solid Gold Headache Mystery,” Sister Steve is named custodian of the estate of a wealthy man whom she was visiting. In “The Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” she shows kindness to a blind conman and is taken in by him. A similar event happens to Father Prestwick in “The Confidence Mystery.” Father Dowling knows who an art thief is, but is far more concerned about his life and his soul than bringing him to justice in “The Legacy Mystery.” And Father Dowling’s pastoral relationship is key to his involvement in “The Falling Angel Mystery” and “The Perfect Couple Mystery.”
The show isn’t preachy but it makes the characters more believable. Characterization is also better for Sister Steve. She’s still resourceful and frequently ditches her habit to go undercover. However, this doesn’t happen every episode. Unlike in season one, where she seemed to be super-competent at everything, she fails at a couple of her tasks. Sister Steve doesn’t make a good skater, and doesn’t win at every video game. Thus she’s much more of a real person. This is also helps as we learn that she has a hoodlum brother in “The Sanctuary Mystery,” and that her father was an alcoholic in “The Passionate Painter Mystery.”
The supporting acting shifted as subplots became more about Father Prestwick (who works for the Bishop) than their cook Marie. I didn’t like this as much, as I prefer Marie as a character. Still, the officious and demanding Father Prestwick is more effective as a comic foil for Father Dowling.
The guest cast is mostly solid, although a couple of scenes in “The Perfect Couple Mystery” were painful to watch.
In terms of the plots, they’re mostly okay. Many of the episodes feel more like adventures rather than typical mysteries, and some were not all that clever, such as “The Ghost of a Chance Mystery.” Some of the better ones were “The Visiting Priest Mystery,” where a mob hitman tries to go undercover as a visiting priest at Saint Michael’s; “The Exotic Dance Mystery,” which ends up with Steve going undercover as a card shark; and “The Confidence Mystery” and “Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” both of which have some clever twists, though the similarity in plot made airing them both in the same season a dubious decision.
This season also featured “The Falling Angel Mystery,” where a scruffy angel named Michael (not the archangel) shows up with a warning for Father Dowling. I was dubious about the plot as it could have been cheesy and there were some problems with the story. However, James McGeachin does a good job in the role and the twist is one I didn’t see coming. Of course, Father Dowling’s criminal twin brother Blaine has a return appearance, much to Father Dowling’s chagrin.
Ultimately, the plots were not all fantastic. What holds it together is the characters are incredibly likable and a joy to watch.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
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