Episode review: Columbo Sex and the Married Detective

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective opening titles

Columbo moved to thoroughly embrace the modern era on 3rd April, 1989 when the Lieutenant was sent to investigate a crime of passion carried out in the seductive environs of a sex therapy clinic’s boudoir.

Starring Lindsay Crouse as both renowned sex therapist Dr Joan Allenby and her shadowy alter ego ‘Lisa’, Sex & The Married Detective is a titillatingly titled adventure that promises to break at least a few of the series’ taboo subjects.

But is Sex & The Married Detective a Bavarian chocolate cream pie of an episode, or more of a rice pudding? And how will the prudish Lieutenant handle sex talk with a candid and uninhibited younger woman? I guess we’re about to find out…

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective cast

Dramtis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Joan Allenby: Lindsay Crouse
David Kincaid: Stephen Macht
Dr Simon Ward: Peter Jurasik
Helen Hendrix: Marge Redmond
Cindy: Julia Montgomery
Dr Walter Neff: Ken Lerner
Charlie Lenz: Harry Johnson
Sergeant Burke: Stewart J. Zully
Tuba playing IDIOT: Pierrino Mascarino
Written by: Jerry Ludwig
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams

Episode synopsis: Columbo Sex & The Married Detective

When renowned sex therapist, author and radio host Dr Joan Allenby finds that her (absolutely dweeby) lover and business partner, David Kincaid, is cheating on her with assistant Cindy at their place of work, she cooks up a delicious revenge fantasy that she puts into deadly action.

Columbo Dr Joan Allenby
Dr Allenby deserves SO much better than this drip!

Purchasing a range of sultry clothing items on an overnight trip to Chicago, Allenby arranges to play hookie from a fundraising event at the symphony to meet Kincaid at a seedy bar named Buckets.

Kincaid’s in for a surprise when they meet because Allenby has changed her clothing in the ladies’ room at the music centre and assumed the alter ego of a fedora-wearing woman in black named Lisa. Complete with a long, black wig, she’s almost unrecognisable from the doctor’s usual straight-laced appearance.

Lisa plays the role of a high-class call girl (or ‘courtesan’, to tie in with Allenby’s new book about female sexual desire), making a show of accepting a wad of cash from Kincaid before the two leave together and head over to the clinic where they work. Kincaid has to sign them in at the security desk, but the desk jockey there doesn’t recognise Lisa. Phew!

Now in the boudoir of the clinic (where Allenby had spied him romping with assistant Cindy), Kincaid settles back in an easy chair in anticipation of some seriously hot love. What he gets instead is a bullet through his cheating heart. Take that, love rat!

Lisa now smashes up the room, to make it look like rough love games gone wrong. She then beats it back to the music centre to slip back into something less comfortable.

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective Lisa
Whatever his hopes, the only thing Kincaid will be eating tonight is lead

There’s a fly in the ointment, though. As she returns, she’s drooled over (almost literally) by entitled, middle-aged male Charlie Lenz. The sexual predator is so enamoured with Lisa that he follows her to the ladies’ room and waits outside in the hope of wooing the wench when she comes back out.

Alas, he’s to be disappointed. Several dames do emerge from the ladies’ room – including Dr Allenby – but there’s no sign of Lisa. Joan, however, is now mingling with the other guests once more, completing the illusion that she’s been there enjoying the show all along. Clever gal! She ain’t a PhD for nothin’…

The next morning, after receiving the news of Kincaid’s death, Dr Allenby returns to the clinic. She shares an elevator ride with Lieutenant Columbo, who notices a clothing label still attached to her new camel-hair coat – a seemingly unimportant detail now, but one which will come to have a great bearing on the investigation.

The two survey the crime scene and the Lieutenant is perplexed to note that Kincaid’s keys are missing. So how did he open the doors of the office? The alternative is that the woman in black had keys to the office, but if that was the case then Allenby would certainly be able to identify the woman by her long, black hair. She cannot.

Columbo grills Allenby about the nature of her relationship with Kincaid, and is abashed by the frankness of response: “We had great sex,” – although she reveals how stung she feels at knowing he was cheating on her with ‘Lisa’. When she turns the tables and asks the Lieutenant about his own sexual relationships he makes a hasty withdrawal (no pun intended).

The detective instead heads to the music centre where he is unwittingly (and appallingly) drawn into a tuba-playing demonstration for a group of unrealistically excited schoolchildren. While he stomps about leading a tuba march around the foyer, who should scuttle in unnoticed but Dr Allenby?

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
Oooh, what lovely stitching!

She slips up to the ladies’ room to retrieve the Lisa disguise, which she had taped to the underside of the wash basin counter. Placing this in her handy briefcase, she’s about to slink away again when she’s collared by Columbo, who is inordinately fascinated by the quality of said satchel – although he stops short of plunging his hand within to inspect the interior.

The two are then met by Allenby’s pal Helen, who reveals the exciting news that a woman in black wearing a fedora was seen at the concert the night before! More revelations follow when he visits Buckets bar. The self-important barkeep remembers the woman in black alright, and confirms her first name is Lisa and that she collared Kincaid and left with him circa 9.15pm.

Back at home, Allenby is primed and ready to burn the Lisa disguise in her fireplace when there’s a ring at the door. Columbo is making a late house call to discuss the case. In the middle of the update, he’s distracted by the sight of the disguise-holding briefcase by the fire. He dashes over to prevent it from being scorched, then cuddles it close for the duration of the conversation.

Columbo doesn’t think it was a random encounter. He reckons Lisa was waiting for Kincaid at the bar and deduces that the two knew each other. Maybe Lisa already had a reason to kill him? And he’s puzzled why Lisa was seen at the music centre. She wasn’t there to watch the show, because she was meeting Kincaid at Buckets while it was underway.

He has found Kincaid’s keys, though. They were left at a valet parking lot and never had them with him at all. The lady in black must have had keys to open the office. But how could that be? Allenby offers no assistance and finally gets rid of him. However, she demures from burning the disguise – deciding to keep hold of them for now. Why? We’ll soon find out…

The clues keep coming for Columbo. A colleague of Dr Allenby’s mentions that on the night before the murder, he has evidence that the boudoir was in use because the bed was unmade and there was a red ribbon there the next day. Columbo also knows that Allenby popped in that night after her flight to Chicago was delayed, but she claims there was no one else there.

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
If anyone needs locking up in this episode, it’s the lech on the left…

He then receives word from a sergeant that another eye witness who remembers seeing Lisa at the symphony. It’s that sex pest Charlie Lenz, who unashamedly explains to the Lieutenant how he waited for the woman in black to emerge from the toilets so he could prey on her, but she thwarted his ambitions by never coming out.

This sends Columbo into the bogs to investigate and after lolling about on the floor under the sinks for a while, he finds some adhesive tape on the underside of the counter: the inference being that something was stashed there! Curiouser and curiouser…

As a result of this find, he sprints back to Allenby’s office where only an Eastern European cleaner is present. He dashes about like a mad thing seeking info on where the office trash is emptied out. He eventually finds it and crawls in amongst wads of used Kleenex etc to find what he was looking for: the clothing tag he’d spotted on Dr Allenby’s new coat. We don’t know it yet, but it’s a deal breaker!

Now starting to feel the pinch, Allenby makes one last stand as Lisa to distance herself as a suspect. Ostentatiously hanging out at a variety of LA hot-spots, she bribes barkeeps into making calls to Columbo and leaving a number of messages to suggest Lisa is sorry for what she did, she was forced into it and now she’s leaving town for good. After this, the disguise is finally burnt and done away with for good.

No sooner is this done than Allenby receives a call from Sergeant Burke. Columbo has uncovered the real identity of the woman in black after leafing through files at Allenby’s office. Jolted into action, the good doctor makes a beeline for her business HQ – and finds the Lieutenant lying in wait for her.

He tells Allenby that Lisa may be going to pay them a visit and then asks her about the Chicago department store where she bought the camel hair coat. He’s been checking up on her purchases and knows she charged that coat to her credit card – but also that she cashed a cheque for $1500 at her hotel. What did she use the cash for?

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
Lindsay Crouse’s stand-in was disappointingly wooden *cries with laughter*

Allenby declines to answer and makes to leave but is stopped in her tracks when she sees the silhouette of a woman in a fedora in the elevator lobby. Columbo follows the doctor, but when she turns from him back to the elevators the woman is gone!

She reluctantly agrees to return to the boudoir with Columbo to assist with one last enquiry and when she looks through the slatted doors what does she see but the full Lisa disguise dressed on a mannequin. The Lieutenant admits his stunt: the woman Allenby saw moments ago was a police officer dressed up. He knows Lisa won’t be showing up at the office tonight – because she’s already here! Allenby is Lisa, and he can prove it.

Clerks at the Chicago department store have been very helpful. They remember a lady buying a black fedora, a black wig and the black dress worn by Lisa – and that lady was a match for a photo of Allenby sent to them by Columbo.

Thanks to the eye-witness accounts, he can place Lisa at the music centre where he’s deduced she stashed her disguise. And he’s also figured out her motive: the ribbon left in the boudoir on the night before the murder suggests Cindy and Kincaid had been ‘at it’ and that Allenby had spotted them when she returned to the office to pick up paperwork when her flight was delayed. It’s a strong case against her.

Painted into a corner, Allenby has little choice but to confess. But she also explains how exciting and scary it was to play the role of Lisa and to carry out such a vivid revenge fantasy in real life. “For those few days, I liked Lisa better than I liked myself,” she says. “That frightened me far more than you waiting to arrest me.”

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
“You’re going down, Doc… Errrr, no pun intended…” *blushes*

Columbo refuses to judge Dr Allenby and reassures her that he can understand her actions, as credits roll…

My memories of Sex & The Married Detective

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective VHS

I’ve no clear recollection of when I first watched Sex & The Married Detective and it really only came to my attention in the 2000s when I first owned the DVD set.

I do remember liking Dr Allenby and finding her cheating lover to be particularly irksome in that clean-cut, bad 80s/90s TV kinda way. However, I found the plot rather convoluted and, oddly for an episode about sexual desire, empowerment and fantasies, completely and utterly unsexy.

As with most ‘new’ Columbo adventures, I also had an axe to grind with some silly and superfluous scenes, namely the showy finale featuring Dr Allenby herself catching a glimpse the mystery ‘woman in black’ and the unforgettably bad sight of the Lieutenant parping a tuba.

I’ve never felt hatred towards this episode, though, more a cool indifference and watching it for this review was the first time in many years that I’d made a conscious decision to slam it in the DVD player.

Episode analysis

From its first moments, when we hear a confident female voice on the radio talking about the link between sexual fantasies and fantastic sex, it’s apparent that the provocatively titled Sex & The Married Detective is taking the series in daring new directions.

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
Don’t you DARE get cigar ash on dem silk sheets, fool!

Sex has often been an undercurrent of the show, with lust and illicit love affairs a backdrop to murder in many classic episodes including Prescription: Murder, Lady in Waiting, Negative Reaction, Etude in Black, Troubled Waters, Make Me a Perfect Murder and A Deadly State of Mind.

Valerie Harper even starred as a call girl in The Most Crucial Game, but as for getting to grips with – and opening up on – the taboo subject of actual S-E-X, this is the first Columbo to tackle it head on; something the creative team ought to receive due credit for.

Even more pleasingly, we’re given a thoroughly modern, self-assured and open-minded woman as our chief antagonist in what is certainly the most interesting piece of casting in Columbo’s comeback season. Having such a sexually uninhibited female lead would have been perhaps a shade too controversial in the 70s, but the time was certainly ripe for it here.

Lindsay Crouse – a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee in 1985 for Places in the Heart – is a compelling presence as Dr Joan Allenby, a wronged woman who lives out a revenge fantasy after witnessing her lover cheating on her with a young colleague.

But it’s not just the physical betrayal that rattles Allenby. It’s the emotional upheaval she goes through having seen and heard her sexual partner belittle her to his new lover that rocks her most. After all, David Kincaid was the man who had helped Dr Allenby gain the confidence to explore and enact her deepest desires and become a recognised expert in her field.

She trusted Kincaid implicitly, making his treachery impossible to bear. And that’s why, despite her inherent level-headedness, I can buy into the idea that Allenby would be driven to kill.

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective Lindsay Crouse
You saucy minx, you!

Her approach to commit murder under the alter ego of Lisa is also a novel twist, and one that’s handled well in the episode. The transformation from mousy blonde to voluptuous and mysterious brunette is very effective and it’s easy to see why no one who knew Dr Allenby would recognise her beneath the disguise.

Married Detective also doesn’t make the mistake we saw in the first two episodes of the series of having the killer give themself away through needless carelessness or stupidly suspicious actions.

He gets some lucky breaks on the way, but Columbo largely resolves the case through sensible police work and sound deductions – a welcome relief after being handed the solutions on a plate in Guillotine and Smoke & Shadows.

If being ultra-critical, of course, one might grumble at the coincidental nature of Columbo first noticing the clothing tag on Allenby’s new coat, and later finding the same discarded tag in a giant rubbish bin and using it to pinpoint her purchases in Chicago.

This could have been far more effectively shown on screen by having love-rat Cindy notice the tag when she took the doctor’s coat off in the clinic reception and bin it under the nose of Columbo, who was also present. That would have given him a very real reason to remember it and to search for it later in the episode. Geez, do I have to think of everything?

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
HERE! Here’s where the clothes tag should’ve been brought to Columbo’s attention!

Still, nothing’s perfect, and on the whole the mystery aspect to the episode is strong and the resolution logical. It’s a workmanlike performance from Columbo, who has to rely less on silly hunches and leaps of faith, and more on actual evidence and telling eye-witness reports. Why it’s almost like he’s a real police officer again! Bravo.

Falk’s performance here is (for the most part) more restrained and less plodding than in the season’s opening deuce of episodes. His relationship with Allenby seems authentic and respectful, while the fireside chat at episode’s end, when he assures her he understands her motives, shows off his kind and empathetic nature as well as we’ve seen since the take-down of Abigail Mitchell more than 10 years earlier.

We also get some rather cute moments when Dr Allenby’s questions about his own sex life and fantasies leave him endearingly embarrassed. While there’s nothing as good as his mortification at seeing the nude model in Suitable for Framing, his reaction is charming and in keeping with the character we came to know in the 70s.

Of course, some viewers can never get on board with Columbo discussing sex at all and I can sympathise with that viewpoint. After all, the 70s’ show always managed to artfully avoid blood, sex and action sequences – and was all the stronger for it.

I do feel a little uneasy whenever Columbo mentions the ‘s’ word, or when he hints that Mrs Columbo wants him to explore his fantasies (throw off that mac, big boy!), but I think Falk just about gets away with it.

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
There’s a filthy caption opportunity here if anyone’s interested?

Infuriatingly, though, much of this good work is off-set by some truly lamentable moments that must have been included in an bid to bring some levity to an otherwise dark and straight-faced tale. Let’s get the worst out of the way first and consider the INFAMOUS TUBA SCENE.

The majority of those who have witnessed this sh*t cr*p drivel must surely agree it’s amongst Columbo’s most cringe-worthy scenes. Every aspect of it is abysmal 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 outdoor fountains splishing merrily to the music? Or the absolute shower of b*llocks that is the suggestion that any child of any age could be remotely enthusiastic about witnessing such tedium?

It also ends in excruciating fashion with the 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. How on earth was a scene this bad ever conceived, let alone given the green light? Watch if you dare below…

The ruinous tuba debacle is certainly the episode’s nadir (and probably the lowest point of Columbo’s 35-year screen career), but it’s pushed hard by a number of other questionable inclusions that serve only to weaken the central story.

First, Columbo is called on to advise three of Allenby’s sex therapist colleagues in quick succession on what they should do about ethical dilemmas regarding their feelings toward the Dr herself, or to victim David Kincaid.

On each occasion, Columbo mumbles some meaningless tripe about doing the right thing – and on each occasion his words are taken to heart as if delivered with the wisdom of Solomon. Wasting six minutes of screen time, this is dreadfully unfunny stuff and has negligible relevance to the plot.

There are a lot of mirrors / reflections going on here to underscore the two halves of Allenby’s character but they’re so artlessly delivered that it starts to irk, never more so than when she’s conversing with herself (Gollum-style) in two different mirrors when deciding to keep Lisa alive for now. The episode really starts losing me at this point.

And then we have the idiotic ‘trash’ scene, where Columbo gallops around Allenby’s clinic, waving his arms around and yelling enquiries to a Russian cleaner about where the office rubbish is emptied out. The confused cleaner finds him rooting around in a large, overturned bin having fished out the clothing label torn from Allenby’s new coat.

To celebrate this success, Columbo plants a smacker on the giggling cleaner, who waves him farewell like he’s her one true love – all while a traditional Russian folk ditty trills away in the background. It’s APPALLING. Absolutely ruddy appalling. Over a period of 20 years, Columbo has never acted like this. Why is he doing so now?

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective
Somebody alert this oaf’s superiors!

These scenes (particularly ‘trash’ and ‘tuba’) epitomise the biggest problem with the comeback episodes: a propensity towards padding them with what appear to be attempts at broad humour. The problem is, they’re usually not funny in the least. I don’t know who’s most to blame for allowing such scenes to stand, but they truly damage the episode.

The tone of Sex & The Married Detective is serious and straight. The clumsy attempts at comedy unbalance it. Compare it to Season 3 finale A Friend in Deed, which was a departure for the series at the time given its dark themes and almost complete lack of humour. Imagine how jarring it would have been if Columbo had starting busting out a tuba solo to screaming children in that episode. It would never have been permitted – so why do it here?

Again I ask the question that I’ve been obliged to ask during the viewing of each of the three comeback episodes: did the Columbo creative team no longer believe the traditional strengths of the show would cut it with the audience of today? If not, why did they feel such preposterous scenes as heads in guillotines and tuba mastery were the way to address the issue?

“The bungled attempts at jocularity here are compounded by yet another showy finale.”

I suppose we should be grateful that Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy was still two years away from release otherwise we might have been subjected to Lisa lip-synching to it using a hairbrush as a microphone during a montage-to-music of her dressing in her black outfit. I’m not even joking…

These feeble attempts at jocularity are compounded by yet another showy finale. Granted, Married Detective’s gotcha is subdued when compared to those in Guillotine and Smoke & Shadows – but it’s still stretching credibility.

Columbo’s stunt of shocking Allenby by having a colleague dress as Lisa and be seen in silhouette is both contrived and pointless. He’s already solved the case. There’s no need for the stunt other than to create a high-impact moment for the viewer – and you know how I feel about those, don’t you?

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective Dr Joan Allenby
The Allenby clinic boudoir was GRANDMA SEXY!

Of lesser importance, but worth exploring regardless, is just how unsexy this episode now appears more than 30 years since first airing. In terms of a rating, if Sex & The Married Detective was a dessert it’d definitely be the RICE PUDDING and certainly not the Bavarian chocolate cream pie.

Lisa’s open-fronted dress screams trashy ho’ rather than classy courtesan, and don’t get me started on how tacky the boudoir at the sex clinic was, red silk sheets and all! To me it’s like a grandma’s dressing room from the Plantagenet era – hardly the sort of place I could imagine folks wanting to get jiggy in under any circumstances. Ugh!

And is it just me, or are the men in this episode (the Lieutenant excluded, naturally) just horrible specimens? Aside from the wimpy Dr Neff, so infatuated with Allenby, consider Charlie Lenz, the deviant who follows women to bathrooms and waits outside for them for a whole evening. What a repellent toad!

“Is it just me, or are the men in this episode just horrible specimens?”

When Columbo takes Lenz to meet Dr Allenby later in the episode, the smirking perv proudly explains his meeting with Lisa, stating: “I have this obligation. Whenever I see an attractive lady I feel like it’s my duty to meet her.” He says this as if he’s some sort of friggin’ Lothario and not a middle-aged, balding pencil neck. It’s ghastly!

And as for victim David Kincaid? Well, he’s every bit how I envisage a lame 80s/90s love interest from a daytime soap opera to be: smooth, charmless and as sexy as a fish (no offence to Stephen Macht if he’s reading this). I recall with horror his intro to the episode (see photo below) where he blows a steamy kiss to Dr Allenby as she winds down her radio show. Someone hand me a bucket!

The idea that this wet could be in-demand with the opposite sex seems so absurd that I had to consult my own Mrs Columbo (who is a stunning judge of manliness) to glean the female perspective. She described Kincaid as “gross”, “a jerk” and “disgusting” within seconds of his appearance – although she did concede that he was sexier than Donald Trump. Take that as you will…

Columbo David Kincaid
The sign indicates the average amount of time Kincaid lasts in the sack

To sum it all up, Sex & The Married Detective rather flatters to deceive. In terms of its premise, its themes, its interesting villain and its superb, film noir-style score (Columbo veteran Patrick Williams again in fine fettle), it ought to be Season 8’s standout adventure thus far. However, that handful of clunky comedic set pieces (including probably the worst in Columbo history) do untold damage to the episode.

Had it been played straight throughout, this could have been a very memorable entry into the Columbo canon. As it is, it’s merely OK, and still a shadow of the show it had been from 1968-78. Surely viewers expected more from such a heralded return to the limelight for their favourite detective?

How I rate ’em

While the I recognise that the highlights of Sex & The Married Detective are better than I thought they were, the low-lights plunge the show into such disrepute that I just can’t care for it on any great level.

Despite the good work put in by Lindsay Crouse, my abiding take-out from this episode will forever be the STUPID TUBA SCENE, which serves as a damning indictment for what ‘new’ Columbo is starting to stand for. I nominally prefer it to Smoke & Shadows, but as a coherent whole Married Detective is still well below the hoped-for standard.

Check out any new episode reviews you might have missed via the links in the standings below.

  1. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  2. Sex & The Married Detective
  3. Murder, Smoke & Shadows

Remember, if you want to read any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews (and see how I rank them), they can all be accessed here. And if you dig Sex & The Married Detective much more than I do, you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Columbo Sex and the Married Detective tuba scene
This girl was the only child honestly expressing their feelings during the tuba scene

Now I open the floor to you. How do you rate Sex & The Married Detective? And what did you make of Dr Allenby as a villain when compared to Elliott Blake and Alex Brady from Season 8’s opening episodes? Hit me with your views in the comments section below.

The voyage through Columbo’s revival season will continue soon, when I tackle the military-themed Grand Deceptions – an episode I have very little recollection of. Will I be pleasantly surprised? Hope springs eternal…

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I’m just going to leave this here, ummkay…?