Wednesday, July 19, 2017

TV on DVD Review: Diagnosis Murder - Season 1

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Humor livens up some decent mysteries
Cons: Not the show’s best episodes
The Bottom Line:
Doctor on the case
Mixing comedy, murder
Slow, fun series start

“There Are Times When All Doctors Have to be Detectives.”

I stumbled on Diagnosis Murder late in its run, probably around season 5 or so, but I immediately fell in love with the mix of comedy and mystery.  I caught some reruns over the years, but I know there are plenty of early episodes of the show I haven’t seen.  I’ve at least partially fixed that by watching the season 1 set.

If you are new to the show, you’ve probably already guessed that it features a doctor as the main character.  Dr. Mark Sloan (Dick van Dyke) works at Community General, which also happens to be a teaching hospital.  Among his friends on staff are Dr. Amanda Bentley (Victoria Rowell), the pathologist on staff, and Dr. Jack Stewart (Scott Baio), a resident who has overcome a troubled past.  Then there’s Normal Briggs (Michael Tucci), the administrator who seems to clash with Mark quite a bit.  Rounding out the hospital cast is Delores Mitchell (Delores Hall), Mark’s secretary and a nurse in her own right.

But Mark also works as a consultant for the police helping them with medical cases and murder in general.  It helps that his son Steve (played by Dick van Dyke’s real-life son Barry van Dyke) is a homicide investigator.

Over the course of this season, Steve gets frame for murder when he tries to blow the whistle on some dirty cops.  A killer tries to use an earthquake to hide a murder.  A telethon to raise money for the hospitals ER gets off to a shaky start when the celebrity host is killed.  A long time patient of Mark’s shows up at the hospital dying of a gunshot and hands Mark a winning lottery ticket.  When a magic trick goes horrible wrong, a magician dies in front of a live audience.  And Amanda finds herself set up for murder when a sorority sister with a secret to expose dies after threatening to write a tell all book.

Coming late to the show, I feel like its best days were ahead of it.  Of course, that’s partially because Scott Baio left the show after season two, and I’m partial to his replacement, Dr. Jessie Travis.  Not that there isn’t anything wrong with Scott or his character; it’s just not the character I know best.  Dr. Sloan isn’t living in his beach house yet.  In fact, he’s not sharing a house with Steve yet, either.  It just feels weird to me since it’s not what I’m used to.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the show moves inexplicably from Colorado to Los Angeles part way through the season.  They’d never made a big deal out of either setting, but if you pay attention, you can definitely tell.  Yes, the earthquake episode happens after the move.  Normally, I’d roll my eyes at the cliché, but considering the episode aired in 1994 when the Northridge earthquake was fresh on everyone’s mind here in LA, I’m very willing to let it slide.

Many of the episodes this first season are closed mysteries – a mystery where there are a certain number of suspects and Mark and his friends are trying to figure out who the killer is.  They fall into a pretty predictable pattern right down to the number of suspects – three.  The show does have a few open mysteries – a mystery where we know who the killer is early on and the suspense comes from watching Mark try to prove what we already know.  The show mixed things up a lot more later in the run (by the time I was watching it on TV), and I find both styles fun.

Even when we do run into a string of three suspect closed mysteries, this show still entertains.  The roster of main characters allows us to have some variety when it comes to the investigating.  Everyone has their quirks, and those quirks give us some great moments.

Plus, this show starts Dick van Dyke.  That means there are going to be some scenes you wouldn’t see on any other show as the writers take full advantage of his talents.  We’ve got several episodes that allow him to tap dance for us.  In one memorable episode, he gets to interrogate a suspect from the back of a car racing around a police obstacle course.  Truly, the writers are brilliant at coming up with ways to show off the talents of their star.  About the only episode that doesn’t work is the one where Mr. van Dyke plays some elderly distant relatives of his character.  With him playing four characters plus Mark Sloan, it just doesn’t quite work for me, especially when he’s trying to play a woman.

But that’s the only truly bad episode of the season, and the only misstep of the acting.  The main cast already has great chemistry, and they are so much fun to watch.  Dick van Dyke especially is warm and delightful.

Season one consisted of 19 episodes, and they are preserved here on five discs.  The video and sound aren’t quite what we are used to today, but these episodes are almost 25 years old, and the imperfections on the screen aren’t that surprising as a result.  Believe me, they are still very watchable.  My biggest complaint with the set itself is that the menu screens are significantly louder than the episodes themselves, so you need to be ready to mute or turn down the volume as soon as it is over.

The only thing we get in the way of an extra is the episode of Jake and the Fatman that introduced the character of Dr. Sloan.  I’ve never seen an episode of Jake and the Fatman, and I still don’t feel like I’ve seen one.  This episode is almost all Mark Sloan with the series character only getting a couple of scenes.  Yes, Dick van Dyke played the part, and he was assisted by a few of his medical students, but that’s the only thing that carried over to the show.  Heck, Mark even makes a comment at one point about not having any kids.

While the first season isn’t quite what Diagnosis Murder would become in its heyday, there are still some fun episodes in this set.  Fans of the show will enjoy reliving where it all began.

Season 1 Episodes:
1. Miracle Cure
2. Amnesia
3. Murder at the Telethon
4. Inheritance of Death
5. The 13 Million Dollar Man
6. Vanishing Act Part 1
7. Vanishing Act Part 2
8. Shanda’s Song
9. The Restless Remains
10. Murder with Mirrors
11. Flashdance with Death
12. Reunion with Murder
13. Lily
14. Guardian Angel
15. Nirvana
16. Broadcast Blues
17. Shaker
18. The Plague
19. Sister Michael Wants You

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