Diagnosis Murder was one of those mid-level performing shows that somehow managed to fly under most of the media's radar during its run. But it was also one of those rare series that built an incredibly loyal audience, who followed its every turn in production, and who repeatedly -- and successfully -- lobbied to keep it on the air far longer than other similarly performing shows.
Dr. Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke), the crime-solving surgeon from Community General Hospital, made his first appearance as a potential series spin-off, in a 1991 episode of William Conrad's Jake and the Fatman series. Reaction from the network (CBS) was positive (but still guarded) enough to order a series of two television movies for the following 1992 season. Diagnosis of Murder aired January 5, 1992 to good ratings, and The House on Sycamore Street followed during "May sweeps" on May 1, 1992. Again, the network was happy with the performance of the TV movies, but still unsure if a series was the right way to go. A third TV movie followed almost a year later; A Twist of the Knife aired on February 13, 1993. Continued good ratings convinced CBS to go with a series, but it was not officially slotted into the Fall 1993 schedule. It was slated as a mid-season replacement (for the inevitable blank spots in the schedule when new shows failed), but the utter failures of the Faye Dunaway/Robert Urich "comedy" It Had to Be You and Newhart`s Peter Scolari's Family Album at the Friday 8 o'clock hour necessitated a quick fix, and Diagnosis Murder was deemed the right prescription.
Inevitably, Diagnosis Murder, with its older mystery-solving protagonist, laid-back style, and propensity to employ acting luminaries past their professional peak, was unfavorably compared with CBS's other senior crime solver, the genuine ratings blockbuster Murder, She Wrote, with Angela Lansbury. And, if you look at them side by side, Murder, She Wrote does dominate, with better guest stars, better mystery plots, and a more careful production. But any show like Diagnosis Murder that lasts eight seasons for 178 episodes, is obviously doing something right by the audience. This show refused to die. Never a powerhouse in the ratings (it only cracked the Top Thirty twice, in 1997-1998, and 1998-1999), it nevertheless continued to have a solid following of fans who were very vocal about letting the network know that they expected the show to continue. Despite a network that seemed to go out of its way to have its audience confused (during its first three years, it changed time slots on Friday nights twice; during the next five years on Thursday nights, it had eleven more time changes, including switching days once more), the fans stayed true to the show, and continued to watch and lobby for it. Towards the end of the series' run, it even became a sort of sick joke publicized in the trade press, with writers guessing about whether or not the show would be renewed, with not even its star, Dick Van Dyke, knowing the answer until the last minute.
Perhaps one of the main reasons the series maintained such a devoted fan base was the cozy, comfortable feeling Diagnosis Murder created. This isn't challenging TV, nor was it designed to be so. The pace is quite leisurely (especially considering the hyped up product that floods the airwaves today), with an emphasis on welcoming, not overpowering, the viewer. Dick Van Dyke deserves most of the credit for this mood. He's the perfect TV performer: easy-going, relaxed, professional. Of course, there's much more to Dick Van Dyke the actor than what's on display here; one only has to see his performances in Bud Yorkin's and Norman Lear's Divorce, American Style, director Carl Reiner's devastating The Comic, or his shattering performance as an alcoholic in the TV movie, The Morning After to realize that Van Dyke, when given the right material (which didn't happen often enough), was much more than just a funny TV actor. But for what Diagnosis Murder is -- a lightweight, competent TV mystery -- he gives the audience exactly what it wants: a secure, confident, mellow professional who knows exactly how to connect one-on-one with the audience.
Cast changes would follow during its eight year run, but Van Dyke's supporting players do well enough by their roles. Scott Baio (yes, Chachi) plays Dr. Jack Stewart, and he's surprisingly effective as the street-wise doctor from the wrong side of the tracks. Dick Van Dyke's son, Barry Van Dyke, portrays his son Detective Steve Sloan (no stretch there), and he's fine, if workmanlike, in his approach. Michael Tucci fits the bill as the annoying nemesis (and sometime ally) Norman Briggs. Delores Hall can be annoying as Nurse Delores Mitchell. But the real standout here is Victoria Rowell as Amanda Bentley. Smart, sexy, and charming, she adds a real zing to her scenes. Some of the friendly faces you'll see in Diagnosis Murder: The Complete First Season include: Robert Guillaume, Sylvia Sidney, Dom DeLuise, Barbara Rhodes, Dick Van Patten, Joyce Van Patten, Dick Martin, Ken Kercheval, John Beck, Don Gordon, Emma Samms, Willam Katt, Paula Marshall, Elizabeth Berkley, Roma Downey, Gerald McRaney, Catherine Hicks, and Delta Burke.
Here are the episodes included in Diagnosis Murder: The Complete First Season:
Dr. Mark Sloan serves as a consultant to the police department in addition to his duties at a metropolitan hospital. In the series opener, his investigation into a hit-and-run death leads to a priest's confession.
A beautiful amnesia patient may not be as forgetful as she seems.
MURDER AT THE TELETHON
The comedian hosting a hospital benefit is found dead, and it seems that everyone who knew him had a motive for murder.
INHERITANCE OF DEATH
Dick Van Dyke plays multiple roles when one of the hospital's biggest benefactors meets an untimely death.
THE 13 MILLION DOLLAR MAN
A dying patient bequeaths a lottery ticket to Mark who discovers that it's not easy being a winner.
VANISHING ACT (PART ONE)
Steve is implicated in the murder of an Internal Affairs officer when he gets too close to a group of crooked cops.
VANISHING ACT (PART TWO)
Mark and Jack try to save an old friend who has been kidnapped by the same gang that was involved in the Schroeder murder.
Mark treats a female pop star who isn't exactly a hit with her entourage.
THE RESTLESS REMAINS
When a body mysteriously disappears, Mark's eyewitness account is called into question.
MURDER WITH MIRRORS
A magician turns up dead and Mark has to work some magic of his own to identify the killer.
FLASHDANCE WITH DEATH
A popular dance instructor is suspected of murdering her studio's unpopular owner.
REUNION WITH MURDER
The author of a soon-to-be published tell-all book is murdered, and Amanda is the main suspect.
When a call girl is found dead of an apparent drug overdose, Mark makes some high-profile house calls.
Mark elects to investigate the alibi of a murdered politician's widow.
An old friend of Jack's is in trouble -- and things go from bad to worse after Jack loans him his car.
The examination of a convict at the hospital turns into a hostage situation with deadly consequences.
Mark suspects foul play when an old friend dies during an earthquake, so he enlists Jack and Amanda's help to find out if any of the family members were really at fault.
After a medicine bottle is mysteriously switched, a mob hit man who is under surveillance by Steve is infected with bubonic plague and Mark must expose the source of the virus before it becomes an epidemic.
SISTER MICHAEL WANTS YOU
A nun asks Mark for help when suspicious circumstances surround the murder of a former student at her convent, and Mark poses as a priest while he tries to collar the killer.
BONUS FEATURE: IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND
FROM JAKE AND THE FATMAN
Mark Sloan's character is introduced as a doctor who investigates a murder in which he is also the prime suspect.
The image quality is all over the place with Diagnosis Murder: The Complete First Season. It appears to be source material problems (video shot and edited, then transferred to film in some scenes) that can produce a lot of picture noise within certain episodes. Overall, the image is no better than the original broadcast quality (and in some cases, it may be worse).
The Dolby Digital stereo track is adequate for the job -- which isn't too demanding (just basic dialogue with little or no big sound effects).
The only extra included is the original pilot episode introduced on Jake and the Fatman, included here on the last disc. At first, I was annoyed that it wasn't up front at the beginning of the episodes (because like most TV fans, I like to watch series' episodes in order). So I watched this pilot first. I shouldn't have. It's pretty sub par, with none of the polish of the later series episodes (as well as an inferior supporting cast). So I suggest you watch it after you've viewed the other episodes. The three Diagnosis Murder made-for-TV movies are, unfortunately, not included here. It might have been nice to track the progression of the series with these included.
If you're in the mood for a light, casual TV mystery with some familiar faces in the cast, you could do a lot worse than spending an hour with Diagnosis Murder: The Complete First Season. Dick Van Dyke is having a good time, and that translates nicely to the audience. Considering the fact that today's medical shows (CSI, House) are more often than not endurance tests to see if you can stomach the gore, it's nice to have a show like Diagnosis Murder: The Complete First Season that you can safely watch with the whole family. Recommended.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.