Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 9

Episode review: Columbo Murder in Malibu

Columbo Murder in Malibu

Lock up yer daughters, folks, because the final episode of Columbo’s ninth season can only corrupt them through the undistilled animal magnetism of villainous gigolo Wayne Jennings.

Starring Andrew Stevens as the aforementioned lothario, Murder in Malibu is a sordid tale of womanising, betrayal, murder and… underwear. But before you get too excited, it’s worth remembering that this is one of the least popular, most derided Columbo episodes ever made.

Is Murder in Malibu so bad it’s good? Or is it just so bad it’s terrible? Let’s turn back the clock to May 14, 1990 and get ready to swoon – repeatedly – as we find out…

Columbo Murder in Malibu cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Wayne Jennings: Andrew Stevens
Jess McCurdy: Brenda Vaccaro
Theresa Goren: Janet Margolin
Lieutenant Schultz: Floyd Levine
Helen Ashcroft: Laurie Walters
Mrs Rocca: Sondra Currie
Mavis: Mary Margaret Lewis
Directed by: Walter Grauman
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Score by: Patrick Williams

Episode synopsis – Murder in Malibu

Playboy Wayne Jennings exudes such sex appeal that all women go dewy-eyed the second he enters the same zip code. He’s the kept man of best-selling novelist Theresa Goren, who is by some years his senior, and who funds his frivolous lifestyle of daring exploits, fast cars and high-level amateur sport.

Despite this bounteous arrangement, Jennings is unable to resist his primal urges and has numerous other women on the go at any one time. This is something that Theresa suspects and uses as a reason to hold back from accepting his proposal of marriage – until she succumbs to peer pressure from an audience of excitable ladies on a live TV talk show and decides there and then to marry her dream man.

Columbo Murder in Malibu loons
With normal people like this egging her on, why wouldn’t Theresa agree to wed Wayne?

Jennings is out of town in Palm Springs, ostensibly to compete in a celebrity tennis tournament (he’s actually bedding a film producer’s wife), when he receives a call late at night. It appears to be Theresa, and she’s hopping mad, claiming to hate him and that she’s dumping his shapely ass.

Refusing to accept this, Jennings hops in his sweet convertible Jag and vrooms back to LA – leaving an alibi-tastic message on his insurance agent’s answer machine at precisely 6.25am as he does so, claiming to be in heavy traffic on the freeway. His actual location, however, is Theresa’s beachfront house where we’re shown him standing in a doorway and twice firing a gun at an object or person off-screen.

When the camera angle switches, we see that it’s our mate Theresa who has attracted his ire, as she’s now lying dead (and partially clothed) by an open safe. He then streaks off in the Jag again to further establish alibi by ringing Theresa’s secretary Mavis at precisely 7.15am from a crowded diner. He tells her he’s on his way back from his trip early to surprise Theresa and will be there in 90 minutes’ time. Not just a pretty face, eh?

When he does arrive, it’ll be at a crime scene being spearheaded by Columbo and laconic Noo Yawk sidekick Lieutenant Schultz. The detectives have so far discovered that $100,000 in jewellery is missing from the safe, while Theresa’s gun is notably absent from its usual spot in a bedside table drawer. Columbo has also noticed that Theresa’s underwear drawer has been left open, so he starts fumbling through the silky items as Schultz’s relates his theory of a pro thief disturbing the dame early in the morning, and then slaying her with her own gun after she challenged them.

Upon Jennings’ arrival, he’s immediately sequestered by Columbo to help with inquiries, swiftly noticing that a $25,000 jade ashtray is missing, underscoring the notion that a pro thief was the killer. Their conviviality is blown apart by the arrival of Jess McCurdy, Theresa’s oldest sister and literary agent. She has no love for Jennings and turns the cold shoulder to his heartbroken proclamations – and the trunk full of flowers he intended to surprise Theresa with.

Columbo Murder in Malibu
Whatever became of all those flowers?

Columbo and Jennings take a potter about the neighbourhood to seek eye-witness information on strange people or vehicles spotted in the area that morning. They draw a big fat blank, except for learning that the cable TV company had some workmen up fixing lines nearby.

After this, Columbo is found lurking at Jess’s office and studying video footage of the previous evening’s talk show on which Theresa admitted her love for Jennings. A conversation with Jess ensues, from which Columbo discovers she is the sole beneficiary of Theresa’s life insurance policy – a big disincentive for Jennings to have murdered her.

The investigation returns to Theresa’s home where Columbo reveals to Jennings that there is no record of him being registered at the hotel hosting the celebrity tennis tournament – although a call to the film producer’s wife Mrs Rocca confirms he’d been in her presence. She can’t vouch for what time he received the phone call that summoned him back to LA, though.

It’s left for Jess to drop a minor bombshell and blow the investigation wide open when she confirms that Jennings received the call from Theresa at around 3am. Jess knows this because (she says) she was with Theresa at the time. The police have also picked up a PI hired by Jess to snoop on Jennings, who further points blame at the handsome love machine by revealing that his distinctive Jag had been spotted near the crime scene at 7am that morning.

Jennings now totally loses his cool and admits to having raced back to LA in a passion and shooting Theresa through the heart with her .25 pistol. As he’s read his rights by Lieutenant Schultz, however, another officer arrives with a ballistics report for Columbo. STOP THE PRESS! Theresa was actually killed by a bullet to the head fired from a different calibre gun half an hour before Jennings shot her. It ain’t a crime to shoot a dead body (says Columbo), so Jennings didn’t murder her after all! It’s such a stunning revelation that Action Man Wayne faints dead away.

Columbo Murder in Malibu
Yep, they went there…

The enfeebled Jennings is driven off downtown while Columbo grills Jess about Theresa’s fateful phone call. According to Jess, she drove by the house at about midnight and found Theresa drunk and bitter, raving about her lover’s rascally ways. Jess provided her with the Roccas’ number and convinced her to make the call to Jennings before driving herself home. Whether it’s true or not, one thing’s for sure: Columbo’s investigation is back to square one.

He’s quickly given a new lead, however, when he pays a visit to Jennings’ insurance agent/lover, Helen. She provides not only the answer machine tape from his call to her at 6.25am that morning, but also the inside line on Theresa’s other life insurance policy, which will see Jennings pick up a cool $1million pay-out. Maybe he did have an incentive to kill her after all…

Next up, Columbo and Jennings are given a sky ride in the cherry picker that was being used for cable repairs in the area on the morning of Theresa’s slaying. The operators had a sweet view of the surrounding houses from between 5.50-6.25am. Although they were troubled by flocks of squawking crows, they can swear that no cars were seen on the roads during that time. They can’t rule out pedestrians skulking in the bushes, or strolling on the beach, though.

As it happens, Jess lives just a couple of miles away along the beach, so Columbo takes a leisurely stroll to her not-so-humble abode to get his investigation back on the front foot. Phone records show that Theresa did not make a call to Palm Springs overnight. Would Jess mind terribly if he checked her phone records for such a call instead? Although furious, Jess caves in. She admits she was the one who made the 3am call to Jennings in a desperate bid to end the relationship after Theresa refused to ditch him.

Columbo is then called away by Schultz. The murder weapon has been found buried on the beach on a direct path Jess would have taken if she’d shot Theresa and returned to her own home via the seafront. All of a sudden, things are looking pretty dark for Miss McCurdy.

Columbo Murder in Malibu
Just when you think things can’t get any more ridiculous…

Back at Jess’s home, however, Jennings emerges after being admitted by a latina housemaid who, predictably, has the hots for him. He’s been listening in to Jess’s chat with Columbo and knows she made the call to him, pretending to be Theresa. The two argue, but just when you think Jess might become the episode’s second victim, they instead enter into a passionate embrace with Jennings claiming he’d always had a soft spot for her – and she somehow accepting this!

Meanwhile, Columbo pays a visit to the medical examiner. He’s spotted something on the photo of Theresa’s body that makes him want to check the underwear she was found dead in. Once done, he’s off to Jess’s house again – only to find she ain’t home. She’s out shopping in Beverly Hills, and she’s with Wayne Jennings. When Columbo finally tracks them down, they’re canoodling in a fashion store and planning a filthy getaway. That won’t be happening, though, because the Lieutenant is here to make an arrest.

The lab reports indicate that Theresa was likely killed in her sleep. When found, she was wearing knee-high socks, which she only wore with slacks. She only wore slacks to travel or laze around the house in, and the only people who knew Theresa was set to fly to Philly for the next leg of her book-signing tour on the day she was slain were Jess and Jennings. One of them is guilty of pre-meditated murderer and of dressing the corpse to indicate a burglary gone awry.

“Theresa was found with her underwear on backwards – and only a man could have made such an amateurish mistake.”

Columbo concludes that Jennings is the culprit. For one thing, the noise in background of the answer machine message he left for Helen has been analysed. It’s not highway traffic as claimed. In fact it’s more likely to be the cawing of a large number of crows. From this, Columbo has deduced that Jennings planned to murder Theresa and race back to Palm Springs in time to play his tennis tournament – but the presence of the work crew on the cherry picker put a fly in the ointment.

After killing Theresa, Jennings had to quickly come up with a new plan, resulting in his message to Helen pretending to be caught in traffic. Once the work crew departed, he shot Theresa again and split – stopping at the diner to make a further call to Secretary Mavis to enhance the illusion that he was still on his way back from Palm Springs.

These are plausible deductions, but not damning enough to draw out a confession. But Columbo has further proof: Theresa was found with her underwear on backwards – and only a man could have made an amateurish mistake like that. Jess goes ape, slapping Jennings into submission before police officers drag him away and escort her home.

Columbo Murder in Malibu panties
*Shudders uncontrollably*

All that’s left is for Columbo to explain to a dumbfounded Schultz how the hell he reached his conclusions. Using a scantily clad mannequin, Columbo is able to demonstrate (saying ‘panties’ six times in 90 seconds) how the label on Theresa’s undies was on the left side in the photo, but on the right side of the actual garment. They were on backwards. A woman would never have made such an error, so Jennings just had to be the murderer.

The Lieutenant’s pantie identification skillz have cracked the case, but the two men aren’t long able to bask in the successful closure of the case. A hoard of disgusted female shoppers look on at Columbo fumbling with the mannequin’s knickers until the shamefaced cops beat a hasty retreat as credits thankfully roll…



My memories of Murder in Malibu

Although I hadn’t watched it for the best part of a decade prior to this review, Murder in Malibu sounds mental warning bells whenever I give it a thought.

Columbo Wayne Jennings
Nice hat, you dork!

Primarily, I recall detesting the episode’s cheap and tacky production values and finding Wayne Jennings to be a laughably bad villain. Columbo’s multiple uses of the word ‘panties’ has always been a serious cause of discomfort, while I regard the gotcha as one of the series’ very worst.

Fortunately, time is a healer and there are many aspects of the episode that have faded from memory, including the sub-plot about Jess McLurdy’s potential involvement and the ‘stunning’ twist when it’s revealed that Jennings shot Theresa’s dead body, so couldn’t be guilty of her murder (even though desecration of a corpse is surely still an arrestable offence).

I’ve been clinging to the hope that this might somehow fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, but I have a feeling that Last Salute to the Commodore’s long run as my least favourite Columbo episode may be about to end.

Episode analysis

Oh. My. Actual. God.

You’ll have gathered that my expectations for Murder in Malibu were not exactly sky high, yet I was hoping against hope to be moderately and pleasantly surprised after such a long hiatus between viewings. Devastatingly, though, Murder in Malibu is far worse than I remember and is an episode that redefines how low a Columbo can go.

To put it bluntly, this is cheap, disposable swill featuring laughably poor performances across the cast, a miserable plot and a lamentable gotcha. One gets the impression it was filmed in a hurry with none of the series’ usual finesse. Indeed, this is what a daily soap opera version of Columbo would look like – and it’s a terrifying sight.

Columbo Murder in Malibu
The episode cast when the Malibu plot was read to them…

I’m at a loss as to how this pitiful adventure was allowed to come about, but I have a theory about Season 9 for which I have no proof, but which fits the facts nevertheless. See what you think…

I suspect that this was originally intended to be a season of just four episodes, as was the case for Season 8. The atypical nature of Rest In Peace, Mrs Columbo had ‘season finale’ written all over it, so I strongly believe it was meant to draw the curtain on the season by putting viewers through the emotional wringer before leaving them cock-a-hoop that Mrs Columbo was alive and well after all.

At some point, however, it was decided that it was necessary to extend the season by two further episodes (perhaps at network insistence), leaving the production team in one heck of a hurry to plug up the gaps in the schedule. That would explain why the script for fifth episode Uneasy Lies the Crown was dug up after nearly 20 years in mothballs, and would also offer a reason for why Malibu feels in every way to be such a rush job.

I could be completely wrong about all this, but Murder in Malibu is such an aberration that I’m desperate to come up with plausible justification for its many, many shortcomings. A half-baked plot idea that had to be hurriedly completed and filmed would certainly go a long way to explaining why the 55th Columbo outing became such a steaming pile of pants panties.

However it happened and whoever’s to blame, it’s difficult to know where to start the dissection of Murder in Malibu because so much of it is so bad. I’ll wager, though, that for most fans the chief talking point is the performance of leading man Andrew Stevens as Wayne ‘LOVE GOD’ Jennings, so why not let’s begin there and see where it leads us.

Columbo Andrew Stevens
Phew, is it getting hot in here?

I must admit to being unfamiliar with Stevens’ body of work aside from Columbo, so I was surprised to learn that he’s had a solid, if unspectacular, acting career since the early 70s – including appearing in 33 episodes of Dallas between 1987-89. My jaw hit the deck, though, when I discovered he’d been nominated for a Golden Globe in 1979 for his performance in Vietnam War flick The Boys In Company C.

And although he’s been more prolific as a producer or executive producer (being involved in several blockbusters including Get Carter and The Whole Nine Yards), it’s evident that in his earlier career Stevens was regarded as quite an acting talent. Yet his Wayne Jennings is as cardboard as a man-size box of Ryvita – and extremely unconvincing as an irresistible lothario.

Murder in Malibu is what a daily soap opera version of Columbo would look like – and it’s a terrifying sight.”

Stevens is a fairly good-looking chap with a decent bod. However, he’s neither handsome nor charismatic enough to pull off the character as written; a man whose mere presence has every red-blooded woman within a five-mile radius clamouring to lure him into their foxy lair. Much as I hate to say it (and I apologise to Andrew Stevens if he’s reading, as I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke), he could be any one of dozens of identikit hire-a-hunks who appeared in trashy US TV shows in the 80s and 90s.

Chief amongst the performance lowlights is his wretched ‘comedy faint’ after Columbo reveals that Theresa was already dead when Jennings shot her through the heart. It’s cringeworthy viewing, yet only fractionally worse than Jennings’ sham displays of grief and fury, which are about as believable as a Sarah Sanders press briefing.

Every one of Jennings’ scenes has a ‘shot-in-a-single-take’ feel about it, with overblown, melodramatic line deliveries and artificially expansive body language gestures. If it’s nuance you’re after, look elsewhere. However, it’s not only Jennings who’s guilty of these misdemeanours. Just about every significant player in this is suffering from the same malaise, with Brenda Vaccaro giving Stevens an excellent run for his money in the ham stakes.

Columbo Brenda Vaccaro
Pop those eyes, girl! HARDER! Show us how mad you really are!

Vaccaro’s Jess McCurdy is borderline unwatchable at times, all popping eyes and hissing vitriol in her scenes with Jennings. The moment where she gives Jennings a b*tch slapping may be the least credible acting I’ve ever seen anywhere (and I used to be part of a talentless drama group as a teen) and again feels like it was done in a single take while racing the clock – a far cry from Columbo’s 70s heyday when Falk and co. would refilm scenes ad infinitum in order to make them as strong as possible. The comparative lack of quality control here breaks this purist’s heart.

Rest assured that I take no pleasure in delivering such stinging critique. The cast may not actually be bad actors, but they are acting badly here – almost to a man/woman. No opportunity to overplay a situation or scene was turned down, from breathless housewife Mrs Rocca to Jess’s receptionist, whose tearful, arm-wagging walk between elevator and office is something straight out of a dire sitcom.

“There are several highly uncomfortable moments regarding Columbo’s interactions with women’s underwear.”

Even Falk is far from faultless. He’s better than Stevens and Vaccaro, but this version of Columbo is swaying too near to the caricature we saw in Seasons 7 and 8 for my liking. Perhaps in a bid to disguise the feeble plot, Falk seems to be playing it for laughs from the start as he repeatedly seeks a way to rid himself of some eggshells before simply pressing the whole egg into Schultz’s hands. We’ve seen it before, and a lot better, in the 70s.

Things don’t improve, culminating in his appalling explanation to Schultz about how he was able to crack the case through Theresa’s underwear being on backwards. The aghast faces on the watching female shoppers combined with the cops’ shameful retreat to a comical ditty all add to what is certainly one of the most painful Columbo scenes ever filmed – especially as we hear Columbo say ‘panties’ so often in so short a time.

There are several highly uncomfortable moments regarding Columbo’s interactions with women’s underwear – an unwelcome theme of the episode. The worst comes first, when he simply starts toying with a pair of Theresa’s pants from her bedroom drawer, seemingly more interested in them, and how they’re the same brand worn by Mrs Columbo, than listening to Schultz’s appraisal of the crime. UGH!

Columbo Murder in Malibu
I feel unclean!

Later, he closely studies the lingerie taken from Theresa’s body in a police examination room, where his actions are viewed with incredulity by Schultz, who then promptly picks up the undies himself once Columbo leaves the room! The scene plays out like we’re supposed to find it funny. It is anything but. And while I know Columbo is pure of heart, this is treading dangerously close to presenting him as a perv and I absolutely hate it.

While it’s true that the performances are less than we’ve come to expect, actors can only play the parts that have been written for them and on this occasion they’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty ropey characterisations: Columbo with his pants fetish; Jennings with his preening mannishness; Jess with a crazy about-face in which she willingly enters into a romance with a man she espouses to hate, and whom she believes had tried to kill her own sister.

“Pretty much every woman in the episode is made out to be insultingly shallow.”

All three leads can feel hard done by with the script – especially given that Columbo doyen Jackson Gillis is the credited writer. Gillis conceived, scripted or adapted stories for 11 episodes between 1971 and 1992 – including popular classics Suitable for Framing, Double Shock and Troubled Waters. He also scripted Last Salute to the Commodore, although under Patrick McGoohan’s madcap direction Gillis’s promising story became a total shambles.

Gillis had been serving as Executive Story Editor or Consultant since the series was rekindled in 1989, but Malibu was his first Columbo writing credit since Last Salute – and it plumbs similar depths. I’d love to know more about the background to this episode and how much time Gillis had to craft the story because it bears none of the qualities he was renowned for.

Quite aside from the poorly written lead characters, pretty much every woman in the episode is made out to be insultingly shallow, while the overall plot is a mess and nowhere near as clever as it tries to be. Indeed, I suspect a rather more straightforward story was hastily adapted, twisted and padded out to help it reach its unbearable 98-minute running time.

Columbo Murder in Malibu Wayne Jennings
“Take that, you fiend!”

Rather than showing us exactly how the murder happened, Malibu attempts to pull the wool over the viewers’ eyes with the faint-inducing mid-episode twist when we learn that Theresa was already dead when we saw Jennings shoot her. We’re then meant to believe that Jess could be the killer based on the murder weapon being found buried on the beach, and the proximity of her house to her sister’s along the seafront.

That’s all well and good on paper. On screen, though, the execution is so botched that any intrigue goes out the window. For starters, the phone call to Jennings that prompts him to murder is so obviously not from Theresa that the episode’s premise is ruined from the get-go. The viewer sees a shadow of the caller that is clearly Jess, while the voice is also totally different. Jennings would have to be a total halfwit to fall for this (not a great stretch, I admit).

And why would this act alone drive him to murder? It makes no sense. A smooth-talker like Jennings would surely at least have tried to reason with Theresa. However, from what we’re told by lab reports Theresa was killed while she was sleeping. Nice work, Wayne, you twit! If he’d decided to ask questions first and shoot later, Theresa would still be alive and his lifestyle secure, as it would have taken about 2 seconds to learn that she never made a call to him and that jealous Jess had done it instead.

Still, the viewer is nominally kept in the dark about the true identity of the killer until the department store gotcha scene, which I’m guessing was meant to be a modern version of the classic parlour-room murder mystery reveals of a by-gone era. Gillis tried this before on Last Salute – and failed miserably. The results in Malibu are just as bad.

Columbo Murder in Malibu
Didn’t anyone tell Jennings that it’s offensive to manspread in a ladies’ fashion store?

The evidence Columbo uses to pin the murder on Jennings is the fact that Theresa’s pants were on backwards when she was found dead. No woman could have made such a mistake herself, he reasons, ergo Jennings killed her and partially dressed her himself. Try harder, Columbo! This is weak on so many levels.

If Theresa had been startled by the noise of a thief downstairs, and was lying unclothed in bed at the time, she might well have thrown on a few items in her hurry to investigate. It’s conceivable, albeit unlikely, she might have pulled on underwear the wrong way in her mild state of panic.

And even if the killer did dress Theresa, the underwear doesn’t prove that it was Jennings. If Jess was trying to frame him, she could have cleverly dressed Theresa incorrectly as a means of removing herself from suspicion. Not only that, are we supposed to overlook the well-established fact that Jennings is a consummate ladies’ man? This guy knows his way around women’s knickers. It seems unlikely he’d make that type of error himself. It all adds up to one of the flimsiest gotchas of any Columbo era.

I actually think it would have been far more interesting if Jess had been the killer, murdering her own sister and framing Jennings to prevent him from claiming the $1m life insurance pay out. While justice would be served by Jess being arrested, Jennings would still be a major slime ball who would be free to go about his life with a tonne of cash at his disposal: a Pyrrhic victory for Columbo if ever there was one.

Columbo Murder in Malibu
“Get my agent, will ya? I won’t be put through swill like this any more.”

That would have been too dark an ending for how this episode played out though, for this is a murder mystery presented as light-hearted pap, akin to Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder, although at twice their length and with none of their charm. Those shows never took themselves too seriously, and had Murder in Malibu been a 45-minute case involving Jessica Fletcher or Dr Sloan, it might’ve made for a tolerable entry in their universes.

I hold Columbo to higher standards. It ought never to come across as this sort of pseudo-comedic drivel. The series’ whole ethos has always been to deliver quality writing and world-class performances from stellar casts. With that in mind, Malibu is a disaster. The single best indicator of just how poor a production this is may be the stock footage of bats masquerading as the flock of crows cut into the cherry picker scene. This epitomises the episode’s cheapness and is an insult to viewer intelligence.

If there are positives to take from Malibu, I would count the respective performances of Janet Margolin and Floyd Levine as Theresa and Lieutenant Schultz amongst them. I can’t fault them for what they bring to proceedings. Elsewhere, there are some really lovely locations that showcase the best of LA’s beachfront living, while Jennings’ convertible Jaguar is a beauty. But that really is all I can come up with. Even Patrick Williams’ score is soap opera cheese.

I can only conclude by confirming that this is the worst Columbo I’ve encountered during this complete run-through – snatching the wooden spoon from Last Salute. I shudder to think that another could be so bad, but with the spectre of No Time to Die lurking on the not-too-distant horizon, we may not yet have scraped bottom. That really is a thought worth fainting over.

Did you know?

Columbo Murder in Malibu

As well as some aspects of the plot mimicking those of Last Salute to the Commodore, Malibu’s main location was also a straight lift from the 1975 episode. Theresa’s beachfront mansion is the exact same house that Charles and Joanna Clay lived in in Last Salute. It’s actually in Malibu, too, at 33148 Pacific Coast Hwy. Nice!

Visit the interactive Columbo locations map here.

How I rate ’em

This is a Columbo that should never have been made – at least not in this dreadful fashion. Of course it takes bottom spot in the current standings – but it would even sit below Last Salute if the ‘new’ and ‘classic’ lists were combined. It’s rough on Jackson Gillis, who has the ignominy of having penned both of my least favourite Columbo episodes up to now.

I took one for the team here and watched Murder in Malibu so you don’t have to. If you ever come across it on TV, just skip right on by and don’t give this classless BILGE the chance to ruin your day.

If you missed any of my earlier ‘new Columbo‘ reviews, access them via the links below.

  1. Agenda for Murder
  2. Columbo Cries Wolf
  3. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  4. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  5. Sex & The Married Detective
  6. Murder, A Self Portrait
  7. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  8. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  9. Grand Deceptions
  10. Murder in Malibu

If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, or see how I rank them all in order, click here. If Murder in Malibu somehow floats your boat, you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here. However, I’d recommend seeking urgent medical attention first.

Just in case I was being too harsh in my judgement, I asked my good friend (and noted appreciator of the finer things in life) Adrian Carsini for a second opinion. This was his terse response: –

Columbo Adrian Carsini
Say no more, Adrian!

If you disagree with us both I’d love to know why, so please state your case in the comments section. Conversely, if you’re also a hater of Murder in Malibu, feel free to chip in with your thoughts about what makes this such a stinker. I have a feeling the debate about this one could get quite heated!

With that, we say farewell to Columbo’s ninth season from a low ebb. Hearteningly, the next outing is Columbo Goes to College – an absolutely terrific tale of inter-generational horn locking that is sure to be the perfect pick-me-up after the Malibu-sized debacle. But can the series ever fully recover from this knock-out blow?


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Columbo Murder in Malibu
Actual test audience reactions to Murder in Malibu
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92 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Murder in Malibu

  1. The consensus is in: you need to sell Columbo-themed panties in your merchandise section! 🙂

    The first place I saw Andrew Stevens was in a surprisingly good vampire movie called “Red-Blooded American Girl” (1990), and he was good in it, so I’ve always liked him. I can’t really defend this episode of “Columbo,” though. If you like Andrew Stevens you don’t really want him to be the bad guy, and at the same time, he doesn’t bring the over-the-top panache of a classic “Columbo” villain either.

    This is an oddly bleak episode that doesn’t make you feel good about life. Makes you realise that as mild-mannered as Columbo is, he must be made of stern stuff to be able to grind through case after case like this one as part of his daily job.

     
    • I think the point of this episode is that Andrew Stevens is cast against type. We don’t expect Wayne Jennings to be the bad guy, because he looks like a hero. Wayne looks like he should be playing Captain America or the Six Million Dollar Man, but instead he’s murdering a defenseless woman and very nearly getting away with it, even when everyone knows he shot her the second time.

       
    • Spot on Felicity. If the point of this ep was to make a kitchy/soapy Columbo — and I’m not convinced it was — they really spoiled the attempt by making it feel so much more miserable than winkingly fun.

      And I’m not buying that Stephens is purposely playing Jennings poorly to reflect the character. 1) Wayne shows little interest in pursuing an acting career, hardly aspirational to the point that he would be “practicing” his craft in each scene (excepting the faint, where he feels compelled to act for plot purposes). 2) He’s not “acting” when every lady he meets falls all over him, that’s supposed to be the real Wayne with natural charisma. But Stephens (and Gillis as writer) never sells the viewer that Wayne could be god’s gift to women. He’s a total mook.

      No. Stephens sucks, Vaccaro sucks, the script sucks, this whole damn episode is an abomination. And we’ve given it far too much of our attention here. 😫

       
      • Well G4 (if you’re still listening) you make a valid point that Wayne shows little interest in pursuing an acting career, and yes he has natural charisma, but he is using the acting lessons to help cover up his affairs with other woman, and to cover up the murder. Wayne is a natural born liar, and with no disrespect to any actor, they lie for a living.

        And I don’t think that Wayne Jennings is meant to be sold to us God’s gift to women, at least not for long. As you say, he is a total mook, not because Stephens can’t play him well, but because Stephens is playing him well.

        I once saw an actor in a BBC sitcom, where the character he played was telling a joke and the actor messed up the punchline.”What an idiot!” I thought. A few months later, i saw the same actor in a dramatic role, and he was excellent. It was only then that I released he hadn’t fluffed his line in the comedy show, it was the character who was an idiot, not the actor. It was in the script that he couldn’t tell a joke properly.

        Another example? There was another BBC sitcom where the lead character was being very silly, and the actress playing a receptionist was criticized for breaking up into giggles and running off camera. No! It was in the script that the receptionist found the lead character silly and couldn’t talk to him any longer.

         
        • Oh he definitely IS supposed to be a legit ladies man; scene after scene shows every single female character swoon over his mere presence.

          If Wayne was a natural born liar, he should be sooooo much better at it. But he practically breaks out in flop sweat each time he tries to spin a yarn.

          I think you are being overly kind to Stephens for whatever reason. Perhaps he has been stellar in other roles, I couldn’t say. But he is terrible in MiM. Chalk it up to the lousy script if you like, but I do not agree that he was going for “intentionally/ironically bad” in this.

           
          • Sorry, I feel compelled to jump into the back-and-forth here. Chris, I think you’re swimming upstream on this one. In an episode widely derided as terrible for just about everything, you’re asking us to believe that the one exception – the one thing the director got right – is that he guided Andrew Stevens to giving a three-dimensional thespian performance of great acting by convincingly playing a role as a terrible actor, but was unable to convince Brenda Vaccaro to stop making a 3-course meal of the scenery? That’s a pretty hard sell, but I admire your commitment to the bit. As Freud once noted, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and bad acting is just bad acting.

             
            • Glenn, I will take your comment about “swimming upstream” as a compliment. The salmon has a hard task, but gets there in the end. As far as I know, I have not seen Andrew Stevens in anything else, but he does a fine job here. I have seen Brenda Vaccaro in other things, and she is also doing a fine job, portraying a character as depicted in the sort of novels that Theresa Goren writes.

              “Murder In Malibu” is not a favourite episode of mine, but it succeeds in what it’s trying to do: base an episode on the kind of over the top romantic novel that gets made into over the top romantic TV movies. Columbo and the other cops are the normal people who are bemused by the antics of these larger than life characters. The payoff is that the normal staff and customers in the lingerie shop now think that Columbo and Schultz are are bit odd.

               
          • Oh, Wayne likes the ladies, but he doesn’t care about them. He gets by on his charm and good looks, but he has no depth. He might think that he is God’s gift to women, and so might they at first, but he is not the man who will love them and protect them as they expect. Women will forgive Wayne practically anything, but even though Jess is under his spell, she won’t forgive him murdering her beloved sister.

            I once saw a television version of “A Comedy of Errors”, in which two sets of twins cause confusion by not being aware of each others presence. Some viewers complained that “I can easily tell them apart! Easily!” Well, of course, the audience are meant to be able to tell them apart, but not the other characters. The audience for “Murder In Malibu” can tell that Wayne is an utter jerk, but not the ladies in the story.

             
  2. The Perry Mason episode, “The Case of the Dead Ringer”, gets my “Last Salute” vote for episodes in that series. Even though there were still four episodes to be broadcast before the demise of the series, I have always felt that it must have been the last one shot because, as the doppelganger, Raymond Burr leaves no piece of scenery unchewed.

     
  3. I sincerely hope there was a nearby Hospital for Overacting and an available room for…hold on, have to look it up…Andrew Stevens. They should have made the part as him being a bad soap opera actor or something, that might have helped with suspension of disbelief. Poor Brenda Vaccaro. What happened? She’d had such a great career. Three Tony nominations and an Oscar nomination. I was anticipating that she would be a bright spot in this. But her performance in this is so awful. Was deliberately acting badly to get back at someone on the production staff? To show her agent her displeasure of putting her in this? Or having to work in the same room with Andrew Stevens? I could only wonder what was going through Peter Falk’s head during their scenes together. I think a documentary film about lunch with these actors during the shoot would have been more interesting, to steal a line from Roger Ebert.

    I will say, yes,Floyd Levine as the local Malibu cop was a good performance I also want to point out that Charles Walker as the cable TV bucket truck guy did professional work. Bit players have a hard job. They don’t have small parts, only short ones. Too bad it was in this mess.

    Other than that…the sound mix was well done. Although the This Old Man motifs in the music score made me want to plotz.

     
    • It is mentioned in the story that Wayne Jennings has been taking acting lessons. Wayne is either not very good, or he has not had many lessons. In any event, his bad acting when he “faints” does not convince Columbo for an instant. As I have said before, Andrew Stevens is a perfectly competent actor playing the part of Wayne Jennings, a not very good wannabe actor. It’s a compliment to Stevens that so many Columbo fans think he’s bad. It’s Wayne who is giving an insincere performance throughout the episode, not Andrew.

       
    • At least they have spared us from this trash this sunday , the less said about murder in malibu the better , heres this sundays healthy line uppn 5 USA

      9am prescription murder
      11 grand deceptions
      1pm murder smoke& shadows
      3pm deadly state of mind
      4.30 how to dial a murder
      6pm short fuse
      7.35 publish or perish
      My top 3 picks would be a deadly state of mind , dial a murder and publish or perish , my least loved loved would easily be grand deceptions
      Plenty to get stuck into this sunday .

       
  4. I remember having read somewhere (was it in these pages?) that Peter Falk’s pay per episode went higher and higher. Could it be that Falk’s and the network’s financial expectations made that there was less and less money left for other people, for their work and for the time they need to do a good job.
    CP showed us two obvious continuity bloopers in the openong scene of Columbo Cries Wolf. In the same opening scene, we can see (backwards) some images which are used later in the same episode. And in A Bird in the Hand, we can see (at 1:00:30) exactly the same scene as in No Time to Die (at 1:19:23), with the police cars in the traffic.
    As a result, sometimes (or often?) we have some botched work in the later episodes, in the script, the score, the acting, the editing… This Murder in Malibu is an extreme example of it.

     
    • Murder in Malibu shares several plot points with a six season episode of Perry Mason: The Case of the Double-Entry mind written by Jackson Gillis: The murderer Getting trapped at the murder site, in this case the only road out being blocked by a broken down truck. The murder sneaking out and trying to establish an alibi at a crowded location this time bar and coming back to the murder scene and killing the corpse a second time. The killer confessing the murder and then fainting down some stairs when the police come in and say he had beaten a corpse. Jackson Gillis using so many plot points from this Perry Mason could give credence to Columbophile’s idea that this episode was put together the last minute.

       
      • That’s a great catch, Mystery Fan. And it got me snooping around old Perry Mason episodes written by Jackson Gillis. In his “Case of the Singing Skirt”, it turns out that the victim was shot in the heart by two bullets from two different guns, and neither could be positively identified as being the murder bullet. In “The Case of the Flighty Father”, there are two people claiming to be the defendant’s dad, and they each hire Perry to defend her. And in “The Case of the Dead Ringer”, Raymond Burr has a dual role, as he also plays a British sailor doppelganger of Perry’s who is hired to impersonate and discredit him! Knowing this, I have no doubt that it was Gillis who contributed the idea of the Paris twins in “Double Shock”. I also shudder to think of what would’ve happened if Gillis pitched a plot with a Columbo doppelganger in it.

         
          • Yes, you’re right.
            In Last Salute, Peter Falk doesn’t play Columbo, but a doppelganger of Columbo: the same face, the same raincoat, but a completely different attitude.
            And maybe the script was written by a doppelganger too.

             
          • Not Peter Falk in a duel role, but there could have been a story in which someone (The murderer? A crooked PI? A woman?) went around claiming to be “Lt Columbo” before the real one showed up. As every other detective in the LAPD is immaculately turned out, the “doppelganger” would be what people were expecting to see, and driving a good car.

             
  5. I know I am speculating here, but, plausible as your theory is, I wonder if there is another explanation for the genesis of this “extra” episode in season 9. Which is that all the elements you criticize in the episode were actually put in there by design. Wait, don’t write me off as a loon just yet. I have an explanation, really I do. Which concentrates more on the business side of show business showing its ugly panties a little too much for the classic Columbo aficionado to stomach.
    I think anytime there is a reboot of a popular series, there is always an attempt to bring it up to date in order to attract newer fans. This one being a possible extreme example of this (if I am right). The fact that Andrew Stevens starred in the popular TV series, Dallas, should be a clue, I think. Dallas was the most popular show on TV in the 80’s and I sense a belated attempt to cash in on the craze (which, admittedly, was passing at the time this episode aired.) When I look at this episode, the air-headed sexy, but sleazy leading male character, the shallow women falling for him, even the supposedly strong women, the overacting and over-reacting in the scenes, even the shocking plot twist in the middle – I can see all of these as fitting in an episode of Dallas.
    So my theory is this is a Columbo made Dallas or Dynasty style. Intentionally. If so, it fits that the lead male guest star (the villain) would be a recognized actor from Dallas. My speculation would be that after the four more typical Columbo episodes were made (or planned) the producers put out the idea to make an episode like this in the hope that it might attract more of the new viewers that made Dallas and Dynasty such big hits to become fans of our lieutenant. An experiment, if you will. A let’s try this moment with our extra episode we have to make. It may not seem to make sense – but hey – have you been in Hollywood??? Things do not always have to make sense to be made there and when you run out of ideas, copying what else worked is always a viable strategy.
    If that is the case, then I think this is actually a well done production by those standards. By the typical, classic Columbo standards, all the vile and criticisms are well deserved. I have to confess, however, that I did watch Dallas, and the show did not move as well as this episode did. I find this episode watchable, which I never found Dallas or Dynasty to be. I can imagine a writer like Jackson Gillis being given the challenge to write this kind of episode (if I am write), I think he did a very credible job of a bad assignment.
    So yes, consign to the trash heap and good riddance. After all, while I see reruns of Columbo still on TV, I don’t see reruns of Dallas, and that says something. Bad experiment if that is what it was. But not through any fault of the quality work the writer, producers and actors attempted to make at it, if my guess is right.
    Or … maybe I am just crazy as a loon…

     
    • Intriguing and plausible theory, my friend. I can buy that the intention may have been to heavily lean into all aspects of soapy cheese.

      Even grading on that curve, however, it remains inexcusable how poorly that aesthetic/narrative was mashed up with the Columbo formula.

      An ambitious failure perhaps more forgivable than a lazy/cheap one, but a nonentertaining failure all the same.

       
    • 😉 Hey, watch what ‘yer saying there partner, I’m a staunch Dallas fan but enjoyed your deep analysis anyway!

      My goodness there have been a lot of slings & arrows flung at this episode. Murder in Malibu. Can’t fault the scenery though!! Remembered watching it. But thought that’s so stupid why someone would go to all the trouble of re-dressing a corpse (I assume) first with atypical socks (???) and then by putting underwear on backwards (???). So the crime is hardly worthy of detailed sleuthing Columbo fans. Much less is a sad commentary that writers would think of their audience as being that dumb, and willing to settle for so little entertainment value.

      It could be that in pitching the storyline, somebody said, “hey Dallas is so popular! Let’s cheapen the Columbo effort too.” Except that’s not being very kind to Dallas fans. Quite the contrary. One being Dallas was the first successful soap opera (and intended to be) in Primetime. With an incredibly long story arc, not just a matter of tacking together one episode onto the next. But well planned from beginning to the end. That they had to change out actors was unfortunate (but death and illness can’t be prevented). Oh and Patrick Duffy of course, who needed a year off to be assured how valuable he was. Please forgive his vanity. But it was certainly a very creative diversion!

      Anyway as kind as you are to forgive a Columbo episode by the power of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” it just doesn’t work for a 90 minute production. For one thing the responsibility for the conflict and suspense is *supposed* to be carried by the impeccable line-up of guest stars. Uhhh, that’s why they’re there so we’d think. Poor Andrew Stevens did his best. And writers and producers are *supposed* to be able to assemble a nearly made -for – movie quality level production. So in this case craft-talent was either lacking or lazy or junior experienced.

      Because Columbo story only has to carry ONE single idea (premise) which is pitting the best in villains against THE best crime-solver that television has ever seen. And that doesn’t include some nincompoop when doesn’t recognize clothing labels, yet can carry off a murder!!

      In the case of Dallas, they had resident villains, who kept evading all kinds of amateurish crime solvers (or stoppers). And that was the beauty of its 14 year run! Not too shabby, but please thank Larry Hagman and its devoted producers for compelling its rabid fan base who couldn’t get enough “weekly Dallas.” Too bad they didn’t have a Dallasphile website at the time. So much fun would it have been had in picking apart weekly entries (good and bad)!!

      Yours is a very creative comment, thank you for the ingenuity! Appreciate making me think through mine!!

       
    • I don’t think so.

      First, if “Murder in Malibu” was intended to tap into the “Dallas” or “Dynasty” vibe, the story would have been very different. It would have been about a high-profile, wealthy, and powerful family — a setting right up the classic Columbo alley. The families in “Lady in Waiting,” “Short Fuse,” “The Greenhouse Jungle,” “Playback,” “Last Salute to the Commodore,” and “Old Fashioned Murder” come closer to that model; these characters don’t.

      Second, I don’t see a writer of the stature of Jackson Gillis being forced to write a story he didn’t believe in. A new writer — and Columbo had plenty of them — maybe. Not Gillis.

      Here’s what I suspect happened: The producers wanted another Season 9 episode. Jackson Gillis had a concept the producers liked (we see Wayne Jennings shoot Theresa Goren, Columbo nails Jennings for this shooting, only to find out she was dead beforehand), but he couldn’t fully flesh out a complete story as good as his premise — and time ran out. The schedule forced him to finalize a script prematurely.

      My reasoning is simple: The chief impetus for an episode is probably the episode’s best feature. If it’s a guest star’s performance, then it’s likely that this star’s involvement was the prime reason the episode got made. That’s not the case here. What’s the best part of “Murder in Malibu”? Some may say “nothing”; I say it’s the premise: that the victim was already dead when we see her shot. And therefore I think that premise is why the folks in charge agreed to make “Murder in Malibu.”

       
    • Good theory Doug, but I’d suggest that it’s not “Dallas” or “Dynasty” that the Columbo series is channelling here, so much as the kind of over the top romance novels that the Theresa character writes, and which get made into over the top TV movies. Wayne Jennings seems at first to be a hero right out of one of these stories, except that in “real life” he’s a complete jerk.

       
  6. I’ve posted in several of these forums defending the revival episodes against those who say “Columbo” shouldn’t have been brought back. There are many episodes from the later years that hold up against the 1970s run just fine, and a universe with more “Columbo” is better than one with less.

    But hoo boy, this one is just a complete piece of garbage. Absolutely the worst “Columbo” ever, unless you count “No Time to Die” and “Undercover”, which I personally am not inclined to count since they really are not “Columbo” episodes.

    Brenda Vaccaro is terrible in this but she was a good actress with three Tony Award nominations as well as a role in “Midnight Cowboy” as one of Jon Voight’s customers.

     
  7. I just thought of yet another problem with the script: What exactly was Jess expecting to happen if Jennings didn’t murder Theresa? As Columbophile points out, the normal reaction to receiving such a phone call would be to rush back and talk to her in person – in which case the whole thing would have been cleared up in five minutes. All it would have achieved would be to drive a (probably permanent) wedge between the two sisters. It’s one of those plots that only works because all the characters seem to have read the script in advance.

     
  8. Amazing how bad this is. The first time I watched it – was so long ago. Have probably watched it 30+ times altogether although, I watch all of them in constant rotation, regardless of the agony.
    Was always confused as to how this was aired.
    Horrible acting all around and the “fainting” scene is as bad as it gets.

    Only mention:
    I watched “Eight Is Enough” in the 70’s as a kid.
    Helen Ashcroft: Laurie Walters
    That’s all I got.

    Nice CP. We get it.

     
    • Hi Beuff, Funny but like you I watch them all in rotation also, regardless of the agony. Well we love our Columbo! 🙂

       
  9. I’m watching this episode as I’m reading and it is every bit as bad as you say and as I remember. The only things I remember about Andrew Steven’s is that he was married briefly to Kate Jackson, I think while she was still doing Charlie’s Angel’s and I think this is the only reason he got any acting work at all and that not only was he dreadful here, he was also part of one of the worst “Murder, She Wrote” episodes. Jessica Fletcher was not herself in that episode, I was so frustrated with her behavior, and all I could think through both these episodes is “ew, yuck”🤢🤢🤢

     
    • Glad to see cp getting this mess out of reviewed and out of the way , havent seen it for a while but i remember last time givng it a go in the hope i just mightfind it better but this just dosent improve similar to last salute gets worse with every view and iits full of horriblecharachters
      And a storyline thats messy and confusing , cp is right to throw the book at it

       
  10. Excellent review. I like and agree with your analysis of how Season 9 perhaps was structured. If that is the case, it’s a shame that no one did put their foot down for quality’s sake.

    Even a series such as Columbo can have weak spots here and there, but this one was all the way around bad, and I’d never had problems with Brenda Vaccaro or Andrew Stevens and had enjoyed much of Janet Margolin’s work. It was so terrible, it drove me away from the newer Columbo episodes.

    I didn’t go out of my way to avoid them, but after this aired, Columbo no longer was appointment viewing for me, I no longer set the VHS. If it was on and I was home and remembered, I watched. If I missed it, no big deal. I would guess that I watched only three more of the new episodes after this aired, four at the most. So, on the bright side, I am looking forward to your future reviews, so I can see what I have missed these past few decades.

     
  11. For the love of God I can’t understand why did Jennings even bothered to dress Theresa? What’s the point? How is it meaningful for his story to create an impression that she had already woken up some time before his arrival, what does it add from his standpoint? On the contrary his story would have been more believable if he claims to shoot Theresa in her bed. At least he could have said his assumption had been she was asleep and he didn’t notice the wound from the first shot. It’s hardly possible for him not to realize something was wrong in the scenario he presented: the woman is supposedly awake but is not moving and reacting to his apperance in any way. How can he credibly claim not to understand she was already dead or at least unconcious?

     
    • I think Wayne’s cover story was that Theresa had been shot earlier while opening her safe, and he shot her in that position without any warning, causing her already dead body to stretch out on the floor. Oh well. The waitress who takes Wayne’s breakfast order is nice . . .

       
      • Yes, but the writers must clearly explain why. We know why Milo Janus makes the same mistake. He needs to change the clothes and shoes on the victim and move the body. It’s the cornerstone of his alibi. We have no adequate explanation why Jennings needs to drag Theresa’s body out of the bed. It’s just sloppy writing that tries to somehow fit together the “gotcha” and the circumstances of the murder.

         
  12. I can forgive a lot of things in Columbo but this episode sucks so badly on every conceivable level.

    I hate it beyond belief.

    The last time I watched it I actually had to do it in two sessions. It had been a long time since I’d seen it but by the mid point I switched it off. I then thought I’d better watch it to the end just so I’ve finished it and that was one hell of a struggle.

    Episodes like No Time to Die and Last Salute are poor but at least they are trying to be a bit different this abomination on the other hand it’s urgh….

    The best thing to do is delete it from the Columbo catalogue and we’ll all pretend it simply doesn’t exist.

     
  13. Whatever faults this episode has, it has nothing to do with Andrew Stevens. it is Wayne Jennings who is the bad actor, not Stevens. Wayne gets by on his charm and good looks. He looks like a typical “rent-a-hunk” TV hero. (If this were any other TV series, Andrew Stevens would be playing the hero and Peter Falk would be the bad guy).

    I totally believe that women would find him attractive, and that men admire him too, because he a “regular guy” sportsman who likes the ladies, like Sam in “Cheers”. But Wayne is not as clever as he thinks he is.

    When he breaks down in hysterics and confesses to the second shooting (of a dead body) it is supposed to be bad acting! That’s how Columbo knows that Wayne (a brave and daring adventurer) is lying. Wayne can climb a mountain, but he can’t act for toffee!

    And I do mean Wayne. Andrew Stevens is a perfectly competent actor, who does a good job here of playing someone we expect to be a hero, but who so is not.

    Not convinced? OK, well the saving grace of this episode is that it gives us our first glimpse of the gorgeous redhead who went on to play Columbo’s sexy sergeant sidekick in “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star” as one of Wayne’s many conquests.

     
    • Me re-watching this episode two decades later:

      (First half) “OK, it’s bad, but not THAT bad. I can’t see what everyone gets so worked up abo-“

      (Second half) “OH MY F***ING GOD. IT CAN’T POSSIBLY GET GET ANY WORSE, YET IT KEEPS GETTING WORSE. KILL ME NOW.”

      …so yeah, I can definitely see why so many people rate this as worst ever. Personally I’m still torn – ‘Commodore’ is moderately dreadful all way through, whereas ‘Malibu’ is mildly dreadful in the first half and REALLY dreadful in the second. So I can see a good case for both.

       
      • I enjoyed your comment very much! Well said.

        Another way to “test” these episodes (storylines) is to wonder if there was anybody else as the Star (instead of Peter Falk) would it hold any water? Because some of the episodes almost seem trite instead of clever. But we have to remember that it’s Peter Falk’s clever personality (acting talent) that keeps our attention. And makes us hopeful that the episode will somehow redeem itself by the end.

         
        • There is one episode, ‘Undercover’, which I think would actually be better without Falk. It’s not such a terrible episode, IMO, just not a ‘Columbo’ episode.

           
  14. As a woman of a certain age, I will point out that Andrew Stevens was considered very good looking and was married to Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson for a brief time. His mother is the lovely actress Stella Stevens..
    Brenda Vaccaro reminded me of the Ruth Buzzi character who beat others with her purse.( I was watching Dean Martin roasts on Decades this weekend.) Brenda dated Michael Douglas back in the day.
    This is not one of my favorites. I have an idea of what happened to the flowers in the trunk. In a discarded scene, a shirtless Wayne drives around the beach in a golf cart, pausing ever so often to jog to a door and deliver one of the bouquets to his many admirers.

     
  15. Would it have been any better if he just said underwear instead of panties?

    I always like your reviews. And needed to make a comment so I’d keep getting all the comments!

    Thanks!

     
  16. Please clear this up for me, as I’m still confused:
    Who shot her the first time? Why and when?
    Who shot her the second time? Why and When>
    Thanks.

     
    • Jennings shot her the first time, around 5.30am. He meant to escape, but the cherry picker workers blocked his escape route. He therefore had to wait till they left (circa 6.25am) to get away, shooting her again so that if he was ever traced there, he could admit to shooting her, but that lab reports would show she was already dead (as happens in the episode). He made two phone calls to establish alibi by pretending he was on the road from Palm Springs. It is confusing.

       
  17. Great review as always, CP. This is truly at the bottom if not absolute bottom, horrible by even new Columbo standards. My only question to you would be, what would you consider it’s 1970s counterpart to be 1) Last Salute to the Commodore or 2) Dagger of the Mind?

     
  18. Simply awful…..dead last at 69 out of 69 and that is somehow still rated to high. As CP stated, it should never had been made.

     
  19. An absolute stinker to be sure. I did not realize how bad an actress Brenda Vaccaro could be! Presumably, she and Falk were buds from the 1989 film “Cookie”, which in comparison looks almost good–with emphasis on “almost”..

    Now for my usual diatribe about jurisdiction. In 1989, Malibu was an unincorporated community outside the limits of the City of Los Angeles and certainly not within the normal jurisdiction its police department. As such, it was patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s department, an organization comparable in size and sophistication to the LAPD. In the early1990’s the residents of Malibu incorporated as a city to defend against annexation by that voracious behemoth to the south. (“Chinatown”, anyone?). Police protection in the City of Malibu, is–to this day–contracted to the county sheriff’s department, as is frequently true of smaller cities in Southern California.

    In the past, I have based my complaints about Columbo’s dubious involvement on issues of geographic implausibility or misleading establishing shots. Here, there can be no quibble. It’s in the damn title! No only has Columbo shown up where he has no business being, but he has brought his entire LAPD homicide investigation unit with him. Did the 911 emergency telephone system have a hiccup? Was the sheriff’s line busy?

     
    • When Columbo arrives at the murder scene (after cutting off oncoming highway traffic, because its totally hilarious that he’s a completely oblivious driver!!) he explains to Lieutenant Basil Exposition that “the chief” was a very good friend of the victim, so he asked our hero to personally investigate. I have no idea if this has any relevance to the chain of command you describe, William, but that’s what they threw at us for an explanation.

       
      • Yes, I like the explanation that “the chief” sent his best detective, even if it was outside of his usual jurisdiction. Another possibility is that the story takes place before 1989? (c) Chris Adams Clutching At Straws Ltd.

         
  20. Ahahaha, when I read your comment that not only it’d be at the bottom of the recent episodes’ list but also below last salute to the commodore I couldn’t help laughing, cause I really really hate this episode and I don’t mind commodore too much, so I’m glad it’s no longer the worst episode in here. I’m sure “no time to die” could give these a run for their money too!

     
  21. Presently, I’m already ahead of Columbophile, having finished watching “Butterflies In Shades of Grey”. As for “Murder in Malibu”, when the crime motive doesn’t make sense, enough said. There were some interesting ideas there, but the episode is a mess from the start. As an example, I rate this lower that “No Time to Die”, an entry that, if regarded as a stand-alone TV movie (with a character named Columbo in it) is much more watchable.

     
  22. It’s hard to imagine a prosecutor just letting the “murder” of a well-known, well-liked, well-connected, wealthy celebrity at the hands of a two-bit gigolo go without attempting to hold the perpetrator accountable at all. You’d think they’d throw whatever charges they could at Jennings before settling for desecration of a corpse or whatever they could get and, in theory, you could try him for attempted murder, as he believed she was alive when he shot her. This is a basic law school hypothetical.

    This feels a little bit like CRIES WOLF, in that it feels like they were going for a shitty romance novel tone, but then you have the weirdness of Jess being so easily seduced by her sister’s lover/”murderer” and it’s just a mess.

     
    • Yes, this is where the episode really started to fall apart for me – especially when Jess throws herself at Wayne only hours after he tried to shoot her sister dead in a jealous rage. The fact that she was already dead doesn’t change the fact that he tried! Seriously, did everyone in the episode just forget that *attempted* murder is a crime as well?

       
  23. I watched the gotcha scene completely puzzled. Columbo pointed out that a woman would know this. Comprehension dawns on Brenda Vacarro’s face but not on mine. The revelation of the label as a clue let me down as I was expecting something clever.

    I have been wearing women’s underwear my entire adult life and I have never once used the label to figure out how to put it on. This episode makes me think that my 8th grade girls gym teacher gave us a talk on what you need to know to be a woman only I was sick that day.

     
  24. Another excellent review, CP. Not only do I agree with your analysis of the episode, but I also tend to agree with your theory of how the last two Season 9 episodes came about. The flaws with “Murder in Malibu” didn’t come in production. They’re in the script. This episode was doomed while still in the typewriter.

    Okay, I get the initial concept. Let’s shake up the Columbo formula once again. We’ll see Jennings shoot Theresa, only to learn later that she already was dead when these shots were fired. Contrary to your take, I view this as classic Jackson Gillis — the master of the mid-episode twist. It was his hallmark: Rudy’s will in “Suitable for Framing”; the appearance of Norman Paris in “Double Shock”; the murder of Charles Clay in “Last Salute to the Commodore.” Two years later, he will do it again: the hit-and-run death of Big Fred in “A Bird in the Hand …”

    But couldn’t this potentially intriguing concept have been executed any better than this? From start to finish, “Murder in Malibu” is a mess. A few points in addition to what you’ve already written:

    For one, I don’t understand the murder. Why did Jennings kill Theresa? Because of Jess’ 3AM call? Was murder always Jennings’ intention, as early as when he left the Rocca house? Or did he go to Malibu to win Theresa back? And why couldn’t he (as indecisive and pliable as Theresa was, according to her sister)?

    Then there is the incongruity (present in too many of the second-generation Columbos) of a complicated plan apparently conceived in a flash. According to Columbo’s reconstruction, Jennings had a fairly straightforward plan in mind when he murdered Theresa: get out fast and get back to Palm Springs before he’s missed. It was only when he couldn’t get out that he went to Plan B — a far more intricate plan that he must have concocted on the fly and in mere minutes. [There was only a 30-minute gap between the two sets of shots, some of which was consumed, first, with realizing he couldn’t escape and, later, with dressing the victim, making the phone call, finding the second gun, burning the letters, etc. How much intervening time did this leave for planning?] A credible, Columbo-worthy murder plot takes time to conceive and plan. The less time, the less believable the plot.

    As to the gotcha, I’m less concerned with the fact that it centers on female undergarments. Crime is a messy business. Clothing can be very relevant. When it is, police have a duty to focus on it. That doesn’t make them pervs. (I find nothing about the central role a pair of woman’s panties played in “Anatomy of a Murder” that reflects poorly on James Stewart’s character.) I’m bothered more that this gotcha not only was unpersuasive, but also dull. Good Columbo gotchas are interesting. What’s interesting about where the label on women’s panties is located? The pattern of tied shoelaces (“An Exercise in Fatality”) is downright fascinating by comparison. And this solution was sprung on us out of nowhere. At least show us early on that Theresa’s panties have the label on her right side. There was that chance when Columbo first arrives on the scene and they open the body bag for him, but that scene was shot from the wrong side of the body.

    And then there were the ubiquitous flowers: the beds of flowers Jennings planted in Theresa’s garden, the flowers delivered to the TV interview, the flowers filling Jennings’ trunk, even the large bouquet in the hospital corridor. Under the rule of “Chekhov’s gun,” those flowers should have factored in the solution somehow. (E.g., Did the flowers in the trunk come from the same florist as the flowers delivered the evening before, refuting Jennings’ account of how he spent his morning?) The fact that they played no such part was a surprising letdown. If they weren’t a key element in the plot, why were so many of them shown?

    But the biggest question is: How was this script ever approved for production? It may be the episode’s greatest mystery.

     
    • Mid-episode twists were probably right in Gillis’ wheelhouse for his Perry Mason writing. One of his Mission episodes had a curveball in the first 5 minutes, but by that point in the series, a lot of writers were trying out curveballs in the established formula. As for Gillis’ Lassie and Tarzan writing…..I guess if there was an episode where we find out “Jane” was a man, or Lassie herself fell down the well, that would be a Gillis script.

       
      • Just noticed that Jackson Gillis had a hand in writing 5 of the bottom 9 worst-ranked 70s episodes, per host CP. And that’s not even considering “Murder in Malibu”. Not a good sign.

         
        • Then again, Gillis wrote more Columbo episodes than anyone (11). Peter S. Fischer is second (9); Steven Bochco third (7).

           
          • And, even with the episodes that were not terrific by the high standards of Columbo (and CP), most of Gillis’ were serviceable and proficient. I know that’s faint praise, but I would liken Gillis to a starting pitcher with a strong arm who eats up a lot of innings, with a bit-above-average ERA. He’s not outstanding, but you know he’ll do a decent job on the mound, and he could still deliver a great performance (you could live with the occasional clunker). His value to the team is dependability, and the manager can usually count on him when the other starters aren’t delivering the goods. I’ll stop the analogy there, but for a show that was difficult to write for, Gillis could consistently produce the needed product, even if it wasn’t always A-grade outstanding.

            If there’s ever a game of Rate the Writers, my early vote is for Peter Fischer.

             
  25. I’ve seen Malibu a couple of times, which means it is actually “watchable” (let’s just put the pantie thing to one side). However, Last Salute is completely unwatchable, (I’ve never seen the ending) in the sense that it is not only extremely annoying, but actually insulting to the viewer’s sensibilities as well as intelligence.
    We have to face the fact that something VERY BAD started to happen to tv drama from the late seventies and into the eighties. From Columbo and The Rockford Files (which both deteriorated badly towards the end), we were suddenly faced with the likes of Murder She Wrote and the A Team. (I could quote similar degeneracy from UK television). Acting styles became exaggerated and self-conscious – as did the wardrobe departments. In Last Salute, everyone starts talking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, as became fashionable at the time. Suddenly, the minor characters think they’re actually actors, and start playing up in the most embarrassing fashion.

     
    • I recall reading or hearing, perhaps from William Link himself, that the failure of the “Ellery Queen” series in the mid-70’s (a personal favorite of mine) was attributed in great part to the sophistication of its complex plots and clues — and, accordingly, the same team (which included Peter S. Fischer) made a conscious choice to make “Murder, She Wrote” more approachable to a mass audience (translation: simpler plots and clues).

       
  26. CP, your thoughts echoed mine pretty well, and I’ll add a couple points to the discussion:

    Jackson Gillis was clearly respected by Levinson, Link, and producers over Columbo’s long run, and he wrote a couple great episodes. But he also had a hand in more clunkers than “Last Salute”…. “Dagger of the Mind”, “Short Fuse”, and other lesser efforts. His overall writing career was long and varied, and while I can’t speak to his scripts for any of his Lassies, Perry Masons, Lost in Spaces, Knight Riders, Medical Centers, or Tarzans, I can speak pretty confidently about his 3 Mission: Impossibles. (Disclaimer: Mission is my first crush, and if there was an M:I blog anywhere close to the quality of CP’s, I’d be spending considerable time there). Since M:I was also a complicated and difficult show to write for, it’s much more of an apples-to-apples comparison. His episodes came in the later years of the series’ original run, not the glory days, and Gillis’ plots and writing were competent, but not remarkable. This doesn’t detract from his Columbo work, but it perhaps gives it some context.

    “Malibu” is a real stinker, but which is worse, “Malibu” or “Commodore”? As a hard-core 70s Columbo guy, I’d much prefer to argue that anything from the New Columbo era is worse, but too many scenes in “Commodore” make me cringe in horror. Yes, the fascination with panties in “Malibu” is uber-creepy, and the plotting for “Commodore” is essentially better and closer to the Columbo tone. But the entire Columbo characterization in “Commodore” in multiple scenes – whether through Falk’s portrayal, Patrick McGoohan’s directing, or Gillis’ writing – is so goofy, irritating and alien to us, it ruins any of that episode’s few positives.

    Much to my surprise, I rate “Commodore” worse than “Malibu” among the bottom-feeders.

     
    • Normally i lose intrrest in this episode after the first 10 -15 mins its confusing ,boring un funny,much like last salute its also feels
      Cheap, worst reviewed so far even worse than murder a self portait which is a poor new episode in my opinion

       
  27. Okay, here we go and dare I actually say it? Give me a moment. Hold on, it’s coming; I don’t think Murder in Malibu is as bad as that.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT saying this is a GOOD episode. Compared to most Columbo’s it’s a relatively bad one indeed. The main character is played by an actor who lacked the skills to play a Columbo killer; the scene where Wayne and Jess make out is plainly rediculous; the mellow and forgiving way everyone responds to Wayne (presumably) having shot the dead body of his fiancée is beyond my comprehension; and the plot is full of holes indeed. But I do disagree that it would have been more interesting if Jess had killed her sister, because that would have made even less sence. Wayne’s motives are questionable, but Jess’s motives (jealousy) would have made the plot even less believable.
    Besides, the way Columbo tackles the case is acceptable (again, not great, but acceptable) and the gotcha that everyone apparently hates so much, has never bothered me. To find a clue involving women’s underwear it’s necessary to look at, investigate and hold on to the underwear (I wouldn’t dare to say ‘panties’, that’s just not done). I really like the talkshow scene at the start of the episode because, well, it’s really like an American talkshow. I hope I’m not offending anyone here, but I’ve seen bits of Oprah Winfrey and the likes and from what I’ve seen tv actually gets as dreadful as that.
    I’m not trying to convince anyone here that this is a good episode, but still I think it’s better than Last Salute, Undercover, No Time to Die and Strange Bedfellows.

     
    • I agree with all you said except for including strange bedfellows. I actually like that episode. But everything else… spot on!

       
      • You are spot on Strange Bedfellows. It is miles better than this garbage. At worst, a middle of the road episode, while Malibu is among the worst of the worst.

         
      • Thanks Nancy, much appreciated! Regarding Strange Bedfellows: I like its first half hour, introducing George Wendt as Graham macVeigh and the execution of his (fantastic) plan to kill his brother and frame and murder Bruno Romano. But Columbo deciding to work with the mafia to catch the killer actually hurts me. He shouldn’t need their help, the Columbo I know and love would not get involved with them. Besides, Columbo should have had no difficulties in catching MacVeigh, since his scheme is far from flawless. That’s why I like Murder in Malibu better, even if it has the worst cast of actors. But I’m looking forward to discuss Strange Fellows some more when CP has reviewed it.

         
        • I cannot abide “No Time to Die” and find “Strange Bedfellows” unwatchable. (Talk about hammy…). Whereas I can abide having a little “Murder in Malibu” cheese with my wine as I watch it over dinner. So yes, I too am interested to see if we have yet reached the bottom of the list when CP comes to them.

           
    • I second the remark regarding the incomprehensible way everyone treated Wayne when it was discovered he intended to commit murder but on a dead body. They treated him like he was a victim of sorts 🙄

       
      • I think this is comparable with Beth Chadwick shooting her brother in “Lady In Waiting”. Everyone knew that she did it, but by making out that it was a tragic accident, Beth got a lot of sympathy.

        Wayne is a good looking and charming young man, who has seemingly shot his lover in an uncharacteristic moment of madness, only for it to appear that he could not have murdered her because she was already dead. Immense relief and sympathy all round, as the second shooting harmed no one and he certainly won’t do anything like that again.

        If Agatha Christie had written this as a Hercule Poirot story, the murderer would be a beautiful and charming young woman who had shot her cheating lover and everyone would have fallen for it, including Poirot at first. Of course, Miss Marple would not have been fooled for an instant.

         
        • It’s an interesting comparison you’re making here. I’m not sure I entirely agree, because of the difference in intent. It was (wrongly) supposed to have been Beth’s intention to shoot a burglar in self defense and instead to have shot her brother by accident; whereas Wayne Jennings was supposed to have shot Theresa’s body when it was his intention to kill her. No matter how uncharacteristically mad he must have been in that moment: he wanted to murder her. So for me, the sympathy received by Beth is much more justfied than any sympathy for Wayne’s actions.
          Having said that, had it been me in Beth’s place and I would actually have caught a burglar in the act, I would never have shot, because I don’t own a gun and never would and subsequently would never shoot somebody and most definitely not just someone unknown in the dark.
          When it comes to cultural differences between the US and Europe the possesion and use of fire arms by civilians is a major one.

           
  28. This was the Columbo that was so bad I simply stopped watching Columbo. Because of this I missed “Columbo goes to College” and “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”, two episodes in my personal Top Ten. It seemed to me like Columbo was just being mined for cash at this time.

     
  29. This episode was on recently and it was literally unwatchable – the picture was so bad I thought there was something wrong with the brightness setting on my TV set.

    Coincidence ( or not?) that this has in common with the other worst episode the playing with the normal Columbo formula and casting doubt on who actually done it.

     
    • You should consider yourself lucky. I’m currently going through all the episodes and as I’m rating them all for various things (more of that when I’ve finished this little project) and so have to watch everyone

      I’ve just got past the vintage ‘Swan Song’ to ‘Troubled Waters’ episodes and am already starting to wane – and I’ve only got to the start of the downslope having just nearly fallen asleep watching ‘A Case of Immunity’- but that’s the best TV ever compared to ‘Malibu’!!

      I will do it. I have to stay true to my promise. Wish me luck for when I get to ‘Malibu’, ‘No Time..’, ‘Undercover’, ‘Murder with Too Many Notes’, etc

       
  30. It’s terrible isn’t it…I’ve only watched it twice and that was enough. I do quite like Brenda Vaccaro in other things – but here she’s as awful as the rest. Janet Margolin is okay though. I love the next episode, Columbo Goes To College, and it sounds like you do too – I can’t wait for your review!

     
  31. Before I read this I need to get those peppermints sweets Blofeld (in Bond) used to have before ‘delivering’ bad news

    I almost daren’t!! I’ll pluck up the courage later

     
  32. “I took one for the team here and watched Murder in Malibu so you don’t have to.”

    …your sacrifice will be remembered sir!

     

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