It’s taken four years, but I’ve finally worked my way through reviews of every episode of Columbo’s classic era from 1968-1978. GO ME!
As one might expect, there have been some superlative highs and some seriously dark troughs (thankfully the minority) and a lot of very-good-to-middling stuff in between. And while this is a question I’ve considered before, I’m now in a position to accurately assess the strength of all seven seasons, as well as the pilots.
Using a formula I’ve adopted previously, I have ranked every episode based on my personal preference (full list at foot of article) and attributed a points rating for each episode based on their position in the list. That means The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (my favourite) earns 1 point and the dismal Last Salute to the Commodore (adrift at the bottom) is lumbered with 45 points.
I’ve then totted up a cumulative score for all the episodes in a particular season and divided that total by the number of episodes in the 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? Excellent, then let’s have a look at how the seasons compare…
NB – I have slightly rejigged my full rankings list after completing the review of The Conspirators. In the updated list, Blueprint for Murder has moved up two spaces to 28th and By Dawn’s Early Light has moved up one space to 23rd.
- 2 episodes (Prescription: Murder and Ransom for a Dead Man) in 16th and 32nd positions in my list
- Points total = 16 + 32 = 48
- Average score per episode = 24
- 7 episodes (Suitable for Framing, Murder by the Book, Death Lends a Hand, Lady in Waiting, Blueprint for Murder, Dead Weight, Short Fuse) in 2nd, 5th, 9th, 13th, 28th, 35th and 40th in my list
- Points total = 132
- Average score per episode = 18.86
- 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 4th, 10th, 22nd, 24th, 26th, 29th, 37th and 44th on my list
- Points total = 196
- Average score per episode = 24.5
- 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 3rd, 7th, 12th, 15th, 21st, 25th, 38th and 42nd in my list
- Points total = 163
- Average score per episode = 20.38
- 6 episodes (Negative Reaction, Troubled Waters, A Deadly State of Mind, An Exercise in Fatality, By Dawn’s Early Light, Playback) in 6th, 14th, 17th, 18th, 23rd and 27th positions in my list
- Points total = 105
- Average score per episode = 17.5
- 6 episodes (Now You See Him, Identity Crisis, Forgotten Lady, Case of Immunity, Matter of Honor, Last Salute) in 11th, 20th, 29th, 34th, 41st and 45th positions in my list
- Points total = 180
- Average score per episode = 30
- 3 episodes (Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case, Fade in to Murder, Old Fashioned Murder) in 1st, 31st and 43rd positions in my list
- Points total = 75
- Average score per episode = 25
- 5 episodes (Try & Catch Me, Make Me a Perfect Murder, Murder Under Glass, The Conspirators, How to Dial a Murder) in 8th, 19th, 33rd, 36th and 39th positions in my list
- Points total = 135
- Average score per episode = 27
Overall season standings
- Season 4 – 17.5 points
- Season 1 – 18.86 points
- Season 3 – 20.38 points
- Pilots – 24 points
- Season 2 – 24.5 points
- Season 6 – 25 points
- Season 7 – 27 points
- Season 5 – 30 points
So there we have it. As I’ve always suspected, the strength across the board in season 4 edges it for me personally ahead of season 1, which is hampered by a couple of lesser lights (notably Short Fuse).
I’m not a big fan of season 7 (Try & Catch Me and Make Me a Perfect Murder excepted) and season 5 features relative dud A Matter of Honor and the BILGE that is Last Salute, so it’s no surprise to see them propping up the rest.
However, it should be noted that this formula only works based on my personal preferences, so every fan’s list could be very different depending on the weight you give to individual episodes. It’s a fun experiment, though, so do have a go and let me know your own season rankings in the comments section below.
My full rankings list
If you’ve missed any of my 45 episode reviews from the classic Columbo era, check them out via the links below…
- The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Try & Catch Me
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Now You See Him
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Make Me a Perfect Murder
- Identity Crisis
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Etude in Black
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Blueprint for Murder
- Forgotten Lady
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Fade in to Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Murder Under Glass —C-List starts here—
- A Case of Immunity
- Dead Weight
- The Conspirators
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- How to Dial a Murder
- Short Fuse ———D-List starts here—-
- A Matter of Honor
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Old Fashioned Murder
- Dagger of the Mind
- Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here—
I’ll be following this article up shortly with a post dishes out prizes for the very best aspects of 70s’ Columbo, so keep your eyes peeled for that. In the meantime I will wish you well until we get to spend quality Columbo time together again.
I went ahead and did my list…here’s how the seasons stacked up for me
Season 3 – 11.87 pts
Season 2 – 22.37 pts
Season 1 – 23.37 pts
Season 7 – 24.80 pts
Season 4 – 25.17 pts
Season 5 – 28.83 pts
Season 6 – 39.33 pts
For me, season 3 leads them all by a country mile. Season 2, 1, 7 and 4 are all fairly close to each other, but then season 5 drops off and season 6 is by far the pits. None of season 6’s episodes are memorable to me; yes, even The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ episode is not really all that great to me. Not sure why so many others love it, but I feel like it’s one of the more overrated Columbos. On the flip-side, I feel like most of season 7 is criminally underrated and no episodes are actually weak or bad from that season.
It’s been very cold with lots of snow here in Ontario, so we have been watching Ellery Queen on Uncle Earl’s TV channel This show was also a Link and Levinson show with a lot of the same guest stars as Columbo. John
Finnigan even shows up on an episode. No Columbo but lots of fun with cool music. I personally enjoy all the 70s Columbo’s even the the ones not my fav And yes the ABC ones too.
In case you didn’t know, Columbo is broadcast Thursday nights on Vision TV here in Ontario. They are currently broadcasting season 8. Let’s hope the snow melts soon!
Thanks for the info. Fortunately, I got the entire Columbo boxset at Costco when they still sold DVD boxsets at Christmas. Glad you are enjoying the weather! Ha Ha!
Plenty of columbo on 5 USA tomorrow Sunday 1st march if you are planning on staying in from the cold UK weather
9.25 suitable for framing
10.55 The most crucial game
2.00 Greenhouse Jungle
3.35 Columbo goes to college
5.25 The most dangerous Match
7.00 The Conspirators
what a healthy line up Suitable for framing would be my top pick with goes to college close 2nd and playback 3rd
I am no good at maths and formulas but for me seasons 3 and 4 combined were paticulary strong with a lot of top quality episodes such as negative reaction , Swan song troubled waters , By dawns early light , publish or perish , A friend in deed , An exercise in fatality and candidate for crime arent among my very favorites but were good episodes really setting a high standard,
season 5 has one of my favorites in Identity crisis with mr mcgoohan who was a columbo treat , I Am not a big fan of forgotten lady and i have nothing against a case of immunity which is s tad underrated
, I momentarily forget what season playback is from but its a very decent episode season 6 not so great Now you see him the best and also the worst in last salute
Season 7 contains 2 of my very favorites in Try and catch me and make me a prefect murder but also 2 of my least favorites mainly Murder under glass which is a bad one in my opinion and the only slightly better Conspirators
The earliest ones are the most ’70’s, if you’re watching for the time machine kind of thing. From Dale Kingston’s smokin’ velvet jacket to Beth Chadwick’s kicky n’ kooky ‘do, it’s like being slapped in the face with a Life magazine. Other 70’s TV fans might have their Bradys, or the inexplicable Dick Van Patten. A Columbo fan will always recognize the one sane person in all that lavish derangement, fumbling along the edges in his raincoat.
Of my top 8 episodes, three (“Negative Reaction”, “Deadly State of Mind”, “Exercise in Fatality”) are from Season 4, so that’s my top year. Seasons 3 and 1 have two each. Of my top 12 episodes, not one is from Season 5 or later.
So, if you were going to rewatch all the episodes – again – would you watch them front to back (in order)? Or would you watch them worst to best?
I’d go for watching in order! If I went from worst to best I might never get past Last Salute!
I never understood what would be the point in watching or broadcasting Columbo chronologically. The big bonus about the series is that each episode is a complete finished story that stands for itself, no sequels, rarely references to previous happenings. This gives everyone the opportunity to watch them in a wild mood mixture as I have always done it. For example I watch in the “xx’th Anniversary mode” or in the “Personal first sight: today xx years ago mode” or in the “Guest star in memoriam mode”, but I never watch Columbo from worst to best and never watch it in order.
Where’s Columbaniac when you need him?
Generally when watching I simply choose my favourites and rewatch them over and over, although reviewing all in order for the blog was most interesting because I could see character development and evolution that I’d not been aware of when watching episodes in a random order. I now know Season 7 Columbo is massively different from the Lieutenant we know in season 2 etc, but when I was a casual viewer I had never noticed the differences in Falk’s portrayal.
I always watch them chronologically. That way you see how the series and times evolve
I forgot to mention that in my country (Germany), “Columbo” wasn’t completely broadcasted in the 70’s. Many episodes from the first era (which the TV network regarded as the weaker ones) celebrated their TV release in 1992 with a new voice actor, so the permanent changing of Columbo’s dubbing voices would disturb me if I watched them chronologically.
Needless to say that “Last Salute” was one of the abandoned episodes not shown in the 70’s.
I can’t be bothered to do it scientifically, but I suspect my top season would be no. 3, as it contains my personal favourite episode (A Friend in Deed) as well as Candidate for Crime which is also among my favourites. The only one I really dislike from that season is Mind over Mayhem.
Least favourite? ‘Last Salute’ alone is almost enough to ruin Season 5 for me, but there are also several episodes I like in that season (Now You See Him, Identity Crisis), so… I’m not really sure?
Season 3 is like a sports team hitting it’s championship stride.
I work with stats, and I decided to see in some what whether your top ratings are for episodes at the beginning of the year, the end, or in the middle. I took each year and divided the episode number by the number of episodes in the year. Therefore the first episode of an eight-season year would be rated .167 (1/8) and the last episode is always 1.00 (8/8). This isn’t exact, the numbers will be different for a 3-episode versus an 8-episode season, but it’s just fun anyway.
So here’s the results, based on your rating:
This totally unscientific research shows that the A-List shows are just in the second half of the season, the B-List just before, and C-List right in the middle.
The reasoning could be the season builds strong, the middle of the season plateaus, then they give a big push to start the end of the year.
However, Columbo peters out by the end of the year. The D-List is made up of episodes in the last third of the year, culminating with the dead-cat bounce of the Last Salute. Reasons? Could be many. Peter Falk has one eye on movies, NBC hasn’t renewed and the feeling is that this could be the end, etc.
Btw, broke it down by top 10, next 10, etc.
Anyway, food for thought. 🙂
Let’s look at this issue generically. Imagine two 7-episode seasons. Season X has your 3 all-time favorite Columbos — ones you would rewatch any day, any time — but the rest of Season X was mediocre. Season Y had 7 solid episodes, no classics, no duds.
Ranking them from 1 to 14, Season X has the episodes ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th. Season Y has the episodes ranked 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th.
Using CP’s method, Season X’s rankings total 56, for an average of 8. Season Y’s ranking total 49, for an average of 7. On this scale, Season Y ranks a full point higher than Season X.
But was it the better season? It’s an interesting question — even using my “if you could only afford to buy one season’s DVDs” test. Would you want 7 solid episodes, or your 3 all-time favorites?
I would go with Season X, but your mileage may vary.
Of course, my favourite season is season 5. It has four of the best episodes Now you See Him , Forgotten Lady, Identity Crisis and of course everybody’s favourite ha ha (well mine anyway) Last Salute to the Commodore The show had kind of gelled by then Granted the show continued to be good. I even like the later ABC episodes There were a lot of great guest stars and great stories which I wouldn’t get into until the reviews start I hope they are not too critical. Look forward to seeing this. Just wanted to ask if there are McCloud fans out there. I was a fan of all the NBC Mystery Movies and disappointed the DVDs doesnt have the original Henry Mancini music which McMillan and wife and Snoop Sisters does.
Unfortunately only the first two seasons of McCloud is out on DVD which is strange since Canada is region 1 the same as U S but I noticed the series is only out on DVD in Australia in English. And yet it was a very popular show, and Dennis Weaver was a wonderful actor. So any others Columbo fans who like the other NBC Mystery shows our there. Please let me know.
I too think there is merit in SOME of the ABC episodes of the 1990’s. A few are very well written, and (as you said) included excellent guest-star support. What weakens them for me is that I am not all that fond of Falk’s “Grandpa Columbo” character.
I agree. The Columbos that don’t have Columbo playing Columbo, but where he is doing his good detective work, those are the episodes worth watching. “Tuba Columbo” is not.
I also have the DVD Seasons 3-5 of “McCloud”; they were released with scandinavian subtitles in Northern Europe in Region 2, but still without the NBC Mystery Movie intros, and the subtitles cannot be set off. I am more happy with my two seasons of “Banacek” and my six seasons of “McMillan & Wife”. I bought them all to expand my NBC Mystery Movie enjoyment based on my meanwhile 28 years of permanent Columbo euphoria.
Anne, sorry I didn’t see this two and a half years ago when you posted it.
Are there any McCloud fans in the house? You’re looking at the biggest of them.
Someday I hope to put together a McCloud site that can be as dedicated as Columbophile’s or The Hawaii Five-O Homepage (which actually covers multiple detective shows, though not as thoroughly as this one). Columbophile is a gold standard
Peter, my sentiments exactly! Columbophile is the the absolute best when it comes to in-depth, fun and entertaining analyisis. Not to mention all the awesome replys to his opinions! I would love if he did a Twilight Zone or Hawaii Five-O project but I’m sure he’s more than busy just dealing with real life. Still, we can dream!
The average score of the much lauded Season 3 can be explained by the ranking of such beloved episodes as “Any Old Port in a Storm” and “Swan Song”, which many fans would consider top-10 entries. Even my favourite episode of all, “Candidate for Crime”, is slotted into a modest 25th place.
That’s why I say the formula is entirely personal and could yield very different results depending on personal preference. Many fans do rate Any Old Port higher than I do and most would rate, say, Double Shock a lot lower.
Indeed, although I find your formula preferable as it rates season consistency, thus able to be applied to the whole series, notwithstanding the stand-alone wpisodes of the later years.
First of all, congrats on completing the episodes (reviews and lists) for the seventies shows – thank you so much! Definitely buying you some more coffee!!
I’d say without scientifically breaking it down, I’ll have to go with Season 3 as it has so many of my favorites with five of my personal top ten, followed by Seasons 4, 2, 1, 5, 7 and 6. Pilots place in the middle.
Good luck rating the “newer” episodes, I do not envy you ☺️
For me season 3 is Columbo at it’s best, 4 episodes are in my top 10 overall (Double Exposure, Any Old Port, Swan Song, and Friend In Deed). Other than Mind Over Mayhem the entire season is super entertaining. Lovely But Lethal is not a top tier episode but it is still a very enjoyable show. Also the other 2 from the season (Candidate For Crime & Publish Or Perish) are in my top 20 overall. Seasons 1 & 2 are also very strong, but it just seems the show hit its stride at season 3. Great article CP.
My favorite seasons are 2 and 3, followed closely by 1 and 4. Seasons 5, 6 and 7 follow in sequential order as they march toward the drek of the 1989-2003 episodes, excepting three episodes in 1989 and 1990 and a half-hearted nod to “Ashes to Ashes.
What to the hoi polloi think?
IMDB (The Internet Movie Data Base) allows fans to rank movies, series and individual episodes from 1-10. IMDB only reports the results to a single decimal place, so there are many of ties among the episodes. Moreover the results reported by IMDB are “adjusted” by some statistical magic employing a deliberately unspecified algorithm designed to suppress ballot stuffing, bots and plain-old jerks. Most likely this is likely just a deweighting of votes at the extreme ends of the distribution.
The raw data distribution is available for each episode. I have examined these data for a few episodes and calculated my own raw averages. In almost all cases, the adjusted average is no more than 0.1 point higher than the raw scores, supporting my speculation that the adjustment de-weights outlier ratings. These would necessarily be lower scores since the distribution is asymmetric and raw averages are themselves in the neighborhood of 7 or 8.
One can rank the seasons according to the average IMDB scores available for the individual episodes. (Season 0 is comprised of the two pilots.)
Season 0: 7.80 (1st)
Season 1: 7.46 (6th)
Season 2: 7.50 (5th)
Season 3: 7.75 (2nd)
Season 4: 7.717 (4th)
Season 5: 7.35 (8th)
Season 6: 7.40 (7th)
Season 7: 7.720 (3rd)
Setting aside the pilots (both of which are of A-/B+ quality and together cannot be compared meaningfully with full seasons), one finds that IMDB fans do indeed like Season 4, but no more so than (surprise!) Season 7 and marginally less than Season 3. (I report the Season 4 and Season 7 results to an extra decimal place to break a tie.)
Below are the data I used. These were recovered on 23 Feb 2020 around noon, Eastern Standard Time (US). The data are, of course, dynamic since voting is open and continuous. Typically, each episode had 100 to 200 additional votes since I last checked, about a year ago. No episode’s average score changed by more than 0.1 in that time period…always upwards.
R S E Title Score #Votes
1 3 2 Any Old Port in A Storm 8.3 2198
2 3 8 A Friend in Need 8.2 1692
2 7 1 Try and Catch Me 8.2 1829
4 3 7 Swan Song 8.1 1998
4 5 5 Now You See Him 8.1 1765
6 4 2 Negative Reaction 8.0 1741
7 0 1 Prescription Murder 7.9 2966
7 2 6 A Stitch in Crime 7.9 1957
7 4 3 By Dawn’s Early Light 7.9 1781
7 5 1 Forgotten Lady 7.9 1738
7 7 4 How to Dial a Murder 7.9 1553
12 1 2 Death Lends a Hand 7.8 2260
12 3 4 Double Exposure 7.8 1651
12 4 4 Troubled Waters 7.8 1680
15 0 2 Ransom for a Dead Man 7.7 2133
15 1 1 Murder by the Book 7.7 3223
15 1 4 Suitable for Framing 7.7 2147
15 1 7 Blueprint for Murder 7.7 1864
15 2 1 Etude in Black 7.7 2138
15 2 8 Double Shock 7.7 1674
15 3 3 Candidate for Crime 7.7 1632
15 6 3 Bye-Bye High I.Q. Murder Case 7.7 1534
15 7 2 Murder Under Glass 7.7 1509
24 3 5 Publish or Perish 7.6 1547
24 4 1 An Exercise in Fatality 7.6 1645
24 4 5 Playback 7.6 1566
27 2 3 Most Crucial Game 7.5 1694
27 2 7 The Most Dangerous Match 7.5 1701
27 5 3 Identity Crisis 7.5 1550
27 7 3 Make Me a Perfect Murder 7.5 1457
31 4 6 A Deadly State of Mind 7.4 1371
31 6 1 Fade in to Murder 7.4 1465
33 2 2 The Greenhouse Jungle 7.3 1714
33 2 5 Requiem for a Falling Star 7.3 1658
33 5 2 A Case of Immunity 7.3 1381
33 7 5 The Conspirators 7.3 1364
37 1 5 Lady in Waiting 7.2 1937
37 1 6 Short Fuse 7.2 1908
37 3 1 Lovely but Lethal 7.2 1674
40 2 4 Dagger of the Mind 7.1 1790
40 6 2 Old Fashioned Murder 7.1 1276
42 3 6 Mind Over Mayhem 7.0 1465
43 1 3 Dead Weight 6.9 1988
44 5 4 A Matter of Honor 6.8 1342
45 5 6 Last Salute to the Commodore 6.5 1605
R= Rank S=Season. E= Episode (within season)
If you are disappointed in the individual episode scores (which average to 7.68), take comfort that, as a series, Columbo rates an 8.2 from a much larger cohort of over 25,000 voters. Apparently, the smaller groups who rate the individual episodes are tough graders.
Spoiler Alert: You might be surprised at how well the ABC episodes do in this kind of analysis. Casual fans do not seem to downgrade them to the extent we rabid fans do. However, I will wait until Columbophile weighs in on those episodes–another four years, I guess.
Sorry about the crowded information in the list of individual episodes. The posting software suppressed all my formatting.
Excellent detective work, thanks William! This makes for very interesting reading.
Great post. And I just noticed that you can now watch ALL episodes of the original run now on the IMDB site and app!
Great list. “A Friend in Need” is my opinion of the “Best” Columbo. Might be the darkest, but superb plot with one of the meanest of baddies, Richard “Goatee” Kiley!
Too much math to boggle my mind. But I love seasons 2 and 7 the best. Etude in Black rates much higher for me than some do, as Cassavetes was so talented. Try and Catch Me remains my favorite episode – Ruth Gordon was genius. Troubled Waters receives props for being so unique. To each his own? Enjoy all the comments to your articles LT.
OK here goes!!
1 Season 4 – 10.8 points
2 Season 3 – 19.9 points
3 Season 2 – 20.8 points
4 Pilots – 23.0 points
5 Season 1 – 26.7 points
6 Season 7 – 28.2 points
7 Season 6 – 30.0 points
8 Season 5 – 30.2 points
It’s been a fun exercise, but with no surprises for me
Season 4 is the best season of telly ever (even beating my other favourite series, which is Day 3 of 24 and Season 8 of Spooks!!). You see, I love all those longer episodes and so this contains not one ranked lower than 24 and that was the last one (‘Deadly’, which showed a worrying sign of what was to follow)
Season 5 then nose-dives spectacularly. In fact I’m glad I was too young to see it happening at the time – here I’ve got four ranked 35 and lower
I also never got why everyone loved the Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp ones, the former in particularly I just found like dated 60’s TV episodes – hence, why Season 1, doesn’t fair very well. But let’s remember these are still superb series of television (as we’ll see when we get into the ‘new’ episodes (gulp!!) )
Each to their own. We wouldn’t want it any other way
Can anyone tell me why i cant seem to leave a comment unless im replying to someone else”s comment ?
I will actually take the time to rank the episodes using your “system”…which is a fair one.
i can tell you that i agree with a number of the …near the bottom ones …and not nearly as much with the top picks.
Im shocked anyone wud pick Bye Bye as #1…
I think the premise/murder method is preposterous ..and find almost all characters…including the murderer..wooden…not convicing at all
My number 1 is ur 23
By Dawns Early Light…is Falks best outing and McGoohan is stellar…..
I love the scene where he is just laying on his bed…bcz ..even something so insignificant he portrays in a manner thar fits and reveals the character.
Congratulations on having summed up the classic Columbo era in such epic style!
Using the suggested formula, I have to say that Columbo has never been better than in his pilot years (because “Prescription: Murder” earns 5 and “Ransom for a Dead Man” earns 32 points which divided by two makes 18.5 points.
My current full list:
1. Pilot episodes (18.5)
2. Season 3 (19.4 thanks to “Double Exposure”, “Swan Song” and “Publish or Perish” in the Top Ten)
3. Season 7 (20.6 thanks to “The Conspirators” and “Try and Catch Me” in the Top Ten)
4. Season 4 (20.7 thanks to “Negative Reaction” and “A Deadly State of Mind” in the Top Fifteen)
5. Season 2 (21.8 thanks to “A Stitch in Crime” in the Top Ten)
6. Season 5 (24.8 due to “Identity Crisis” and “Forgotten Lady” in the Top Fifteen and the smasher “Last Salute” on position 45)
7. Season 1 (28.6 lifted up by “Suitable for Framing” and “Death Lends a Hand” in the Top Five and lowered down by “Short Fuse”, “Dead Weight” and “Murder by the Book” in the 40’s region)
8. Season 6 (38.3 due to not one single highlight in the Top Thirty)
A very fair system. For me it’s season 3 topping the ranks. In my 70’s top 5 three episodes are from that one: Any Old Port (1), Double Exposure (3) and Publish or Perish (5); and 4 in top 10 (A Friend in Deed in 9th place).
Using the same method as you I also have season 4 on top – season 3 and 1 in a virtual dead heat for 2nd place. (I also rate season 7 higher than you).
I wonder though if we are comparing apples with apples? Season 3 falls a little thanks to a rare dud (Mind over Mayhem) and the mediocre Lovely but Lethal. Season 4 only had 6 episodes and who knows what those ‘extra’ 2 episodes would have been like.
As it is season 4 benefits from being the only one with no bad episodes.
You raise an interesting mathematical issue. Season X has 3 excellent episodes, 3 average episodes, and 2 clinkers. Season Y, with 2 fewer episodes, has 3 excellent and 3 average ones. Is Season Y really better than Season X (the result when you average rankings). Are the 2 clinkers worse than no Columbo at all? That’s the logical conclusion from this formula. That’s why I focus on which seasons had the most excellent episodes.
What a good point you make with “Are the 2 clinkers worse than no Columbo at all?” For the original 70’s run, there is no episode that I would wish was never made. “Last Salute” is bad, but that bad. For the later ABC episodes, there is at least one: “No Time to Die.” Your question provides for an entertaining bit of pondering and discussion. Perhaps a future blog post could explore this, too. Thanks for giving me something to turn over in my mind and discuss with PennaSister on this cold and dreary Sunday afternoon in the eastern part of the USA.
It’s a relatively agreed scientific fact of U.S. network television that the best seasons of any given show by and large are around the Season 3-5 variable, so it’s no surprise that’s what our gracious host here thinks… by the third season, most of the kinks have been worked out, the regular cast and writers have settled down and got to grips with things, and ideas are still relatively fresh.
‘Columbo’ maintained a remarkably high quality threshold throughout it’s seven seasons on NBC; not just because of the talent in front and behind the camera, but also when you only have between 5 and 8 (pilots and Season 3 notwithstanding) episodes, albeit feature-length ones at that, to produce per season, you can afford to be more picky as to quality control…
The NBC era was a remarkable run by any standard; 45 episodes and arguably only one outright dud… pretty impressive, it has to be said.
If the later ABC run didn’t consistently live up to that very high bar, then well, c’est la vie… but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Peter Falk’s or the writers’ part. There are some very, very good later episodes that are worthy of the legacy – ‘Agenda for Murder’, ‘Butterfly in Shades of Grey’, Its All In The Game’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ to name a few – whilst most are just perfectly fine and entertaining as lazy afternoon fare, plus a few howlers too, but not a stain on the show’s overall reputation, I don’t think.
If I had been bringing ‘Columbo’ back in 1989, I would have insisted on a top-notch showrunner from the outset, the very best writing staff money could buy, and got as many big-name guest stars as I could… one of the failings (if you can call it that) with the ABC run is that guest villain stars just aren’t (for the most part) at the same level as the NBC run… I would have loved to have seen a later ‘Columbo’ episode with Roger Moore or Christopher Lee or Michael Caine as the villain.
I always have said it’s a pity that Peter Falk’s health precluded him from making that final ‘Columbo’ episode, alas… someone should really see if they can dig up the script and pass it on to our gracious host here… I’d LOVE to know what it was like… I hear it was actually rather good…
I thought y’all might like a couple of vintage articles from the archives regarding our favorite Lieutenant… the first one is an excerpt from an article about the ‘spin-off’ series published in American Film magazine, circa June 1979;
The second is an article written by ‘Columbo’ creators Richard Levinson and William Link;
I thought that “Columbo Likes the Nightlife” was one of the best of the second season Columbos and a worthy ending salute, even if it wasn’t planned like that. The last walk-out season, where the crowd parts to let him go, even being paid respects by a criminal, made for a good ending. I’m with you though, every great character should have a great ending.
For me the whole lot of the 1970’s episodes are gold. Those first years are the best of the series. I hate to say it, but I think the series after the 70’s is just awful. About the only one of the later episodes I like is the one with Faye Dunaway in.
I have a simpler method for evaluating the seasons. I take my top-10 list and see whence they come. My top 10 consist of one pilot (Prescription: Murder), three episodes from Season 1 (Murder by the Book; Death Lends a Hand; Suitable for Framing), four episodes from Season 3 (Any Old Port in a Storm; Candidate for Crime; Swan Song; A Friend in Deed), and two episodes from Season 4 (By Dawn’s Early Light; Troubled Waters). That puts Season 3 on top.
If you whittle my list down to my top 6 (as my top 5 includes a tie), you get two from Season 1 (Murder by the Book; Suitable for Framing), two from Season 3 (Any Old Port in a Storm; A Friend in Deed), and two from Season 4 (By Dawn’s Early Light; Troubled Waters), a three-way stand-off. [My top 3 — Murder by the Book, A Friend in Deed, and By Dawn’s Early Light — are similarly distributed.] That’s why using my top 10 seems, for me, a better guide.
Does this mean that, if I only had enough money to buy one season of DVDs, I’d pick Season 3? Not necessarily. There’s always panhandling (excuse me, crowdfunding) for the rest.
Richard, I don’t always agree with your arguments, but they are almost invariably interesting and thought-provoking. But I fail to see your logic here. If a season of 7 episodes has 2 gems and 5 duds, why should it be deemed the best season because it has the most gems?
If several Columbo seasons had 0 “gems,” and several more had at best only 1, then the lone season with 2 “gems” would be the best. A bad Columbo shouldn’t count less than a test pattern.
I don’t see the logic here, either. A season with two crackers and five shockers is necessarily worse OVERALL than one with one cracker and 4 rock-solid entries. That’s why season 5 fares so badly when looked at as a whole. Now You See Him and Forgotten Lady may be wonderful, but the rest is either forgettable or dross.
The keyword here is “consistency”. That’s what we should be rating. In my opinion, discarding all episodes save for the so-called “gems”, ends up disfiguring the whole exercise.
But the duds shouldn’t weigh down an otherwise solid season. Otherwise, you promote the idea that a bad Columbo counts less than no Columbo at all.
I think that, by supressing bad or even average episodes from your ranking method, you’re tinkering with reality, pretending those entries don’t exist when, in fact, they’re part of the same whole.
That would be an easy method for me to adopt, since 5 of the 8 episodes from Season 3 are among my favorites and only “Mind Over Mayhem” qualifies as a real disappointment. That would make Season 3 my favorite by any system, and since your system is so much simpler than any of the others I’m seeing people suggest, I like it.
Thank you. (For me, “Lovely But Lethal” gives “Mind Over Mayhem” plenty of competition for bottom of the Season 3 barrel.)
There are enough good moments in Lovely But Lethal that I’d be glad to watch it if it came on television right now. Granted, the killings are sloppy enough that there isn’t much suspense about how the investigation will go, and the role of Viveca Scott doesn’t give Vera Miles a chance to do much more than express various degrees of disbelief. Also there are some false notes that are just embarrassing, from the opening that promises a psychedelic weirdness that never arrives to the scene at the fat farm that may or may not be intended as humor.
But Martin Sheen, Vincent Price, and Sian Barbara Allen are all compelling screen presences, the moment when Columbo tells his bumbling sidekick that any married man would recognize Viveca Scott is a very efficient way of making you imagine a huge celebrity, and Viveca’s habit of writing with an eyebrow pencil is something that comes to my mind about a hundred times a year.
I have a longstanding prejudice against tack-on gotchas. By that, I mean solutions that are entirely unconnected to the core (or, for that matter, anything in the rest) of the story. Karl Lessing having a slide with poison ivy on his microscope has zero to do with this case. I’m having a difficult time thinking of another 70’s episode with as tenuous a link between the story and the gotcha. Even the “Commodore’s watch” was damaged during the murder. This alone sends “Lovely But Lethal” plummeting down the favorite’s list.
I agree, it’s a bad gotcha. Not the worst of the 70s- that has to be Mind Over Mayhem- but bad.
I’m not a fan of the Mind over Mayhem gotcha either, it’s a long strecht if ever I saw one, but at least Columbo had to be creative to catch his killer. For me the weakest of all gotcha’s (of the 70’s) features in Fade in to Murder, where Columbo nails Ward Fowler because Fowler forgot to wipe his fingerprints off of the bullets. That made the whole episode kind of unnecessary, if you know what I mean. Columbo just had to wait for the ballistics report to come in to get his man. Such a shame because up to that point I think that episode is very enjoyable.
I agree strongly with what you say about Fade In to Murder. Shatner always rivets me with his portrayal of a man in the process of a mental collapse, so I enjoy the first 90% of the episode. But when Columbo comes up at the end with, “Oh, by the way, we had your fingerprints on the cartridges all along,” it really lets all the air out. Still, I think the ending of “Mind Over Mayhem” is even worse, because Columbo’s flagrantly unethical ploy both violates what we know about his character and makes the whole investigation unnecessary.
I can see all your points. For me, the heavyweight champion of weak endings resides with the cringeworthy gotcha in “Dagger of the Mind.” The clumsy bit with the fake pearl is a dense square peg of contrivance being hammered into a round hole. And while I can understand the sentiment of wanting to have an emotional confession care of the Shakespearean actor, the Basehart breakdown arrives far too easily. Just a thoroughly weak, unearned resolution.
Actually, the gotcha in “Mind Over Mayhem” does go to the core of the underlying story — Cahill protecting his son. What makes it so bothersome is Columbo arresting an innocent man as a tactical ploy. That’s not behavior we’ve come to expect from Columbo. Trick the killer into confessing, sure. But not arresting someone he knows to be innocent. [It’s not like “Forgotten Lady,” where an innocent Ned Diamond wanted to be arrested, and gave Columbo no other choice.] Neil Cahill was not cooperating with Columbo. Columbo simply arrested him for show. A troublesome solution to the case.
@Acilius&Richard: I agree about Mind over Mayhem’s ending, it’s out of character for Columbo, he’s not that kind of guy, or at least he shouldn’t be, considering all that we know about him. Even when in Columbo goes to College he tells a college room full of students that ‘there’s little I wouldn’t do to catch a killer if I knew him to be guilty’, we as viewers still know that he will always stay within certain ethical boundaries. That’s why the second half of Strange Bedfellows is such a shocker, when Columbo actually works with the mob to catch his man.
@Tim: I see what you mean. Personally I don’t mind the ending of Dagger at all, it’s a clever trick to nail two culprits who were a step ahead of the lieutenant most of the time, but in the process getting on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The collapse of the actor is wholly in Shakespearian style, which makes it right, in my opinion, in an epsiode where theatrics and reality get more and more intertwined with each other.
Absolutely! The ending of Strange Bedfellows is a disaster for the character and for the series. Mind Over Mayhem may not be quite that bad, but it involves Columbo crossing ethical lines we need to trust him to stay within. Besides, if he was just going to trick the suspect into confessing by faking an arrest of his son, what was the point of all that investigation?
Whenever I see Lovely But Lethal, I am always reminded of the 1959 Roger Corman flick, Wasp Woman, in which an aging cosmetics queen seeks the help of an older scientist to find a “Fountain of Youth” serum. VIveca Scott actually fares better than the “heroine” of the earlier movie.
Great job! I for one love Short Fuse. Roddy is so entertaining. There is lots of fun with the Silly String, the Sexy Secretary( o that she is just being used!) the Exploding Cigars, Ida Lupino, Jessica Fletcher’s friend Seth, the Blouse, the Pants…and one of the best scenes ever-to some funky gogo music, Uncle and Driver snake through the winding mountain road, thundering and lighning to their fiery death, while Junior watches a caged and dancer and his watch. ..you can almost hear the lala la la la in his genius brain. Then there’s the dramatic skylift ending. One of the most entertaining Columbos in my opinion. But then, I love Requiem and Dead Weight.
What an incredibly ambitious (& witty) breakdown. A million congrats, & thanks so much for the hours of pure entertainment!
Its A real milestone to Reach the End of all the seventies reviews as I have always wished to see the final table table and I am glad columbophile has marked this occasion with a post , at times the reviews had huge gaps but they picked up pace at times
I am absolutely hopeless at maths so I am not even going to attempt the chart as well as the fact that everybody has such different opinions for example Any old port in a Storm is worshiped by many where as it wouldn’t even make my top 30 a lot of people love the conspirators and Its one I try to avoid and a lot of people rate murder under glass and Its one of the most forgettable and unsatisfying of the 70s and i Hate Dagger of the mind but dont mind short fuse , I love Identity crisis with Patrick mcgoohan , Swan song , playback , prescription murder , Try and catch me , negative reaction blueprint for murder and make me perfect murder ,Now you see him , and most other top seventies Troubled waters publish or perish the Bye bye and so on , a lot of people love forgotten lady and i dont and lady in waiting is only average but is rated in 13th place which baffles me but if you read the final episode review of each season i have a mini ratings chart for each season instead of comparing whole seasons with each other which I find very difficult to do .