The world the Lieutenant inhabited in 1989 was a far cry from his classic 70s’ realm – and the gulf in class between the two eras was immediately evident when Columbo returned to screens after an 11-year break.
From 1968-78, Columbo gave us an unbeatable slice of the good life. Watching the scruffy little detective poking his nose into the affairs, mansions and luxury motor cars of LA’s rich and famous made for utterly compelling viewing.
The show was boosted further by a galaxy of charismatic stars (often in relatively minor support roles), big-budget locations, sets, costumes, exciting and innovative editing techniques and movie-worthy scores. It was a great time for television.
The TV world of the late 80s, however, was very different. From a budgetary perspective, times were far less lavish. Gone were the days that a show could boast three or four layers of renowned acting talent in a single episode – something that was standard fare for Columbo in the 70s.
Take 1972’s Short Fuse as an example. Quite aside from Roddy McDowall as the killer, the episode featured Anne Francis, Ida Lupino and Jimmy Gregory in small support roles. A year later, The Most Crucial Game also featured Gregory in a bit-part role, along with the likes of Oscar winner Dean Jagger, beloved comedienne Valerie Harper and Dean Stockwell. An embarrassment of riches indeed.
The cost of producing TV had gone waaaay up by the late 80s/early 90s. As a result it was pretty much impossible to hire the same sort of quality in depth acting ensemble. There were certainly some A-List guest stars in the new episodes (Faye Dunaway, Patrick McGoohan, George Hamilton, Rod Steiger spring to mind), but they were fewer and further between. The ‘wow factor’ was a lot less in evidence.
Also (and I say this with a level of trepidation lest 80s’ TV fans become livid), television of the day was a lot more trashy. We can largely blame the times for that, but when it comes to costumes, homes, cars, music and other visible symbols of the class that was inherent in the show’s 70s’ heyday, there was much less to impress viewers.
Still, Columbo remained a treasured offering, and years of reruns had ensured the Lieutenant had retained his place in the hearts and minds of the viewing public. But was there sufficient love to guarantee a blockbuster Columbo comeback?
Peter Falk certainly thought so, as did the ABC network, which was only too glad to have the heavyweight detective head up their new ‘Monday Mystery Movie’ wheel alongside Burt Reynolds’ vehicle BL Stryker and Gideon Oliver, starring Louis Gossett Jr. It was just like the ultra-successful NBC Mystery Movie wheel of 1971-77 had been resurrected simply to bring Columbo back to screens once every three weeks.
Despite being off screens since May 1978, when The Conspirators drew the curtain on Columbo’s first decade, the show was never officially cancelled. Negotiations between Falk and the studio simply petered out. Columbo was quietly discontinued, but the will was still there to keep him alive in some capacity.
As far back as 1976, Falk spoke of being quite happy to keep playing the Lieutenant indefinitely, but on a much reduced schedule. He wanted more time to focus on his movie career but was not averse to one, perhaps two, annual appearances in the rumpled Mac if the quality of scripts could be guaranteed.
According to Mark Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile, Falk maintained this stance even after The Conspirators. Columbo was never retired. He could be brought back if the circumstances were right. But when would that be, if ever?
Negotiations for a further NBC season in 1979 failed – largely due to Falk’s insistence on no budgetary or time restraints to produce the highest quality shows. Five years later, network CBS wanted to bring Columbo back in a new mystery wheel alongside Kojak. Again, no joy.
“Columbo was never retired. He could be brought back if the circumstances were right. But when would that be?”
However, series co-creator William Link still believed the Lieutenant had more life in him, and in 1988 managed to sell the idea of a new mystery movie series to ABC, with Columbo the headline act. The network bought into the vision and Falk, eventually, came round, tempted perhaps by the promise of $600,000 per episode and Executive Producer duties alongside Link.
Richard Alan Simmons, a stalwart of the 70s’ series, would also resume production duties, offering Falk a close-knit nucleus of colleagues that he completely trusted. And although the longest strike in the history of the Writers Guild of America (from March to August, 1988) hampered preparations and limited Columbo’s return to a four-episode season, the man in the mac would return in February 1989.
It’s fair to say that there was an expectant buzz surrounding Columbo Goes to the Guillotine when it debuted on 6th February, 1989 – and for many critics it was a hit.
“How great is it to have Columbo back? Let us count the ways,” enthused The Orlando Sentinel. The South Florida Sun Sentinel was similarly enamoured, stating: “The return of Columbo is like a reunion with a very special friend, someone with whom your bond is so warm and affectionate that even after a decade, there is no awkward feeling of estrangement.”
Starring as villain Elliott Blake, Anthony Andrews received almost universal praise, but the Los Angeles Times refused to get carried away over the return of the city’s prodigal son, sounding a warning note regarding Falk’s portrayal of his iconic character.
“Falk seems to be trying so hard to live up to the old Columbo that at times he is almost a caricature, laying it on too thick with the shuffling feet and phony politeness, even getting on your nerves,” wrote critic Howard Rosenberg. “As he creeps along ever so slowly, you wish he’d just shut up, get on with it and make the arrest.”
Still, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine was a ratings winner and certainly made an impact with viewers. But when the hoo-hah surrounding the return faded away, how well would the new episodes compare to the 70s’ classics? That’s the voyage of discovery this blog is about to embark on.
My approach to reviewing the ‘new’ episodes
Bearing in mind that I deliberately haven’t watched any of the comeback episodes since I started this blog, I’ll be approaching the majority of them with fresh eyes and limited prejudice.
Certainly, there are several that I’m very well acquainted with and some that I fondly remember from my formative years – I may have even seen a few of them on or very close to their original transmission dates in the UK.
Others, however, are shrouded in a mysterious fog. Some episodes, especially those from the mid-90s onwards, I may have only seen once or twice for various reasons – including the fact that I hated them so much I could never be bothered to revisit them.
As a result, I have only a very limited recollection of a reasonably large proportion of the new episodes – a list that includes the dreaded likes of Murder in Malibu, Murder of a Rock Star, Undercover, Strange Bedfellows and No Time to Die. I remember disliking them (sometimes vehemently), but I can’t always remember precisely why, so re-familiarising myself with them ought to be an interesting experience. Who knows, ha-ha, perhaps I’ll even be pleasantly surprised?
When it comes to the written reviews, I’ll be largely adopting the same format as for the classic era episodes, although I’ll add a small section to each outlining my own memories of the episode before I get stuck in to the full analysis.
I’m gearing up for the new era and have already watched Guillotine in preparation, so expect to see the full review next week. As a spoiler, it’s one of the first episodes I ever saw and, as an impressionable youth, I was blown away by how the wily Lieutenant exposed Elliott Blake as a charlatan.
Do I still rate is as a jaw-droppingly good adventure? That really would be telling… Instead I invite you to check back in soon and we’ll PARTY LIKE ‘TWERE 1989!