An enduring love
The cult of telly’s most nepotistic show, Diagnosis Murder, revolved around the Van Dyke boys, writes
Barry Van Dyke is well aware that some 16 years after its long run came to an end, his old detective show Diagnosis Murder is still rolling out the repeats somewhere in the world – the royalty cheques tell him so.
‘‘It’s the show that won’t die,’’ says Van Dyke. ‘‘It keeps popping up all over the place.’’ Surely that means a river of cash flooding into his Los Angeles home. ‘‘I get a stack of cheques,’’ he agrees affably. ‘‘I think ‘oh good, some money from the show’. It will be for four dollars and sixty seven cents. It all adds up. But some of them are pretty funny so I hang them on the fridge: there’s one for 18 cents.’’
He’s also still hearing from fans of the show. For those who were students in late 90s Britain, Diagnosis Murder resided pleasantly in the rotation of repeats that occupied the soporific, post-lunch, post-lunchtime edition of Neighbours sweet spot.
The British student cult status isn’t news to Van Dyke – he’s always had a lot of UK fan mail. Like Hasselhoff, they were also, he says, big in Germany. His old co-star and old man, Dick van Dyke, once said they were the show for old people and Seinfeld was for the youngsters. Based on his postbag, Barry isn’t so sure: he thinks they had a much wider pull than that.
‘‘It’s nice the appeal has lasted, that it’s not dated,’’ he says, of the news that Diagnosis Murder is once again having the resuscitation paddles attached to its corpse. ‘‘It’s kind of like comfort food. It’s not offensive, it’s pretty gentle and there was always humour involved.’’ He thinks a bit further – the recipe also included good guest stars, some good mysteries and a good core cast.
As well as being convivial lunchsettling entertainment, Diagnosis Murder was perhaps the most nepotistic show in television history – its whole shtick was that a real father and son played a crime-fighting father and son team, but over time it expanded to include no less than eight Van Dyke family members, many of those after Barry got a shot in the writing-directing chair. At first, he doubts that stat, then he does a quick tot up – himself, his dad, his uncle, his sister, all four of his kids – and is forced to agree, that yes, it was eight. ‘‘I never even counted before,’’ he says.
Dick played twinkly-eyed, eccentric but remarkably-good-at-crime-solving ED doctor Mark Sloan. Barry played
Mommy Dead and Dearest, Thursday, 9.30pm, SoHo
Documentarian Erin Lee Carr explores a crime in the age of social media. Things are not always as they appear, in the case of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose, and what starts out as a grisly tale of matricide morphs into a rabbit hole of deception. Child abuse, mental illness and forbidden love converge in this mystery of a mother and daughter who were thought to be living a fairy tale life that turned out to be a living nightmare. ‘‘Will duly keep any viewer with an ambulance-chasing bone in their body somewhat guiltily riveted to the tube,’’ wrote Variety’s Dennis Harvey.
Pride and Prejudice, Monday, 7.30pm, Vibe
Twenty-two years after it first gripped his luxuriously-haired but sober detective son Steve. Mark worked out whodunit, Steve did the paperwork. ‘‘Personality wise – if he was a doctor and I was a homicide detective, then yeah, we were pretty much playing ourselves,’’ Barry says. ‘‘Our relationship was pretty much what it was in real life, and it became so comfortable acting with him, it was so easy. It was natural, and simple.’’
Mark Sloan was a character Dick originally conceived for a show called Jake and the Fat Man, but when the studio wanted him to expand it, he was reluctant. Barry counselled him to take it, and then he too was offered a part as the sensible sidekick son. ‘‘It showed his versatility as a dramatic actor,’’ he argues. ‘‘We had some good dramatic episodes. We got into situations – I got injured in almost every episode and we came close to losing me a few times; my sister got into dire straits, Mark had to relive some things from his past... we worked on some real nice dramatic stuff.’’
Dick said no, and Barry didn’t turn audiences around the world, this Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth-starring six-part version of Jane Austen’s classic tale is back. ‘‘A splendid adaptation, with a remarkably faithful and sensitively pro until he was 19. ‘‘Wisely, he told me to enjoy my childhood and when you get old enough, we will talk about it. I am glad it worked out that way – you see so many child actors and it hasn’t worked out for them.’’
His own kids, as it turned out, didn’t become actors. Shane and Carey did some acting, then began writing film scripts for a small independent production house whose credits include the bizarre horror comedy Sharknado. Wes became a successful artist and Taryn became a kindergarten teacher.
It would not be mean to say Diagnosis Murder was a career high point for Barry. Before that, he had guest spots on shows like The Love Boat and TJ Hooker; Diagnosis Murder, with its spin-off varietals, provided some 16 years of work, on and off. Never, however, was it reliable. ‘‘It was always touch and go. We would do eight episodes, pick up another eight, and we would finish a season not knowing if we would come back for another season... but it had a steady, nuanced script,’’ wrote The New York Times’ John O’Connor.
Halt and Catch Fire, Wednesday, 9.30pm, SoHo
The fourth and final season of this 1980s-set period drama will see the cast of characters navigating the early days of the internet and web browsers, pondering their destinies both personally and professionally, while the competitive nature of the tech world continues to complicate their relationships. ‘‘An urgent story of rehumanisation for a cold, wired culture. Plug in now,’’ wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen.
Nymphomaniac, Friday, 8.30pm, Rialto
Danish director Lars Von Trier directs this very loyal audience..’’ Now at 64, he says ‘‘he’s not real aggressive’’ about chasing the work. He is, however, trying to co-produce a film with his dad, who is 91 years old, to make two independent low-budget movies.
If he ever wants to remember, he can. The Hallmark Channel in the US shows five episodes a day, every day of Diagnosis Murder. ‘‘Sometimes I like to tune in and try [to] guess what year it was [from]. We did close to 180 episodes – some I remember, some I don’t remember at all.’’
Where’s it showing on this side of the world, he wants to know? I explain that New Zealand has a fairly obscure cable channel which traffics solely in the nostalgia industry and will be adding Diagnosis Murder to a roster of the Dukes of Hazzard and so forth. He’s quite pleased at the thought. ‘‘I look forward to that $2 cheque to put on my fridge.’’
Jones!, Thursdays, 8.35pm.
Diagnosis Murder, four-hour, two-volume drama about a woman who recounts her erotic experiences to a man who saves her after a beating. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard star. ‘‘Seems calculated to shock, but what’s most disquieting is how funny, tender, thoughtful, and truthful it is,’’ wrote the Boston Globe’ sTy Burr.
Sophie’s Choice, Saturday, 8.40pm, Ma¯ ori TV
Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline star in this Oscar-winning 1982 drama about an aspiring writer who discovers his new neighbours are harbouring some deep secrets. ‘‘A fine, absorbing, wonderfully acted, heartbreaking movie,’’ wrote Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. - James Croot
The best crime fighting duo in daytime television: Steve and Mark Sloan, aka the Van Dyke boys.
Barry and Dick Van Dyke and the cast of Diagnosis Murder.
The documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest explores the relationship of a mother and daughter.