New Columbo episodes / Opinion

‘New’ Columbo: was it any good?

Columbo new episodes

I’m an unashamed Columbo purist. Give me a choice of any episode and I’d be diving straight into the 70s classics. In fact I’d watch almost any ‘classic’ Columbo outing before I delved into the ‘new’ ones. And by ‘new’, I mean any of the 24 episodes released on ABC between 1989 and 2003.

If you’ve ever read my article on my top 10 favourite Columbo episodes, you’ll have noticed that not one of them is from the new batch. That’s not to say I hate them. There are several gems tucked away amongst them that really stand up to repeat viewing. But when comparing apples with apples, the quality of the new episodes compared to the old is almost always found wanting.

“There are several gems tucked away amongst the ‘new’ episodes that really stand up to repeat viewing.”

But why was that the case? Surely it’s not simply a case of rose-tinted glasses? After all, the oldest ‘new’ episode is now more than 25 years old; the newest, well over a decade. Enough time has elapsed to allow for a level playing field in terms of passing judgement.

And on the surface, much was the same. The Columbo formula, so well established between 1968-78, was largely unchanged. Falk reprised the role, of course, and he brought back with him the coat, the car, the cigar – even Dog. The essential ingredients were there, but the end result, reasonably often, was something of a let down. Again we must ask ourselves why?

I’ll tell you…

TV had changed: Time waits for no man, and the world of the late 80s and 90s, when the bulk of the new episodes were produced, was massively different from the late 60s and 70s. The original series provided us with a glorious snapshot of 70s opulence and fine living. Music, fashions, automobiles, it was first class all the way. By way of comparison, ‘first class’ in the 80s and 90s seems a lot more sleazy and a lot less, well, classy.

The production values were different, too. Gone are the sumptuous scores that graced each 70s episode, replaced by saxophone swill, overuse of the ‘This Old Man’ theme, and the occasional pop hit. And where are the cutting edge camera work and editing techniques that so defined the classic series? Conspicuous by their absence, that’s where.

Indeed, the newer episodes more often feel rather bland and workmanlike. Not necessarily bad, just normal, not standing out against other shows of the time, and not being nearly as inspirational or memorable. Had Columbo only existed in the 80s/90s I shouldn’t think anyone would still be talking about the show today.

Columbo era comparisons

Guess which episode was filmed in the 90s?

Falk’s portrayal had changed: As discussed above, Falk brought back all of Columbo’s idiosyncracies to the new series. Yet to me it doesn’t feel the same. Falk’s Columbo subtly evolved through the 70s episodes. The mannerisms and actions seemed natural and believable for the character. In the new episodes the character feels more forced, as if Falk himself is doing an impression of the younger Columbo – or even a parody. The subtlety, the believability, has gone.

Critics have also slammed Falk’s broader comedic turns in the 80s/90s episodes, and I tend to agree. 70s Columbo was sometimes very funny (Negative Reaction has some real rib-tickling scenes, for example), but Falk’s portrayal of the Lieutenant was generally on the level and restrained. He wasn’t really playing it for laughs in the same way he seems to be in some of the new episodes. Worst of all, some of the affected mannerisms just came across as him being an annoying old codger, like your Granddad acting the fool. That’s not what I want for the character.

“Had Columbo only existed in the 80s/90s I shouldn’t think anyone would still be talking about the show today.”

Calibre of the guest stars: Okay, there were some notable exceptions (Faye Dunaway, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, George Hamilton), but as a rule of thumb the standard of guest star killers in the new episodes was at a different stratosphere than we were treated to in the 1970s. It made it more difficult to connect with the killers, because it was harder to really dig the actors. Many of them, although undoubtedly talented, could have been cast in just about any other lesser TV show of the time.

Columbo new episode killers

I’d argue that it’s harder to dig these guys than it is to dig Cassidy, Culp, Gordon, McGoohan et al

These weren’t all intended to be Columbo mysteries: Two of the very worst Columbo episodes, Undercover from 1994, and 1992’s No Time to Die, weren’t originally written as adventures for the Lieutenant at all, and BOY does it show. These were adapted from two Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novels of the 1970s and bear little or no relation to the Columbo show we know and love. At best these are misguided efforts. At worst, they’re a betrayal of the character. I find it amazing they were ever made.

Ludicrous situations: Allied to the top point about how TV had changed, the new Columbo episodes were often blighted by thoroughly ridiculous, nonsensical and needlessly showy set pieces. Even episodes that are perfectly entertaining are spoilt by some really ludicrous moments. Yes, I’m talking about you, Murder, Smoke & Shadows, with Ringmaster Columbo taking a bow at the end. And you, Sex & The Married Detective, with the Lieutenant blasting out a tuba solo, and then leading a Pied Piper of Hamelin-style march followed by a group of school children. It’s a scene so wonderfully awful it has to be seen to be believed. So take a look…

Another stunner is the denouement of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine – an otherwise watchable effort. I mean, would the level-headed Lieutenant really put his life in danger by switching the safety stickers on a lethal guillotine blade? It’s way out of character, and far too much of a risk. Consider how he handled a life-threatening situation at the end of Lady in Waiting in 1971: with wits, composure and a touch of compassion. That was the way the real Columbo would have dealt with a tight spot.

Columbo silly scenes

Busting out a tuba solo; hangin’ with Little Richard; risking death in a guillotine? How we laughed…

There are, of course, some very good new Columbo episodes. I’ll chronicle my favourites from the 1989-2003 run in a future article, but as a teaser I’d say that Columbo Goes to College is a really excellent addition to the canon, while Agenda for Murder, It’s All in the Game and Ashes to Ashes have much to recommend them. Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo was a successful departure from the usual style of presenting Columbo, while remaining true to the series’ roots. It’s a fine episode, too.

“There are, of course, some very good new episodes. Columbo Goes to College, in particular, is a really excellent addition to the canon.”

Many episodes are plain forgettable. Others are poor. Murder in Malibu, Strange Bedfellows, No Time to Die and Undercover are dreadful pieces of television. They sully the Columbo reputation and add no value to the series. Doubtless a future article on the worst ever Columbo outings will be packed with new episodes.

There was still merit in bringing the good Lieutenant back to our screens in 1989 and beyond. The biggest bonus is that it makes it even easier to appreciate the majesty of the classics. Indeed the new episodes will have introduced Columbo to a whole new generation of viewers who would’ve been too young to enjoy the 70s run. That’s why the idea of a reboot – a sacrilegious notion to many purists – would be a good way of raising more awareness of the original series. I write more about that controversial idea here.

“Watching the new episodes makes it even easier to appreciate the majesty of the classics.”

You can have too much of a good thing. From 1968 – 1978 we were treated to 10 years of TV gold. Those standards were never likely to be repeated in the new televisual age of the 80s and 90s, and so it proved. After a handful of series and a number of made-for-TV specials, the Lieutenant finally bowed out in 2003’s Columbo Likes the Nightlife. That was 5 years too late for me. The last really decent episode, 1998’s Ashes to Ashes, featuring Patrick McGoohan in fine form, would have been a more fitting end to the series.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes

Should Columbo have ended here? Arguably so

But Peter Falk didn’t want it to even stop in 2003. He desperately wanted to return to screens to film just one more episode in 2007, but networks rejected the idea. You can read more about that here. It would have been Columbo’s 70th and final adventure, giving definite closure to the series, but, with Falk almost 80 years old at the time, no one would give it the green light.

To some, that’s a pity. I think it’s probably just as well. I’d rather remember Lieutenant Columbo in his prime, going toe-to-toe with Nelson Hayward, Ken Franklin and the rest, rather than going out with a whimper in an era he never really belonged in.

I would love to hear your views on this subject. Am I being too harsh on ‘new’ Columbo? What do you think the merits of the later episodes were? Please put your comments below.

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Columbo Faye Dunaway

Still, the 90s’ episodes had some attractions, right Lieutenant?

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241 thoughts on “‘New’ Columbo: was it any good?

    • It’s true that Columbo has spoken Italian in a few previous segments (e.g. “Murder Under Glass” and “Death Hits the Jackpot”), so how do we explain his claim to not know the language in this episode? A likely explanation is that Columbo makes up a new backstory depending on the people and situation with which he’s dealing. In short, his immediate mission determines his backstory. Here he obviously wanted the mafia to think he couldn’t speak Italian so that they might speak Italian around him, which he would understand.

    • I hated the tuba solo. I thought “Goes to College” could have been good if the college students were believable as college students, they really do look 27-33, they don’t fly. The worst element of the new era was in an episode that was really pretty good. The Faye Dunaway episode. What was bad was that Columbo would never have played around with a woman like he did with her. That was not an aspect of his personality that came off as at all believable. He was devoted to Mrs. Columbo and would never have done the things he did with Faye Dunaway.

  1. There are nice touches, even in “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”, like when the blackmailer tells the innocent club owner prior to their meeting, “and bring one of your girls, I’ll show her a good time”; with his gross belly sticking out to add to his unattractiveness (lucky girl!!) I would easily kill him, actually. But even then, our hero does not kill him; his own heft does, when his body weight pulls the radiator out of its moorings and he crashes to the street below. These are pretty good plot points to this story that up to this point, has two deaths, but not really a “bad guy”….Hope to see a Columbophile review, which hopefully will adress the music in the first half hour which I totally get, but can get headachy

    • Am also noticing that Peter Falk is totally tuned in to his character and the other players in ” Nightlife”. That goes a long way. Rhys is also very good.

    • Hope you watch one of the better new ones with an open mind Jack. You’re missing some good TV. Even Columbophile who seems to be quite a traditionalist when it comes to Columbo, acknowledges some “gems” among the crap.

      • I watched them all on DVD a few years ago and remembered them as totally hideous. Then I rewatched them all last year. They are generally terrible, I just think the productions don’t have the care given to great production values as in the 70’s, there’s not a single classic “gotcha” ending like we saw in the NBC era. Too much emphasis on music and comedy and it’s just not up to the original standards. Which is fine, you can’t recapture greatness, but a little more care should have been put in to make them better.

    • Jack, if you give me an example of one of the original episodes that you recall liking, I will give you a recommendation of a solid new episode. However, I understand if that’s the way you feel. EVERYONE is entitled to their opinion!!

    • They are atrocious generally. The first one, with the mind reader was pretty good. (I can’t even remember the names of most of the episodes, they’re so bad.). That got the new era off to a solid start. There was way too much comedy, like the jazz in the car park with George Hamilton, and “this old man” is way too over used.

  2. You float the idea of a reboot of Columbo, and justify it by saying it’ll bring new viewers to the original.
    I disagree.

    Consider other times a show is remade, or a book is adapted into a movie and it sucks. Does it ever make the original look better? A few diehards will tell people to check out the original, but how few people actually do?
    Most just associate the once great name with the awful remake, tarnishing it forever in their minds.

    How few people watch a terrible movie then pick up the book version to read it?
    If anything, it’ll poison new viewers against the show as they’ll have a negative association with the name Columbo with the terrible remake, and it’ll be more difficult for them to forget it.

    Look at how kids now think of Star Wars. For decades it was seen as the trilogy of ultimate geek adoration by the overwhelming number of geeks. Now its either reviled, disliked, tolerated, or kind of accepted as just another series, but nothing special. But in no way has the reputation of the originals improved since the new movies have been released.
    Have the new movies helped people appreciate the originals more, or has it tainted them? I think the answer is obvious.

    A new actor aping Peter Faulk’s mannerisms in a modern setting will flop hard, and drive away almost any potential new fans.

  3. I’ve just watched Murder Of A Rock Star, and appreciate that you haven’t written about it yet….but can anyone explain to me why the Shera Danese character is driving around with the photo of Hugh Creighton on her face even though she doesn’t yet know he’s killing someone and that this will provide an alibi ? I think I must have missed something !

    • It’s pretty stupid. Coleman tells the underling lawyer he needs her to run an experiment for him, or whatever, presumably to test some theory on a case. I think he’s hoping she just follows orders mindlessly. But she figures out the score immediately and blackmails him into a practice partnership (and apparently a relationship as well because why not go all in with this guy you just realized is a murdering scumbag).

      The only reason this plot point is not made more clear to the viewer is because it would spoil the gotcha, which tells you all you need to know about its flimsy set-up.


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