Columbo episode review: Butterfly in Shades of Grey

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Famous for William Shatner’s colour-changing moustache, the poetically titled Butterfly in Shades of Grey was the first Columbo episode to be aired in 1994, making its bow on January 10.

Cast as the Rush Limbaugh-inspired radio talk show host Fielding Chase, Shatner’s second appearance as a Columbo killer came 18 years after his series debut in 1976’s Fade in to Murder.

Is it a comeback of epic proportions or another middle-of-the-road revival era outing for the Lieutenant? Well, my inarticulate friends (as Chase might say, not me!), let’s tune in and find out…

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Fielding Chase: William Shatner
Victoria Chase: Molly Hagan
Gerry Winters: Jack Laufer
Lou Caten: Richard Kline
Officer Davis: John C. Anders
Ted Malloy: Mark Lonow
DeeDee Ross: Beverly Leech
Directed by: Dennis Dugan
Written by: Peter S. Fischer
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis

Shock jock Fielding Chase hosts the nation’s leading radio phone-in, with millions tuning in nightly to enjoy his hot-takes on the socio-political issues of the day. Amongst Chase’s put-upon underlings is foster daughter Victoria (a producer on his show), an aspiring writer whose unpublished novel has just been brought to the attention of literary agent Lou Caten after being passed on to him by mutual friend (and a just-fired investigative reporter on Chase’s payroll) Gerry Winters.

Caten is sufficiently impressed to promise to pass on the manuscript to his boss at a major publishing house in New York: a thrilling prospect for Vicky, but one which Chase himself cannot condone. Unwilling to allow his daughter to live her own life, he uses his considerable clout to ensure her novel is rejected.

Gerry learns of this fatherly stitch-up and publicly slams Chase in front of a sea of witnesses. He vows to destroy Chase professionally and also help Vicky break free of his shackles. He even calls Chase a “sick, possessive old man” and hints broadly that Fielding has the hots for his foster daughter – an accusation that earns him a backhand to the chops and a death threat from the enraged broadcaster.

Gerry signs his death warrant with a finger-jabbing tirade

Undeterred, Gerry relays the truth of the matter to Vicky, who is crestfallen and agrees to accompany him to New York herself the following week. She confronts Chase about his blocking manoeuvre with the publisher, which he claims he did to protect her from his enemies who, he claims, will carve her into pieces (hopefully not literally) to hurt him. Nevertheless, she remains determined to take matters into her own hands and will not back out of her proposed trip.

Stung into action, Chase calls Gerry and gives him a sob story about how he’ll do anything to help Vicky succeed. He’d like to catch up with Gerry in person late the next day, and requests the reporter calls him at home at 4pm sharp to arrange the rendezvous. Despite this suggestion reeking of foul play, Gerry cedes to Chase’s demands.

Naturally enough, when 4pm comes round the following afternoon, Chase isn’t at his own home – he’s driven to Gerry’s in his conspicuous car whilst wearing a conspicuous disguise. He sneaks in the back way, letting himself in via a key he has taken from Vicky’s keyring. The punctual Gerry rings Chase HQ at 4pm on the dot, but the answer machine kicks in in the absence of the host. After Gerry starts to leave a message, the wily Chase picks up the phone receiver in Gerry’s den to create an illusion (that will be recorded on his answer phone tape) that he is in fact at home. Clever

As the two chat, Chase sneaks up behind Gerry and fires three shots into his back. Once convinced the man is dead, Chase bellows concernedly down the phone safe in the knowledge that the answer machine recording will place him miles away at the time of death. He then very deliberately wipes the prints of the gun with a handkerchief and tosses it aside near the body. He uses the same hanky to wipe down the door locks before deliberately snagging it on roses in the garden and leaving it for the police to find. Finally leaping into his car, Chase uses his cell phone to call 911 and report Gerry’s shooting.

“I’d… like…. to report… a crime…”

Lieutenant Columbo is sent to investigate and is immediately surprised to learn that an ear witness to the killing is hoping to speak to him – the witness, of course, being Fielding Chase, who is sitting out front in his convertible Mercedes. Chase foists the suggestion upon Columbo that Gerry was likely killed by someone he was investigating. Either that or a spurned boyfriend (Gerry being the series’ first – shock, horror! – openly gay character).

Chase lures Columbo back to his home in order to provide the detective with files on the cases Gerry was working on blowing wide open. A tearful Vicky appears, distraught from the news of her friend’s death and sent into spasms of agony when she hears the answer machine recording of Gerry’s fatal last conversation. Chase packs Columbo off with the cassette tape and files before playing the noble father role for Vicky’s benefit. He won’t try to stop her from going to New York but needs her now more than ever, he says, fighting back the tears. She falls for it and agrees to stay.

The day of Gerry’s funeral duly arrives and Columbo (as is his wont) shows up to ask questions. He encounters Vicky first, seeking intel from her on who might have a key to Gerry’s home. His former lover Ted, whom Gerry had recently broken up with, would have had one, Vicky suggests. And of course she has one too, because the two often worked on stories together at his house. Oddly, Vicky believes she noticed her key was missing from her keyring on the day of Gerry’s death, but she must have been mistaken because it was definitely there the following morning (so why even mention it, fool!).

A useful snippet of info for the keen detective is that Vicky spent the day of Gerry’s death working at the radio studio in preparation for a forthcoming interview between Chase and a senator. Vicky admits that she almost never works on a Saturday – and that she only did this time because Chase himself suggested it. Suspicious

Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free’ plays softly in the background

Still, at this stage in his investigation, Chase seems to be a remote possibility to Columbo, whose next move is to find Gerry’s former squeeze Ted Malloy at the TV studio where he works on a daytime soap opera. The handkerchief from the crime scene had pancake make-up stains on it – as did the murder weapon and the back door locks. While this looks dodgy for Ted, he’s able to prove his innocence as he was out signing autographs with two other cast members at the time Gerry was gunned down.

While one avenue is shut down for Columbo, opportunity knocks for Vicky. Tracked down by Lou Caten, he tells her that he’s quit his job to strike out on his own – and he wants her novel to be the first to be published under his new business. She demurs, insisting Chase needs her emotional support right now, a surmise shot down by Caten who tells Vicky that Chase is doing everything he can to prevent her book being published. Angered by this slur on her father’s good name, Vicky flounces out.

Columbo, meanwhile, is making progress of sorts on the case. He’s deduced that the hanky with make-up stains was deliberately left at the crime scene to incriminate Ted Malloy because no one in Gerry’s investigative files would ever use that type of make-up themselves. He’s discounted all 33 potential suspects from the file because none of them could have known about Gerry and Ted’s gay relationship, which was strictly kept on the down-low. Only someone who knew about the love affair and break-up could have tried to frame Ted for the killing. That could include our mate Chase.

Columbo has some tough questions for Chase at their next meeting, too. He has checked phone records from Chase’s home and there’s no record of a call to 911 after Gerry was shot. How can this be explained? Easily enough, it seems. Chase claims he was so startled at hearing the gunshots over the phone that he immediately dashed to his car and set off for Gerry’s, all a-flutter! It was only a minute or two later that he found the presence of mind to call 911 from his cell phone. Luckily for Chase, his explanation tallies with Columbo’s own findings that show a 4-minute gap between Gerry being shot and a 911 call being placed.

The guy is SO RICH that he has a FUNICULAR RAILWAY in his garden!

The Lieutenant certainly seems to believe Chase was involved in the crime by now, but takes a different tack when the two meet again the following day. Columbo strongly suggests he believes Vicky could be involved in the crime. Of all the people who had a spare key to Gerry’s home (four in total), she is the only one without a cast-iron alibi, claiming to have been alone at the radio studio all day. No one else can verify she was there at the time Gerry was slain.

Chase angrily refutes the accusation, but Columbo ain’t done yet. He recounts Vicky’s observation that her key to Gerry’s seemed to disappeared on the day of the killing, only to reappear the following morning. The inference is clear: Chase had every opportunity to pinch the key and commit the crime while his daughter was out for the day at his behest. Fuming, Chase sends Columbo packing.

It’s now the night of the big call-in show where Chase’s millions of listeners are given the chance to grill Senator Madison ahead of his re-election bid. Things are going well for the politician until a staged phone call is patched through – a move made at Chase’s insistence and very much against Vicky’s wishes. The caller puts forward a conspiracy theory that the Senator knocked up a teenage actress some years before and had the illegitimate child adopted. Whether true or not, Vicky is disgusted at her father’s antics in disparaging a good man. She storms out of the studio.

The morning after the show, when Chase ought to have been basking in the glory of the scoop, he is instead confronted by the situation he most feared. Victoria has packed her things and leaves for New York with Lou Caten to follow her dream of becoming a writer. For all his lying, scheming and murdering, Chase has lost – and it’s all his own fault.

Peak Shatner!

It’s therefore not a good time for Columbo to show up unannounced, but there he is like a bad penny – and this time round he’s got his game face on. He accuses Chase of murdering Gerry to stop him freeing Vicky from his clutches. And he claims to have a witness downtown that will swear that Chase offered him $10,000 to kill Gerry on his behalf. Chase agrees to accompany the detective to police headquarters to give the witness an earful.

They don’t get far, though. A few minutes’ drive down the winding Malibu mountains road they encounter the scene of a bicycle accident. As Columbo offers sympathy and advice to the fallen biker and Chase looks on, another cyclist slides under Chase’s car and tinkers with a spanner. The spandex-clad clan then get their sh*t together and merrily peddle off around a bend in the road.

To compound Chase’s rising tempers, his car now won’t start (thanks to the cyclist’s ministrations) so he’s forced to call the AAA for assistance. The problem is, he can’t get no reception on his cell phone due to the mountainous terrain. Time and again he tries and fails. Columbo then whips out his own mobile device (on a try-before-you-buy loan deal) and similarly fails to get through.

Of course, the detective knew this would be the case. He’s already carried out a test on the road and knows there’s nowhere within miles where there’s any phone signal. And that means that Chase was lying about having made a call to 911 from his car within minutes of hearing Gerry being gunned down. The precise time frame between the bullets being fired and the call to 911 being received means the call had to have been made near the very spot the car now sits. If Chase wasn’t here, then where was he? Somewhere with phone reception, certainly. Maybe in Gerry Winters’ neighbourhood?

“You know Columbo, I think possibly I may have misread you.” “True dat, bro, true dat…”

As Chase rummages in his car boot for tools, Columbo outlines his case in more detail. He believes Chase used the extension phone in Gerry’s den to appear to be at his own home when recording the conversation on his answer machine. A simple trick, but effective. As he listens, Chase slips a shotgun out of a case in the trunk – his actions screened from the detective. “Aren’t you behaving stupidly, confronting me with this, alone, on a deserted stretch of road?” Chase asks as he fingers the weapon.

Calm as you like, Columbo sounds the car horn. Around the bend trundles the gang of cyclists with a police black and white in tow. Chase realises he’s been had. There is no witness at police HQ. It was all a ruse to draw him out. Abandoning any thoughts of slaughtering the Lieutenant in cold blood, Chase yields – for perhaps the first time in his life. “You know Columbo, I think possibly I may have misread you,” he ventures before being cuffed and led away as credits roll…



Episode analysis

Eighteen years after his series debut in the zany Fade in to Murder, William Shatner was back in Columbo colours playing an altogether more formidable opponent in the guise of conservative radio host, Fielding Chase. Based squarely on Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing political commentator who stoked controversy for his anti-gay, misogynistic and race-baiting views over several decades, Chase is a lot less likable than Fade villain Ward Fowler, but Shatner throws his all into the character with typical gusto.

As I noted in the review of Fade, the level of viewer enjoyment of that episode is likely to be heavily biased by how much of Shatner’s inimitable acting style they can stomach. The same absolutely applies here. His exaggerated, halting cadence is loved and pilloried in near-equal measure. In the ham stakes he has few equals, but Shatner can always be relied on to put on a good show and his commitment to his craft is in full evidence through Butterfly’s 98-minute running time.

There aren’t many Columbo killers who have as much screen-time as Fielding Chase, who appears in (and dominates) almost every scene in the episode. If Shatner ain’t your bag, Butterfly in Shades of Grey is going to feel like a marathon rather than a sprint. If he is, this may well be amongst your go-to new Columbo episodes.

Unusually for me, I’m in a bit of a halfway house when it comes to Shatner’s performance. I’m a big fan of the guy in general, and believe he’s a more capable actor than most give him credit for. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with his role here, but even by his standards the level of over-acting is so extreme as to be considered distracting. Worse, though, is that it appears Peter Falk was trying to keep the pace with his opposite lead, dragging Columbo back towards the sort of inane, overblown tomfoolery seen all too often in the revival era.

In the series’ last outing, It’s All in the Game, Falk seemed to harness the dignity and stature of Faye Dunaway to guide his own efforts. The Lieutenant we see there was a serious detective playing things with a straight bat. There was no need to insert any silliness into the Columbo performance to gain a few laughs, and the episode was much the better for it.

It’s no coincidence that the best post-1989 efforts (No Time to Die and Grand Deceptions excluded) are those in which Falk has kept the Columbo characterisation in check and refused to yield to the temptation to insert broad comedy or needlessly flashy moments into them. Agenda for Murder, Columbo Goes to College, Death Hits the Jackpot, Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo, All in the Game and even Columbo Cries Wolf (for the most part) are the stand-out new adventures precisely because the Lieutenant behaved and felt like a believable extension of his 70s self.

When he starts rummaging in bins, kissing Russian cleaners, parping tubas, chatting to pot plants, rolling around in car showrooms, hanging with mermaids, chuntering about panties and appearing in ringmaster threads are the times when my temperature starts rising because such moronic moments betray the essence of the character and the class of the original series. Sadly, there are a number of just such scenes in Butterfly.

At least Officer Davis found Columbo’s larking about funny…

The sight (and sound) of Columbo idiotically yelling for attention while standing on his car bonnet at Chase’s gate is a dreadful low. So, too, the endless scene of the Lieutenant explaining a theory to Chase in his office and accidentally setting the bin alight with a carelessly discarded cigar. He appears amazed by a honey dipper at a posh restaurant and even delivers some sort of half-assed stand-up comedy routine about cell phones to a laugh-a-minute uniformed cop as the cooling corpse of Gerry Winters lies on the floor beside him. Where on earth has all this turgid nonsense come from?

Heavy-handed audio effects of Columbo’s car backfiring and spluttering are added in to remind us that Columbo drives an old heap (who knew?) and there’s an awful scene where Columbo is mistaken for a member of a troupe of bums on the set of a daytime TV soap, ruining a take in the process as he struggles to find his ID badge. The episode composition and the Columbo characterisation are tonally so far removed from It’s All in the Game that it’s almost like watching a different show entirely.

This can likely be explained by the fact that Butterfly was actually filmed a month before It’s All in the Game, but Dunaway’s heavyweight presence gave her episode sufficient clout to be bumped ahead of Shatner’s in the running order. The chalk-and-cheese difference in acting styles between the two episode’s opposing killers can only have influenced Falk’s own interpretation of the Lieutenant. In Game, Falk had his game face on as he seemed intent on giving Dunaway a foil befitting her status and reputation. Here, he veers far more towards cartoonishness in Shatner’s rollicking company.

That’s not to say I begrudge the two having a an on-set love-in and enjoying a bit of fun together. Falk and Shatner clearly liked each other and were extremely comfortable when in tandem. I do think, though, that the episode’s dark and slightly unsettling themes aren’t necessarily a good fit for Shatner. His on-air Chase is superb, but when Chase is away from the mic and engaged in his daily life, a more sinister, less likable actor might have worked better, as Shatner’s breathy style and eye-popping rages are hard to take seriously.

“Can’t be taken… seriously… you say…?”

I feel like Fielding Chase should convey a real sense of menace. Shatner doesn’t do that. Looking at actors of a similar age to him who could conceivably have been available and interested in appearing as a Columbo baddie (surely high on most actors wish lists?) there are some mouth-watering prospects. James Earl Jones, Ian Holm, Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow were all taking on TV gigs in the mid-90s. All had the hard edge to have made Fielding Chase a truly loathsome and dangerous presence, while having the gravitas to perhaps curb some of Falk’s more frivolous excesses.

I’m not sure any one of them would have accepted the preposterous variations in Chase’s moustache, which is undoubtedly the single-most commented-on aspect of this episode, and something that further underscores the notion that Butterfly wasn’t perhaps produced as seriously as it might’ve been.

There is absolutely no consistency in the appearance of Chase’s stash from one scene to the next. It’s position, thickness, shape and colour appear to change at will. This is beyond careless continuity management and can only have been some sort of production in-joke, but who the gag’s aimed at escapes me. It doesn’t say much for the quality of the mystery when its most memorable element is the antagonist’s moustache, but I’d wager that is most viewers’ chief take-out. One thing’s for sure: the moustache is infinitely more distracting and less believable than Shatner’s toupee.

Looking beyond the ‘tash to the fabric of the story, how well does Butterfly hold up to scrutiny? Much is passable, but there are a couple of suppermassive black holes in the plot that no amount of lip fuzz can conceal. Primarily, these are Chase’s flimsy motive for murder, the true nature of his feelings towards Victoria, and the lack of damning evidence Columbo amasses against his key suspect.

Moustache in Shades of Grey: the ever-changing caterpillar on Shatner’s upper lip

The first two of those points can be covered off together, as Chase committing murder is intrinsically linked to his need to keep foster daughter Vicky near at hand. A mere whiff that she wants to up sticks and live her own life as an aspiring novelist drives fear into Chase’s heart. Gerry Winters’ angry assertion that he will do all in his power to free Vicky from Chase, therefore, is enough to drive the older man to murder. This does seem like overkill, though: something you’d do as an absolute last resort when all other avenues have failed. Old Chase obviously isn’t the diplomatic type.

Gerry’s accusation that Chase has inappropriate feelings towards Vicky is never entirely realised in the script, either. Yes, there’s that very creepy moment when he grabs her hand and tenderly kisses it following an argument, but we don’t see yearning glances from him, or any other visible suggestions that he is sexually attracted to Vicky elsewhere in the episode.

He even gives a long monologue to Columbo about why Vicky is dear to him, and that he agreed to foster her 15 years earlier when her mother – the true love of his life – died of cancer. His desire to control Vicky’s life to keep her safe from harm seems authentic here, but is at odds with the inverted Oedipus Gerry makes Chase out to be. The episode ought to have been more decisive on Chase’s intent towards his young ward and I think playing up this creepiness would have been helpful.

A clearer motive for murder (albeit it more formulaic) would have been for Gerry and Vicky to be lovers, and for Chase to have genuine concerns for her well-being in the event of them running off together, driving him to murder. Of course, Gerry being gay, this isn’t an option, but the sub-plot about his sexuality does nothing to strengthen the story – quite the opposite, in fact.

Columbo Butterfly in Shades of Grey Gerry
He’s behiiiiiiiiind you!

Including a gay character smacks of a production team looking at same-sex storylines in contemporary shows and feeling the need to keep up. Dougie Howser MD, Quantum Leap, Roseanne, Cheers, Law & Order and even Murder She Wrote had explored gay relationships in various ways in the early 90s, but here the subject is kept very much at arm’s length and feels rather tokenistic.

There’s little in the writing to suggest the production team really knew what to do with a gay character beyond using his sexual orientation as a means of Chase pinning his murder on a wronged lover. As Chase puts it when discussing Gerry’s love-life with Columbo: “those people (i.e. gays) do have a reputation for unusual behaviour,” (what, like cold-blooded killing?) at which point the Lieutenant seems vaguely uncomfortable and mumbles about most of his cases being husbands killing wives, and vice versa.

Columbo as a show does diversity poorly and this is a prime example. There are loads of ways to have made a gay character or a homosexuality driven storyline pivotal, fresh and interesting, but this comes across as a box-ticking exercise rather than an attempt at meaningful engagement with a different type of subject matter and audience. Interestingly, It’s All in the Game daringly gave the impression of having a lesbian relationship at the core of its mystery before Lauren and Lisa were revealed to be mother and daughter. The uninspiring use of a gay character here therefore feels additionally unadventurous.

Still, I mustn’t forget that I am viewing this episode in an entirely different era from whence it came, so will push on to pastures green before I am accused of using my soapbox to impose ‘woke’ viewpoints upon the readership (which couldn’t be further from the truth). Instead, I’ll consider how little evidence Columbo amasses against Chase over the course of this very long episode.

I’d have a hangdog expression if I’d amassed as little proof as Columbo, too

I’ve written before about anticlimactic episodes in which Columbo spends a lot of time and energy in proving very little other than casting doubt on the killer’s alibi. The Most Crucial Game and Identity Crisis are the foremost examples of this, but I would certainly add Butterfly in Shades of Grey into this category. I applaud Columbo’s investigative skillz in discerning that a lack of mobile reception in the hills near his home scotch Chase’s story about where he was when he dialled 911. However, this is a long way from proving he was at Gerry’s house committing murder.

Columbo is given plenty of reasons to suspect Chase of murder: he publicly threatened to kill Gerry; he sent Vicky off to work on a Saturday so no one knew what he was up to himself; he could easily have pinched Vicky’s key to Gerry’s house; and he was one of the few people who knew of Gerry’s relationship with Ted Malloy. There’s nothing concrete, though, and while the mobile phone evidence is strong, it’s hardly a complete case when I really want to believe Columbo will nail the jerk. Chase has some explaining to do, but a good lawyer ought easily to get him off the hook.

I can’t really fault the gotcha itself, mind you. Columbo has done what he has done so well over the years: gained understanding of a bewildering cutting-edge technology and used it to break the case wide open. We’ve seen him get to grips with CCTV systems, VCRs, fax machines, computers, pagers and more over the past 25 years and this is cut from the same cloth. The irksome issue of mobile phone reception in hilly areas would have appeared quite revolutionary in the mid-90s, but it’s a topic still relevant today making the gotcha scene accessible to the modern viewer.

Bonus points are awarded for Chase’s reaching for his shotgun in his car trunk, his movements obscured from the detective in a nicely cinematic fashion. Very few killers have the gumption to consider bumping off the troublesome detective, and anything to further underline Chase’s wicked ways is to be applauded. The same can’t be said for the presentation of the undercover police cyclists, though, decked out as they are in all sorts of eyeball-bursting, luminous Lycra ensembles, looking and acting like extras in a bad daytime soap. Nineties Columbo has rarely seemed more 90s…

MY EYES!

If those are the less successful facets of Butterfly, there are, happily, other factors that off-set these and boost its watchability. Although I believe the episode would have been stronger with a more accomplished lead actor, Shatner does at least give his all to the role of Fielding Chase and gets some excellent lines to play with as his tempers are increasingly set on edge by the Lieutenant’s shilly-shallying.

With you Lieutenant, there’s always just one more thing,” he seethes at one point, giving voice to the frustrations felt by so many killers over so many years. “Do you have a problem with short term memory? Perhaps you should consult a physician.” Later, his nerves even more frayed, he brays at the detective: “I’ll confront your witness and when I do I’ll destroy him! After that I’ll start on you!” He delivers these lines in classic Shatnerian style, which is always enjoyable to watch.

His best bits are when he’s playing the loathsome radio host, showing just the right level of contempt for his audience (“the inarticulate need not bother dialling,”), while adopting an adversarial position whenever the opportunity arises. One of those broadcasters who believes in their own hype, his take-down of Senator Madison after assurances he wouldn’t stoop to dirty tricks points to a moral vacuum at his core, further highlighted by his efforts to prevent Vicky’s book being published. In short, Chase is a real git and one of a small number of Columbo villains with no redeeming features.

His beastliness is all the more unforgivable when considering the good-hearted individual he is trying to dominate and control: his foster daughter Vicky. Here in her second Columbo appearance after starring as Alex Brady’s lover Ruthie in 1989’s Murder, Smoke and Shadows, Molly Hagan brings her girl-next-door charms to a role that could have been forgettable but ends up being one of the more compelling of the show’s revival.

Once freed, this butterfly will show her true colours

Vicky knows she has been mistreated and held back by Chase, but she is never pathetic, peevish or vengeful. It’s a sensitive turn from Hagan, who does enough to convince us that Vicky has the moral fibre to make her dreams come true once freed from Chase’s obnoxious clutches. And for all those confused about the episode’s poetic title, the butterfly in shades of grey (according to episode writer Peter S. Fischer) is Vicky herself: the restrained, cocooned daughter who yearns to break free.

Elsewhere, there are capable performances from Jack Laufer and Richard Kline as Gerry and literary agent Lou Caten, but it’s a small central cast that enables Shatner and Falk to maximise their time together. Just about the only quibbles I have about the support cast are the purported ages of Vicky and Gerry, who are said to be 25 and 32 years old respectively, but are being played by actors many years older than that (Hagan was 33 at the time, while Jack Laufer was 40).

Directing this episode is Columbo alum Dennis Dugan, whom keen viewers may remember as Detective Theodore ‘Mac’ Albinsky in 1975’s Last Salute to the Commodore. On his way to becoming an accomplished TV and film director, Dugan’s penchant for comedy is evident in the many interactions between detective and suspect. He also does a fine job in ensuring the episode moves at a good clip. Butterfly runs for almost 100 minutes but rarely drags – a rarity for 90s Columbo.

Dick De Benedictis is another member of the Columbo old guard back in action here, although this is far from the composer’s best effort. I celebrated De Benedictis’s comeback to the series for A Bird in the Hand… after a 17-year hiatus given his reputation as one of Columbo’s most dependable score setters. Alas, Butterfly’s score is twee and, at times, cringe-inducing, evoking memories of some of the dismal, jaunty scores of Season 8. It now seems like there’s no escape from This Old Man being worked into every episode’s score on multiple occasions – a cross I shall just have to bear.

I think the house is a little big for just you and Vicky, Chase! Consider downsizing!

No review of Butterfly in Shades of Grey would be complete without reference to Fielding Chase’s monumental home in the Malibu Mountains. Located in the ultra-exclusive Serra Retreat overlooking the Pacific, the city-sized home was built in 1983 and owned by Elvis Presley’s former squeeze Linda Thompson. Set in 22 acres, with nine bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, the house is the only one I’ve ever seen to feature a funicular railway as transport between the lower gardens and the main house. That’s living! The house was sold for $22m in 2005, so Lord only knows what it’s worth today.

To sum things up, Butterfly in Shades of Grey is an at-times enjoyable romp that is at its best if you don’t try to take it too seriously (such as analysing every aspect of it for a detailed review). It’s a must-watch for Shatnerphiles, who will slurp it up with glee. However, those viewers who prefer their Columbo episodes to come with a sharper edge and more ominous villain may find it an overblown and unsatisfying spectacle that’s trying far too hard to play it for laughs.

Did you know?

Like William Shatner’s first Columbo outing, Fade in to Murder from 1976, Butterfly in Shades of Grey features actor’s pancake make-up as a major clue. In Butterfly, Chase plants pancake at the murder scene to implicate Gerry’s former lover and TV actor, Ted Malloy. In Fade, traces of theatrical makeup on a ripped-up ski mask was one of the clues that implicated Ward Fowler – a popular TV detective – in the killing of Claire Daley.

A predilection for bonkers disguises is one of Shatner’s Columbo traits

How I rate ’em

Consistent excellence continues to elude ‘new Columbo‘, with Butterfly in Shades of Grey a significant quality downgrade on It’s All in the Game, becoming another ‘OK’ entry that slots into a mid-table position. It’s not a howler, but I can’t envisage feeling the need to watch it again anytime soon.

To read my reviews of any of the other revival Columbo episodes up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. You can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.

  1. Columbo Goes to Collegetop tier new Columbo episodes
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Death Hits the Jackpot
  4. Columbo Cries Wolf
  5. It’s All in the Game
  6. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  7. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine2nd tier episodes start here
  8. Sex & The Married Detective
  9. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  10. Butterfly in Shades of Grey
  11. A Bird in the Hand…
  12. Murder, A Self Portrait
  13. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star3rd tier episodes start here
  14. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  15. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  16. No Time to Die4th tier episodes start here
  17. Grand Deceptions
  18. Murder in Malibu
Columbo Butterfly in Shades of Grey
Even with a drop of honey, Butterfly isn’t quite my cup of tea

Now it’s your turn to spill the beans on your opinion of all things Butterfly. Does Shatner do it for you, or is the episode crying out for a more nuanced leading man? Does Columbo’s lack of hard proof hamper the episode? And how do you rate Falk’s more overtly comedic performance this time around?

With only six of Columbo’s 69 televised adventures still to review, my focus switches to Undercover, the second of two ill-advised Ed McBain novel adaptations. Based on my sparse but robust recollections of it being utter pigswill, I am already suspecting Undercover will plummet to the foot of the rankings. Can I be proven wrong? Check back soon to find out…


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Columbo Butterfly in Shades of Grey
Don’t give up the day job, Lieutenant!
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