Against all odds I found myself actually enjoying Diagnosis: Murder - The Third Season, the 1995-96 season of the long-running mystery series starring Dick Van Dyke as a crime-solving physician. A friend of mine, television historian Stephen Bowie, was interviewing Tony Randall once about his live TV days when suddenly the actor interrupted him with, "You're very middle-brow, aren't you?" Stephen thought about it for a moment, laughed, and said, "Uh, well, yeah - I guess I am." So too, it seems, am I. Diagnosis: Murder can't touch the best British-made TV mystery shows (the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Maigret, etc.) but it's amiable in much the same way B-movie mysteries from the 1930s and '40s were - Nancy Drew, Michael Shayne, the Sidney Toler Charlie Chans. Not surprisingly, Dick Van Dyke's performance accounts for about 85% of the show's appeal. An immensely likeable TV everyman, his character here is not far removed from Rob Petrie (on The Dick Van Dyke Show), with Van Dyke - who also co-executive produced the series - finding time in most every episode for singularly Petrie-esque bits of character comedy.
Technically a spin-off of Jake and the Fatman (Van Dyke's character, Dr. Mark Sloan was introduced in a 1991 episode), Diagnosis: Murder more directly came on the heels of the immensely popular Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), the Angela Lansbury series itself suggested by Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. That show was for years the anchor of CBS's primetime schedule, which by the late-1980s had developed a reputation as something of an "old fogies" network. Van Dyke's classic sitcom had been on CBS in the early-1960s, and though the actor had only mixed success with the medium in the three decades that followed, his innate charm remained unchanged. And though he turned 70 during the show's third season, he stayed remarkably agile; his comic timing is as good as it ever was, and in many shows he entertains his pals with little sleight-of-hand bits of magic.
Set in Los Angeles (but at times it looks like it was shot somewhere else), the series follows the crime-solving activities of Dr. Mark Sloan (Van Dyke), wayward Chief of Internal Medicine at Community General Hospital. Unlike Murder, She Wrote, whose crime-solving heroine had improbably easy access to crime scenes in a small New England town beset with an alarming murder rate, Diagnosis: Murder is a bit more plausible. Sloan's son, Steve (Barry Van Dyke, Dick's son) is a homicide detective sharing the same beachfront house in a separate apartment below Mark's residence; he brings Dad in to help out with the medical end of his investigations.
Also in the cast are Sloan's pathologist friend Dr. Amanda Bentley (Victoria Rowell); Dr. Jesse Travis (Charlie Schlatter), an over-eager young resident-pupil of Sloan's who wants to get in on all the crime-solving; and fussy, long-suffering hospital administrator Norman Briggs (Michael Tucci). Gone is Scott Baio, whose function on the show was similar to Travis's during the first two years. Barry Van Dyke and Rowell are appealing characters and serve the scripts well, but Schlatter and Tucci's characters are pretty much dead weight, providing unfunny comedy relief that's also redundant given Dick Van Dyke's frequent comic digressions.
The mysteries themselves are extraordinarily easy to figure out; they remind me of the kind of "minute mysteries" I used to read in junior high school; one can almost hear the clanging of cowbells during cutaways and insert shots of important clues. The mysteries themselves are varied: some episodes are basically mini-Columbos, with Dr. Sloan pegging the suspect right off then politely badgering them with questions about their alibis and whereabouts, while others are reminiscent of Quincy, M.E. Still other shows, like "Witness to Murder," are fairly conventional crime melodramas dramas that afford Van Dyke with an opportunity to stretch his acting muscles a bit, in this case interact with a child so shocked after witnessing a murder that's she's unable to speak.
Van Dyke is one of TV's great treasures, and his delightful performances carry the weaker shows. Though at times his little comedy asides seem to come out of nowhere - in one episode he's seen fooling around with his audio system, dancing about his home office to the music - such moments are charming nonetheless. Some bits hark back directly to The Dick Van Dyke Show: in "Murder in the Courthouse" Dick plays a juror and there are a few comical moments of embarrassment that pretty much quote directly from an episode of the classic sitcom.
The younger actors guest-starring on the series are capable but generally unmemorable, but a few show business veterans pop up now and again. Among the more interesting guest stars: Susan Blakeley, Leo Penn, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Dixie Carter, Dick O'Neill, James Hong, Denise Crosby, Ronny Cox, Robert Vaughn, Stephen Furst, George Hamilton, Christina Pickles, and Jeri Ryan. Old hands including Bernard Kowalski, Christian Nyby II, and Vincent McEveety directed the lion's share of episodes.
Video & Audio
Diagnosis: Murder - The Third Season presents all 18 episodes in their original full frame format over five single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The episodes are on the soft side, in the style of such CBS shows of the period, and possibly was shot on film and finished on tape. They look okay, however, and don't appear cut, time-compressed or music-replaced, at least not in the shows I watched, this despite the usual ominous warning on the packaging that "some episodes may be edited from their original versions." The Dolby Digital stereo is adequate but unexceptional. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options, and no Extra Features.
It's not a great show, but I was surprised how breezily enjoyable Diagnosis: Murder turned out to be, due in no small way to that icon of American television, Dick Van Dyke, and his marvelously engaging performances. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.