I managed to finish the first Dick Tracy serial while I was on vacation. Not easy.
I'm not familiar with Dick Tracy except for the Warren Beatty movie, but I don't hold that against the character. It was just a bad Batman rip-off. I should probably have introduced myself to the character via the original strips, because this 15-chapter serial wasn't much better than Beatty's version.
It's played mostly straight with Dick Tracy as an FBI agent trying to break a crime organization called the Spider Ring. The Spider Ring is led by a mysterious figure called The Lame One, whom everyone fears in spite of the fact that he's mostly helpless. The Lame One employs a mad doctor named Moloch, but he's mostly there to be hunchbacked and sinister-looking. His one accomplishment is to medically turn Dick Tracy's brother Gordon evil; it's Gordon who becomes the real threat throughout the serial, leading most of the capers and trying to kill Dick.
Even though they're silly though, The Lame One and Moloch do help create an atmosphere of weirdness around the story, and Gordon Tracy is as deadly as serial villains are allowed to be (seeing as how they have to keep getting defeated episode after episode). As I understand it, that's the charm of the concept: straightforward detective stories with an air of weirdness created by grotesque villains. So I guess it succeeds on that level.
What I didn't care for about it was its episodic nature. That might be a weird criticism for a movie serial, but what I mean is that every episode or two has Dick Tracy uncovering (usually by sheer accident and coincidence) a new Spider scheme and shutting it down. That keeps the story going for fourteen episodes until Tracy finally decides to do some real investigating and talks to some eye witnesses to events that happened way back in the first episode. After that, it's pretty easy for him to locate the Spider Ring's headquarters, swoop in, and break up the organization.
I'll try a couple more to see if they get better though. Ralph Byrd is really friendly and likeable, as is the whole supporting cast. If the stories improve, it could be a neat series.