As TV shows go, the ill-conceived and ill-fated Mrs Columbo really takes the cake when it comes to alienating audiences.
As well as being derided by Peter Falk and original creators Dick Levinson and William Link, the show also failed to win the hearts and minds of the viewing public – most of whom were presumably livid at the cheap attempt to harness the success of Columbo.
Ratings started poorly and swiftly went south. As a result, the two-season show underwent three name changes between 1979-80 in a doomed bid to distance itself from Columbo, changing to Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective and ultimately Kate Loves a Mystery. It’s amazing that 13 episodes of this TELEVISUAL FILTH got made given its troubled production.
Still, I’ll cover that whole debacle in detail at a later date. Today I’m considering a far more entertaining idea – that of fanciful Columbo spin-offs that might have made sense and been accepted by viewers.
This isn’t meant to be taken too seriously but some of these definitely have legs, so once time travel is a thing you can bet I’ll be heading back to 1978 to pitch some of these to NBC execs. Now read on!
NB – I was desperate to include a Goldie spin-off suggestion in here because she’s such a great character, but I couldn’t think of anything that would do her justice. Maybe you can…?
A wonderful support character, Bob Dishy’s keen but naive Sergeant Wilson proved to be a charming foil to Columbo in two 70s’ outings – Greenhouse Jungle in 1972, and Now You See Him four years later. He deserved a show of his own.
The way I see it, Wilson would essentially take the baton from Columbo (in televisual terms) and be one of the foremost LAPD officers investigating murders at the top end of town – some of which would be rather intimidating for the affable Wilson.
Drawing on lessons learned from Lieutenant Columbo (who he’d occasionally seek advice from on the phone), Wilson would become an increasingly competent and inspirational officer, who would first be surprised and delighted at his successes before growing into the role of top cop.
A natural comic actor, Dishy would regularly be paired with the bungling Sergeant Grover to help his Wilson become a better leader. His catchphrase would become ‘Step on it, Grover‘ in homage to the pair’s collaboration in Greenhouse Jungle.
To further link the show to Columbo, Wilson would occasionally wear the hated raincoat Columbo rejected in Now You See Him, while the discrepancy between his differing first names in Greenhouse and Now You See Him (first Freddy then John J) would be explained. Wilson would also have taken to eating chilli at Barney’s Beanery and in one hilarious episode would be dog sitting for Columbo with the Lieutenant on a rare holiday.
Wilson would eventually be promoted to Lieutenant during the series, leading to a Columbo cameo in a touching, congratulatory scene that would ensure there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the WORLD.
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: A sure-fire hit, springboarding Dishy to mega-stardom. A wise and mature Captain Wilson would have subsequently appeared as a recurring character in the rebooted Columbo from 1989 onwards.
2. Comandante Sanchez
Introduced in season 5’s A Matter of Honor, Comandante Emilio Sanchez was anything but a stereotypical, crooked Mexican cop, being a dedicated officer and family man, who held a lot of values in common with Lieutenant Columbo.
This series would follow the post-Matter of Honor exploits of Sanchez – now the most famous cop in all of Meheeco – as he cracked down on crime in his home region, applying some lessons learned from Columbo along the way.
A bit grittier and darker than an average Columbo episode, Comandante Sanchez would nevertheless be cracking entertainment and provide a fine vehicle for the awesome Pedro Armendariz Jr to make a deserved name for himself after providing one of the great Columbo support roles.
To tie it to the original series, I envisage Columbo himself briefly appearing in the first episode delivering a lecture to Mexican police academy officers as a favour to Sanchez. Wronged matador Curro Rangel and Luis Montoya’s daughter Nina (now married to Curro) would also be recurring characters to further cement the link to A Matter of Honor.
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: Luke-warm reception due to Mexican setting, but class prevails making it a hit in the longer term.
3. The Sigma Society
Part crime-busting mystery show, part human drama, the motley crew of bona fide geniuses we meet at The Sigma Society in The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case have great spin-off potential.
The strength of the ensemble cast, including Kenneth Mars, would be the making of the show and it would also allow several women to shine in expanded roles, not least Carol Jones as young Caroline and Dorrie Thomson as Miss Eisenbach. There’d even be an on-going gig for beloved Columbo regular Mike Lally.
I envisage the backbone of The Sigma Society being the collective intelligentsia assisting the police in cracking perfect murders (perhaps featuring Bye-Bye‘s gruff Sergeant Burke as the chief point of liaison). However, given the intriguing mix of characters, from misunderstood teen genius Caroline, the surly Mr Wagner, excitable Society President Jason Danziger and fragile flower Miss Eisenbach, there’s great scope for comedy as well as pathos, as we see these highly intelligent folk struggle just like the rest of us to live happy lives.
Columbo would have accepted honorary membership of the society after busting Oliver Brandt, but he’d never appear in the show despite numerous references. Shame…
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: Loved by intelligent viewers but underappreciated by the masses, The Sigma Society would burn brightly for 2-3 seasons before quietly fading away.
4. The Middle Man
If you’ve read my article about 10 Columbo killers who’ll never go to jail, you may remember that I predicted Hassan Salah would be recruited as a US Government operative, who would use his knowledge of Middle Eastern power-plays to further national interests, rather than let such a trump card rot in jail.
Set some years after the events of A Case of Immunity, the spin-off would follow Salah (now sporting western garb) in his shadowy new career of international espionage and political derring-do. A softly-spoken but dangerous man who would stop at nothing to achieve his aims, the show would be dark and potentially violent with Salah not hesitating to slay foes galore to achieve his goals.
As a result it might be an acquired taste and far less family friendly than Columbo, but it would have quality written all over it.
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: Themes too sophisticated for common viewers. Cancelled after two seasons despite critical success.
5. MM7, Robocop
Years before Metal Murphy hit the streets of Detroit, the LAPD would boast a robocop of their own in the form of Mind Over Mayhem‘s MM7.
After being impressed by Lieutenant Columbo’s report detailing the abilities of the hand-made droid, the LAPD would take MM7 on long-term loan from the Cybernetics Institute to assess its true value in solving difficult crimes. Cue many scenes of bemused police detectives and assorted boffins initially casting scorn on the robot before being amazed by its deductive skillz, which lead to a string of high-profile collars.
Featuring regular slots from Mayhem‘s ‘boy genius’ Steve Spelberg and killer Marshall Cahill’s wobble-headed son, Neil, the show’s first (and only) season would end with MM7 earning an official commendation for his efforts at a snazzy police shin-dig. Here, the robot would make an emotional speech to his new colleagues to become TV’s first sentient machine. Not surprisingly, Peter Falk wouldn’t go near this tosh with a barge poll.
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: Absolute flop. Cancelled after one season, but achieved post-Bladerunner cult status amongst VHS viewers in the 1980s for its sympathetic treatment of artificial intelligence.
6. The Tribulations of Carsini
Too fully realised a character to only appear in a single TV episode, Adrian Carsini was simply begging for a show of his own and The Tribulations of Carsini would follow the wine connoisseur’s fish-out-of-water attempts to make the most of life in a minimum security penal institution.
It would quite simply have to be a comedy (canned laughter and all), with Adrian being paired with a low-brow simpleton as his cell-mate to guarantee maximum levels of eye-rolling and intelligent put-downs.
The show would feature Columbo alumnus Dexter Paris, who would help make Carsini’s prison life bearable with his creative cookery and sympathetic ear, as well as occasional musical cameos from Tommy Brown – whose biblical hits were not popular with Carsini.
Karen Fielding would also make rare appearances to deliver Adrian small comforts such as contraband wine , although Adrian would be unenthusiastic in his appreciation of her efforts. Indeed, the show’s on-running gag would be Carsini referring to Karen as ‘quite the Iron Maiden’ to his prison cronies after her every visit. How we’d laugh…
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: Comedy gold! The show would still be spoken about in the most glowing terms today.
7. The Clandestine Adventures of Artie Jessup
Times would be tough for ace burglar Artie Jessup in the fall-out from the events of A Friend in Deed. Tainted by his being implicated in the Bel Air Burglar case, Artie would find that his old contacts would give him a wide berth making it nigh impossible to make a living from his light-fingered abilities.
The Clandestine Adventures of Artie Jessup would explore the grim reality of Artie’s new life, his failed attempts to earn a dishonest crust and his anguish at having to essentially begin his life again from the bottom-up. Many scenes would be filmed at the dive bar Artie frequented in A Friend in Deed, allowing frequent cameos for Mike Lally as the barkeep.
Artie would be hit up by John Finnegan’s Lieutenant Duffy from the LAPD’s robbery division to assist with his enquiries from time to time (further connecting the show to Friend in Deed), showing him that unofficial police work can be both a boost for the bank account and the soul, starting him on a complicated and conflicting path to the right side of the tracks. During meetings with Duffy, there would be references to Columbo, who Jessup would refer to as a ‘stand-up guy’.
The real wonder of the show, though, would be in those rare moments when Artie actually showed some warmth and affection for long-suffering lover Thelma, showing that somewhere, lurking well below the surface, was the hint of a good man. There’d even be scenes of Artie and Thelma at the roller derby, which Artie would come to grudgingly enjoy.
SUCCESS PREDICTOR: Emmy Award-winning stuff for Val Avery in what would become one of the most acclaimed series of the late 70s / early 80s.
Well gang, those are my best ideas for Columbo spin-offs. I’d love to hear your suggestions – both serious and nonsensical – for follow-ups to the greatest detective drama of all time. Which characters could have been revived for series of their own? Could there even have been crossovers into other popular shows of the era? The floor is yours…