What better way to end the year than with a celebration of the very best of Columbo in the shape of fans’ top 10 episodes?
Now in its fourth year, a poll on this site gives fans a straight – but difficult – choice: vote for your single favourite Columbo episode. The poll amasses thousands of votes every year, providing a highly relevant and statistically valid indication of genuine episode appreciation within the fan base.
After four years of this poll, there has been a level of stabilisation this year. The top 10 is now pretty entrenched, with very few votes separating 6th and 10th. The top 5, however, is pulling away from the rest and now seems very settled. To see how your favourite has fared, read on!
“The poll amasses thousands of votes every year, providing a statistically valid indication of genuine episode appreciation.”
10. A Stitch in Crime (last year = 5th)
Despite sliding a few places this year, A Stitch in Crime‘s popularity with fans is in no danger of being in terminal decline.
The delicious iciness of Leonard Nimoy’s Dr Barry Mayfield is a key reason for this. He’s sensationally good as the ambitious and heartless heart surgeon who commits a double homicide to cover up an attempt to kill a colleague with dissolving sutures. With a villain so callous that even Columbo loses his cool, A Stitch in Crime is heart-stoppingly good stuff.
9. Negative Reaction (last year = 6th)
Who knew that Dick Van Dyke could be such a good baddie? Well, Columbo producers sure did, hitting the jackpot here by converting the lovable DVD into a truly nasty piece of work who executes both his wife and a hapless sidekick to free himself up to make a move on his beautiful young assistant.
A darkly themed episode is off-set by some of the series’ best humour as Columbo is first mistaken for a bum by a sister of mercy and later terrorises Larry Storch’s highly strung driving instructor with his haphazard skills behind the wheel. Throw in one of the series’ best gotchas and a good time is guaranteed in one of the series’ premier examples of a 90+ minute episode that never feels padded.
8. An Exercise in Fatality (non-mover)
The gloves are off in An Exercise in Fatality as Columbo goes toe-to-toe with one of his least-liked adversaries: corrupt fitness franchise kingpin Milo Janus.
The Lieutenant really can’t stand the guy, leading to one of the most dramatic confrontations of the whole Columbo saga when he publicly lays into Janus at the hospital, accusing him outright of murder in front of a gaggle of witnesses.
Also boasting one of Columbo’s most exhaustive lists of evidence against a killer, the ending is extra sweet because there’s simply no way Janus is wriggling out of the noose he created for himself.
7. Suitable for Framing (last year = 10th)
Dale Kingston and his velvet tux have been in and around the top 10 each year and Suitable for Framing now occupies its highest position in the chart, demonstrating its enduring popularity.
Blessed by a complex and layered crime that unveils itself slowly throughout, a tour de force performance of loathsome arrogance by Ross Martin, a cast including Oscar winners Don Ameche and Kim Hunter, plus the very best Columbo gotcha of them all and there’s a lot here to like – time, after time, after time.
6. Troubled Waters (last year = 9th)
Unlike the episode’s never-ending rendition of Volare, Troubled Waters is an episode that never seems to outstay its welcome and has been a fixture in the top 10 each year.
The episode makes the most of its unique setting on a genuine Mexican cruise to deliver one of the most fun and memorable Columbo outings of them all – helped in no small measure by the awesome Robert Vaughn’s presence as pimp-chic killer, Hayden Danziger.
5. Now You See Him (last year = 4th)
An iconic episode, combining an unforgettable magic backdrop with Jack Cassidy’s third and final Columbo appearance and you have 90 minutes of TV that simply demands affection.
Now You See Him is a blast throughout, with Jack on vintage form as The Great Santini, while there’s a welcome return for Bob Dishy’s naive Sergeant Wilson as a sidekick to Columbo. Some great humour helps the episode tread the line between light and dark, given the theme of Santini’s former Nazi SS Guard status, and the pay-off is as satisfying as one could wish for. Bravo to all involved.
4. Try & Catch Me (last year = 7th)
Continuing to tip-toe up the rankings, season 7 opener Try & Catch Me‘s irresistible combination of mischievous fun and terrifying revenge makes it one of Columbo’s stand-out cases as he investigates a murder carried out by elderly mystery writer, Abigail Mitchell.
The chemistry between Peter Falk and Ruth Gordon is an absolute delight throughout, with the detective refusing to be fooled by Abi’s doddering old dear routine. With a unique murder (nephew locked in air-tight safe) and Gordon on sparkling form, this is an episode that stands tall in the memory.
3. Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (non-mover)
Some readers were a little surprised this year when my Bye-Bye episode review saw the season 6 finale take the coveted crown as my favourite Columbo adventure of them all. However, given that it’s enjoying a rostrum position for the second consecutive year here, it’s evident that Bye-Bye has a sky high following amongst the fan base.
Boosted by a superior turn by Theo Bikel as tortured genius Oliver Brandt, a brilliant example of a strength-in-depth cast, not to mention 10 or 12 of the series’ best or funniest scenes, and you have a gem of an episode that you don’t need a towering IQ to enjoy to the max.
2. Murder by the Book (non-mover)
Arguably the most important Columbo episode of them all, Murder by the Book still has the power to mesmerise nearly 50 years after it first aired.
With Steven Spielberg’s direction injecting the viewer right into the action, Billy Goldenberg’s score a cinematic masterpiece and the rapport between Peter Falk and Jack Cassidy absolutely perfect, it’s easy to see why this episode means so much to so many fans.
1. Any Old Port in a Storm (non-mover)
Looks like it’ll be a cold day in a Californian vineyard when Adrian Carsini relinquishes his grasp on fans’ hearts, as Any Old Port annexes the top spot for the fourth consecutive year.
A vintage episode stuffed with magnificent lines allows Donald Pleasence’s clipped accent to be put to superb use throughout (LIQUID FILTH, anyone?), but it’s the burgeoning relationship between Columbo and Carsini that provides the heart to the compelling narrative. The respectful exchange between the two men at the end, as Columbo drives Carsini off to a life behind bars, is simply one of the greatest TV scenes of all time.
Little wonder, perhaps, that Peter Falk himself rated this as his very favourite episode.
“It’ll be a cold day in a Californian vineyard when Adrian Carsini relinquishes his grasp on fans’ hearts.”
Best of the rest
While the top 10 episodes listed above have amassed a huge proportion of the total votes there’s still hot competition in the tier below them, with some of the series’ best-loved episodes jockeying for position inside the top 20.
Of these, A Friend in Deed, Swan Song, Double Exposure, Publish or Perish and Etude in Black have previously held top 10 slots. Is there a way back for them? Time will tell. However, it remains notable that there are no Robert Culp or Patrick McGoohan episodes in the current top 10 – nor have there been since Double Exposure held 10th spot back in 2016.
11. A Friend in Deed (non-mover)
12. Swan Song (last year = 13th)
13. By Dawn’s Early Light (last year = 14th)
14. Double Exposure (last year = 16th)
15. Publish or Perish (last year = 12th)
16. Etude in Black (last year = 15th)
17. The Conspirators (last year = 20th)
18. Prescription: Murder (last year = 17th)
19. Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo (last year = 23rd)
20. Forgotten Lady (last year = 21st)
Classic era vs comeback episodes
The ‘new’ Columbo episodes tend to fare poorly when pitted directly against the 70s classics, as is shown with only Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo troubling the top 20. Columbo Goes to College is next best in 21st place, with Agenda for Murder (29th) the only other to make the top 30.
The least loved of all?
There are three ‘classic’ Columbo episodes in the lowest 10 places in the list – Old Fashioned Murder, Mind Over Mayhem and A Matter of Honor. Rock bottom of the standings, however, are Grand Deceptions and No Time to Die. Some would say it’s remarkable they have any votes at all! I can only conclude that jokers were testing the poll to make sure it worked properly…
Well folks, that’s about that for another year. Do let me know your thoughts on this year’s updated top 10. Any surprises here, or is it about what you’d expect it to be? All opinions welcome.
I will bid you adieu for 2019 and look forward to hanging out with you all again in 2020 – the year I start tackling Columbo‘s comeback episodes in earnest. Wish me luck…