No one loves Columbo more than I. But love needn’t be blind and I don’t believe in the fawning viewpoint that the show was free from faults. Far from it! And some of its worst moments were very bad indeed.
Granted, many of the worst sins were from the comeback episodes from 1989-2003, but not all. There were some very silly moments in the classic era, too. You may remember I recently had cause to lampoon a particularly twee musical interlude from Murder Under Glass, which served as an ominous portent for what the show would evolve into after its 11-year hiatus from 1978-1989.
With that in mind, I’ve compiled a dozen dreadful Columbo moments for your reading and viewing ‘pleasure’ that exemplify the series’ low-lights. I don’t claim this is a definitive list, as I’m sure I will encounter some long-forgotten, yell-inducing moments as I reacquaint myself with the ‘new’ episodes in the coming months, but hopefully you’ll agree that the moments outlined below really are scraping the barrel.
As an FYI, I’ve limited myself to only a single scene from any episode, largely to avoid this being a Last Salute / Undercover / No Time to Die hate-fest. I also haven’t put these in any particular order – except for the ghastly top three.
NB – if the thought of reading raw, unbridled criticism of your favourite detective show is too much to bear, please visit this safe page of delightful photos from the life of Peter Falk. Still here? Well done, and read on!
“I don’t believe in the fawning viewpoint that the show was free from faults. Far from it!”
Undercover – the back seat switcheroo
An episode routinely despised by fans, 1994’s Undercover features more than its fair share of dodgy moments as Columbo dons an array of disguises to crack a multiple murder case.
This scene’s a particular shocker as the Lieutenant is forced to change into a mafia don outfit in the back of an unmarked cop car. Seriously, I never asked to see elderly Columbo’s pasty, goaty legs – and if I ever see them again it’ll be too soon. This could only have been worse if the female passerby had done a comedy faint – but I bet you they considered it!
NB – if you’re a member of a police party involved in an undercover operation, why would you shout out in public: “We’ve got your mafia costume here”? Idiots…
Murder, Smoke & Shadows – the ringmaster cometh
After being thoroughly outplayed by the tricky Lieutenant, movie director extraordinaire Alex Brady is left reeling as he realises just how badly he’s been played.
Utilising the skillz of a studio lighting technician, Columbo introduces some disguised police officers, plus Brady’s own lover Ruthie, who all played a part in a sting operation to draw the director out. As he outlines his own role in proceedings, Columbo takes a bow and for a short moment appears resplendent in full circus ringmaster regalia – top hat, red coat and all! Brady’s look of horrified amazement is, coincidentally, exactly the same as that of the bewildered viewer at home.
It’s a truly ridiculous finale and symptomatic of the preposterous showiness ‘new’ Columbo routinely worked into its closing scenes. Can you imagine the viewer reaction if this nonsense had happened in the 70s?
Last Salute – get your hand off, Swanny!
Season 5’s final outing is an absolute car crash of an episode, replete with self-satisfaction, shouting and outright weirdness.
There’s hardly an enjoyable moment to be found, packed as it is with absurdity, with even the ‘whodunnit’ parlour room reveal a total let-down. But the cringiest moment of all is the scene below, when a creepy Swanny attempts to comfort the roaring drunk Joanna by moving to her in seeming slow motion and placing his hand hideously on the side of her face.
It’s a moment of scream-out-loud creepiness and an action that even Columbo looks on with dismay. I find it so disturbing that I have to book a radiation scrub-down every time I view it.
Columbo Cries Wolf – bombies away!
Boy oh boy, if there’s a prize for most unrealistic reaction to being splashed by a bomb-diving glamour model, Columbo wins it hands down here.
This fleeting moment is so bad because Falk’s splash recoil is so unbelievably wooden. Indeed it’s rumoured that Pinocchio sought the actor out for tips on how to achieve true puppet-like status simply on the back of this bilge.
Falk was well known for insisting on dozens on retakes in order to get a scene just right in the 70s. So why was this so obviously done in a single take? It doesn’t help that the scene also features Columbo eyeing up a model in a swimsuit rather than averting his eyes in the cutely bashful way he would have done in the the classic era. How times have changed…
Murder in Malibu – Columbo says ‘panties’
The best way to summarise the horror of this scene is simple: Columbo says ‘panties’. Repeatedly. Far more often than any viewer can be comfortable with. And then a shopful of women stare him down until he beats a shamed retreat.
Please. Make. It. Stop.
Make Me a Perfect Murder – the musical interlude
A decent episode was blighted by a good example of the malaise that crept into a number of late 70s’ episodes in the shape of this pointless and mind-numbingly tedious scene of Columbo tinkering with a TV studio control panel.
All the neck-braced Lieutenant does is push buttons, stare at musical patterns on a screen and look pleased with himself for more than 2 minutes, which, I can promise you, outlives its welcome by more than 2 minutes. It’s probably the worst example of padding seen in any classic era episode.
Caution, Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health – the perv in the mac
How we laughed when Columbo encountered a shadowy, mac-wearing reflection of himself in the adult store in Caution, Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health – especially when the winking idiot says to the bemused Lieutenant: “Hope we both have fun tonight, pal.” Self-deprecating humour at its best, amirite?
Actually no. Because we didn’t laugh at all at this overly knowing nudge-nudge, wink-wink TOSH that has no place in any serious detective drama. Use of lethal force on this perp would have been entirely justifiable, even encouraged…
No Time to Die – go baby, go!
Twenty years before Miley Cyrus made twerking a global phenomenon, bride Melissa was shaking her booty with avengeance in this dismal 1992 adventure – but her antics were put into perspective by those of her dance partner: our mate, Columbo.
The Lieutenant embodies the embarrassing uncle jigging like a silly old man at every wedding you’ve ever been at – and I’m absolutely not OK with that. The scene may be relatively harmless, but that doesn’t make it alright.
This devilry occurs before 5 minutes of the episode have elapsed, leaving viewers in mortal dread of what the following 85 minutes will hold in store. Spoiler: it doesn’t improve.
Ashes to Ashes – serenading a Prince
This 1998 caper featuring Patrick McGoohan as Steinmetz-lookalike Eric Prince is by no means a bad episode – but that doesn’t prevent it from featuring this wickedly bad musical number to ‘celebrate’ Prince’s Mortician of the Year Award win.
Being serenaded by this dirge would make any award winner want to shrivel up and die due to the tune’s unholy trinity of being camp, jaunty and deeply unfunny. Too much of this and you, too, will be yearning for the sweet, silent embrace of the crypt.
And here come the top three…
3. Murder With Too Many Notes – the fish picture…
It’s not often I want to punish Columbo, but I’d make the exception here as his excruciating vacancy and pained facial expressions would make any viewer want to commit homicide.
He fails to recall the titles of two of the world’s most popular and unforgettable films (Psycho and Jaws) after hearing their entirely distinctive theme tunes, with an entire orchestra having to shout out the answers as if he were a simple child. Granted, this may all be part of the Lieutenant’s usual bumbling act, but gee whizz it’s agonising to watch.
These antics follow hot on the heels of the almost-as-annoying moment when Columbo joins in a whole orchestra sing-song of That’s Amore. Little wonder, perhaps, that this episode is held in such scant regard by the majority of fans.
2. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star – the toothless simpleton
Jesus wept. What did Columbo fans do to deserve this? It’s like a scene from a bad 80s music video as a gurning, toothless old drunk spies Columbo and a twirling mermaid (I know!) through a giant fish tank at what must rank as the lamest entertainment venue in LA.
The doddering old fool’s infantile flapping wave at the pair induces gnashings of teeth so mighty that jaws are routinely put out of place as furious viewers struggle to comprehend what they’ve just witnessed.
The only (and I do mean only) reason this FILTH doesn’t take the top spot is because if its merciful brevity. A minute of this would certainly prove fatal, and even the 15 seconds shown below pushes most viewers dangerously close to the brink…
1. Sex & The Married Detective – Columbo toots his own
Anyone who has witnessed this infamous scene must surely agree it’s Columbo’s most cringeworthy moment. Every aspect of it is disgraceful and such is the litany of badness that it’s hard to pinpoint the ultimate worst moment.
Could it be the grinning idiocy of the lead tubaist? The needless revelation that Columbo can play the instrument at all? The throat-slitting dreadfulness of the synchronised fountains? Or the absolute shower of b*llocks that is the suggestion that any child of any age could be remotely enthusiastic about witnessing such unutterable tedium?
It also ends in excruciating fashion with the tuba players leading the excited school kids on a Pied Piper of Hamlin-style ‘tuba march’ around the building. There’s over 3 minutes of this garbage to sit through and every second feels like a century.
The question I have is this: how on earth was an idea this bad ever conceived, let alone given the green light? The mind truly boggles…
Well gang, that’s your lot and if you managed to watch all 12 of those clips without flying into a rage, you’re in the top 2% of the most dedicated and forgiving Columbo fans on earth.
Please let me know of your own Columbo nightmare scenes that could have been included, and whether you agree with my choices. And remember – don’t take this all too seriously. For all the awfulness of these scenes (and many others), Columbo remains the greatest detective show of them all. And that is a very reassuring thought.
Oh heck, my son and I love the Commodore episode, although we snicker through it. We crack each other up with “Brightly beeeams our father’s mercyyyy HONKHONK” or yelling “CLEATS?!?”.
How about George Wendt trying to blend in as a ‘regular Joe’ before his clandestine phone call, sitting at the bar in a fake beard and thousand dollar gold lighter asking for “a scotch and soda, eeezzzy on the soda…”
I can assure you that was EXTREMELY close to making the list
I think you killed it, pardon the pun. The newer episodes are mostly unwatchable which is a shame because some folks only know those shows. The upside is Peter looks like he’s having fun.
I recall when 30 years ago (!) the old A&E Network brought back part of the classic NBC Mystery Movie rotation: Bancek, McLeod, MacMillan and Wife, and, best of all, the original Columbo series. I was young, but I recall being so impressed by the quality of production and programming of all these old series. The newer Columbo…meh.
Yes, the NBC Mystery Movie is what got me hooked on Columbo. I remember being disappointed when one of the other 3 shows came on instead of Columbo. I guess that made me appreciate the Show even more, it was not right at your fingertips like today. The 70’s run was superb!
Another from the dreaded Last Salute to the Commodore. The eternity of the ending scene where Columbo slithers around all the suspects, sticks his grubby hand by their ear and says “Commodore’s Watch?” It really is dreadful on so many levels, the “tisn’t” response from creepy vagabond Swanny and the horrid “Sgt. Mac” playing with the oversized cards. Oh, the horror…..the horror….
She threatens to drag me to the fabric shop for hours if I ever play that wretched episode when she’s around. No problem.
You forgot about the corpse that winks in Ashes to Ashes, at the funeral in the beginning, when the attendant wipes the lipstick off the corpse’s face and look at his eyes, Lol
And there was one time when he told a 12 yr old girl that he liked her for both her brain and her body. Ick!
The sassy young lass in Etude in Black asked him if he liked her for her body or her mind. Luckily he’s in the clear on that one.
The poolside scene in Columbo Cries Wolf is also incredibly creepy.
Here you have beautiful, bikini clad ladies on a gorgeous warm summer day.
Enter a 50 (60?) something guy in a crumpled suit and raincoat, puffing on a cigar, leering.
A younger Columbo, in 1972, say would’ve been off kilter and cute in this scenario. But this old guy? Ugh.
Late 50’s (at least in looks), chain smoking, scotch drinking executive being chased by 20 year old women was de riguer for those shows (see MacMillan an Wife)
The past is a foreign country…
Murder Of A Rock Star is a decent episode, but the scene with the toothless old man at the bar was just stupid. Having a model swing around on ropes just to appear in that fish tank thing was well……..just stupid. Wish Coleman would have been a murderer in a 70s episode though, he portrayed a fellow detective in Double Shock quite well.
Because as we all know, what bar
would hire a full-time mermaid to
keep one drunk amused. What were they charging
for the drinks anyway?
I’m a bit late to the table with this response but I would like to add another scene from ‘Undercover’ for your consideration please. The part where he kisses Dorothea – this made me wince and groan with discomfort. I make no use of hyperbole whatsoever in saying it almost gave me physical pain to watch this. It was so grossly out of character for Columbo and bizarre. I doubt Mrs Columbo would approve either! I loved this article and I love Columbo – thank you for making me laugh. To be fair, you could have picked a dozen or more such cringe worthy moments from ‘Undercover’ alone. It is probably the worst episode ever devised for my fave show! That said, I did still enjoy watching it for the ridiculousness of it all. Sorry if I appear to be hating on the later episodes – there are some good ones but this certainly isn’t one of them. Thank you Columbophile and keep up the good work!
honestly…. i happily accept most of these moments. but yeah, as much as i like, ‘make me a perfect murder’, that bit with the soundwaves drives me up the wall.
I’m afraid I am flooding the site with my comments this morning/evening here in US, but they’ve taken away three weekend broadcasts of Columbo and only one Saturday night showing of the newer Columbos remains. For better or worse, I am left with “No Time to Die”., and while I at first was taken by the additional interest element that there is a mystery involved, that means that this is not an “authentic” Columbo. It’s starting to resemble an episode of “Medium”. “Crossing Jordan” or a lesser police procedural. But any Columbo, (even Commodore) is better than no Columbo to me. And I still say the opening is a very real if tiresome American wedding scene, mostly due to that horn playing; not Columbo’s dancing. Apologies, Columbophile.
I forgot to mention the cheesy horn melody from an average band at the reception that dominates the opening scene and further supports my contention that the wedding scene was meant to please the American viewers who have attended any number of weddings just like this one.
I have attended plenty of weddings and this one rings true; right down to Columbo’s dancing. I’m supposing the lack of sophistication (class?) present in American celebrations such as middle class weddings is what makes them so much fun and so verrrry non-British. But having only visited the Mother country on two (delightful) occasions, I can only guess. I hope CP will consider my comment when he reviews this episode. As a whole, its not a train wreck.
Am writing about “No Time to Die”, and I’m sure folks have fun at British weddings.
I’m curious; what are British weddings like? What do they do that is so different from American weddings?
Why Falk and the people he worked with could not have better emulated the 70s classics is beyond me. The pacing, acting, writing, even the music is off. The only episode from the later incarnation that I really like is “Agenda for Murder” with McGoohan as the murderer. Falk got a little too hammy in the old show, but his performance often descends to self-parody in the later version.
This is so true. It’s a pity that so many of the “comeback” episodes were hammy and full of shouting. The Columbo of the original run was quite different to the one in the later seasons – as you say, almost a parody version.
I’m pleased to see Murder, Smoke & Mirrors having its god-awful ending rightly slated. It was a pity because it wasn’t a bad episode up until that point but that ending was memorable for how ridiculous it was.