We all agree that Columbo is one of the greatest shows of all time. But what’s most impressive is that the calibre of episodes was so high for so long. From its stunning debut in 1968’s Prescription: Murder, the show hit the ground galloping at full pace and barely let up throughout its 70s’ run.
But when, I wonder, can we say the show was at its absolute zenith? When it was still fresh enough to make for joyful viewing, while boasting performances, writing and story lines that were hitting all the right marks time and again?
Regular readers may have noticed that in my review of A Deadly State of Mind, the final episode of Season 4, that I queried whether we had reached ‘peak Columbo‘ in terms of consistent quality. And that’s really the genesis of this article.
“There’s a genuine argument that Season 4 is the strongest season of all.”
I tend to think that Season 4 was a high water mark in Columbo history. Indeed, if you compare each season on an episode-by-episode basis, there’s a genuine argument that Season 4 is the strongest season of all.
Consider: there’s not a weak episode in the Season 4 roster, with my least favourite episode in the line-up, Playback, still a cracking piece of TV, and the best of them – Negative Reaction and Troubled Waters – comfortably amongst the most enjoyable outings of the entire 70s’ series.
As a comparison, Season 1, for all its brilliance, features the nonsensical Short Fuse and the forgettable Dead Weight interspersed amongst its brighter lights. One could argue that these weaker outings drag the series overall to a lower level than Season 4. But is there a way of calculating this beyond mere surmise?
Ranking the seasons – can it be done?
How to compare apples with apples when judging Columbo seasons on their merits? Good question! To assist in my own cogitations I worked out a simple formula. I’ve rated all 31 episodes so far in preferential order from 1-31 (see end of article for full list). I’ve allocated a points rating for each episode based on their position in the list, so Suitable for Framing (my current fave) has 1 point and Dagger of the Mind (bringing up the rear) has 31 points.
I’ve then totted up a cumulative score for all the episodes in a particular season (grouping Prescription: Murder with Ransom for a Dead Man as pilots), and divided that total by the number of episodes in a season to get an average points score per episode. The lowest overall points score denotes the strongest season on an episode-by-episode basis.
Still with me? Jolly good… And here are my findings.
- 2 episodes (Prescription: Murder and Ransom for a Dead Man) in 13th and 25th positions in my list
- Points total = 38
- Average score per episode = 19
- 7 episodes (Suitable for Framing, Murder by the Book, Death Lends a Hand, Lady in Waiting, Blueprint for Murder, Dead Weight, Short Fuse, ) in 1st, 4th, 7th, 10th, 24th, 26th and 29th in my list
- Points total = 101
- Average score per episode = 14.45
- 8 episodes (Double Shock, A Stitch in Crime, Most Crucial Game, Etude in Black, Greenhouse Jungle, Requiem for a Falling Star, The Most Dangerous Match, Dagger of the Mind) in 3rd, 8th, 17th, 18th, 21st, 23rd, 27th and 31st on my list
- Points total= 148
- Average score per episode = 18.5
- 8 episodes (Publish or Perish, A Friend in Deed, Double Exposure, Any Old Port in a Storm, Swan Song, Candidate for Crime, Lovely but Lethal, Mind Over Mayhem) in 2nd, 6th, 9th, 12th, 16th, 20th, 28th and 30th in my list
- Points total = 123
- Average score per episode = 15.38
- 6 episodes (Negative Reaction, Troubled Waters, A Deadly State of Mind, An Exercise in Fatality, By Dawn’s Early Light, Playback) in 5th, 11th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 22nd positions in my list
- Points total = 86
- Average score per episode = 14.33
Well folks, I’m sure 100% of readers will agree that this has been one of history’s top 4-5 most worthy experiments. And my hypothesis that Season 4 may be the strongest season of all has been borne out – at this stage at least.
As you can see below, Season 4 pips Season 1 by a whisker being, in my opinion, fractionally stronger across the board. The highs, perhaps, not quite as high, but the lows not nearly as devastating (I’m talking about you, Short Fuse).
This list indicates that Season 3 is also strong across the board, while Season 2, despite fan favourites Stitch in Crime and Etude in Black in the line-up, is really quite a patchy offering. The pilots really don’t count here, but I include them as a comparison.
- Season 4 – average episode score = 14.33
- Season 1 – average episode score = 14.45
- Season 3 – average episode score = 15.38
- Season 2 – average episode score = 18.5
- Pilots – average episode score = 19
Of course this is all highly subjective, so this method really only works for me, and those who share almost identical preferences. But if you’re pretty confident in your own episode rankings, why not have a tinker yourself and see which season comes out on top? I’d love to hear your own findings.
And, lest we forget, our Columbo journey is still far from over. When every episode is ranked, the findings may be different. Season 1 may end up on top by virtue of some mid-table episodes displacing some of the decent Season 4 outings. Only time will tell!
“I lean towards the belief that Columbo was never quite as good again as it was from 1968-75.”
However, while there are some cracking episodes still to follow, I lean towards the belief that Columbo was never quite as good again as it was from 1968-75. Sure, there’s plenty to look forward to. Jack Cassidy’s third and final villanous outing Now You See Him is a highlight of Season 5. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case from Season 6 is many fans’ absolute favourite (me included). Likewise, Try & Catch Me from Season 7, featuring the adorable Ruth Gordon, is cherished by fans.
The question isn’t whether there are any good episodes to come, but more about how consistently good the series as a whole are from here on out. And with the proportion of diamonds to duds set to increase the longer Columbo continues, I have every reason to believe that Season 4 and 1 will very likely be jockeying for top position in the Season Strength Rankings when our Columbo saga reaches its end.
The full rankings so far
The findings of this article were calculated on my complete list of episode rankings so far, which is updated on an episode-by-episode basis. Missed any of my episode reviews? Then view them via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- A Deadly State of Mind
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
Thanks, as always, for reading, you adorable lot! And come back again soon for more fun and frolics with the greatest TV detective of all time.