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.
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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…