Thursday 25 April 2019

Diagnosis Murder season 1 (1993)

One of the more interesting of American pop culture phenomena of the late 20th century was the geriatric television detective series. Or perhaps it would be kinder to speak of senior detectives. This particular craze probably began with the hugely successful Barnaby Jones series. There were other key series, like Matlock, but the most successful of them all was Murder, She Wrote, one of the most popular crime series of all time. A late entrant in this genre was Diagnosis Murder which premiered on CBS in 1993.

Dick Van Dyke is the star and the cast includes his real life son Barry Van Dyke, playing Dr Sloan’s cop son Steve. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Dick Van Dyke is a great actor but what can’t be denied is that he is a star. He’s very much like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote - he has the charisma and he has the likeability and he has the same compulsive watchability.

There’s also Scott Baio (from Happy Days) as the cheerful Dr Jack Stewart who gets roped into crime-solving as well. He’s surprisingly good but there is one slight problem. Baio is Italian, he looks Italian and he sounds Italian. Who on earth decided to give him a Scottish name?

Dr Sloan seems to spend more time investigating crimes than treating patients and he gets plenty of help from both Dr Stewart and Dr Amanda Bentley.

The plots are not always brilliant or staggeringly original but they’re generally pretty solid and they’re executed with conviction.

The most difficult things to get right in a series like this are the tone and the balance. It has to be light-hearted enough to be fun but it must not descend into parody or out-and-out farce. There has to be humour but it must not be allowed to overwhelm the plots. And Diagnosis Murder mostly does get these things right.

It’s also refreshing to find a series made as recently as this (it ran from 1993 to 2001) that eschews graphic violence, gore and bad language. Although they’re both series about crime-fighting doctors Diagnosis Murder is noticeably less gruesome than Quincy, M.E., made fifteen years earlier. Diagnosis Murder is a reminder that a television series can be wholesome and still be very entertaining.

The Episode Guide

The season one opener is Miracle Cure. This is an inverted mystery story. We know who the killer is right from the start. We don’t know why a priest would be a killer. It’s actually a hit-and-run incident that would not never have attracted the attention of the police except that Dr Mark Sloan is puzzled by the death of the hit-and-run victim. He’s not surprised that the victim died but he is surprised, very surprised, that he seems to have died of heart failure. That just doesn’t make sense. And when things don’t make sense Dr Mark Sloan gets rather curious and starts poking about in matters that don’t concern him.

Amnesia involves a professional hit woman who wants to become a patient at Community General so she can carry out her assassination. Since there’s a senator in the hospital it seems reasonable to assume he’s the target. The plan is just about perfect, if only Dr Mark Sloan hadn’t started asking awkward questions and if only Dr Jack Stewart hadn’t noticed some some odd things about a certain female patient.

Telethons were one of the more bizarre manifestations of 20th century popular culture and they still survived in 1993. And in Murder at the Telethon a telethon provides a pretty good opportunity for a murder. The murder victim is Buddy Blake (Dom DeLuise), a has-been comic. Everybody who has ever met Buddy Blake has a motive for killing him. This is an episode that is totally excessive and outrageous but it works extremely well.

In Inheritance of Death Mark’s rich 93-year-old cousin wants to leave his vast fortune to Community General Hospital but he also believes that his three children are trying to kill him. Mark is inclined to think the old boy could be right. The gimmick here is that Dick Van Dyke plays the 93-year-old and the three possibly murderous children. He of course hams it up. The results are silly but reasonably amusing.

In Vanishing Act Steve Sloan has his suspicions that some of the detectives at the 15th Precinct are corrupt. He makes a report to an Internal Affairs officer but then everything goes wrong and Steve finds himself facing a murder charge. This is a two-parter and while it isn’t a bad story I don’t think it’s the right kind of story for this series. It’s a hardboiled tale of crooked cops and gangsters. It seems to be two completely different productions. It’s as if Dr Sloan and his son along with Dr Jack Stewart and most of the guest cast are making a tough gritty cop show while the various regular cast members at the hospital are making a broad comedy and then somebody has spliced the two together. The two halves are just too discordant. And Dick Van Dyke does not belong in a hardboiled gangster story (Scott Baio on the other hand manages quite well). It’s an interesting episode because it seems like it may have been intended as a bit of an experiment but for my money it doesn’t quite come off.

The 13 Million Dollar Man is much more the sort of story that suits this series. A patient named Dale Harlan dies of gunshot wounds and leaves Mark Sloan with a winning lottery ticket, worth 13 million dollars, and instructions to use the money to do some good. There are however three other people who believe that the ticket should by rights be theirs. And Mark suspects that one of those three people murdered Harlan. Mark comes up with some clever schemes to unmask the killer. There’s plenty of fun, some effective humour and a very neat plot. And it’s all extremely well executed. An excellent episode.

Shanda's Song is another case of a fairly clever plot but again a story that doesn’t seem quite right for the series. Someone is trying to murder rock star Shanda. Had it been an ageing rock star from the 60s it might have made sense but Shanda is supposed to be the latest thing among trendy twenty-somethings. Which kind of suggests that someone thought the series should try to to appeal to trendy twenty-somethings, a remarkably optimistic idea.

In The Restless Remains investment guru Robin Westlin arrives on Mark Sloan’s doorstep and promptly dies. By the time the ambulance arrives the body has disappeared. Since Mark had just been to the dentist and had a head full of nitrous oxide everyone assumes he was hallucinating. Mark thinks so too, until he finds Westlin’s diary under his couch. Now he has to prove that Westlin is dead and then find out who did it. This is a tightly constructed and very entertaining story.

I just love murder mysteries dealing with stage magic and Murder with Mirrors is a good one. An extremely unpleasant magician named Madison dies performing his most famous trick. There are four people with very strong motives for killing him and three have unbreakable alibis. The fourth is Madison’s partner and also an old friend of Mark’s so he’s naturally arrested but Mark is determined to prove his innocence. The solution is very simple and obvious once it’s revealed but it’s one of those simple solutions you’ll almost certainly  be fooled by. Which is a fine recipe for a murder mystery plot. An excellent episode.

Flashdance with Death is much more far-fetched but it is ingenious and it has a rather unexpected twist. It’s another murder with a theatrical background (which gives Dick Van Dyke the opportunity to show off his tap-dancing skills). There’s murder at a dance studio and Steve Sloan’s girlfriend is a suspect. A solid episode.

It seems like all of Mark Sloan’s relatives and friends are going to end up being murder suspects and in Reunion with Murder it’s Dr Amanda Bentley. Since she’s one of Sloan’s crime-solving buddies he’s naturally anxious to clear her. It seems that in college she was one of the mean girls who made life hell for Nancy Barlow. Now Nancy is out for revenge and she has some very juicy dirt on all her former tormentors. It’s no surprise that this leads to murder. A decent episode.

In Lily Jack’s old friend Sandy Hoyle has become a high-class call girl with a sideline in blackmail. It’s a dangerous game to play, and it’s especially dangerous for someone as foolish as Sandy. Predictably she gets herself murdered. The police write it off as an OD but Jack and Dr Sloan have come across some very interesting clues that point unequivocally to murder. A decent episode.

In Guardian Angel the mayor gets murdered. There’s an obvious suspect but Mark is sure that he didn’t do it. He has his own ideas about the actual identity of the killer. There’s an alibi that is just too flimsy and there’s a red car that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A routine episode.

Nirvana is quite enjoyable although seasoned mystery buffs will probably spot the surprise twist fairly early. Yet another of Jack Stewart’s disreputable friends has landed himself in trouble. It’s the sort of trouble that is likely to lead your body being found in the burnt-out wreck of a car. The car happens to belong to Dr Jack Stewart. Dr Sloan checks in to the Nirvana health farm looking for clues (that’s where Jack’s friend used to work). Both Dr Stewart and Dr Sloan end this story battered and bruised, for very different reasons, and Jack gets a chance to play the hero. Excellent episode.

Broadcast Blues  is an impossible crime story. Convict Paul Dunbar is taken to Community General for tests that cannot be performed at the prison hospital. He escapes and takes a hostage, and demands to speak to TV anchorman Jordan Sanders. Sanders agrees to meet him. Shots are fired through a partially opened door and the end result is both Dunbar and Sanders dead. It is absolutely clear what has happened. Dunbar killed Sanders and then killed himself. There is no other possible explanation. Until Mark Sloan realises that it simply could not have happened this way.

The solution is fairly simple but it works. The key to the success of the plot is that what we actually know is not quite the same as what we’re sure of because it must have been that way. A very fine episode.

There are lots of things to worry about when you’re in the middle of an earthquake so you normally wouldn’t have time to think about committing a murder. But in Shaker a murder des take place during an earthquake. A solid episode.

Hitman Bruno Crespi is a really sick guy. Now even hitmen can get sick but it’s the nature of the illness which is unusual. Bruno Crespi has bubonic plague. So The Plague is a medical disaster tale but there’s a crime element as well, centring on how exactly Crespi managed to get infected. Another solid episode.

Sister Michael Wants You is a very light-hearted tale of murder in a nunnery, with a hardboiled Mother Superior and a missing clue that has to be somewhere in the nunnery but repeated searches have come up blank. A fun story.

Final Thoughts

My main doubt about Diagnosis Murder is that I get the feeling that no-one was quite sure exactly which demographic they were trying to chase. Mostly they seemed to be after the demographic that had made Murder, She Wrote such a huge hit. Which would have been a very sensible strategy. But then you get episodes like Vanishing Act and Shanda’s Song that seem to be chasing a totally different audience. If Murder, She Wrote sometimes errs by being just a bit too cosy Diagnosis Murder makes the opposite mistake by occasionaly not being cosy enough.

Obviously it’s a series that to some extent recalls Quincy, M.E. but despite the latter’s pretensions to being more scientific Diagnosis Murder is generally less far-fetched. Not that Quincy, M.E isn’t a fine series but at times it stretches credibility a little.

The Region 4 DVD release includes as a bonus the Jake and the Fatman episode It Never Entered My Mind which featured Dick Van Dyke and was in effect an unofficial pilot for Diagnosis Murder.

On the whole though this is a thoroughly enjoyable series and much better than I’d expected. Recommended.

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