Father Dowling Mysteries: Season 3
There is a certain ubiquitous nature inherent in the form of entertainment known as mysteries that makes it one of the most flexible formats possible with a myriad of potential archetypes, tropes and memes. Typically the murder is investigated and solved either by a dedicated police detective or a grizzly, intrepid private investigator. Although they are the time honored staples they by no stretch of the imagination the defining boundaries of the genre. Just in the current television murder investigators include a fashionable medical examiner, a cop that doubles as a monster hunter and a highly successful author of murder mysteries. In past seasons detectives have taken the form of doctors, lawyers and teenagers. In short there are absolutely no restrictions in how a show runner can construct his resolute investigator. In the late eighties one of the most unlikely profession, or perhaps more accurately calling, is pressed into service as a murder investigator, a Catholic priest. More specifically, Father Frank Dowling (Tom Bosley). After leaving the role that defined much of his career as Howard, the patriarch of the Cunningham clan on the fifties retro sit-com, ‘Happy Days’, he embarked of a new life solving crimes. First he put in his time as a sidekick, Sheriff Amos Tupper, on the more maturely targeted ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Then by landing the titular lead in ‘Father Dowling Mysteries’, Mr. Bosley was promoted to lead investigator with a scrappy young nun faithfully at his side. starting in 1987 the three season run would play out the decade with its initial season on NBC being one of the rare series to move to another network, ABC for the remaining two years, the third and final season has been released on DVD by Paramount as a three disc set offering the final twenty two episodes.
Father Frank Dowling is a Catholic priest assigned to a quiet little parish in his hometown, Chicago, Illinois. Like the other unlikely sleuths, Jessica Fletcher and Dr. Mark Sloan, Frank Dowling imagined his vocation would be a peaceful, predictable one, like his television peers Frank appears to have one extremely unusual and potentially disturbing attribute; he is a murder magnet. It seems that for a parish cleric he happens upon an inordinate number of suspicious deaths. My friend and I have a little conspiracy theory concerning amateur detectives like Dowling or Fletcher; they are high successful and undetected serial killers throwing off the police by ‘solving’ their own crimes. Of course, thus is just a flight of idle fantasy but it does demonstrate the regularity people in otherwise peaceful professions happen across dozens of murder victims. Getting back to the series at hand, Dowling has the mandatory sidekick in the slight form of a young nun, Sister Stephanie Oskowski, better known as Steve. While masculine name are not uncommon for nuns in this case it best suits her persona and role played within the context of the series. It has to be explained why a pretty young woman with a quick wit and sense of adventure would join the church. Although not necessary in real life within the show the writers felt obliged to provide a suitable back story. Steve grew up in a housing project in one of the rougher neighborhoods in the Windy City. Her skill set encompasses many traits not routinely taught in the nunnery; fire arms expertise, stealing a car in seconds and level of comfort in dangerous street situations that would make seasoned detectives fill with trepidation. Usually the side kick delegated with the leg work chasing down clues in the streets is a brawny guy not a ninety pound young woman in a habit.
The peripheral set up of the show is constructed in the same vein as a standard police procedural series. There is always some ambitious individual looking to use the present assignment as a stepping stone to much greater objectives. Replacing the young detective with his eyes on a big office down town Dowling has to contend with Father Philip Prestwick (James Stephens), the adjunct to Archbishop and always seeking the next rung on his ladder to the Vatican. He is usually poking around wondering why Dowling is always hip deep in corpses and to enjoy the delectable cuisine of the rectory housekeeper, Marie Murkin (Mary Wickes). Like many older women in this position her dominant contribution to the series is to provide some comic relief. Over the years there have been several police detectives officially involved in the murders and usually confounded by Dowling’s involvement and perplexed by the priest’s incredible clearance rate.
By this third season the writers have been stretching things a bit in coming up with somewhat unorthodox crime scenes. Before you get off the first disc of the set there is a murder mystery that pulls father Frank and sister Steve into association with an unsavory selection of the low end of the City’s underworld. The setting of this encounter is a tawdry venue of showgirls. Another is a retreat for mystery writers where many of the red herrings are intentional. In this episode, like so many others, Steve fulfills the primary function of the detective’s sidekick, get into a situation fraught with mortal danger. Then there is the time when Frank and Steve are caught between rival exterminators. Bugs aren’t the only ones facing an untimely demise.
A few of the standard, expected circumstances arise on a regular basis here. There is the requisite Christmas episode complete with an abandoned infant and the appearance of the long lost evil twin, Dowling’s criminal brother Blaine Dowling. This sibling is so callous that he is not above framing his priestly brother for his crimes. Another theme especially popular with series containing a religious slant is bringing the God fearing priest in direct confrontation with the devil himself, cloaked in the guides of a rich and powerful man. Having a nun and priest as the leads characters rather limited in cases requiring impersonating other people. The audience would balk if is tiny nun was undercover as a hooker. Steve does get to impersonate a wealthy aristocrat while frank adopted the identity of his nefarious brother. In all the show is family friendly and a good example of a late eighties’ crime drama.