I’m not one to needlessly stoke controversy, but I’m breaking some new ground today by including an article that could be described as the yin to my Columbo-loving yang.
That’s not to say that the following article ‘Columbo’s Biggest Mystery’ is a diatribe against all we love about the good Lieutenant. Not at all. But it is an excellent balancing point that goes against the popular viewpoint held by fans in suggesting that Columbo, the show, wasn’t nearly as good as Columbo the character.
I came across this essay, which was originally published on medium.com website in January, via social media. While there are aspects of it I oppose (sometimes strongly), author Michael Zuzel backs up his arguments strongly and you may find there’s more to agree with here than you’d expect. After reading it, I knew it deserved to be brought to the attention of fellow fans who really enjoy a good debate about the merits of all things Columbo. I was delighted that Michael was happy to have his article reproduced here.
This is a lengthy piece (the single-longest article on the blog to date), so is best enjoyed with a relaxing coffee, an open mind and without those rose-tinted specs. Now it’s over to Michael…
If you were alive and conscious during the 1970s, you knew Columbo.
The often unkempt but endlessly resourceful Los Angeles police lieutenant, portrayed in the eponymous television series by the late Peter Falk, was a fixture of American culture during the period—as persistent and pervasive as the detective himself as he investigated yet another high-society murder. Even if you didn’t watch Columbo, you knew who he was, if only from all the magazine covers, the impressions by late-night TV comics, and the office water-cooler talk the morning after each episode aired.
In fact, Columbo’s reign extended far beyond that decade and on into the ’80s, the ’90s, and right up until 2003. Over the course of 35 years, 69 episodes, and countless cheap cigars, Columbo bird-dogged every clue and cracked every case, outwitting even the most clever and methodical killers. His signature attributes—among them a shabby raincoat, a bumbling persona, and a wonky gaze (thanks to Falk’s glass eye)—became imbedded into the pop vernacular, as iconic as Farrah’s flip and Travolta’s white suit.
As Tony Brownfield wrote in September 2021, the 50th anniversary of Columbo’s series debut:
“Audiences loved Columbo because he was unique. He was never slick or sharply dressed. He didn’t punch his way to the bottom of a mystery like Mike Hammer or rely on science like a Gil Grissom. He was, however, the smartest guy in any room, a fact that he underplayed with his disheveled appearance and chatty manner. By keeping the bad guys (who were often upper-class snobs) distracted, he was able to take his time and figure out what really happened. In the end, Columbo was just a slightly amplified version of a regular guy, and the viewers loved him for it.“
I was among those who loved him. I was a junior-high student during Columbo’s initial run, and my friend Rob and I loved to talk about “Cuh-bumble,” as we called him, and how he always managed to stick it to the hoity-toitys who thought they could get away with murder.
Binge those 69 episodes today, however, and a deflating realization sets in: Columbo isn’t as good as we remember it.
I hadn’t seen the show since its 1970s run, and though my memory of plots and characters was dim, I still held great affection for the series. Inspired by Alexis Gunderson’s heart-warming column about watching old Columbo episodes with her dad, I suggested to my wife that we spend a couple of our pandemic lockdown evenings each week with the lieutenant, retracing his journey from first episode to last.
When we were done, we’d come to two main conclusions. Yes, Columbo, the character, was superb. But Columbo, the show, was mostly mediocre. And at times atrocious.
I say this knowing that even today, fans of the series are many and ardent. Numerous books, blogs, podcasts, and videos are devoted to celebrating and analyzing the series. Half a century after Columbo’s debut, it remains a phenomenon, at least to the community of enthusiasts.
But I have a feeling that fondness for Columbo, not among disciples but audiences in general, stems mainly from memories of the detective’s many amusing eccentricities—his crappy old Peugeot, his fascination with shoes, his never-seen wife—and especially the way his awkward, tactless personality concealed his genius while offending the sensibilities of the haughty elites who were usually his prime suspects.
The stories that Falk’s character inhabited, by contrast, rarely rose to the same level of inventiveness, much less excellence. Hobbled by lackluster writing, network pressures and, unfortunately, Falk’s own imperiousness, Columbo seems today like one of its era’s lesser television programs.
And one of its great missed opportunities.
To understand how short of its potential Columbo fell, it helps to recognize how far it had to travel to arrive in the first place.
The character initially appeared, in primordial form and bearing the name “Fisher,” in print: a short story titled “Dear Corpus Delecti” by Richard Levinson and William Link, published in the April 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The tale (originally called “May I Come In”) involved a psychiatrist who kills his wife and uses his lover, disguised as the wife, as his alibi.
The young writing team soon reworked their story into an hour-long television drama, retitled “Enough Rope,” that was performed live on July 31, 1960 as an instalment of NBC’s The Chevy Mystery Show. The cigar-smoking detective was played by Bert Freed. He’d been renamed “Columbo.”
A third incarnation of the story, with a yet another new title, emerged when Levinson and Link turned the teleplay into a stage play. Prescription: Murder starred Thomas Mitchell (It’s a Wonderful Life) as Columbo along with Joseph Cotten (The Third Man) as the psychiatrist and Agnes Moorehead as his wife. The play opened in San Francisco in early 1962 and worked its way across the country with the goal of landing on Broadway by summer.
The arrival never happened. The road show’s lukewarm reviews turned ice cold after Mitchell dropped out due to illness and was replaced by a less charismatic understudy. The production shut down—but not before giving Columbo his most oft-repeated catch phrase.
As Mark Dawidziak revealed in his 1988 book, The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, Levinson and Link worked hard to stretch a 60-minute TV episode into a full-length stage production, and at one point in the rewriting process realized they had the detective exit the suspect’s apartment a few lines of interrogation too soon. Rather than retype the scene (a major chore in the days before word processing), the writers simply had Columbo turn around in the doorway and say, “Oh, just one more thing …”
With the play’s demise, the quote and the character might have dead-ended right there. But television provided yet another opportunity. In 1966, NBC announced plans for a series of two-hour made-for-TV movies, some of which, the network hoped, could then be developed as series. Levinson and Link overhauled Prescription: Murder yet again and pitched it.
NBC bought it. Columbo was back. And Peter Falk landed the role that would make him a star.
The Columbo who appears in the television version of Prescription: Murder, which aired in early 1968, is barely recognizable to fans of the later series.
Yes, he has the signature raincoat and the cigar. But he is young and sharp; his hair is trimmed and combed, and his approach to interrogation only hints at the unmannered distractedness that would later become his trademarks (and his grilling of the psychiatrist’s lover is conventional tough-cop cliché, not at all how the later Columbo would have handled it).
Regardless, viewers—25 million of them, one of the biggest audiences for a made-for-TV-movie up to that time—saw something they liked. NBC wanted Columbo to become a weekly series, but Falk, who was more intent on a career in movies, declined such a major commitment of his time and energies to the small screen.
It took another three years, but finally there was a compromise: Columbo would be part of a rotating weekly “wheel” of detective shows, alternating with McCloud and McMillan & Wife. Instead of 22 one-hour episodes a year, Columbo would appear just six to eight times a season in episodes of 90 minutes to two hours.
And so it went, beginning with a second pilot episode (Ransom for a Dead Man), which aired in March 1971, and extending over the next seven years—44 installments of what most fans consider “classic” Columbo. Among them are, without question (and in no particular order), some very good TV shows:
- Murder by the Book (1971), starring Jack Cassidy, directed by a young Steven Spielberg and written by an even younger Steven Bochco—and if you think those two collaborating on a Columbo episode would yield magic, you’d be correct.
- Suitable for Framing (1971), starring Ross Martin and featuring the detective’s greatest gotcha of the entire series—one I won’t divulge, because describing it to anyone who hasn’t seen it would not do it justice. (But you can watch the full episode here.)
- Negative Reaction (1974), starring Dick Van Dyke in a rare bad-guy role and a final shot that is one of the most fiercely debated of the entire series among fans.
- Try & Catch Me (1977), starring Ruth Gordon as the sweetest little mystery-writer-turned-murderer you’ll ever meet, whose victim gotchas her from the grave.
- Any Old Port in a Storm (1973), starring Donald Pleasence as a snooty winemaker deliciously hoisted on his own rare-vintage petard.
- A Deadly State of Mind (1975), starring George Hamilton and Lesley Ann Warren, with yet another great gotcha and a murder that exemplifies the hypnosis paranoia of the era.
- Forgotten Lady (1975), starring Janet Leigh, including a tragic twist ending unlike any other in the Columbo canon.
- A Friend in Deed (1974), directed by Ben Gazzara and starring Richard Kiley in a tale of police corruption that’s uncharacteristically dark for the series but still recognizably Columbo.
- A Stitch in Crime (1973), starring Leonard Nimoy as perhaps Columbo’s most ruthless and brilliant foe—Spock as a psychopath.
Yet even during these early years, before Columbo really lost its way, the stinkers outnumbered the winners. Episodes were constantly undercut by huge plot holes, poor pacing, wooden acting, and endings in which the suspects simply crumbled when confronted with the flimsiest of evidence. Even some of the better instalments suffered. Among the episodes to avoid entirely:
- Dagger of the Mind (1972), starring Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman, in which Columbo goes to London, does some tourist stuff, matches wits with Scotland Yard, and proves himself a nitwit.
- Short Fuse (1972), with an ending on the Palm Springs aerial tramway that appears to have been hurriedly ad-libbed in hopes of wrapping up the shoot before the car reached the top; the episode’s very title has become a punchline due to Roddy McDowall’s ultra-tight pants.
- A Matter of Honor (1976), starring Ricardo Montalbán, a ludicrous tale about bullfighting in Mexico, rendered basically unwatchable thanks to a barrage of offensive, racist stereotypes.
- Mind Over Mayhem (1974), starring José Ferrer in a story where the supposedly cutting-edge technology looked like it came straight out of the 1950s—because it did, in the form of Robby the Robot, who’d made his screen debut almost 20 years earlier.
- Last Salute to the Commodore (1976), starring Robert Vaughn and directed by Patrick McGoohan (more on this gentleman later), an episode so vile in so many ways it practically defies description—although Britain’s The Guardian, in an article titled “When good TV goes bad” summed it up in just two words: “truly berserk.”
These episodes are a special brand of awful, but they’re not actually atypical of the show. Australia-based super-fan The Columbophile has set out to analyze and review in detail every episode of the series; the site ranks just 16 episodes from the ’70s as truly A-list material.
I think that’s generous. For what it’s worth, IMDB.com’s crowd-sourced ratings don’t place even a single Columbo episode of the era in the “great” category, with almost half earning a “regular” or fair rating at best. Hardly what most people would consider a TV classic.
Even so, it’s hard to argue with the widely held view among Columbo cognoscenti that the 1970s episodes far outshine those produced during the show’s revival: 24 episodes that ran from 1989 to 2003.
The show had vanished after the 1977–78 season, not because it was formally canceled but because new management at NBC was determined to rally the network out of its last-place status. The plan centered on producing programming with greater appeal for younger, hipper audiences. It did not include Columbo.
So the show simply didn’t come back in the fall of 1978. Falk’s insistence on renegotiating his contract on a year-by-year basis made it easy for the network to just walk away. Nonetheless, the actor, who had spent years complaining that he was too closely tied to the Columbo character and insisting that he’d rather make films, almost immediately began trying to persuade NBC to bring the detective back to the small screen. Repeatedly. With no success.
A decade later, though, it finally happened—on another network. By 1988, enough time had passed for Columbo to become a nostalgia property; ABC wanted to use the character’s familiarity to attract viewers to new shows, starring Louis Gossett Jr. and Burt Reynolds, that would comprise a new mystery-movie “wheel.” (After 1990 and several iterations, the wheel was jettisoned, and Columbo continued as a series of stand-alone movie specials for the next dozen years.)
The producers promised that the new Columbo would be the same as the old, with perhaps a few concessions to late-’80s and ’90s sensibilities—like not having the detective light up his cigar so often.
The later incarnation does offer more contemporary production values, which perhaps make these episodes more superficially appealing to 21st century viewers. Beneath the surface sheen, though, Columbo Redux is mostly awful. For example:
- Murder in Malibu (1990), starring Andrew Stevens and Brenda Vaccaro, both overacting as though they never wanted to work in Hollywood again, and featuring several “oh-ick-I-can’t-unsee-that” scenes of Columbo caressing women’s underwear.
- No Time to Die (1992), based on a very-un-Columbo-like novel by Ed McBain; it seemed at the time like a clumsy attempt to move in on the hard-edged crime procedural territory of Law & Order. Jerry Orbach would have nothing to worry about.
- Butterfly in Shades of Grey (1994), in which William Shatner’s usual histrionics are actually upstaged by his ever-changing fake mustache, an uncanny spectacle of migration and changing colors that inspired a brutal scene-by-scene analysis.
- Undercover (1994), another episode based on an Ed McBain novel, with Columbo going incognito for no reason except to prove, apparently, that the bumbling personality we’ve come to love over the decades was all a put-on.
- It’s All in the Game (1993), Falk’s only teleplay credit, another thin story with Columbo acting out of character, an exercise that seemed designed primarily to give the actor a chance to kiss Faye Dunaway. But the chemistry between them is, shall we say, inert.
- Murder with Too Many Notes (2001), directed by Patrick McGoohan (again, more on him later), with so many false starts and such a nonsensical conclusion, it’s as though Columbo simply announces the case is solved and the murderer confesses. Roll credits.
I could go on. At least half a dozen other episodes in the second incarnation could arguably rank among the worst. Not one matches, much less surpasses, the Columbo of the 1970s—which should not have been an impossibly high bar.
Indeed, the whole revival effort has a slapdash feel. Gone for the most part are the big-name guest stars of the earlier era, when Janet Leigh, Vincent Price, John Cassavetes, Ray Milland, Richard Basehart, Anne Baxter, Vera Miles, Louis Jourdan, and even Johnny Cash all made appearances. Back then, the opportunity to play a murderer was clearly a draw for top-drawer Hollywood talents who wouldn’t otherwise deign to appear on TV.
In the new Columbo, by contrast, we are served up Andrew Stevens, George Wendt, Rip Torn, Robert Foxworth—fine actors, but largely television people and not exactly A-list at that. And that’s just the start of the problems with the comeback show. Plots are rehashed; locations are reused; Falk’s acting grows increasingly cartoonish. It is painful to watch.
The end came in January 2003, with an instalment titled Columbo Likes the Nightlife. Set in a rave nightclub, with settings and characters that would have been at home in an episode of CSI, it was actually one of the more successful attempts to transplant the detective into a contemporary milieu, more than four decades after his first television appearance.
But Nightlife bombed in the ratings. That was enough for ABC. Falk’s per-episode salary had skyrocketed over the years, and the network decided that producing such an expensive show, even on an occasional “special television event” basis, was no longer viable. The detective had solved his last murder.
Columbo’s second demise proceeded much like its first, with no formal cancellation announcement and with Falk refusing to let the character rest in peace. The actor spent the next several years pitching the idea of a final farewell episode, one he’d written himself. When ABC wouldn’t buy it, he approached other networks, including cable channels and even overseas production companies. All declined.
When Peter Falk passed away on June 23, 2011, at age 83, television lost a singular, indelible character—one who, sadly, is forced by DVDs and streaming services to shuffle around for all time through dozens of unexceptional stories.
Watching Columbo today demands that you wash down your popcorn with gallons of rationalization. Often it’s just too much to swallow.
Set aside, if you can, the static camera work, the ponderous scene-setting, the sexual and racial stereotypes—all to some extent typical of the times in which the show was produced. Network television, especially during the 1970s, was subject to the limitations of budgets, the sensitivities of advertisers, and the capriciousness of network executives. Most shows achieved excellence only occasionally and often by accident.
What’s harder to overlook is Columbo’s lame storytelling. Plotlines don’t so much race along as sag; dialogue is less snappy than perfunctory. Suspects confess readily—more often, it seems, from weariness than from any open-and-shut evidence against them. Lengthy sequences, often with no relevance to the mystery at hand, achieve little more than to show us the detective in yet another amusing (or not very amusing) predicament.
Yes, many scenes and sometimes entire episodes shine with the craft and care that clearly went into making them. But many, many more are simply boring and awkward.
And for that, we cannot blame the times. After all, the 1970s were the years that gave TV viewers All in the Family and M*A*S*H; the 1980s, Hill Street Blues (created by frequent Columbo writer Steven Bochco) and Moonlighting; the 1990s, The Sopranos, The West Wing, and ER. Admittedly, all of these series had their lackluster moments. But taken as a whole, all are examples of outstanding television of their respective decades, and all hold up relatively well today—in ways that Columbo simply does not.
So what happened? How could such a promising character, such an auspicious premise, end up in failure time and again? Especially a show that had the luxury of producing only a handful of episodes each season?
Having watched all 69 episodes in the order they first aired, and after reading Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile as well as David Koenig’s superb Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective (an episode-by-episode history of the show’s production, published in 2021), I have a possible answer. Actually, three of them:
- First, Columbo was built upon a brilliant but unconventional format that few writers could successfully navigate.
- Second, the series was diminished by the tendency to make the detective more of a caricature with each successive episode and by pressure to make those episodes longer than their stories could support.
- And third, Columbo’s very existence rested entirely on one man—Peter Falk—who immediately recognized the tremendous leverage he possessed over the whole enterprise but whose interests did not always align with the show’s.
The format challenge
From the very start, with the proto-Columbo played by Bert Freed in The Chevy Mystery Show, the series took an unusual approach to the crime genre.
Rather than an Agatha Christie-style “whodunit,” in which the plot culminates with the detective revealing the perpetrator’s identity to the audience, Columbo episodes were almost always an “inverted mystery” or “howcatchem,” in which the killer’s guilt is known to viewers from the outset and the story revolves around the process by which the detective assembles the evidence to prove it.
No car chases, no gun fights, no bare-bulb-in-a-blank-room interrogations. Just lots of genial but probing conversations between Columbo and the murderer, culminating in a “gotcha” moment (or, as the show’s producers dubbed it, the “pop”) when a key piece of evidence, or the cumulative weight of all the clues, prompts the perp to confess.
Obviously it’s more challenging to create dramatic tension when the audience knows the answer before the detective does. The inverted mystery format had been around for decades in literature and was used most famously in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. But the unconventional structure apparently befuddled many of Columbo’s writers, who didn’t seem to recognize that it was the dynamic between detective and suspect, far more than the amassing of clues, that fueled good drama.
Columbo’s creators, Levinson and Link, clearly understood the principle; the lieutenant’s conversation with the psychiatrist in his office in the pilot episode, Prescription: Murder, is a veritable master class in creating excitement and anticipation through simple dialogue. The sequence, which lasts a full 12 minutes but never lags for a second, sees Columbo humbling himself while flattering the suspect (played with perfect arrogance by Gene Barry) and finally wheedling the psychiatrist into describing how the murder was committed—hypothetically, of course.
But Levinson and Link left the show after the first year (they went on to help create Murder, She Wrote) and later expressed dismay at the poor quality of the writing in subsequent seasons. Indeed, Koenig’s book, based on interviews and documents provided by people involved in making the show, reveals a constant struggle by Columbo’s producers to secure inventive stories and high-quality scripts. A struggle that often ended in failure.
Dawidziak reached the same conclusion. In The Columbo Phile, he describes how, prior to the first season, Levinson and Link screened Ransom for a Dead Man for about 60 Hollywood writers; afterward, only two expressed interest in working for the show. “The Columbo formula was intimidating enough to scare off the vast majority of Hollywood writers,” he wrote. “As a result, there was no talent pool to draw on.”
It’s not surprising, then, to see similar plot points recycled over and over in Columbo. In at least two episodes (A Friend in Deed and Columbo Goes to College), the detective trips up the murderers by purposely letting slip information about a supposed suspect who doesn’t exist. In two others (Suitable for Framing and It’s All in the Game), the killer tries to mislead investigators about the time of death by covering the victim with an electric blanket. In at least three episodes (Publish or Perish, The Most Crucial Game, and Identity Crisis), a tape recording is the key piece of evidence. And I lost track of the number of times a perp pointedly asked someone for the time as a way to establish an alibi.
One egregious example of recycling proves just how low the show could go: Uneasy Lies the Crown, which aired in April 1990.
Actually, the episode, or one almost identical to it, aired first in March 1977 on the series McMillan & Wife. Bochco had written the script in 1972 for Columbo, but Falk had rejected it; according to Dawidziak, Falk’s mother, Madeline, heard a description of the episode and declared that no one would believe that a dentist could be a murderer. Apparently that’s all it took for Falk to axe the idea at the time.
So Bochco had revamped the script and sold it to McMillan. Then, 13 years later, during the second season of the Columbo revival, Falk and the show’s producers found themselves so desperate for stories that they dug up Bochco’s script, turned Rock Hudson’s character back into the one played by Falk, and aired the result: a remake of a reject.
“Uneasy Lies the Crown doesn’t even try to hide its connections to the past by changing character names,” The Columbophile writes. “It simply boldly retells the same story with the same characters, making only slight cosmetic changes, padding out scenes to lengthen the running time, and adding in the tedious sub-plot about laundry bluing to make the gotcha much more confusing than in the original.”
The Crown debacle is just an extreme example of the hasty, inept scripting that bedeviled the show throughout both of its runs. To be consistently successful, the series needed a clear vision not only of its central character but also of the kind of tales it wanted to tell, and how. Too often, though, good stories were an afterthought.
The formula crutch
In his seminal 1973 book The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold contemplated the ways in which a network television show can experience deterioration of its format into mere formula by what he terms a creative “hardening of the arteries.” Watch all 69 Columbo episodes in order, and you can practically see the sclerosis forming before your eyes.
Throughout the series, huge quantities of screen time are devoted to having Columbo do nothing related to the case at hand but instead simply find himself in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or supposedly humorous situation:
- In Dagger of the Mind (1972), Columbo spends a full two minutes frantically taking photographs of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
- In Candidate for Crime (1973), Columbo visits an auto-repair shop, gets pulled over by a traffic cop, and listens to his dentist talk about the stereotyping of Italians in the media.
- In A Friend in Deed (1974), Columbo’s car won’t start, and he spends several eternities attempting to open the hood and trying to flag down passing motorists.
- In An Exercise in Fatality (1974), Columbo waits almost seven minutes for a computer printout—an exercise in fatality for viewers, for sure.
- In Make Me a Perfect Murder (1978), Columbo sits down at a broadcast control board, punches random buttons, and stares at pretty patterns on the screen for what seems like forever.
- In Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star (1991), the detective visits a bar that features a mermaid on wires hanging behind a fish tank; the conclusion of the scene, centered on a toothless drunk staring agog at Columbo and the sea nymph, ranks as “15 of the worst TV seconds I’ve ever seen and it enrages me every time,” writes The Coumbophile.
- In Murder with Too Many Notes (1995), Columbo helps his drunken suspect make his way home, a seven-minute journey replete with stock classical music, pointless high jinx, and not a single interesting moment—the very opposite of the tense, revealing Columbo-vs-killer conversation in Prescription: Murder.
These sequences and many others were ponderous and superfluous when they aired; viewed today, they just seem amateurish and stupid. Many were inserted near the end of each episode’s production work at the insistence of the networks, which could pull down more revenue selling Columbo as a two-hour show than as one lasting only an hour and a half. The padding is obvious, and it kills whatever good storytelling surrounds it.
“Columbo was crisp at 90 minutes,” Bochco told Dawidziak. “At two hours, it was a bit indulgent and inflated.” Some fans have gone so far as to create their own versions of overly long episodes, editing them down to reduce the bloat.
But the networks can’t be blamed for another major contributor to Columbo’s slump: the way the detective degenerates from quirky character to crass cartoon over the course of the series.
In the latter half of the classic run, and especially during the revival years, our detective’s peculiarities become more numerous, his mannerisms more exaggerated. Falk’s speaking voice becomes higher and more shrill; he flails his arms like a windmill in a cyclone. The detective and the show he inhabits become more reliant on gimmicky theatrics and thus more predictably ludicrous.
As Koenig writes, “Falk, in trying to stretch the character, was unwittingly turning his portrayal into a broad caricature, like a comic doing an impression of Columbo.”
The fault lies not just with Falk but also with Columbo’s writers and producers, who clearly felt the need to take aspects of the show that had generated buzz and make them even more outlandish. If viewers and critics were saying, “Did you see the crazy thing Columbo did last night?” then the message to the show was, “OK, so next time we’ve got to make him do something even more over-the-top.”
Thus, we see the detective fondling women’s underwear (and saying “panties” again and again) in Murder in Malibu. We see him issue an all-points bulletin for a cat (“That cat could be the only witness to this terrible crime! I want that cat!”) in A Trace of Murder. We see him babbling imbecilic baby talk to a potted plant in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. We see him practically drooling while walking among the swim-suited models gathered poolside—and then, predictably, getting soaked—in Columbo Cries Wolf.
“Falk had looked forward to playing Columbo in his old age, when the character’s forgetfulness and other eccentricities might seem normal,” Koenig wrote. “Yet, his performance had the opposite effect. Columbo started to come across as borderline senile.”
And when the writers didn’t have a great pop at the end, they settled for a gag, even if it was entirely inappropriate in the context of the story. All four episodes from Columbo’s first revival year, 1989, exhibited a grotesque overreliance on cute, nonsensical contrivances to cap off scripts or just extend their running time:
- In Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, the detective arrests the suspect in a magic workshop by shooting him with a fake gun, a “bang” flag bursting from the barrel. This from a detective famous for never carrying a firearm.
- In Murder, Smoke and Shadows, Columbo pronounces the case solved by suddenly and inexplicably transforming into a circus ringmaster (which, aside from the jarring fantasy element, doesn’t even qualify as poetic in an episode that’s about movie making, not circuses).
- In Grand Deceptions, the final shot pans across a miniature Civil War battlefield diorama, landing on a figurine of Columbo himself (which could not possibly exist given the events of the episode).
- In Sex and the Married Detective, we get almost certainly the most moronic, awkward, and pointless Columbo scene of all time, in which we learn the lieutenant can play the tuba—and somehow has the power to make fountains dance in sync with his honking.
These were cheap punchlines, not plot developments—a retreat to unimaginative formula when the demands of the format simply exceeded the writers’ imaginations. As Gerrold put it:
“Formula occurs when format starts to repeat itself. Formula occurs when format does not challenge writers—or when writers are giving less than their best. Formula occurs when a show becomes creatively bankrupt. Flashy devices can conceal the lack for a while, but ultimately the lack of any real meat in the story will leave the viewers hungry and unsatisfied.”
Unsatisfying. Many episodes of Columbo were, and are, exactly that.
The Falk Factor
Just as there is no way to fully separate the fictional character called Columbo from the performer who portrayed him, it is impossible to examine the shortcomings of the show called Columbo without acknowledging the major role Peter Falk played in those failures.
As co-creator Richard Levinson put it, Columbo “was one of those once-in-a-lifetime weddings of character and actor.” Falk recognized this almost from the start. Even before the regular series premiered in the fall of 1971, the actor began trying to assert creative control over the show: arguing with the writers over plots and characters, demanding his own representative on the production staff, and having “terrible blowouts,” as Bochco put it, with Levinson and Link.
Ultimately, Koenig writes, Falk became so disruptive that Universal barred him from the production lot except when he had scenes to shoot—the first skirmish in three-way war between studio, network, and star that persisted over the next three-plus decades.
Some would say those fights were justified. Even Levinson, with whom Falk clashed so often, credits Falk for being “the conscience of the show.” And though the actor’s beef was often about his salary, just as often the issue was creative control of Columbo. Few would blame the actor for using the power of his unique position to improve the series.
Trouble was, he often ended up doing the opposite. He was neither a skilled writer nor an experienced director, yet he was constantly at loggerheads with the creative staff over how shows should be plotted and filmed. As an actor he was notorious as an on-set perfectionist but an indecisive one—demanding take after expensive take, sometimes lasting late into the night and early morning, yet seemingly never being satisfied.
Falk’s sway over every aspect of the show grew with each passing season, and soon he was hand-picking scripts, actors, directors, and producers. Some of those choices, unfortunately, were directly responsible for many of the worst episodes of Columbo.
Two appalling examples arose from a single, impulsive decision by Falk—“one of the most wrongheaded moves in the celebrated history of Columbo,” as Dawidziak puts it—to buy the rights to a pair of 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain and adapt them for the series. Although crime stories, the novels were conventional procedurals and, as the producers quickly discovered, a poor fit both for the show’s format and for Columbo’s character.
Painted into a corner, the writers of the resulting episodes—No Time to Die and Undercover—simply scrapped the Columbo format (the former doesn’t even include a murder) as well as the Columbo character (the latter leaves him virtually unrecognizable). No inverted mysteries; no real pops at the end; and no Columbo doing what he does best: observing, chatting, connecting the dots, and closing in. As examples of the procedural genre, they’re forgettable; as Columbo episodes, they’re pure blight.
Significantly, though, there was one person who thought using the McBain novels to turn the series upside down was a terrific idea (according to Koenig): Patrick McGoohan. That small fact is revealing. I submit that it was Falk’s long collaboration with McGoohan, during both runs of the series, that inflicted the most damage on the Columbo canon.
The Irish-American actor was not a big star in the United States (although his allegorical 1967 British series, The Prisoner, has since become a cult favorite), and Falk wasn’t really familiar with his work. The show’s producers persuaded him that McGoohan would be perfect to play a military-school commander turned murderer in the fourth-season episode By Dawn’s Early Light (1974).
McGoohan’s performance in the episode is uncharacteristically understated—the last time, throughout his many stints as actor, writer, and director on Columbo, that he exercised any restraint at all.
Unfortunately for the show, McGoohan and Falk hit it off; “Falk adored McGoohan’s unpredictability,” writes Koenig. The subsequent trail of disasters includes:
- Identity Crisis (1975), with McGoohan starring and directing, an unnecessarily complex episode involving spies, marred by an ending that fizzles instead of pops and a groaner of a scene in which Columbo is rendered nearly catatonic by the mere sight of a belly dancer. Per Koenig, McGoohan was reportedly drinking heavily at the time and incurred substantial overtime costs during production.
- Last Salute to the Commodore (1976), perhaps the worst Columbo ever, directed (and heavily rewritten) by McGoohan, who seemed to think it would be hilarious for Falk to act as if his character was constantly stoned. Entire scenes were filmed with little or no rehearsal, and they show it; the episode’s resolution looks like it was staged by a community improv troupe on an off night.
- Agenda for Murder (1989), another dual acting-and-directing effort by McGoohan, a decent political thriller undermined by a pointless subplot involving dry cleaning. According to Koenig, McGoohan’s arbitrary decision-making and arrogant manner managed to alienate just about everyone who worked on the episode—except his buddy Falk.
- Ashes to Ashes (1998), overall a so-so episode, again directed by and starring McGoohan, this one centers on an undertaker to the stars; it’s memorable mainly for the medley of awful death-themed song parodies performed at a funeral directors’ convention. It lasts only 90 seconds but takes years off a viewer’s life.
- Murder with Too Many Notes (2001), a script McGoohan had heavily rewritten and directed almost three years earlier but which was relegated by the network to the shelf—where it should have stayed, thanks to its previously noted, very unfunny drunken driving sequence and an ending so batshit surreal, it would have been more at home in The Prisoner.
McGoohan’s influence on Columbo extended far beyond the six episodes in which he is listed in the credits; from the mid-1970s onward, Falk consulted with him on casting and directing decisions, enlisted him to polish scripts, and used him as a frequent sounding board. Many of the show’s fans consider the collaboration between these two men to be among the most fruitful of the entire series, but for me McGoohan’s impact was, on balance, hugely detrimental.
“Patrick McGoohan was simply bad for Columbo.”
McGoohan (who died in 2009) was a political libertarian and a television anarchist; his natural inclination was to defy authority, question norms, and gum up the works as much as possible. The Prisoner (which my wife and I also rewatched from start to finish during the pandemic) was less a sci-fi/spy thriller than a personal manifesto for McGoohan. His philosophy—which included a disdain for “low-mentality viewers” and a belief that writers of commercial television shows were “prisoners of conditioning”—was palpable in the many decisions he made on Columbo.
Unfortunately, that contrarian philosophy did not mesh at all with an understated police procedural whose following was built on a well-established central player possessing a set of consistent eccentricities. Koenig writes that McGoohan “seemed most intent on stretching the Columbo character in new directions. He didn’t believe that Columbo was really humble or polite. To him, that was an act, which the detective could turn on or off as the situation merited.”
Trouble was, most Columbo fans most definitely didn’t think it was an act; the appeal of the character stemmed from the idea that a genuine bumbler could also be a brilliant puzzle-solver—the “smartest guy in any room,” as Brownfield put it. To audiences, that’s what made Columbo so fascinating—and so funny. (Doubtless McGoohan would dismiss them as “low-mentality viewers.”)
Imagine a Columbo with no Last Salute to the Commodore, no Murder with Too Many Notes, no Ed McBain episodes—what a relief! Even if all of McGoohan’s other contributions were erased as well, the result would still be a net improvement for the series overall.
McGoohan was simply bad for Columbo. Unfortunately, writes Koenig, “Falk trusted him implicitly.” That trust perhaps made for a wonderful friendship. But it also resulted in marginal, and often downright awful, television.
Unlike Dawidziak, Koenig, The Columbophile and many, many others, I’m no expert on Columbo. But I am, despite everything I’ve just written, a fan of the show.
That’s no contradiction. As The Columbophile put it: “No man, woman or child loves Columbo more than I. But love needn’t be blind and I don’t believe in the fawning viewpoint that the show was free from faults. Far from it. And some of its worst moments were very bad indeed.“
For my part, I believe that Link, Levinson, and Falk created the greatest television detective of all time and one of the most consequential TV characters in any genre. The fact that books are still being published about the show, an online fandom community is thriving, and people continue to be inspired to revisit a character invented more than six decades ago is powerful evidence that Columbo is truly a classic fictional figure.
But the show that carried his name seldom embraced the brilliance embedded in its DNA. We remember Columbo as better than it was because that’s the show the character, and the audience, deserved. Sadly, the opportunity for that better show is lost: Falk is gone, Levinson and Link have both passed, and any attempt at a reboot would be foolish and doomed to fail.
I like to pretend that many of the detective’s greatest cases somehow never got filmed. In my mind, these are stories in which the crime seems unsolvable, the clues inscrutable. The plot moves briskly but not breathlessly; there are moments of whimsy but not a wasted second. The detective spars verbally with the suspect again and again, but the murderer remains coldly defiant.
I think: Is this, finally, a mystery that can’t be cracked? Maybe this is the one that ends with the killer going free? But in the final seconds, a forgetful fellow in a raincoat—after looking for his lost pencil, petting a dog named Dog, whistling “This Old Man”—drops the bomb. The biggest, most unexpected pop ever. The evidence, invisible just moments earlier, is now irrefutable, the proof apparent to all. And another rich, hubristic asshole is going to prison.
Oh, and there isn’t just one more thing. That’s the whole thing. Columbo’s biggest mystery. Unseen, but not unsolved.
— — — — — —
Michael Rene Zuzel (michaelzuzel.com) is a writer and musician in Southern Oregon. He is currently writing a pandemic-inspired cocktail guide (details at patreon.com/michaelzuzel).
This article was originally published on medium.com in January 2022.
Homepage thumbnail by Dawn Hudson.
There we have it gang, a lengthy summation of some of the series’ faults and foibles. To what extent do you agree with Michael’s arguments? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below – particularly with regard to his commentary about Patrick McGoohan’s influence on the show and the character. Sacrilegious or warranted? Let me know…
And as for the site update, I’ll be implementing that in the next week, so LOOK OUT for a (hopefully) new and improved visitor experience. Until then, farewell…
An interesting essay. I won’t say I disagree with Zuzel with respect to the bad episodes. When Columbo was bad, it was really bad. But I do disagree with his view that the good episodes are only slightly good. No. When Columbo was good, it wasn’t just good, it was extraordinarily good. Ultimately, I think what makes great cinema/television is how satisfied you feel at the denouement. And with Columbo, when he used his psychological warfare to destroy the arrogant, entitled perpetrators who seemed otherwise immune from justice, there was a level of moral and narrative satisfaction that few television shows have ever been able to equal.
I’m looking for a Columbo episode in which the murderer leaves the hospital following his operation (appendicitis I think) in order to have an alibi. Could anyone help me? Thanks.
A Stitch in Crime (which is about dissolving sutures used in heart-valve surgery) is the only hospital episode I know, besides a brief dash to the hospital to learn that the victim has died in Prescription: Murder.
The episode Ghislaine’s description brings to mind is ‘Troubled Waters’ in which Robert Vaughan’s character, Danziger, slips out of the sick-bay of the cruise liner in order to do the dirty deed to his ex-lover Rosanna, played by the wonderfully named Poupée Bocar. He slips back into bed unnoticed leaving the vacationing Lt C. to unpick the mystery.
Oh, good thinking! 😎
I should’ve thought of that cruise-ship episode, which I always liked and have seen several times.
I must say that I agree with most of what Michael Zuzel has written. I have no knowledge of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans he refers to but they probably do have a bearing on why much of Columbo could have been ‘better’ (certainly it might have been different) as far as TV crime drama is concerned.
For this particular viewer Zuzel is somewhat missing the point. I enjoy the programme despite the shortcomings, sometimes even because of them. In its day the original series had charm and wit, it was never believable and I don’t think it was ever intended to be so. It was pretty harmless escapism unencumbered by the need to deliver a message (other than the very basic ‘crime doesn’t pay’). It was right in there with Starsky & Hutch, Vega$, The Rockford Files, and Banacek among others. The likes of Kojak, The Streets of San Francisco, Harry O, and Ironside were more likely intended as ‘serious’ drama with a message. They were all watchable and most of the shows I’ve mentioned here could do with TV reruns.
In 2022 Columbo is a huge slab of enjoyable nostalgia which I take in small doses so as not to spoil the pleasure. This blog and the analysis of each episode only add to the fun.
How bad can a show be, that has earned as much print as it has over the decades, just for the reason of being second-guessed?? There are only 3 factors involved in the show:
• Execution (the brilliance or not of acting and shaping the character).
• Purpose (what’s the episode trying to say)
• Setting (meaning placement, context, visibility, atmosphere)
Put those factors (meaning elements of consideration) up against similar shows of the day (its contemporaries, and all of them). And one of those elements (factors) is going to be missing. Which means their show isn’t worth that much over-thinking. It’s just a moment in time.
It is only because of the depth of Columbo in the first place, that we’re still talking about it today. Not that other shows don’t have their own rabid followers too. Just maybe not as intense.
Two things happened to Columbo along the way: (One) it got trapped by its own dangerous self-awareness (trying too hard). And (two) viewers expecting too much, and especially after-the-fact. While some viewers like to hang on a memory, that’s great! But in the day, in the moment of the experience, it’s only about entertainment. Sometimes it wins, and sometimes it loses. Which this article has spent much time on deciphering, why. I get it.
But at least celebrate Columbo’s intention. Craft and acting talent deserves at least that much! And by the way, Troubled Water wasn’t even mentioned. I like that its perfectly obvious and we can just sail along with the passengers and crew Like taking a vacation from over-thinking. And enjoying the characters on board!
To the authors of the article: thank you though, for your very thoughtful contribution to the conversation. Every writer through determined analysis and style of expression, gives away a little piece of his or her self. Meaning, the contributor is worth appreciation!
Only thing worse to view than Last Salute to the Commodore was this essay. Everything from the past is lamer than the present. No one is reading this blog on a Commodore 64, are they (yes, I did that on purpose)? Anyone still have a flip phone who isn’t known as the most boring person in their network of friends? C’mon…Hill St. Blues or Law & Order? Gilligan’s Island and Hazel or Seinfeld and Friends? P-51 Mustang or F-22 Raptor? Bette Davis or Jennifer Aniston? Ever look back at your high school yearbook, and think, “hmph, I always thought Biff McDoogle and Buffy Skankerton were better looking. And, what’s with the mullets???”
Late coming into this thread, but I think there are a lot of good observations here. One thing to add: we have been in a golden age of series television for some time now. The shows we watch now often have much higher standards, original concepts, first-rate showrunners & actors, etc. than the ones decades ago. They learned from the past shows that we love, such as Columbo, & build on them. So it’s not just nostalgia that causes disappointment when we re-watch old favorites – our standards have changed because we have such good TV to watch now.
It’s also worth pointing out that despite all that, Columbo is still generally extremely entertaining and satisfying to watch, even after all this time. I started watching during the pandemic like so many others, and even the worse ones are generally enjoyable. They’re (99% of the time) character studies of two enigmas: the person who seems to have everything and still commits murder, and the very likeable, very mysterious man who inevitably catches them. Like nothing else on TV. I also started watching “Murder, She Wrote” during the pandemic based on very fond memories, but I quickly stopped – every episode I tried seemed crammed with stereotypes and bad acting (Angela Lansbury always excepted), and barely held together compared with Columbo.
Point is: Columbo had plenty of problems in retrospect – much more obvious to us now – but it’s still a great character and a great watch.
I love an article like this even though I don’t agree with it. I think the one thing the author is not considering is television at that time. My first Columbo was Ransom For A Dead Man, I was all of 9 years old. No way was I old enough to understand the nuance or subtlety of the performances. Personally, I didn’t like Columbo, but if an episode was being broadcast, first run or rerun, it was on the living room TV. Columbo was part of my formative years. Now, I’m going to compare it to the rest of the NBC Mystery Movie slate. Even a kid like me, who really did not get what was going on, could see that Columbo was,by far, the highest quality show they had. It had better actors, better writing, more clever plots and, in the end, better directors. I loved the show Banacek. Now, when I watch it, I’m actually embarrassed that I once thought it was great. Same for McCloud, McMillan & Wife and any other spoke in the wheel. The same is true for any other police show from the 1970s. Columbo was on a different level. Were there clunkers? Oh Yeah! Nothings perfect. I won’t list, but I agree with the author on all Patrick McGoohan directed episodes and found it interesting he had so much influence. Still, I found this article thought provoking, the main thought being, it was written 45 years after the show ended its initial run. How many people would write an article like this about McCloud or McMillan?
Excellent points! Columbo was indeed on a whole different level from the rest of the entries in that Mystery Movie slot.
I think that only The Rockford Files (among similar series of the same time) approached Columbo in quality.
“How many people would write an article like this about McCloud or McMillan?” Indeed!
I imagine watching Columbo with this guy would be similar to watching Used Cars with my nephew, i.e. I’m watching to be entertained while he’s watching to be offended. I’ll be the first to admit that I find the boy genius and girl genius and geisha and Russian maid and Roddy McDowell’s pants and Falk’s portrayal during the reboot as gaggifying as the next guy, but I still enjoyed watching elite snobs slowly discovering their lack of eliteness as the rumpled detective reeled in his prey. Toss in an interesting murder and credible gotcha and I’m satisfied.
I tried watching Rockford Files the other day. I suppose if I’d taken notes I’d have had some clue as to what was going on. 27 charcters. I suppose one of them hired him for one thing or another. Maybe that’s why I like Columbo. I know the players and goal before the show even begins. Come to think of it, I seldom bothered watching the murders. I was in it for the chase.
I love The Rockford Files, but otherwise I agree with your post 100%!
Whoops! I should give it another try. I was in search of Gretchen and may have been distracted.
I’ve got to expose one of the the elephants in my Columbo room…..Shera Danese. It’s nothing personal, but for me, episodes with her in them remind me of the Clint Eastwood movies that co-starred Sondra Locke. They’re not bad, per se…..but just….I dunno….nothing special. The 2 – early era Columbo eps with Danese (‘Fade into Murder’ and ‘Murder Under Glass’) and 4 later eps (‘Murder, A Self Portrait’, ‘Columbo, and the Murder of a Rock Star’, ‘Undercover’, and ‘A Trace of Murder’) were rather blasé. (in my unholy opinion only, of course)
I’ve never understood what Falk saw in Shera, either on or offscreen. (or Eastwood for Locke, for that matter)….there…..I’ve said it, and feel better and relieved to get it off my chest. Flame away…..
Back to the Zuzel article and the overall differences between the early and later Columbo eps, this topic reminds me of another favorite series of mine, The Andy Griffith Show. When the most pivotal character and funny man (Don Knotts) left after the fifth season for a movie career, variety shows, and voice-overs, etc., the series then switched from b&w to color film, and most die hard fans were not interested in the final 3 years of the colorized, Knott’s-less episodes. Griffith really lost his comedy mojo without his friend and co-star Barney Fife. (Knotts) In the colorized episodes, Griffith’s character (Andy Taylor) always seemed disgruntled and disinterested in the events of the fictional town of Mayberry. Lame scripts, production, and new bland character actors didn’t help much either. However, when the 249th and final show aired after 8 seasons, it was still #1 in the Nielsen ratings, which proves that the “arts” don’t always have to be performed well to be popular.
I also concur with the Twilight Zone discussion above. The 4th season of T.Z. were one hour eps compared to half hour format with seasons 1-3 and 5. Padding was required for the longer eps, (like Columbo’s) and the series suffered that season. Serling was also disappointed in the Night Gallery series which followed the Twilight Zone. Some of them are excellent, and some…not so much. Usually the best episodes of both series had more of Sterling’s involvement in them. I also recommend Serling’s “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, in addition to his small screen work.
All this being said, I will still watch the worst Columbo’s, Griffith shows, T.Z.’s, Night Galleries, and many other series from my favorite era (1950’s – 70’s) before I waste my time on most of the schlock that passes for entertainment in today’s clown world.
C’est la vie.
Yeah Columbo is mediocre; that is why this fellow wrote a manifesto on it 50 plus years later and eveyone is discussing it. Compare to the shows its own age , shows made since and shows made now, it is a star.
Excellent point, pking! And the first line made me burst out laughing.
This is the best comment of them all.
NBC-era Columbo episodes are like watching lean, mean, surly Elvis in 1955, though a few of those episodes are more like the cheesy 1960 movies he made, still watchable, but….meh.
ABC-era Columbo episodes are reminiscent of 1970’s bloated Elvis, wearing Liberace-style capes, doing those bizarre karate kicks on stage, with black sweat from his hair dye dripping on his super-wide bell bottoms…..then posing with President Nixon while they discussed the ironic ‘war on drugs’, while Elvis was under the influence of literally hundreds of medications from his Dr. Feelgood and Memphis Mafia toadies.
Episodes like ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’, ‘Murder in Malibu’, and ‘Columbo Likes the Nightlife’ are like Elvis staggering in his Graceland bathroom on August 16th, 1977.
Interesting choice of comparisons. I mostly disagree with them, but it’s a very odd, creepy and, yes, interesting choice you made there.
FIrst: thank you for all the great commentary.
Second: all the good insights have stirred some ideas. There is a Columbo formula–introduced, and then perfected in the early seasons. Those episodes offer a particular type of pleasure, with the ones most ably embodying the formula, often considered among the best.
But as with most any series/sequence of aesthetic products, the formula undergoes change. Questions are asked: what can we do now? How can we tweak or modify the formula? How can we stand it on its end?
With regard to Columbo, such episodes are recognizably in the Columbo tradition, but liberties are taken with the formula, with ambiguity sometimes being introduced. TROUBLED WATERS is the formula on a cruise ship, like a mystery set on an island or other contained location. FORGOTTEN LADY has a killer who does not remember that she killed someone, so Columbo’s interactions with her are not with an antagonist who is trying to deflect/mislead him, but with someone who genuinely does not know what she has done. In these cases (and others), the formula is opened up–the paradigm still clearly visible, but being riffed on.
Falk’s performance also changes as the series progresses. He too perfected a performance of Columbo early on, and then opens it up, and plays with his audience’s expectations of how the lieutenant behaves.
I watched DOUBLE EXPOSURE the other evening, and I was struck by how formula-abiding both the episode and Falk’s performance were. Watching the episode in light of this discussion, I realized that my slight boredom had to do with how closely the episode hewed to the Columbo formula. As good as it was, and as excellent as Falk’s acting was, there was a flatness to it for me. I recognized the work’s quality, but understood that I prefer looser-limbed episodes, where both formula and performance are played withriffed on.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that any estimations of the quality of Columbo episodes will be based both on objective criteria–writing, direction, performance–and also on the more subjective standard of a viewer’s embrace of/tolerance for deviations from an established/perfected artistic formulas.
I will always love FORGOTTEN LADY. In terms of objective criteria: the writing is sound, Harvey Hart’s direction is supple (he was not always liked by producers, since they felt he brought a more filmic approach to television work, resulting in footage more difficult to re-edit at will while maintaining coherence); and the performances are superb.
I could write the same about DOUBLE EXPOSURE, but what puts FORGOTTEN LADY ahead for me, is the variations it plays on the Columbo formula. DOUBLE EXPOSURE plays it straight and does not stray, but FORGOTTEN LADY opens things up. So while I can praise both episodes for their technical accomplishments, my own preference for variations on a theme will cause me to adore FORGOTTEN LADY, and regard it as one of the series greatest accomplishments.
That flexibility in formula you mentioned is the aspect that puts both “Double Exposure” and “Forgotten Lady” among my favourite entries. The first is a prime example of the “classic mould” at its most riveting, the second a most felicitous departure from the norm that successfully introduced new issues into the series.
“Double Exposure” is my favorite episode I think. The murder method isn’t flawless, but so much of Columbo’s suspicions of Keppel are circumstantial at best.
But what really shines for it is the absolutely tour-de-force turn by Robert Culp. He knows Columbo is onto him from the conversation in the grocery store, and the episode just keeps getting cattier and mousier from there. I love snarling Culp from “Crucial Game,” But this performance is my favorite of his. He’s so slick, so cool, and really doesn’t try to inject himself into the investigation unlike some of the other killers. He’ll bounce theories when Columbo hounds him, but mainly he just wants to flex his mental superiority over Columbo before making him go away.
In fact, this is one of the few episodes where Columbo works overtime to GET Keppel involved in the “investigation.” It’s no clearer than in the scene following Roger White’s death. He knows Columbo knows he killed White, and knows that Columbo is only there to try and trap him, and yet he not only ends up gleefully tagging along, but he once again “wins” the battle, as Columbo fails to trap him yet again.
Even in the brief moment on the golf course when Keppel loses his cool, he still hasn’t lost it. He’s briefly pissed but almost immediately reminds Columbo he hasn’t got jack on him, and after a golf cheat, seemingly goes on to play a relaxing under par game after Columbo leaves.
And the best part? Even when Columbo has Keppel dead to rights, he still hasn’t fully won. Keppel gleefully gloats that only Keppel’s own technique allowed Columbo to beat him. It doesn’t even seem that Keppel is that bothered by the fact that he’s going to jail for a long time. Like even though he’s lost, he’s still won, because Columbo couldn’t nail him on his own.
It was neck and neck between Culp and Cassidy for my favorite killer until “Double Exposure.” That episode sealed the deal for me with Culp as my favorite baddie. In every episode, he seems to be relishing the individual roles, but Keppel is the role where he appears to be relishing every minute from start to finish.
Really good post … Double Exposure is all you say.
For me, Culp and Cassidy are still my two number-one killers. But you make great observations, and I liked all of Culp’s episodes very much.
“Double Exposure” literally crackles with tension from the let-go.
One of my top three episodes …
Another stray thought to chew on:
“Columbo” is entertainment. Evaluating an art form is more than a counting exercise of Great/Good/Bad, as Zuzel has done. If I listened to every single David Bowie song (catalogue of 26 studio albums, many live albums), labelled every song
Great/Good/Bad, then counted how many were in each category, I might conceivably return with an assessment that Bowie Is Mediocre. That’s not being an intelligent critic, that’s being short-sighted. As I noted earlier, Zuzel’s numbers metric is a valid way of assessing a product’s overall value – if that product was pizza or blenders or a players’ batting average. Assessing art the same way we assess General Electric products isn’t incisive or perceptive, its simply lacking imagination.
Glenn — I couldn’t agree with you more!
I totally agree!
I believe you nailed it, dear Glenn.While the arguments may be generally sound, the method employed seems rather quantitative for its object.
My personal Bowie playlist has 83 songs. He recorded at least (give or take a handful) 420 studio tracks. I guess the verdict is in. Geez, and all this time I was stupidly thinking that Bowie was a genius, when he was indeed, like “Columbo”, “mostly mediocre”.
Me too! I’m gonna have to rethink my very positive view of Bowie now. I wish that wasn’t pointed out here. I was a big fan of his. But stats are stats! I can’t kid myself any longer. Anyone want to buy some old LOs?
Our favorite police lieutenant is certainly not above criticism. Like most fans, I find a few of the episodes cringe-worthy in spots. But this reviewer goes much too far, in my view. It’s one thing to say the series had a few clunkers; it’s another to say it had only a few good ones.
I’m reminded of a book I read years ago about Simon & Garfunkel that dished little jabs at an alarmingly high number of their songs. The tipping point for me was when the author called the song Bridge Over Troubled Water “fake piety in the Oscar Hammerstein mold.” Seriously? Why even write about them if you feel that way?
Nevertheless, it was interesting to read a different POV, so I’m glad you shared this article. I read the whole thing, btw. Always up for some responsibly argued dissent!
A lot to agree with here and a lot to disagree with, but as to the basic point (on reviewing, the series as a whole isn’t as good as we remember it), I have to say my reaction is a big “So what?” That observation is true about almost every show ever made. No series was as beloved as the Twilight Zone, and on looking back Rod Serling reckoned that a third of the shows were quite good, a third only fair, and a third just awful…and he thought that that was about as good as you could hope for considering the constraints and production pressures of a commercial medium. Maybe Columbo should be judged more harshly because it didn’t appear every week…on the other hand, maybe it should be cut some slack because every episode was essentially a movie.
Good points about Columbo. And I’m certainly with you on Twilight Zone being beloved! 😉 Serling, btw, was notoriously harsh on himself. TZ had some duds along the way, yes, but a third of them? No way. The series would hardly be so fondly remembered six decades later if that were the case.
I’m a big fan of Twilight Zone and agree with Sterling’s assessment. The 1/3 of the episodes that were outstanding make the entire series memorable.
As I said in another post. Yes, CP only rates about 16 of 45 episodes as grade A in the original run. But the thing about Columbo is, The B grade, the C grade, and even some of the D grade episodes are still far better viewing and quality as many series’ A episodes. There are a few episodes that I’m not a big fan of, like “Mind Over Mayhem,” largely because Jose’ Ferrer is a bit wooden and seems bored, but if I’m flipping through cable channels and it’s on, I’m still probably watching it.
What helps is that even in the episodes that have poor writing, the guest star killer and supporting cast make up for a lot of ground. “The Conspirators” is a good example. Devlin’s murder plot is one of the poorest ever, and he makes so many glaring errors that he’s practically wearing a sign around his neck saying he’s the murderer. But Clive Revill is just so entertaining as Devlin that it doesn’t matter.
I feel the same about TZ. Even the less quality episodes are better than some of the best that current T.V. has to offer. And like “Columbo” it was fun seeing some of the biggest TV stars of that era getting their just desserts in the episode’s twist. Especially when said actor was playing a real jerk. Fritz Weaver is an example. He’s brilliant as the Hitleresque Chancellor opposite Burgess Meredith, and boom, at the end of the episode, he gets his karma.
Thank you, Columbophile, for sharing this indepth study of the show – learned a lot about the writing challenges from Columbo’s beginning, the fascinating Falk-McGoohan connection, Peter Falk’s efforts to continue the series after ’03, etc. Debating the merits of our favorite villains (Cassidy, Culp, McGoohan, et al), plots or scenes just underscores our affection for such a classic series & the beloved Lt! 💖
2/28 9:10pm East Coast USA, new Columbophile Blog up and running….looks slick and clean! One question, CP…..In the switchover, did the thumbs-up/thumbs-down feature get lost? That’s a good barometer feature for shy folks to express approval/disapproval without verbalizing.
The Editing feature is great. Nice job, Drtherling and Russell for the suggestion and assistance to CP.
Hi Glenn, I’m addressing that very point in a soon-to-be-published post. The thumbs up/down plug-in is apparently a DANGER to the site at present.
Well, Patrick McGoohan did win an Emmy for his portrayal of Colonel Rumford, so he wasn’t all terrible. Maybe he wasn’t the best fit for writing or directing Columbo episodes, given his unique ideas on such things. But I enjoyed all four episodes that he appeared in, probably because I like his acting. (At work I will frequently start a conversation with “What gives, Frank?”, using his delivery.)
McGoohan also played a spy in Ice Station Zebra… was this some sort of unfulfilled personal wish of his? It seems to pervade his acting career.
JUST ONE MORE THING: Calling Columbo a bumbler is just dead wrong. Inspector Clouseau was a bumbler. Maxwell Smart was a bumbler. Columbo NEVER bumbles. He is absent-minded, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing. He has a fear of heights, too, and he just isn’t good at a LOT of stuff.
But when it comes to detection, he NEVER bumbles. Anything he does that looks like bungling is just a method to catch the killer off-guard.
Thinking that the Lieutenant is a bumbler seems to misunderstand the entire series, which seems impossible since Zuzel WATCHED the entire series and is obviously smart. Go figure.
In sum, we have this unpretentious man with a privileged deductive mind that enables him a razor-sharp grasp on all the variables in play on a crime scene.
He wasn’t even absent minded – the business of pulling out shopping lists, etc was pure staging. More likely, some form of Aspergers – resulting in extreme concentration on the important issues – while not bothering with day-to-day crap – like statutory vehicle tests, firing range tests, dental appointments and so on.
Columbo’s Biggest Mystery – Solved!
Perhaps I’m a bit optimistic. However, now that the dust has somewhat settled on this article’s posting and I’ve combed through over 67 comments, I may be able to summarize some thoughts, and find the impetus for Zuzel’s “Columbo” assessment. (Stay tuned for the kinda-sorta-Gotcha).
In my original post now nestled in the bottom third of this thread, I noted that “New Columbo [is] an anchor dragging down the overall series quality.…perhaps this is why Zuzel comes to the conclusion that the show is ‘mostly mediocre’”. Other commenters (Richard Weill, Craig Berry, G4 and others) have expressed similar sentiments in different ways, but centered around the idea that Zuzel is wrong to assign New Columbo episodes the same critical weight as Classic Columbo. Certainly, Zuzel’s is a valid way of assessing a product’s overall value, but it seems misguided for “Columbo”. For Zuzel, it’s a numbers exercise, and with so many crappy New Columbo episodes added to the whole catalogue, the numbers tell Zuzel: This was a Mediocre show.
But many of us have no problem de-valuing the ABC episodes or throwing them out of the final verdict all together. Believe me, my love for “Batman” (‘66) isn’t some cold numbers game affected by the 26 embarrassingly awful episodes of the Batgirl Year. Nor do I judge the brilliant “Mission: Impossible” by any of its sad 35 late 80s revival episodes. Perhaps Zuzel would – I don’t.
So why does Zuzel judge “Columbo” by a numbers metric? Well, let’s say you have a favorite take-out pizza place, but over the years, it’s gotten worse. Maybe it’s the dough, maybe the ingredients aren’t fresh, maybe the sauce is watered down. Do you keep ordering that pizza? Of course not. You’re giving them money – the medium of exchange – for the pizza. But now, you’re wasting your money.
Setting aside the economics of DVD sets, streaming, etc. we don’t generally consider ourselves paying money to watch “Columbo”. The “medium of exchange” is our time. Over the years, we’ve all watched many “Columbo” eps, but 2 hours here, 90 minutes there – even if we’ve watched a so-so episode, we don’t generally say that we “wasted our time” over the entirety of our years of “Columbo” viewing.
But then, the pandemic hit – The Columbo Renaissance. Particularly during a (pick your country) lockdown, people discovered – or rediscovered – how bingeing the show could provide some solace in a challenging time. I have found at least 14 such article appreciations since March 2020. So bingeing is exactly what Zuzel did. “Inspired by Alexis Gunderson’s heart-warming column about watching old Columbo episodes with her dad, I suggested to my wife that we spend a couple of our pandemic lockdown evenings each week with the lieutenant, retracing his journey from first episode to last.”
I’ll bet those evenings started off pretty well. And I’ll bet that after about 25 of them (figuring 2/evening), Zuzel and his wife were ready to scratch their eyes out. In such a concentrated time frame, after continual back-to-back 90s episodes, it would have been very easy for Zuzel to conclude that he was “wasting his time”. And since Zuzel is a writer/critic, he had no choice but to objectively critique while he did some episode counting and consideration of how many nights he had been watching. Then he sat down at his word processor and proclaimed “Columbo Is Mediocre.”
So there’s your kinda-sorta-Gotcha. As I say, Zuzel’s approach is IMHO misguided. Don’t be shy about tossing out New Columbo to conclude that Classic Columbo was great television. If you want to arrive at that conclusion after watching New Columbo, as commenter David and others who thumbs-upped him have, that’s OK too. We can acknowledge the faults – and not just a handful of episodes, I mean the systemic faults of most of New Columbo – and all be on the same page, loving this great show.
Believe it or not, this is exactly how I watched “Columbo” during the pandemic. I had barely seen an episode, and decided to watch every single episode from Prescription: Murder to the one with the guy from “The Americans.” And yes, when I had endured a few of the revival episodes and realized how many I still had to go, I was indeed ready to tear my eyes out, but I persevered and did it.
One thing that struck me, though, was that there were a lot of bad episodes in the very first official season. And in the second. And in the third. “Columbo” was an extraordinarily uneven show. I’ve seen other people say that there are other shows like that, and it’s probably true. The whole American network broadcast paradigm of that era was to pressure every show to produce way too much product for there to be quality control. I still say that “Columbo” is surprisingly uneven even compared to these other shows.
And it really can’t be said that the show just got worse as it went along, as with so many other shows. Watching them in chronological order, I would go through a rough patch of mediocre episodes only to be smacked in the face by a masterpiece. By the time I got to Ruth Gordon, I was worried that there wouldn’t be any more great episodes, but hers was great. And there were great ones after that, several starring Patrick McGoohan, the guy Zuzel unfairly maligns. I was THRILLED when McGoohan first came back for the ABC version because all of a sudden the quality of the show went WAY up at least for an episode, and the series seemed to regain its footing whenever he returned. So I don’t know what Zuzel is talking about. I mean I suppose you could legit hate “Last Salute” so much you blame him for everything that ever went wrong!
So anywhere, buried below in the other comments, I’ve explained the ways in which I think Zuzel is right. Thing is, I reached a completely different conclusion than Zuzel after doing this. And while Glenn Stewart might be right that watching the entire season consecutively during the pandemic is the wrong way to do it, I’m glad I did it. (I also watched every episode of every “Star Trek” show consecutively — and I’m here to tell you that DEEP SPACE NINE RULES!)
My feeling is that if you watch every episode, you’re now in a great position to guide your friends to the best episodes. Because the good episodes are REALLY REALLY GOOD. And that’s all that matters! Who cares that there were a lot of stinkers — far more in the newer series than the older series yes, but also plenty in the older series too — when the best ones are so good? I’ve listed my Top 5 elsewhere, but I’ll keep listing them. This is not in order of quality but in the order they came out:
1. Murder By the Book. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Villain: Jack Cassidy.
2. Any Old Port In a Storm. Directed by Leo “Sean’s Dad” Penn. Villain: Donald Pleasence (and some would say Julie Harris).
3. Swan Song. Directed by Nicholas “Coach from ‘Cheers'” Colasanto. Villain: Johnny Cash.
4. A Friend In Deed. Directed by Ben Gazzara. Villain: Richard Kiley.
5. Try and Catch Me. Directed by James Frawley. Villain: Ruth Gordon.
Its interesting that you also watched Columbo during the pandemic and came away pleased. I can tell you that for all the 14 articles I culled from the Pandemic Era about binge-watching Columbo, every author – without exception – came away happy, even while they were acknowledging the generally sub-standard 90s eps.
I suspect that Zuzel reached the exact opposite conclusion because he felt the need to put on his Critic’s Hat. I have no issue with this in general (hey, guy’s gotta make a living), but judging “Columbo” by divvying up all 69 episodes into Good-Bad-Great categories, and then getting out the abacus for a head count is unfair in my view.
Thanks. In fairness to Zuzel, I too put on my critic’s hat when I did this. I’m a professional critic who gets paid to do it! Not using my real byline here, of course.
If you binge watch the entire series in order, you probably will see much more clearly the change in Falk’s performance in the later “classic” years. The exaggeration of gestures and idiosyncrasies, occasionally to the point of goofiness (as in “How to Dial a Murder”). What many (including David Koenig) have referred to as less a deft character portrayal and more an impressionist’s comedy routine. I noticed this metamorphosis in real time in the latter 1970’s, but seeing episodes back-to-back-to-back can only highlight the change. It puts a major cloud over Season 7 especially.
As Zuzel reminds us, Columbo had become a favourite subject for weak stand-up comedy routines. So Peter Falk possibly felt he needed to play up to this expectation. A pity when you consider Falk was such an intelligent and educated person.
While the writing of certain episodes, particularly in the newer episodes, was questionable at best, there was always, ALWAYS something good about every episode. The above reviewer cites that Columbophile only names 16 of 45 episodes from the original run to the A list. However, as has been pointed out, the A list episodes are classic television, and even the Columbo B list and C list episodes are better than some of the A list episodes of other series. That’s a key point the original reviewer is missing out on.
Also, from a personal standpoint, some of Columbo’s lower-ranked episodes on here, such as “Dagger of the Mind,” “How to Dial a Murder,” and “The Conspirators,” are episodes I really like. “Dagger” is plodding, but I highly enjoy Basehart’s ham, Blackman’s tart, and supporting turns from Bernard Fox and Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte. The murders in “Conspirators” and “Dial” are shabbily written and easy to solve, but the performances of Williamson as the coldest doctor since Barry Mayfield and the impish Clive Revill always will ensure they’re enjoyable episodes to me.
That’s a key point he’s missing. Even in some of the episode’s weaker mysteries, seeing a familiar and likable actor match wits with Falk still makes it entertaining viewing. The only episode of the series that I really don’t get into is “Mind Over Mayhem.” It’s not terrible, it’s just that Jose Ferrer just doesn’t grab me as the killer.
It definitely comes down to taste sometimes. “Short Fuse” is bonkers, but Roddy McDowall goes all out, and while an episode like “By Dawn’s Early Light” is better constructed, I’d watch “SF” more often than “Dawn,” because I like the murderer more.
“Law & Order” was one of the most popular shows on T.V. Yet how many episodes involved the seasoned detectives either not reading a suspect his rights correctly, or some other bone-headed bungle that prevented an open and shut case from being shut? It wasn’t every episode, but it was more often than it should have been considering the investigating cops were usually not fresh out of the academy.
“Matlock” was another popular hit T.V. series, yet so many episodes involved the rube of the week who had JUST had a verbal row with the episode’s victim stumble onto the crime scene, find the body, and touch the murder weapon right as the police crowded through the door. I mean, if you stumble on a murder victim, especially one that you had a beef with, are you ever, in your right mind, going to lay your hand on the murder weapon? Lord no. Yet I can recall at least five episodes or more where the rube finds the victim with a knife in their chest and WRAPS THEIR HAND around the knife handle.
Both were formulaic, yet both were ratings hits. “Columbo” was never anywhere near as formulaic as some of the more popular shows, as each murder was executed vastly differently from the other, and some were much harder to crack than others.
I’ll do my best to resist typecasting this article, but it’s familiar territory. It’s “everything before me is garbage and this is the most enlightened era ever” journalism.
We’ve been here before. You could substitute “Columbo” for any other show in the 60s-80s era and the criticisms would be similar. I don’t disagree with many of the shows that you criticize, yet you could have balanced it by the shows you thought were good.
And that is Columbo to me, the shows that shine with amazing plots, clever twists, and gotcha’s that will be debated as long as the show endures. I think if you look to the very end you will find episodes that delight the viewer, including your only criticism for his last one being no one watched it (I did, and thought it was a worthy ending for Columbo, his final walk-out after solving the case).
I await the next 40 years, when this latest “golden age of television” will be torn apart by parochial debate. Until then, give me the classic collapse of Janet Leigh, a drink in an Irish Pub (“this and no farther”), and the deathbed confession from a torn piece of paper and a discarded match.
I love that everyone posting here can name the three episodes evoked here (“the classic collapse of Janet Leigh, a drink in an Irish Pub (“this and no farther”), and the deathbed confession from a torn piece of paper and a discarded match”).
This is such a good discussion group — so deeply familiar with every aspect of every episode, and so thoughtful about deliberating and conversing.
One of the secrets of this great site, and all the work the Columbphile puts into it, are the meaty subjects tossed out for us to play with. That it is such a robust discussion group validates every reader’s contributions and helps us to keep thinking about the series. There are few series left in classic TV as intricate and spread out over so much time as Columbo. It is unique in that regard. While (PM) had eight seasons for example, it was a *very* formulaic series, so it’s not the equivalent.
My point is that just because this essay writer put so much into his argument for so many flawed stories doesn’t devalue any true fan’s appreciation. And that’s who all of us are, here. For the record, am glad Troubled Waters wasn’t called out. I was holding my breath. But even so, nothing said can disturb my opinion and I’ve contributed tons of comments to justify it. It’s nice to read so many other fans doing the same for their own preferences. In fact, am also a fan of another older classic series, a beautiful technical presentation with cult favorite actors, that often gets bashed by those expecting so much more in this day. But history shows that television has always been an evolving medium. What we can look back on through the decades, and now criticize, is much easier than true effort the fine craft talent (and devotion) that was put into an evolving entertainment product! That is it was *not* exactly repetitious, and held many surprises, is a compliment in itself.
We need to appreciate the people (talent) in their own time, up against a strict expectation of ruthless competition among only 3 networks. The appreciation comes from seeing which productions are still being celebrated nearly *fifty* years later!!!
They loved what they were doing as much as we love watching the show now, which is actually the “secret sauce.”
An interesting article, even though I don’t fully agree with the Author. Certainly there were weak episode, but many episodes were really good television. He correctly points out the weak or bad episodes, like the horrid Commodore one. Idisagree with the judgement on It’s all in the game, to me a good episode ( I wonder what Mrs Columbo would have thought of his husband’s method in this case, though)
Thanks for publishing – disagree about the basic premise but thought provoking. My perspective on Columbo is simply more direct. Judge the episodes solely as they are not what you imagine what that they should be. Then you can enjoy the glorious qualities of most episodes. The arty camera effects of the car lights on ransom of a deadman, the incredible opening reverse closeup from the car on the street to the office typing in murder by the book, columbo is in his underwear, John paynes noble pitiful nobility in his last acting role, and even shatners lunacy in having inspector lecerne help him solve the case. Pretty good entertainment abounds in the wasteland of tv! Yes there is bad acting, plot holes, hackney scripts – but I find nearly every episode enjoyable and worthy of watching again and again. Maybe that the real beauty of the inverted mystery: since you know who and how you can really appreciate the other aspects of the production.
“Trouble was, most Columbo fans most definitely didn’t think it was an act; the appeal of the character stemmed from the idea that a genuine bumbler could also be a brilliant puzzle-solver”
I guess I am part of the cohort that never thought Columbo was a genuine bumbler, but rather someone who put on an act to lull murderers into a false sense of security/catch them off-guard. Zuzel may be extrapolating from his own sentiments to “most Columbo fans.”
As for McGoohan–IDENTITY CRISIS is one of my favorite episodes. The performances and camera work are among the best of the 70’s shows, and having David White play the Director (Larry Tate was just a cover story) and Otis Young play Steinmetz’ go-between and eventual stooge (what Mulhal does once he leaves the Navy) is wonderful. I also like the locatiton work, and Columbo doing some old-fashioned detecting.
As for the ending not popping, for me it lands just fine. As I have posted before, the episode airs in November of 1975–one year after both the end of Watergate and the publication of “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence.” COLUMBO always had a class element, with the working-class lieutenant being underestimated/dismissed by the elite. Columbo was not only a pest; he was a pest from the wrong side of the tracks.
To this usual clash of classes, IDENTITY CRISIS added an element of unease and sourness that is pitch perfect for 1975. Columbo may have tripped Brenner up, and caught him in a lie, but it is all about “games.” There is no “officer” to call to at the end, since faith in official institutions in 1975 was at a historic low (up to that point in time). An uncertain ending for an uncertain moment.
This goes for me, too: “I guess I am part of the cohort that never thought Columbo was a genuine bumbler, but rather someone who put on an act to lull murderers into a false sense of security/catch them off-guard.” For me, that’s a major part of the Columbo mystique.
So many times, for example, the gleam of intelligent suspicion in Columbo’s eyes shone only when the bad guy turned away.
When questioning the above rationale, I wonder if viewers have become too cynical in this day. I remember watching the show with my family who thoroughly enjoyed the inventive character, and that he was putting on an act never occurred to them! The bottom line is that television, particularly in that day, was crafted to be pure escapism. It wasn’t until the element of “realism” (ex. Hills Street Blues, etc.) got introduced into the viewer’s expectations. In some ways that element started polluting the concept of action / adventure being offered under the guise of imagination and frivolity!
Well we need to define the idea of a “bumbler” because there’s a bit of conflict in the opinions expressed. The qualitative value is “intentional.” As a professional, clearly the character was not inept, or he wouldn’t be in the LAPD, Solving crimes inspite of himself, wouldn’t have worked, meaning to automatically negate the character. I think what people see is the contrast of his authentic personality (unconventionality) and working through all the challenges, anyway. He didn’t need any act, his brilliance was in solving an intellectual challenge (the how, and the why). If he drops a pencil, or comes back into the room to ask “one more” question, and all of the other little nuances, is what made him a genuine “character.” Otherwise there’d be no point in the show. And people would soon tire of the “act.”
Would he have had the time or energy to *plan” his style, then that would’ve been an exhausting way to conduct his investigation. Getting a suspect to reveal himself was a conventional tool used by all detective series, or there wouldn’t have been a show to entertain. I think his preoccupation (perhaps tenacious and unobstructed focus) prevailed over his attention to (or caring about) mundane distractions, and just a pure lack of self-consciousness. Tricks, yes, he might’ve used, but then again he never expressed interest in how a crime would be presented at trial. Just gaining the satisfaction that the guilty party – had been caught. The only plot (in his mind) that counted.
Zuzel’s use of the phrase “genuine bumbler” seems to me to rule out intentionality: Columbo as idiot savant.
As for planning a style: no one does that. A person adopts a style and then executes it–nothing exhausting about it (unless a person adopts an exhausting style). Columbo knows he is wearing people down with his “one more thing,” showing up out-of-the-blue, and out-of-left field questions, but it is pure calculation on his part. Columbo’s authenticity resides in his performance of being a bumbler, rather than actually being one.
I will say this, having been a part of filming many detective interviews, they are very good at putting on acts and reading people and shifting their personalities in order to get what they want in a deliberate and conscious manner. The best are aware of this manipulation and wield it so much that it’s hard to distinguish their facade versus their real self. I imagine Columbo is kind of like this. He’s himself but also knows what he’s doing and adjusts accordingly.
Excellent point. For those of us Columbo lovers, we never bought in that Columbo was a bumbler. We thought the murderer was the bumbler. We watched as Columbo, like a spider to a fly, pulled in the killer with such subtlety that he was caught and struggling but dead to rights.
No, Columbo was never a “genuine bumbler.” That was a very poor choice of words on Zuzel’s part (but not, I think, central to his other criticisms). No one who started watching with “Prescription: Murder” could reasonably reach that conclusion. The character did evolve away from the P:M portrayal over the years, but Columbo always was a highly strategic detective. He never did anything without a purpose. That’s the opposite of a “genuine bumbler.”
Was it all an act? Some was, certainly. Over the years, Columbo learned which approaches worked better than others, depending on whom he was questioning, and he stuck with what worked. In his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” interview, Peter Falk attributed Columbo’s massive extended family to Columbo’s need to hide his intelligence from his prey. So he would never confront suspects with things he knew; it was always something his nephew told him, or his brother-in-law, etc. — until he had more relatives than a lotto winner.
Zuzel’s criticisms entirely miss the point of what makes Columbo delightful, even at times philosophical. It’s not the plot the counts, nor the “production values” (like, who cares?). It’s not the pacing or repartee. All of which are secondary, or even neglected, aspects in the series. He’s right about that, but for the wrong reasons. Rather, what makes a Columbo episode unique is the pleasure of watching the psychological warfare Columbo slowly unleashes against the perpetrator.
Most fictional detectives solve cases by being tough or ruthless or extraordinarily intelligent. Columbo can do that tired schtick too when called upon (he sometimes uncorks against a particularly entitled murderer in the denouement, and one of the important aspects of the show is the murderers are almost always from an entitled class). But the fact is Columbo solves cases because he understands, and frankly sympathizes with, people. That’s where the energy of the episodes goes.
So, what Zuzel considers sagging plotlines and scenes having no relevance to the mystery is dead wrong. The show is written in a manner to intentionally focus on the psychological relationships between Columbo, the criminal, and the ancillary characters. That doesn’t mean every Columbo episode hit the mark. Some are of dubious quality. But when Columbo goes astray it isn’t because of lazy plotting or rambling scenes. On the contrary, it goes wrong when the focus shifts too much on detective work and too little on the underlying psychological drama being played out. The worst episodes sacrifice Columbo’s needling of the perpetrator to moving the story along. It’s the needling that is the story. What makes “Dagger of the Mind” a subpar effort isn’t inferior plot development (it moves along competently to its somewhat implausible resolution); rather, it’s because we never really get to see Columbo getting under the skin of the character played by Richard Basehart (like he could do with his good friend McGoohan).
By the way, with respect to dialog, what could be more wonderful than McGoohan as Oscar Finch commenting to Columbo that “You know, uh, you’re rather subtle for, uh, a man who seems so, uh, overt!” That sums up the character of Columbo perfectly.
I wish I had written this post … for me, it sums up precisely why Columbo was great.
“Watching the psychological warfare Columbo slowly unleashes against the perpetrator” and and knowing that “he understands, and frankly sympathizes with, people” … yes, this is what brings me to watch and rewatch episodes that I’ve seen countless times over 40-plus years.
I do the same thing. My wife and I (that sounds so Columbo-esque) watch episodes over and over again – it was our Sunday date night until MeTV ended its broadcasting of the show last year). And I always find something new: an innuendo in what Columbo says, indicating he knows who the murderer is; double entendres in how he answers the suspect (“You’ll be the first to know when I catch him”); and the humanity he often exhibits in dealing with the underlings often caught up in the drama (like he does with the drunk witness in “Negative Reaction”, played by the wonderful, ubiquitous Vito Scotti). I can’t think of any fictional detective who has these subtle skills.
Prime has Columbo, but it has ads that I can’t FF through.
However, the Sundance channel has it, and I DVR it; also, Tubi offers it (like “On Demand”).
P.S. Vito Scotti was indeed wonderful, and the series used him beautifully and often. He was as great as a bum as he was as a men’s clothing store snob.
I agree with some of your
criticisms, but there are
many ways that I adjust my viewing
Before going further, I’d like to draw
readers’ attentions once again to
“Ransom For a Dead Man”, and also
to Harold Gould, who plays an FBI agent
Firstly, the episode which was the second
and successful attempt at a pilot for the
series, is something today of a lost
The fact is that all of its innovative elements,
– a faked kidnapping, a tape recorded voice
to resurrect a dead person, incriminating
car keys – were reused for later episodes, and
are now too cliche to arouse much interest.
Worse, the distributor moved one key scene
out of order for the release on DVD.
It doesn’t help that most viewers are overly
familiar with the pop, and now don’t understand
how such a clever murderess fell for it. (I still
say the surprise of the final gotchas, or ‘pops’,
powered the early popularity of the series, as
much as, or even more, than Falk’s character did),
One might even speculate why the producers
later treated the episode so disrespectfully
is because Lee Grant from it garnered an Emmy
nomination, while its star, Peter Falk did not.
When in actuality, the episodes are owned by
corporations, and corporations are about money.
If they can mutilate an episode to sell it to a broader
audience, or cannibalize earlier episodes for later
ones, they will.
The point I am making is that Columbo is not a product
of written fiction, or even a movie by a single director,
but that most ephemeral and combative of all mediums,
Subject to all of the disputes between actors, directors,
writers and producers, and the separate pressures
brought by studios, networks, and sponsors. Does that
process create a lot of turkeys, with retread plots and
You bet. So don’t be surprised that few episodes outside
of the original run actually rise to the standards set by the
original pilot. My advice therefore is not to criticize Columbo
for these faults AS IF other classic cherished TV series
– e.g. Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, All In The
Family, MASH, The Sopranos… – were free of them, because
So now what of actor Harold Gould, who was in the second
but successful pilot? Well, it just so happens he played
Kid Twist in the The Sting, a film made in the 1970s set in
the 1920s. The depression-era plot was brought up
to date for 70’s audiences, though by no means, all
understood by them (the attraction or romance of
‘The Big Fix’, for instance).
But looking at Columbo episodes 50 or more years on, which
have not been rewritten for us, it’s much harder for young viewers
to connect or older viewers even to remember what is or was
striking about them. Falk’s detective was a product of his time and
location, as much as Sherlock Holmes was his. Can you imagine
for instance, Columbo deducing in Holmesian fashion that the
killer was a left-handed gardener from Borneo, by a flower blossom
dropped on a floor?
My advice therefore is not to judge these episodes on merit by
watching them through lenses which are now fifty years out of
date. Columbo was a phenom, but a cultural icon, the greatness
and significance of which both diminish over time. While I’ve no doubt
a network will some day reboot Peter Falk as Columbo, he will be
resurrected with CGI, and set firmly in 70s L.A…. Columbophile will
then have a lot more work to do.
So how do I compensate for the obvious flaws in the later and some
earlier episodes? By re-watching only the ones I like mainly.
But also, out of a service to this blog and its fans, marking each episode
by a point system. And putting the report cards under Columbophile’s original
reviews for each episode. My marking system, though while not perfect,
puts each episode on an equal footing, regardless of my personal
tastes. (For example, my personal favourite, Requiem For a Falling Star,
is not the most highly rated).
Also, by scoring essential entertainment and mystery elements, the system
skips most of the nits and inconsequential flaws that many die-hard fans
of the genre would consider unimportant.
I am happy report that so far, the vast majority of the 70s episodes score
9 out of 10 or better. Most of them are indeed worthy of my reverence for
“Ransom for a Dead Man” was the first Columbo I ever saw. I must’ve liked it a lot, because I distinctly remember my eager anticipation when the first series episode was about to air six months later. Logically, my reaction to “Ransom” was the reason. (As was my growing taste for chili, with lots of crackers mixed in because, as we all know, “it’s the crackers that make the dish.”)
“Ransom for a Dead Man” was also the one Columbo I went the longest without seeing. The series episodes were replayed regularly. “Prescription: Murder” would show up from time to time. It look a long while before “Ransom” reappeared.
While I share your enthusiasm for much about the episode, I’m somewhat less enthusiastic about the great character insight inserted into the ending. “No conscience” was Leslie’s “fatal weakness”? I’m not convinced. For me, it was all about how desperately she needed to get rid of Margaret. Having Margaret around created a continuing risk. (Columbo certainly helped to increase this.) Getting rid of her created a one-time risk. It was a simple risk calculation. Conscience, or lack thereof, had little to do with it.
And I still wish “Ransom” hadn’t missed a terrific clue opportunity inexplicably ignored. The flight bag with the money inside was covered with FBI agents’ fingerprints. The flight bag that landed at the drop site had none. It was the reverse of the “Suitable for Framing” gotcha: not nailed because of a cop’s fingerprints, but nailed because of their absence.
I think Leslie assumed
Margaret’s greed was
her motive, and only then weighed all the
risks and gains, deciding that she was the
greatest threat now too.
No point in letting her hang around to
reconnect with the Lieutenant with even
more damning evidence of her guilt.
A little snippet earlier between Leslie and
Columbo is relevant:
LESLIE: …but don’t people under stress act
more out of immediate emotion, than
COLUMBO: That’s absolutely true. In fact, I’ll
go even further. That’s what does
most criminals in… eventually.
I find little with which to quibble, with the one exception being his harsh assessment of McGoohan. While McGoohan’s directorial choices left much to be desired, his acting performances were, in my opinion, all solid and memorable.
Alright, so I read the essay twice, and then the comments given so far, most of them also twice – I’ll quote some of the more remarkable parts for you:
”An excellent article, making for wonderful reading…”
”I think he wrote what we all think…”
”I’ve reached similar conclusions myself…”
And that from Columbo fans responding to an essay from, you guessed it, also a fan, never mind the fact that he doesn’t really like the show that much. An essay concluding, after only the introduction, and again I quote:
”Yes, Columbo, the character, was superb. But Columbo, the show, was mostly mediocre. And at times atrocious.”
You’ll notice that I’ve started firebombing from the start and I know that this will not sit well with everyone, but doing this only because no one here, on THE Columbo fan website, doesn’t feel the need to disagree with the trashing our beloved TV series just got.
So, it’s up to me I guess. I’l try to analyze and comment on the article from the start, skipping the irrelevant bits (irrelevant not for the article, but irrelevant for me to comment on).
First Michael Zusel tells us a bit about how Columbo came to be, very thoroughly, well written, and about Prescription: Murder and the Columbo character he is absolutely right. Peter Falk doesn’t yet know what he’s capable off wearing the rain coat and cigar. He’s doing well, but it’s not yet the Columbo we’d come to know and love.
Then, skipping to his list of the ”good episodes”. I can’t find any fault with his choices, except that there are only nine. I can’t believe what I’m seeing here: no Double Exposure, no Death lends a Hand, no Lady in Waiting, no Troubled Waters, no Double Shock, no Publish or perish, no And now You See Him… and these are just my safe options put up here so everyone will agree with me.
I like quite a lot of episodes the same, almost the same or even better than the episodes here named. Episodes featuring briljant dialogues between Columbo and the killers, great gotcha’s, complicated alibi’s and so on. Never mind those, though. If he’d put those up there, he’d have more trouble stating his point, so he conveniently left them out.
This is because, and here it comes already, so almost from the start: ”the stinkers outnumbered the winners”.
All agreed here?
I didn’t think so.
I know Last Salute truly is a stinker – no argument there. And many of you don’t like Dagger of the Mind, but let’s read Zusel’s summary:
”He does some tourist stuff, matches wits with Scotland Yard, and proves himself a nitwit.”
Wait, wasn’t Dagger of the Mind the pastiche about the British theatre, implementing MacBeth and having the actors play their parts on and off the stage?
I doubt Zusel even bothered to watch it before putting it down like this.
And then Short Fuse. I wonder what’s it saying about who, if someone can only talk about the main antagonist’s pants? I’d rather watch that one twelve times without pause than discussing it with someone who will negate it without bothering to explain. Personally I like the finale very much. In fact it’s something Columbo became an expert in: tricking his opponent into revealing his own crime.
Mind over Mayhem I’ll skip, but the one that really infuriates me is his line about A Matter of Honor. Welcome, Michael Zusel, to the endlessly long cue of people conviniently blending the use of stereotypes and racism into the same stew. That’s worse than easy, it’s unfair and dangerous to do so. Moreover, A Matter of Honor features one of the greatest motives in television history. I’m a huge fan of this one.
But then Columbo is not really Zusel’s thing. He concludes this part with:
”These episodes are a special brand of awful, but they’re not actually atypical of the show.”
Let me tell you, Michael Zusel: to a fan these episodes are not a special brand of awful. Except for Last Salute I love them all, despite liking one better than the other and recognising flaws.
Don’t tell me I’m wrong here. It would take a fan to know.
And then the new Columbo episodes. I’ll try to discuss them not too much here because the ‘main commenters’ here don’t like any of them, whereas I dislike some and like many. (I must be out of my mind, how can I stand all that padding?)
But out come the usual suspects first, the episodes most people agree on are not that great. Why bother to even name them, but alright. I have to vehemently disagree on Butterfly in Shades of Grey though, no matter how many people will write blogs about William Shatner’s toupés. Fielding Chase is the ultimate opposite of Columbo: the arrogant, wealthy right wing American upperclass, destroying people for the greater good: him. He’s one of the few Columbo killers I truly despise, it’s very well done. And the episode has a great gotcha too, or don’t you remember?
After this Zusel divides his reasons for trashing Columbo into three categories:
First: The Format Challenge.
Wait, what? Isn’t that one the VERY aspects of the show the we actually love, which made it stand out?
Yes, but the format made it very difficult to keep it interesting.
Did it now? If I remember it was the most loved detective show ever. Yes, also because of Peter Falk, but also because of the format. Did they keep it interesting? I’d think so! Even in the later years, when the show apparently declined like and into hell. I loved the show so much, the 90’s Columbo episodes made me want to become a detective novelist…
And then the formula crutch. Or, in more popular terms here on this blog: the padding.
How I love the padding.
It still happens sometimes, as I’m getting older and students and colleques are getting younger, that I can introduce Columbo to someone. I always show the waiting-for-the-print-scene from Exercise. It’s Columbo at his best: deeply annoyed but too polite to be impolite about it and yet not being able to hide his impatience… if that’s padding, give me padding.
There are some exeptions to the rule of course, like the scene in Make me a perfect murder and the tuba scene (Wow did you spot the tuba scene? How sharp! How original! Did you hate it too?). But overall, even if they are padding, they add to my enjoyment of the show. Please give me more of the superfluous nonsence in Murder of a Rock Star!
And Michael Zusel, please be more respectful to the elderly in the future. If you’re lucky you’ll be old too one day. Wouldn’t you take offense to being called borderline senile when you can’t remember the name of a movie?
When it comes to the lack of good gotcha’s and the way they were solved with a gag, I think Zusel actually has a point. The one thing he forgets is that most of those gags appear AFTER the gotcha, as a sort of comic afterthought. Sometimes unnecessary, I agree.
Unsatisfying, that’s what Zusel concludes. Adding: ”Many episodes of Columbo were, and are, exactly that.”
Then why do I love them so much?
Then we get to Peter Falk’s influence on the choice of scripts. I agree here, the Ed Bain stories should never ever have been Columbo’s. All is bad about them, not in the last place because they divert from the formula.
Wait, what did Zusel write/quote about formula? Oh yes:
”Formula occurs when format starts to repeat itself. Formula occurs when format does not challenge writers—or when writers are giving less than their best. Formula occurs when a show becomes creatively bankrupt.”
One of the best mystery novel series ever written are the Nero Wilfe mysteries by Rex Stout, When it comes to formula they are almost all the same, all 48 or so novels. And it’s delightful because it works. No one would ever have it any other way. It has nothing to do with being creatively bankrupt, on the contrary: to keep the same formula interesting there must be creativity all over. Undercover and No time to die don’t work because they are without the Columbo formula. Most of the other Columbo’s do work, in large part because of it.
When it comes to Patrick MacGoohan it’s very obvious in his writings where Zusel goes wrong with his essay. He’s too desperate to make a bold statement.
Yes, MacGoohan has had negative influence on Columbo. We’ve all seen Last Salute (and if not, keep it that way). And what he did to the script of Murder with too many notes is something that I can’t quite comprehend. Reading David Koenig’s Shooting Columbo, he almost seemed intent on destroying the episode.
But I like all his other work for Columbo, as an actor and director. Agenda for Murder is just briljant, definitely in my all time top 5. And Ashes to Ashes is very enjoyable, particularly the death themed song medley. Its contrast with the stiff, drunk undertakers finally being able to unload is hilarious, I think. And not at all what the episode is about, so what’s your problem, Michael?
What Zusel does here is scapegoating MacGoohan on insufficient grounds. I can’t really think why. To be original? Because he read MacGoohan was an alcoholic? For the life of me I don’t get it.
When we’re finally getting to the end of Zusen’s piece, he confesses he is no expert, but despite all he has just written: he is a fan.
Being a Columbo fan myself I can tell you he is more of an expert than a fan. His definition of being a fan must mean he’s also a fan of World War 2.
I don’t really care about that though, he can think himself a fan. But what he did here, saying ‘it isn’t really good’ when I know Columbo to be terrific, I felt like I had to stand up for the show that I love, seeing that better and more experienced Columbo academics than I don’t seem to feel the need to do so.
For some reason it seems cooler to politely agree and say ‘Well done for being so blunt. We Columbo fans are with you here, it wasn’t really good after all.’
Not me though, so here it is: Michael Zusen, we disagree.
David, obviously you and I disagree about the so-called “new” Columbos. I can’t find fault with anything Zuzel says about those. And I feel no need to surrender my Columbo fan credentials when saying this. If Columbo premiered in 1989, I doubt this site would exist. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, I enjoyed the first half of “Guillotine,” and very little thereafter. The core of the show had changed. The creativity of the solutions was gone, replaced (at best) with unimaginative evidence gathering (e.g., “Sex and the Married Detective”; “Agenda for Murder”).
As for the “classic” era, I agree with you that Zuzel ignored too many quality shows. I said that very thing earlier today. His presentation was thus unbalanced between the good and the mediocre. So I do disagree with his broadest assessment. That said, his specific criticisms are mostly valid. I like “Dagger of the Mind,” but acknowledge I’m in the minority here. I’ve commended the grand twist in “Commodore,” but acknowledge I’m on the endangered species list there. “Short Fuse”? Excellent last five minutes. It’s hard to fault a critic putting these episodes in the mediocre column. Most readers here do.
His three diagnoses are also basically true. The percentage of good episodes per season fell below 50% after Season 4. Falk’s performance started faltering after Season 5, and bottomed out in Season 7. And this was before the “new” Columbos.
In my judgment, you don’t diminish the great episodes by recognizing that lots of others weren’t. The great ones were the best. The lesser ones were still better than Cannon or Ironside. Or Murder, She Wrote. But there were a lot of relative clinkers. And, in my view, you can’t fully appreciate the best Columbos if you choose to blind yourself to the faults of the others.
I concur with your sensible assessment of an assumedly thought-provoking article which ultimately, as I’ve shared in my previous comment (not to everyone’s taste, judging from the thumbs-down score), came across as a sort of disillusionment essay after a reaquainting process with a long-cherished figure.
“In my view, you can’t fully appreciate the best Columbos if you choose to blind yourself to the faults of the others.”
An apt assessment, Richard, one that applies to more than a single television show. It’s impossible to appreciate the best films, music, literature, athletic feats, journalism, stagecraft, and other entertainment without being able to honestly consider foibles, faults and failures. Critical analysis of the lows is the only way to fully value the highs. It’s how we figure out that “Columbo” is better than “Mrs. Columbo”. (OK, that one was easy).
Next, drill that perspective down to individual TV shows, bands, directors, etc. I can fully appreciate the power of “Who’s Next” when I can articulate the weakness of “Face Dances”. “1941” is a terrible Spielberg movie, and “Schindler’s List” is outstanding. There are plenty of excellent “Columbo”s. One way we know this is that there are others that are not, and we can evaluate why. It’s the essence of critical thinking.
Finally, apply that perspective to our other interactions in society. You can accept and love your mate while recognizing their faults. You can adhere to a political philosophy or leader knowing they’re not perfect. Without such analysis, though, that love or loyalty becomes blind acceptance and unblinking obedience. That’s not healthy for anyone.
Richard, Glen, Hugo, Punkyspewster, thanks for responding.
I know, Richard, we disagree on the ABC episodes, and I can see why you and others would agree with Zuzel on this point. My main disagreement with Zuzel is his overal judgement of the show. He basically says: Columbo was mediocre and often awful, except for nine episodes, conviently forgetting all that made the show unforgettable for so many viewers.
And I not only diagree with you on the ABC episodes, I also disagree with your statement that ”The percentage of good episodes per season fell below 50% after Season 4. Which bad episodes are we talking about here? Last Salute, Mind over Mayhem, maybe Old Fashioned Murder (not that terrible in my book). What’s wrong with the others? And even if they were not as good as some earlier ones, in your opinion, still most of them feature great scenes which put them far above mediocrity.
Of course, beauty is to be treasured only because there is uglyness too; but recognising differences in style instead of faults is not the same as to blind yourself to faults. Which is what Zuzel is doing here. He lists and negates episodes and scenes and trashes them, unfounded, stating subjectivity as facts. In fact, it’s not a very good essay no matter what your opinion on the subject is.
Punkyspewster, I like the last sentence of your response, about the classic in every season (and of course not every episode can be a classic) but saying that there are way too many mediocre episodes is too negative for my taste.
And Hugo, just to make sure: I may disagree with you, but I don’t push dislike buttons as a principle, so it wasn’t me.
Season 5: “Forgotten Lady” and “Now You See Him” were good, “A Case of Immunity” falling slightly below, making the total score 2-3-1. Season 6: “Bye Bye” was good; score 1-2. Season 7: “Try and Catch Me” was good, three of the others teeter on the brink of mediocrity for varying reasons; score 1-1-3.
Alright, I’d say:
season 5: all were at least good, some terrific (A Matter of Honor, Now You See Him) except for Last Salute. A case of immunity perhaps the least of the good ones.
Season 6: I agree here, I think. Fade in to Murder was fun, but the gotcha for me was the weakest of the series. Old Fashioned Murder lacked energy.
Season 7 was perhaps the strongest overall season of all Columbo seasons, containing not one lesser episode. IMDB viewer ratings agree with me here, by the way, or at least it ranks this season highest of all Columbo seasons.
So no, I don’t think I can agree on your scores there.
By the way, I honestly do appreciate our discussion here.
“And Hugo, just to make sure: I may disagree with you, but I don’t push dislike buttons as a principle, so it wasn’t me.”
Thank you for the reference, dear David. Nevertheless, that remark was just an observation regarding the apparently stinging effects generated by the article in this community. If I insisted on the disenchantment factor, it’s only because after reading the essay I was left with a very strong sense of it. As for the arguments given by Mr. Zuzel, there are some valid ones as well as some others whose addressment seemed almost unfairly dismissive, both of which you, along other regulars, have tackled thoroughly.
I don’t know about everyone else, but as one of the first people to comment, I know that I didn’t say all the new ones were bad. I said that McGoohan’s first appearance on the ABC show was the first GOOD one. He got the new series on track. And his reappearances generally are huge improvements on whatever preceded them. I also made the same point you did that the whole REASON for Columbo IS the formula — the formula is excellent. It’s the variations in it that make it so interesting (when the episodes work). I think that you’re assuming everyone commenting here and agreeing with some of Zuzel’s points is as lukewarm on the show as he is. The bottom line is that there are way too many mediocre (or worse) episodes. But it doesn’t matter because virtually every season also produced a classic that plays as well now as it did then.
I’m on the bandwagon with you. I find “Dagger of the Mind” an enjoyably guilty pleasure, in part because, while I’m certainly not making a financial living out of it, I am a community theater actor named Nicholas, so with Basehart’s killer being an actor named Nicholas, it’s a hook.
I never killed anyone to get a show on stage, but I DID get the chance to play Columbo for two weekends, which was a definitely delight that I’ll never forget.
I like Dagger of the Mind. It’s fun. Plus, I always like Bernard Fox and Wilfrid Hyde-White.
Playing Columbo for two weekends sounds wonderful! 😎
Were Peter Falk’s finest moments as an actor on the big screen? If so, which movies were they?
I think he was terrific in more than a few movies (The In-Laws, The Princess Bride, A Woman Under the Influence, etc.), but if I had to choose between the films and Columbo for, say, a desert island decision, it would be Columbo.
He was first nominated for an Oscar for “Murder, Inc.” Not to be confused with one of his biggest hits, “Murder By Death.” His most acclaimed movies include “The In-Laws (1979 version)” (which some people think is the funniest movie ever made), “Husbands,” “Mikey and Nicky,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” The Princess Bride,” “Wings of Desire (in which he plays himself — Germans keep calling out “Columbo!” when they see him), and “Husbands.”
I haven’t seen all the shows the author claims “hold up relatively well today”, but I would certainly take Columbo over anything else he listed. Moonlighting is primarily famous for being the most chaotically produced show in television history. M*A*S*H and All in the Family were great for a while but running on fumes at the end.
The truth is that good storytelling is darned hard, and very few shows do it well for a sustained period of time. Most don’t even try. Columbo at its best was superb, and that gets me through any tuba or mermaid that may come my way.
I’d like to add that he sums up Last Salute to the Commodore very succinctly and accurately.
I have seen most episodes numerous times. Watching them now is “comfort food” type tv viewing. I enjoy reading this kind of analysis and find it interesting. But it doesn’t change my set of favorites or how often I want to relax with Columbo.
An excellent article, making for wonderful reading, where a fan’s disenchantment comes through quite strongly.
Let’s answer the topic’s original question more succinctly than the essay’s writer. Yet that lengthy read was necessary to make the supporting points.
~~ Has the Columbo mystery been solved?~~
Yes, and here’s why.
An ambitious read playing off the catchphrase, definitely NOT one more thing.
A brilliant synopsis but what shouldn’t be lost is that (at heart of the matter) Peter Falk needed to be the conscience of the series, which added too great a burden to the entire process.
Trying to do so is (technically) the Executive Producers’ job, which is for one thing, to accept the input of Peter Falk, yet translate it into all the aspects of the show’s creative processes. And that wasn’t happening. For Mr. Falk (a perfectionist) a terribly frustrating and exhausting role he accepted on a regular and recurring basis. It’s a wonder the series ran as long as it did, which demonstrates the actor’s immense commitment to an intricate and fascinating vision! Unquestionably deserving his (and the show’s) place in television history.
But it’s an effort that would’ve been better served continuing as part of NBC’s well renown revolving Mystery Theater. Giving it more time and space to work out the various kinks, and to find and instruct the best of writers.
A quote from the essay: “Some would say those fights were justified. Even Levinson, with whom Falk clashed so often, credits Falk for being “the conscience of the show.” And though the actor’s beef was often about his salary, just as often the issue was creative control of Columbo. Few would blame the actor for using the power of his unique position to improve the series.”
Certainly a well-meant thought process, but here’s the problem:
Elsewhere in the article is said that Falk was neither a writer or a director. His craft was acting (the interpretation and expression of a complex character). And yet (either out of vanity or necessity) he fancied himself wearing many hats.
There’s only so much of any single person to go around. Especially within such an ambitious project. It has been said that similar production efforts (before, and of that time) were the equivalent of creating made-for-TV movies, yet adhering to a weekly deadline (Not unlike the MFU).
In Columbo’s case, not only was there turmoil within the production itself (a lack of enabled writers), but dealing with the network, the input of sponsorship, casting, locations and simply playing the story itself. Something to be accomplished only through effective dialogue and proper directing and editing. That’s why there is such a dependence on all aspects of “craft talent” to carry out those details. But they have to be dependable and trusted for their innate abilities for which they’re being highly compensated.
And yet, not only inconsistency rang true through the longevity of the series (understandable, as the essay writer aptly presents). But in terms of handling the intimidation of the Star himself, and of the mismatched, misplaced trust in his so-called “friend” (McGoohan, with even greater sense of hubris). And the effects of holding an “anarchist” view of television and “low mentality” viewership. A belief that hardly enhanced the favored attributes of Columbo himself (as a character, and in relation to working through a storyline in an authentic manner).
We now have our clear answer to “Last Salute to the Commadore” and (perhaps) it will put that discussion to bed at last!
“The essay’s author Michael Zuzel backs up his arguments strongly:”
1. The loss of Link and Levinson continuing to control and to manage their original vision, to free Falk to concentrate on his acting, as he was meant to be used. And how he did so in spite of everything else.
2. Pointing out McGoohan’s damage (we now have a definitive explanation for Last Salute to the Commodore), thank you.
3. Fiddling with production length by padding the story to suit the necessity of running time.
4. Adhering to the Columbo format which intimidated the best of writers to see it through. Instead of taking time to help train / support them (my own input).
5. Inept attempts to stretch the character of Columbo.
6. A lack of clear direction (Falk as an on-set perfectionist but an indecisive one) which increased expenses and tiresome labor.
A question not answered in the essay above but left here for our discussion.
*** Would the fans have been satisfied with more cohesive and satisfying episodes at the expense of fewer of them over the long haul ***
Just a thought!
You raise a very interesting point about cultivating new writers. There is a recurring theme throughout the history of Columbo that (a) Columbo was a very hard script to write; and (b) finding good Columbo writers was incredibly hard. And yet new Columbo-oriented writers, like Peter S. Fischer, did emerge. And there are examples of Columbo scripts coming from unusual directions: “A Stitch in Crime,” “Double Exposure,” and especially “Now You See Him” (see https://www.michael-sloan-equalizer.com/young-man-with-a-dream.html). Then again, I told the story of Olivier Cazeaux and all the hoops he had to jump through just to get his Columbo story treatments heard (see https://columbophile.com/2020/08/23/columbos-alpine-adventure-the-episode-that-never-was/). So perhaps Universal deserves some blame for imposing too many insuperable institutional barriers to new, perhaps excellent Columbo scripts coming to light.
The writer George Markstein (The Prisoner, Callan) once said the Script Editor was the single most important person in terms of a series’ overall quality. Perhaps this is where Columbo went wrong ? Incidentally, Markstein fell out with McGoohan over The Prisoner – as McGoohan (misguidedly) wanted to go into an increasingly surreal direction.
I loved the first few episodes of The Prisoner. But then it got pretty confusing and it didn’t seem like a series but independent strange episodes that never had a pay off in the end. From what I’ve read there’s really no official order in which to watch the episodes, no logic as to where the village was, why he was there, etc. But it sure looked cool.
Absolutely. Blame always goes towards the easiest targets (the most visible). Script writing is no easy effort, as it includes a lot of visual cues, setting descriptions, and emotional suggestions. Which means it’s the Producer’s job (essentially the Executive) to delegate properly to control the project. Script Editor is key, so is proper visual editing of the film, to clarify the storyline. So is scheduling and if a weekly deadline was too ambitious, then they should’ve kept to the Mystery Movie rotation plan.
The last two episodes of “The Prisoner,” when McGoohan had full reign and pretty much ruined all that came before, are EXACTLY LIKE “Last Salute to the Commodore” in style. Has anyone else noticed this?
McGoohan needed a strong artistic collaborator : In Danger Man/Secret Agent Man he had Ralph Smart, and initially in The Prisoner there was George Markstein. This situation is also very common in music – eg Robbie Robertson’s inferior work without The Band, or David Bowie without Mick Ronson.
I think Zuzel gets it right – McGoohan’s vision was not a good fit for “Columbo”. But man, oh man, those last 2 episodes of “The Prisoner” are just spectacularly bizarre. Since the series should really be seen as an allegory, the traditional rules of logic – like where exactly is The Village – don’t all apply. The lack of a standard “payoff” for watching was a feature, not a bug. It also makes the series eminently re-watchable, but in a much different way than the so-called “comfort viewing” that many people have for “Columbo”. Step away from “The Prisoner” for a few years and come back to it, and there’s a good chance you’ll interpret some things a bit differently, depending upon the context of the era in which you’re viewing. I haven’t run through it yet in the post-Obama era, and something tells me I should.
I think he wrote what we all think except he put too much emphasis on the newer episodes, we all know those are bad. Its like judging a band on their newer music decades after their heyday. He mentions in Negative Reaction, the most fiercely debated final shot. I don’t remember how the final shot was controversial. Any insights?
He likely was referring to the question some have raised of whether Columbo turns his back on Galesko’s arrest as a sad comment on the ethics of what he just did.
Good point. I just looked at the shot and I can see what you mean. Thanks.
Thanks for asking that question because I didn’t think of it as controversial. I thought his reaction was the result of such a high intensity situation. He knew that gambit was the only way he had left to nail his guy and he had to play it perfectly to pull it off.
Well said. I had never looked at it that way. I sometimes don’t expect TV shows to be so subtle so I miss things like that.
I still say that he has just
confirmed that the photo
was moments before Francis’s death at the
hands of her husband, and it overwhelms him.
As for unethical methods, I don’t think there’s a
single time he’s not crossed that line to nab
a killer. Or lost any sleep over it.
Michael is not wrong. But, the series’ many great scenes/moments, are truly exhilarating. Lest we forget.
Also, in regards to his thesis, it feels like cheating a bit to weigh the revival as heavy as the classic. Virtually EVERYone agrees the show quality dropped off precipitously on ABC. Even diehards largely dismiss that era’s eps as shadows of a once-great series. So, while Michael’s examples of disgrace are factual, I’d argue it’d be just as fair to completely write off those episodes as “not counting.” After all, if Columbo had consisted solely of the revival era, there would be no fan community to debate any of these issues today. Even the character would be forgotten.
That said, his criticisms of the 70s era — and of McGoohan in particular — are valid. And I love his concluding paragraph, which echoes my sentiment that it is a real shame that a “perfect” Columbo never materialized.
On the whole, I agree with Mr. Zuzel. I’ve reached similar conclusions myself, particularly about the 1988-2003 run. His view of “Murder with Too Many Notes” — that it has “such a nonsensical conclusion, it’s as though Columbo simply announces the case is solved and the murderer confesses. Roll credits” — I’ve written almost verbatim.
However, I do think Zuzel tips the scales considerably by ignoring many fine episodes entirely. He lists some at the top, and others at the bottom, but skips the rest. No “Death Lends a Hand.” No “By Dawn’s Early Light.” No “Troubled Waters.” No “Now You See Him.” No “Swan Song.” (“An Exercise in Fatality” and “Candidate for Crime” receive mention only for some superfluous scenes.) There are a lot of good episodes he simply overlooks.
And for the record — yes, Zuzel does say: “Suspects confess readily—more often, it seems, from weariness than from any open-and-shut evidence against them.” But he NEVER mentions “Murder by the Book” in this regard. To the contrary, Zuzel says nothing negative about “Murder by the Book.” He calls it “magic.” The MBTB cross-reference here was purely a CP addition, with his captioned photo. This was not in the original article. CP and I disagree vehemently about the ending of MBTB. Let’s not assume where Michael Zuzel stands until he tells us.
But the one place where I embrace Zuzel’s views totally is the McGoohan factor. I’m a huge fan of “By Dawn’s Early Light.” After that, I’m not a fan of the McGoohan episodes (as actor, director, and uncredited rewriter). I would love to read Jackson Gillis’ original “Commodore” and Jeffrey Hatcher’s original “Ashes” — before McGoohan “improved” them.
Peter Falk’s reverence for two people hurt Columbo. McGoohan was one. And, as we learned in David Koenig’s “Shooting Columbo,” Elaine May was the other.
Same here – I agree with most of the points he makes, but not the overall conclusion. Realistically, not every episode of a long-running show is going to be brilliant – many will be just average or below (that’s what ‘average’ means, after all). I still think that even a run-of-the-mill Columbo episode is generally a pretty good watch, at least in the 70s era.
With the aid of David Koenig’s “Shooting Columbo”, Zuzel lays out the evidence concisely and cleanly. It amplifies what myself and others in the Columbophile community (I’ll let them speak for themselves) have been saying about New Columbo for awhile now. As I noted at the time of David’s book:
“It was with a sense of regret that I realized that Falk was his own worst enemy, firmly in control of his character but not of his insecurities. He seems to have sabotaged himself with increasingly questionable demands, judgements, and personnel choices that served his own self-interest, but – perhaps – not the greater good of the show. As with the best Columbo villains, the very qualities that make them popular, powerful and prosperous can also trip them up. As outstanding as Columbo was in the 70s, as the book progresses, I can only see the missed opportunities for continued and sustained greatness.”
As I’ve also said here, though, I respect that there are those who don’t see the same faults with 90s Columbo that I do. Much depends upon the entry point into the series for the individual viewer, and if you discovered this great Columbo character in the 90s, that likely becomes the barometer by which all else is judged. That’s a tough nostalgic nut to crack, for those (like me) who often see New Columbo as an anchor dragging down the overall series quality and value (perhaps that’s why Zuzel comes to the conclusion that the show was “mostly mediocre.”).
Since much of what Zuzel has to say is about New Columbo, it isn’t particularly earth-shattering for me. The more interesting feat would be to have Zuzel deep-dive into the Classic Columbo years. Sorting through the pros and cons of the 70s episodes, determining which filler scenes are actually amusing, which Gotchas are more airtight, which plots are sharper…..that’s where the real debate is. Too bad there’s no place on the internet for Columbo fans to swap ideas and discuss these things.
Hey, wait….maybe there is! Michael, I’m sure you’ll be sifting through our comments about your article, so why not join us in the Columbophile community for the more challenging task of detailing the finer points of Classic Columbo. It appears that you have the chops to do so – and IMHO that’s where the real test is.
On the subject of filler scenes, I was surprised about Zuzel calling out the corporate computer scene in Exercise in Fatality : At the time, mainframe systems were still in their infancy, so a lot of people (particularly here in UK) would have found this fascinating. Also, it’s dryly humorous – so you barely notice the time at all.
Mark, great point. Today, we view the Tricon Delta 2-14 office computer scene through a contemporary lens, which gives it a deathly boring pace and feel. Get on with it! We know what computers can do!
In 1974, many people simply didn’t. In the new book “Columbo: Paying Attention 24/7”, author David Martin-Jones writes extensively about Columbo’s interactions with technology, and posits that these sequences helped 70s viewers learn how they should pay attention and interact with technology as well. Summarizing Martin-Jones’ lengthy take on this scene: “What the viewer learns from experiencing this montage is the amount of time they will need to wait for the computer to do its work.” Sure, the scene isn’t crucial to the plot. But the scene isn’t totally pointless.
Importantly, it’s easy to forget what happens immediately after his long wait for the info about Lewis Lacey. Columbo calls him and instead gets an answering machine. Not knowing how to interact with this piece of relatively new technology, Columbo leaves his message in the slow and stilted manner of an automated voice. We wince at this now. In 1974, people didn’t.
Although I’ve previously noted (in the “Coolest Cars” column) that Martin-Jones goes too far with his rationalizations of “Columbo” faults, on this one he’s accurate. The 70s context is everything.
Factual accuracy isn’t much of a defense. As Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.“ He wasn’t speaking only of inaccurate “dull bits.”
But popular culture is also a fascinating way of bringing social, economic and (in this example) technological history to life.
Oh, the scene is definitely padding, make no mistake. I would only say that it’s not as pointless as it might appear to us today.
CP, a topic idea to consider: Paddings that are useful (Columbo character/social insights/humor) and those that aren’t. The filler of “Negative Reaction”, for example, is much more enlightening/entertaining than what you’ll find in the 90s. The mansion scene in “Etude in Black” might be the first time an actual “filler” scene was created, but it was making a social point even if it really didn’t advance the investigation. It was also Columbo making sure the rich villain thought that he was in the superior position.
The Etude mansion scene is Columbo at it’s very finest. It also draws bravura performances from the two actors – I’ve often wondered if they are ad-libbing.
I’ve thought about this too. They can’t have been ad-libbing because Cassavetes is able to tell Columbo the price of everything in his mansion. But I do think they worked it out on their own, and it probably wasn’t in the script!!! My favorite scene in any Columbo and yes, it’s padding!!!!!!
As most viewers know, from the articles and interviews, padding comes from having to extend the presentation to full running time. They don’t want to shorten the 90 minute feature down to 60 minutes because they’ll lose advertising. But even within a single scene, they have to meet their timing goal, or the difference can affect the episode. Meaning to keep their endings (the “ah ha” moment) for solving the crime and catching the suspect) very tight! Didn’t they always end the story on the climax?
From reading Raymond Chandler’s notes, he regarded evocative “padding” as the most important thing. The plot stuff was just tiresome work.
I think, regardless of what you think of Zuzel’s opinions, you have to honor his research and his well thought-out and reasoned commentary. He clearly comes from a place of respect for the series.
As for those opinions, I’d say by and large he’s correct in his critique of many of the episodes but to me those criticisms are a little bit of a side issue with the show. He’s completely right that the 2-hour episodes feature some padding and trips down scriptwriting dark alleys, and that the dialogue seen with contemporary eyes is a bit cringe-inducing.
Where I think, IMHO, he misses the point is in his focus on the reboot of Columbo. Many of his most pointed critiques focus on those shows and I would agree with many of them, but to me the true soul of the show is in its early 70”s incarnation. I barely acknowledge the 90’s episodes so to me while he may be right, he’s looking in the wrong places.
I really enjoyed this commentary, though, because even though I don’t agree with all of it it’s a very well-written bit of work. I especially appreciated the nuggets about McGoohan’s involvement behind the scenes and how Falk used his creative control in ways that weren’t always the best for the show. Well done!
I agree with most of Zuzel’s observations, and am probably more in sync with him than with his host the Columbophile. I would also agree that “Last Salute to the Commodore” and the Ed McBain episodes are the absolute worst. But it’s insane to point the finger at McGoohan overall. His performances are almost entirely good. He directed the FIRST successful “Columbo” of the ABC reboot, just when all hope seemed lost. Watching them chronologically, they always take a step up in quality when McGoohan is on board.
I also agree that most Columbo episodes are not very good, and some are ghastly. Zuzel notes how difficult it was for writers to work with the format, but then draws the wrong conclusion. From the very first season, there was too much pressure to make too many episodes, and quality control took a hit. But my God, there are great episodes in each of the first four seasons.
The proper reaction is to say something like:
THE FIVE COLUMBO EPISODES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE
(Probably Because Someone Will Murder You)
In chronological order, the five best are:
1. Murder By the Book. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Villain: Jack Cassidy.
2. Any Old Port In a Storm. Directed by Leo “Sean’s Dad” Penn. Villain: Donald Pleasence (and some would say Julie Harris).
3. Swan Song. Directed by Nicholas “Coach from ‘Cheers'” Colasanto. Villain: Johnny Cash.
4. A Friend In Deed. Directed by Ben Gazzara. Villain: Richard Kiley.
5. Try and Catch Me. Directed by James Frawley. Villain: Ruth Gordon.
These are five of the best TV episodes ever produced. (Dick Van Dyke’s should probably be in there too.) And while bad sets and generic TV overlighting plague the series (and the newer ones have WORSE production values than the old ones, contrary to what Zuzel says), these episodes are all shot at a high standard, with particularly good locations in #4.
I also feel that credited the flaws in the series to “formula” is wrongheaded at best. The whole POINT of the series is the formula, and how many variations within it can be worked.
Finally, and this is a minor point, “Columbo” owes as much to the original “Les Diaboliques” as it does to “Dial M For Murder.”
There’s definitely a lot of validity to the arguments presented in this article about Columbo’s rocky road, but as an entire series overview it’s a very negative glass-half-empty view of Columbo. Any praise here is given out so grudgingly, it’s like the writer just doesn’t want to enjoy any aspect of the show; a depressive sourpuss in the corner of a great party haha. The whole premise of the article – it’s just not as great a show as you remember – is, for this viewer anyway, mindbogglingly incorrect.
I started the 70’s rewatch through the pandemic and found it one of the most wonderful rediscoveries, and the quality of the greats blew my mind. There’s at least 15 superb episodes – that’s like 15 great detective movies, with one of the most iconic performances ever committed to screen- I mean, how much more do you need? It’s more than enough for me. And beyond that there’s about 15 more good-to-great eps under them as well – all this is easily enough to rank in telly’s Hall of Fame (after all something like Fawlty Towers only ran for 12 eps and is seen as one of the greatest of all time.)
Does naff/mediocre Columbo tar the rep of the top-tier stuff? Certainly not. The show got played out sadly, but we’re still left with the gold – the hours of brilliant scripts, performances, locations, fashions, comedy, tension and of course gotchas.
I can see this article causing a lot of great debate and he raises a lot of good points about some of the missteps the series took, but ignoring the countless nostalgic pleasures and stellar highlights is myopic folly. Long live Columbo!
Nicely put. Zuzel is something
of an Annie Wilkes among
Notable that Try and Catch Me is the only post 1976 episode on Zuzel’s “very good” list. So clearly, something had already gone wrong – but you could make the same generalisation about US tv in general – eg cancellation of Harry O, and populist prominence of drivel like Murder She Wrote, Charlies Angels, etc. The author’s assertion that the acknowledged gems (Murder by the Book, Suitable for Framing, etc) perhaps owed more to luck and random factors, is really not so surprising – you will find a similar story behind many classic films of the era – which sometimes only saw the light of day due to individual bull-headedness, eccentric persistence and luck. Of course, if you are looking for consistent excellence, then “Columbo” is not the right place – try “Man in a Suitcase” (1968) – thirty or so episodes, with hardly a dud among them.
I would also dispute Zuzel’s claim that the Columbo character was far superior to the show itself – the early episodes are characterised by vivid and enduring guest “star” portrayals from Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, Ross Martin and Robert Conrad – none of whom were really “A list” names.
So true that “the early episodes are characterised by vivid and enduring guest ‘star’ portrayals from Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, Ross Martin and Robert Conrad.”
That list coincides with my own list of the best guest appearances in the early episodes … especially the multiple roles played by Cassidy and Culp, who were terrific every time.
I do think that “Try and Catch Me” might have been the last great one, and it came at a time when the show seemingly was on a downhill quality slide. But I consider it miraculous that they managed to hit the bull’s-eye as late as the seventh season! I would argue that there are strong episodes after that one, but just not on the great top tier.
The Conspirators is as good as TACM. Very fun episode that shouldn’t be dismissed for it’s frivolous nature
might make a counter essay to this one haha
Some of his criticisms are valid – particularly of the ABC years, many already touched on by you CP – but 2 things I totally disagree with:
1. He’s right the inverted mystery format is so difficult, but that’s an argument in Columbo’s favour surely – that they managed to write so many good ones not how many less good ones.
2. What’s he on about with the production values of classic vs 90s Columbo – the production values in the 70s were pretty awesome ( and caused budget headaches for NBC for that very reason ) whereas one of the worst things about the 90s era was it frequently poor production values – Murder in Malibu has particularly terrible picture quality.
Still as you say CP, will start an interesting debate I’m sure!
A pity there was no mention of comedy. In ‘Negative Reaction’, for example, we get the hilarious ‘driving instructor’ scene with Mr Weekly (Larry Storch) and the nutty nun played by Joyce Van Patten backed up by Vito Scotti as an educated drunk.
I rewatched Negative Reaction last night, and was reminded, several times, of your post.
The whole scene at the mission with the nun trying to feed Columbo and to provide him with a better coat had me laughing, even though it was probably about my fifth viewing (over the years).
And Columbo asking the photographer if he had a picture of a Cocker Spaniel to soothe his dog, who was depressed because the Cocker Spaniel he was in love with had moved away …
A picture “like a pin-up,” he added. 😆
And yes, the Larry Storch scene was still hilarious.
Thank you for sharing this. A very enjoyable article, and 100% correct about the Last Salute episode. I don’t think I’ve managed to watch it right through once. Which would probably help me understand it, but I just can’t face the effort required!
I hadn’t realised just how much of an impact Falk had behind the scenes, and it’s a real shame to think what might have been on quite a lot of episodes.
After watching Last Salute recently, I have no interest in seeing it again.