Father Dowling Mysteries: The Complete Series DVD Review

Light, rather predictable mysteries 3 Stars

One of the real hard luck kids of network television was Father Dowling Mysteries, a middling crime series that never quite seemed to catch a break.

Father Dowling Mysteries (1989–1991)
Released: 20 Jan 1989
Rated: N/A
Runtime: 45 min
Director: N/A
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Cast: Tom Bosley, Tracy Nelson, Mary Wickes, James Stephens
Writer(s): Dean Hargrove, Joel Steiger
Plot: An amiable, inquisitive Chicago priest moonlights as a detective and is assisted by a rather worldly, lock-picking nun.
IMDB rating: 6.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: CBS
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 480I/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 2.0 DD
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 35 Hr. 47 Min.
Package Includes: DVD
Case Type: Amaray case with leaves in a slipcase
Disc Type: DVD-9 (dual layer)
Region: 1
Release Date: 06/06/2017
MSRP: $29.98

The Production: 3/5

One of the real hard luck kids of network television was Father Dowling Mysteries, a middling crime series that never quite seemed to catch a break. Its premiere thwarted by the 1988 writers’ strike and its unspectacular ratings during its first run of episodes leading to one network (NBC) dumping it and another one (ABC) picking it up only to hold off its second series of episodes until midseason, it never managed to break into TV’s top thirty shows, and finally the plug was pulled for good at the end of its third season. The CBS/Paramount box of the complete series puts together all three separate season releases from years past with no new masters into one space saving box containing ten discs featuring its made-for-TV pilot film and forty-two individual episodes.

Father Frank Dowling (Tom Bosley) heads up St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Chicago assisted by Sister Stephanie ‘Steve’ Oskowski (Tracy Nelson). Both have inquisitive minds that are always eager to dig deeply for the truth when trouble comes to one of their parishioners or when murder or other crimes somehow come to their attention. Their special calling often grants them entrance to places where ordinary individuals couldn’t or wouldn’t be permitted, and when their garb doesn’t grant them access, Sister Steve’s way with a hairpin opens all doors to their investigations. Back at the rectory, there is also stern housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) always ready to grudgingly feed the masses and the Bishop’s bumbling assistant Father Philip Prestwick (James Stephens) who can always be counted on to be in the dark with just about everything. Sergeant Clancy (Regina Krueger) of the Chicago PD is usually around to make an arrest, but she has a nasty habit of never listening to the Father or the Sister and ignoring the obvious until the duo themselves bring the guilty parties to confession or justice.

Yes, Father Dowling Mysteries is a very formulaic crime series. Not quite a mystery show in the Murder, She Wrote style where clues are clearly presented allowing the audience to play along and put the pieces together to guess the culprit before his identity is revealed nor is the show ordinarily in the Columbo mold of showing the crime and perpetrator and then watching the detective arrive at the solution we already know. This show offers for each of its crimes three or four suspects and has its priest and nun then piece by piece eliminate a suspect from their various investigations. Sometimes the two go undercover out of their religious apparel to gather their information, and occasionally they get caught and are in danger of elimination, but the mysteries aren’t anything special in this series, and it’s usually very clear who the guilty parties are long before our main characters finally reach their own conclusions.

Over its three season run, there were certainly some unusual episodes. The writers allowed both of their stars the opportunity to play dual roles: Tom Bosley playing the title character and his identical twin and Tracy Nelson in one episode playing a member of the royal family who switched places with the Sister for an afternoon (shades of The Prince and the Pauper) and in another playing a streetwalker who assisted the nun in her investigation. One episode had a whimsical angel (played by the acerbic James McEachin) come down to assist the duo in their quests. Another featured the two stars serving as models for a new TV pilot being shot featuring a priest and a nun as a detective duo. There was even one episode that alternated a present day mystery with a 1930s noir novel based on real-life Chicago characters. And during the run of the series, it was revealed that both Father Dowling and Sister Steve had had worldly lives before entering the religious life: Father Dowling unknowingly fathering a son (who grew up to be a man suspected of murder played by John Rubenstein) and Sister Steve engaged to be married to a man (William R. Moses who was actually married to Tracy Nelson at the time of filming) she later left.

After four years of playing the dithering sheriff of Cabot Cove who could never solve a case without the assistance of Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, it must have been a great relief to Tom Bosley to land the role of Frank Dowling and finally be allowed to solve his own cases. As always, his warm, amiable presence made the show a soothing, untaxing way to spend an hour each week. Tracy Nelson’s character has been written as practically a superwoman with the expert driving skills of a stunt car driver, lock picking skills of master craftsman, and skilled in bowling, one-on-one basketball, goal-tending in soccer, and hustling at pool: all designed to make her worldly-wise Sister Steve someone who can relate to everyone on his own terms. The always welcome Mary Wickes is reliably crusty even if the writers don’t generally give her comedy material worthy of her gifts. James Stephens’ bumbling ineptitude and complete cluelessness to everything around him pushes the bounds of absurdity to the breaking point. Among the more famous guest stars during the run of the series (in addition to those already named) were Tracy Nelson’s real-life grandmother Harriet Nelson (as a nun who clashed with Wickes’ Marie), Ed Winter, Susan Blakely, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Scolari, Stella Stevens, Sada Thompson, John Slattery, Anthony La Paglia, Steven Culp, Tim O’Connor, Yaphett Koto, Bob Dishy, Roscoe Lee Brown, Candy Clark, David McCallum, Sarah Douglas, Bill Macy, Mitchell Laurence, Mark Moses, Charles Frank, Dan O’Herlihy, Kevin McCarthy, Ivan Dixon, and Richard Dawson.

Here are the forty-three entries contained on ten discs in this complete series set:

1 – Fatal Confession (TV Pliot Movie)

2 – The Missing Body Mystery

3 – What Do You Call a Call Girl Mystery

4 – The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery

5 – The Mafia Priest Mystery (Part 1)

6 – The Mafia Priest Mystery (Part 2)

7 – The Face in the Mirror Mystery

8 – The Pretty Baby Mystery

9 – The Visiting Priest Mystery

10 – The Exotic Dancer Mystery

11 – The Sanctuary Mystery

12 – The Stone Killer Mystery

13 – The Woman Scorned Mystery

14 – The Ghost of a Chance Mystery

15 – The Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery

16 – The Falling Angel Mystery

17 – The Perfect Couple Mystery

18 – The Confidence Mystery

19 – The Solid Gold Headache Mystery

20 – The Legacy Mystery

21 – The Passionate Painter Mystery

22 – The Royal Mystery

23 – The Medical Mystery

24 – The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea Mystery

25 – The Showgirl Mystery

26 – The Movie Mystery

27 – The Undercover Nun Mystery

28 – The Murder Weekend Mystery

29 – The Reasonable Doubt Mystery

30 – The Vanishing Victim Mystery

31 – The Christmas Mystery

32 – The Fugitive Priest Mystery

33 – The Substitute Sister Mystery

34 – The Missing Witness Mystery

35 – The Prodigal Son Mystery

36 – The Moving Target Mystery

37 – The Priest Killer Mystery

38 – The Mummy’s Curse Mystery

39 – The Monkey Business Mystery

40 – The Hardboiled Mystery

41 – The Malibu Mystery

42 – The Consulting Detective Mystery

43 – The Joyful Noise Mystery

Video: 3/5

3D Rating: NA

There has been no remastering of the original disc releases for this series, so the 1.33:1 transfers offered here are identical to previous issues of this show. Likely shot on videotape and then transferred to film, sharpness is never very acute, and the soft pictures often seem dated in appearance with brownish hues to the photography and a muddy color palette that’s not very distinguished (admittedly, season three episodes are the strongest looking of the batch). Loaded with moiré patterns and aliasing and with some age-related specks and a little debris, the lack of overscan on modern TVs also occasionally reveals boom microphones over the actors’ heads especially evident in “What Do You Call a Call Girl Mystery.”

Audio: 4/5

The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound mixes on the episodes are quite nice with usually easy to understand dialogue in the center channel and the sound effects and background score given a wider spread into the left and right channels. There are no problems with age-related hiss, crackle, thumping, or flutter.

Special Features: 1/5

Episodic Promos: almost every episode contains the 32-second promotional tag for that episode paired in the menu with that particular episode title on the disc.

Overall: 3/5

Not one of the great mystery series of television but certainly a comfortable and pleasant way to spend an hour of crime procedural, Father Dowling Mysteries now is offered in an attractively priced, space-saving package for fans of the show who might not already have it.

Published by

Matt Hough

author,editor

15 Comments

  1. Ron, the link to the review is at the top of Matt's post.

    I agree with the review based on my having had the individual releases for some time. This is comfort food TV made enjoyable by the likable leads and the uderused and undrrrated Mary Wickes. In fairness, she was getting up in years durîng this series and may have wanted to keep her appearances low key.

    I also appreciate that this series treated religion and faith with respect while not over or under emphasizing it.

  2. The review only appears after clicking the Father Dowling Mysteries: The Complete Series DVD Review
    link, which is highlighted in blue.

    Matt, are there any syndicated versions of Father Dowling Mysteries episodes included on this 10-disc DVD set.

  3. Steve…O

    Ron, the link to the review is at the top of Matt's post.

    I agree with the review based on my having had the individual releases for some time. This is comfort food TV made enjoyable by the likable leads and the uderused and undrrrated Mary Wickes. In fairness, she was getting up in years durîng this series and may have wanted to keep her appearances low key.

    I also appreciate that this series treated religion and faith with respect while not over or under emphasizing it.

    Thanks for mentioning the religious angle, Steve. I meant to do that in the review, but it was late when I was writing, and I never worked it into the text. The series is very gently religious but doesn't proselytize at all, and quite often characters involved with Frank and Steve mention they aren't religious or are lapsed Catholics without any kind of rebuke or censure. Everyone is treated with respect.

  4. HonkyTonkMan

    Matt, are there any syndicated versions of Father Dowling Mysteries episodes included on this 10-disc DVD set?

    I wish I could answer your question, but I'm not familiar enough with the show in its broadcast arenas to comment. I will say that all the episodes (apart from the movie) run around 47-48 minutes and the final two to three-minute scenes leading into the credits (which I could see being the easier thing to cut in syndication) all seem to be there, but I may have missed some.

  5. Matt Hough

    I wish I could answer your question, but I'm not familiar enough with the show in its broadcast arenas to comment. I will say that all the episodes (apart from the movie) run around 47-48 minutes and the final two to three-minute scenes leading into the credits (which I could see being the easiest thing to cut in syndication) all seem to be there, but I may have missed some.

    47-48 minutes is proper for the era.

  6. Matt, thanks for the review of one of my all-time favorites. I had purchased the original season releases back in 2012-2013. My wife and I just finished watching them over the past year, and we both wanted to go back to season 1 and start all over again. The mysteries are fairly standard, but the interplay between Frank and Steve is what makes the show tons of fun, along with Marie's consternation over Father Prestwick. I love, too, that they don't use guns, but rely on ingenuity to solve the mystery. I think Tom Bosley was horribly miscast as poor Amos Tupper. Father Dowling was the role he was born to play (even over Richie Cunningham's dad). I wish the show had caught on and lasted for several more seasons.

  7. Tom Bosley said in an interview that the show's cancellation was due not so much to the ratings as that ABC had decided instead to give the time slot to the failed James Earl Jones show "Gabriel's Fire" which was getting a second chance in a retooled format with Richard Crenna added to the cast. If that hadn't happened, the show would have gotten another season. Which is unfortunate because to me "Father Dowling" stands out ahead of the shows of the late 80s it specifically derives from ("Matlock" and the Perry Mason movies) simply because it gives us a more novel type of format. "Murder She Wrote" only tops it in the area of having big all-star guest casts from week to week IMO.

    The one thing I *wish* had happened was that given how James Stephens' Father Prestwick is always talking about wanting to please the Bishop, it would have been priceless if they'd had one episode where we see the Bishop and it's John Houseman. 🙂 (He was still alive then)

    My mother absolutely loved this show and I will never forget that the last time I ever brought her home from the nursing home she was living in for an afternoon I put on an episode of this for her. She was gone five days later.

  8. It's been on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel, too. When I was scouring the net looking for something suitable to illustrate the review, I saw some promo slates with Bosley and Nelson with the Hallmark logo.

  9. I always loved the show, and I often watched it in first run episodes. As a matter of fact, I still have a VHS recording I did of both it and MacGyver. Certainly a show I'd love to revisit.

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