Episode review: Columbo Undercover

Columbo Undercover opening titles

In his glory days, Columbo was occasionally thought to be working undercover due to his tramp-like, unkempt appearance. On May 2, 1994, he went undercover fo’ real in the straightforwardly titled Undercover.

In an attempt to solve a double homicide (that later expanded into a quadruple homicide) and recover $4m of lost bank robbery loot, the Lieutenant donned a variety of silly hats and outfits as he worked the city’s underbelly for hot leads.

The second of the series’ two dreaded Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel adaptations, can Undercover manage what No Time to Die failed to do two years earlier and insert Columbo into the world of serious police procedurals without ALIENATING, DISGUSTING and/or ENRAGING viewers? I have my doubts, but I’m wading in regardless. Wish me luck…

Columbo Undercover cast montage

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Irving Krutch: Ed Begley Jr.
Sergeant Arthur Brown: Harrison Page
Geraldine Ferguson: Shera Danese
Suzie Endicott: Kristin Bauer
Dorothea McNally: Tyne Daly
Mo Weinberg: Burt Young
Zeke Rivers: Robert Donner
Bramley Kahn: Edward Hibbert
Det. McKittrick: Albie Selznick
Det. Mercer: Joe Chrest
Police Captain: Hank Garrett
Dog: As himself
Directed by: Vince McEveety
Written by: Gerry Day (from a story by Ed McBain)
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis

While investigating the synchronous murder of two thugs in a Smack Alley doss house, Columbo discovers a puzzle-shaped piece of a photograph in one of the dead man’s hands. The guy had clambered up the outside of a two-storey building to break and enter, so Columbo makes the safe assumption that the puzzle piece is what he was willing to kill for – and what he was killed to safeguard.

While discussing the significance of the find the following morning with Sergeant Brown, the duo are interrupted by the pleasantly manic Irving Krutch, an insurance investigator desperate to recover $4m dollar that a gang of crooks hid after robbing a bank six years earlier (the crooks were slain by cops right after secreting the cash away). Krutch has another piece of the puzzle, as well as a list of seven names – two of whom were the hoods who slew each other the night before – and believes that when all the pieces are found, the location of the hidden booty will be revealed.

Columbo Undercover Irving Krutch
Columbo dropped asleep, so dull was Krutch’s explanation of his insurance credentials

Intrigued, Columbo and Brown agree to help Krutch in his bid to uncover the stolen money and search the apartment of the dead man who was found gripping the photo piece. Hidden in a light fitting, they find the third bit of the puzzle. With the plot thickening as rapidly as a corn starch-laden stew, the police Captain permits Columbo go undercover to pump career criminal Mo Weinberg (another name on the list) for further info.

Attired in a brown hat and ramping up the huskiness of his voice, Columbo makes a rendezvous with Weinberg and spins a cock-and-bull story about being a lowlife from Salt Lake City named Artie Stokes (why not Jessop?) who paid a couple of grand for a puzzle piece and two names of folk who might have additional pieces – one of those names being Weinberg’s. The two agree to trade pieces and split the cash 50-50 in the event of finding it, and Weinberg reveals that an art gallery owner named Geraldine Ferguson also allegedly has a piece of dat puzzle.

The gallery is Columbo’s first port of call the next morning, where Geraldine immediately sees through his charade and identifies him as a cop. She denies having a puzzle piece, but her bluff is called by her colleague, the camp and simpering Bramley Kahn, who invites Columbo to talk shop in the back office. Kahn seems willing to sell their piece, but Geraldine is not. Columbo urges them to think it over and contact him at his bum-wipe lodgings if they decide to play ball. He also reveals his whereabouts to Krutch, whom he rings from said lodgings to update him on the case. Krutch is cock-a-hoop at Columbo’s progress and begs to be kept in the loop on developments.

After an hour’s shut-eye, Columbo is roused by a knocking at his door. Upon answering, he is immediately smashed in the face by a masked felon, who follows this up with a kick to the detective’s head. That’s nap-time, baby! Some hours later, Sergeant Brown looks in on his colleague to find the apartment trashed and an addled Columbo barely clinging on to consciousness. It’s a trip to the hospital for the Lieutenant, while Brown makes a beeline for Weinberg’s place, convinced that he’s the man behind the Columbo braining.

Columbo Undercover
Columbo meets ‘Misery’ – minus the sledgehammered ankles

After receiving a check-up, Columbo is confined to bed at the hospital. No phone calls in or out are permitted, and the nurse steals his trousers so he can’t escape on foot! Brown, meanwhile, discovers more than he bargained for when he reaches Weinberg’s. His apartment has also been trashed, and the man himself is lying dead with a gunshot wound to the upper chest. As a result, Krutch now becomes a key suspect as he knew where both Columbo and Weinberg were holed up. Brown busts Columbo out of the hospital (providing him with some MC Hammer-style pants to get away in) and the pair dash over to disturb Krutch’s sleep.

The rangy insurance man is grilled about his whereabouts the previous day. He claims to have been at home before going on a dinner date and stroll with his current squeeze, Suzie. He’s been with her since before 4pm (when Columbo called him) – and she’s still here now! A sleepy Suzie confirms Krutch’s alibi when she’s tipped out of bed, but Columbo still demands a detailed timetable outlining precisely where Krutch was, and when, since Suzie’s arrival.

A new day dawns. Columbo’s next act is to dress up as a mafia boss (!) and locate the sister of a mobster’s dead wife who allegedly gave Krutch his puzzle piece and the list of names, as well as telling him that the completed image will reveal the location of the bank robbery cash. The old coot doesn’t know anything about hidden treasure and denies ever having the list. She did give Krutch the piece, but he never paid her for it. She also divulges that Geraldine Ferguson was desperate to get her oily clutches on the bit of puzzle, so Columbo pays the wench a house call.

There, Columbo comes clean about being a cop and urges Geraldine to be cautious lest she be the next person slain. Brown has already searched the gallery and found the other half of the list of names in Kahn’s safety deposit box, but Geraldine claims never to have seen it herself. However, the police now have the full names of all seven people on the list and set out to make contact – but not before Columbo enlists the help of parking enforcement officer Zeke Rivers to share all he knows about the on-street parking outside Weinberg’s apartment. Why? We’ll find out later on…

Columbo Undercover Tyne Daly
The policeman always rings twice

Cut to another dingy apartment block downtown. This is home to part-time hooker (and full-time drinker) Dorothea McNally, the sixth of seven names on the list. Turns out that she was given a puzzle piece by her nephew just prior to his being killed on the bank job. With the help of some flattery and some $20 bills, Columbo gets hold of her piece (the puzzle piece, you filthy-minded beast!). But, get this, Dorothea has a second piece that she has no recollection of receiving, which was sent to her by one Derrick Combs – the seventh name on that perishing list – who has since passed away.

The cops now have six pieces of the puzzle. There appear to be two more, one of which is in Geraldine Ferguson’s gallery safe. However, when Columbo and Brown screech round there on Monday morning there’s a scene of chaos. Kahn is lying unconscious outside the gallery having fainted after finding Geraldine dead inside! Kahn denies involvement, but under aggressive cross-examination does admit to being the assailant who knocked Columbo out cold on the night of Mo Weinberg’s killing. Fearful of arrest, Kahn gives the cops what they really want: Geraldine’s puzzle piece, which was not in the safe – it was hidden within the frame of a painting.

This new piece is helpful in that it shows a road running alongside a body of water, but its precise location remains unknown. They’ll need the eighth piece to find the X that marks the spot. As his colleagues spitball ideas, Columbo is interrogating Krutch. The detective confronts his suspect with the news that the old Italian woman knows nothing about any hidden loot, and she never gave Krutch any list of names. Krutch calls her a lying old bag. Unconvinced, the Lieutenant demands to know of Krutch’s whereabouts on Sunday night, when Geraldine was killed. He claims, once again, to have been in the sack with sexy Suzie.

Columbo Undercover Kristin Bauer
Krutch was punching well above his weight with Suzie

As it happens, Suzie is already at police HQ in another interview room, so Columbo and Krutch amble over. She confirms she was with him all Sunday night, going to the movies then making sweet, sweet love from around midnight until 2.30am! Geraldine was killed sometime between 11.30pm-3am. If Suzie’s telling the truth about her lover’s unlikely staying power, then Krutch is an innocent man.

The Q&A is interrupted by the Lieutenant’s mystery mate Zeke Rivers, who appears to be carrying a parking meter wrapped in brown paper. Krutch is ejected so Columbo can interrogate Suzie without him. Columbo wants to ask her about Saturday night, the night of Weinberg’s killing, when she claimed she was with Krutch non-stop from 1pm. She reconfirms this detail.

It is now that Rivers unwraps the parking meter. It has been removed from its usual spot right in front of Weinberg’s apartment. The meter was emptied of all of its coins at 1pm on Saturday afternoon. The police have checked every coin that was inserted into the meter between 1-6pm (when parking becomes free) and have found Krutch’s fingerprints on one coin. He was definitely at Weinberg’s apartment around the time of the killing. Does Suzie want to change her story? If she doesn’t, she’ll be an accessory to murder.

Stung by this, Suzie spills the beans. Krutch was out of his apartment between 4-6.30pm on Saturday. On Sunday, he was out from midnight to 3am – precisely when Suzie had previously said they were getting jiggy. With no more wriggle room, Krutch admits his guilt – and also flips out the final puzzle piece from his underwear that marks the precise location of the bank robbings. Turns out that Krutch simply wanted the money for himself and was happy to slay all-comers to get his trotters on it.

Columbo Undercover
All’s well that ends well, amirite?

Using the now-complete map, police divers are able to locate a watertight crate of currency. HUZZAH! The stolen $4m has been recovered at last! As Brown and pals whoop with glee at the success of their mission, Columbo excuses himself to take Dog for a walk as credits finally roll…

My memories of Undercover

This’ll be short and sweet, as my only recollections of Undercover (having not watched it this side of 2015) are of Columbo wearing silly costumes, behaving in a manner absolutely inconsistent with his established character and his being clubbed unconscious in one of the series’ rare (and terrible) action sequences.

I remember the puzzle mystery, but details surrounding the murders themselves and the roles of the huge supporting cast largely escape me. Despite a lack of familiarity with this episode, in my mind it remains one of the show’s biggest missteps and just a beige lump of mediocrity unbecoming of the Columbo name. I entered in to viewing this without the least expectation of being proven wrong.

Columbo Undercover
Beige lump of mediocrity: does Undercover represent Columbo at its worst?

Episode analysis

For a show loved by millions for its popular, dependable format, any changes to the Columbo template ought to have be handled with the greatest of care and the greatest regard for the sanctity of the show and its central character.

Departures from the norm can be jarring but have also contributed some of the most celebrated episodes of serialised television. I’m thinking of M*A*S*H’s black-and-white documentary-style outing The Interview; ER’s foray into live television in The Ambush; the extended dream sequences of The Sopranos’ The Test Dream; the drama-comedy pathos of Family Ties episode My Name is Alex; and Buffy’s musical extravaganza Once More With Feeling.

In all these examples, production teams took calculated risks to deliver viewing experiences atypical for the show, but with sufficient heart and excellence of writing to ultimately see them considered amongst the series’ stand-out episodes. When it comes to Columbo, though, its few departures are unquestionably amongst the show’s least-loved efforts.

Columbo Undercover
Gee, I can’t figure out why no one likes Undercover?

Last Salute to the Commodore looms largest in mind with its intriguing, genuine whodunnit aspect ruined by madcap direction and characterisations. The highly stylised black-and-white dream scenes of 1989’s Murder, A Self Portrait are an acquired taste for Columbo fans, while 1992’s No Time to Die featured no murder at all, with the Lieutenant investigating the kidnapping of his niece-in-law on her wedding night in an episode routinely considered to be, in technical terms, a steaming pile of pants.

In the case of No Time to Die, its failings are almost entirely due to the unsuitability of the subject matter, it being an adaptation of Ed McBain 87th Precinct police procedural novel So Long as You Both Shall Live that Falk had snapped up the rights to on a whim after a friend’s recommendation. At the same time, Falk also secured the rights to a second McBain novel, 1972’s Jigsaw, that become Undercover. As was the case with So Long as You Both Shall Live, the attempt to modify Jigsaw – a dark, bloody treasure hunt laced with bad language and racist undertones – to fit the Columbo mould was always likely to be a struggle. So it proved when Undercover finally waddled onto screens in 1994.

The most damning aspect of Undercover is how the story portrays Columbo himself.

Amazingly, in spite of its many shortcomings, Undercover fared much better in the ratings than many ‘new Columbo’ episodes – indeed trouncing the two most recent, It’s All in the Game and Butterfly in Shades of Grey. History, though, has not been kind to the episode and what may have seemed like an intriguing experiment for the first-time viewer in 1994 now comes across as a grotesque miscue that carelessly brings the Columbo name into disrepute.

The most damning aspect of Undercover is how the story portrays Columbo himself. The Lieutenant of Undercover has none of the charming idiosyncrasies we’ve come to associate with him over the past 25 years. He’s a more cynical, aggressive figure who is far more likely to tough-talk (or yell at) a suspect or wisecrack with a colleague than lose a pencil or share a homely anecdote about his wife. He’s just as shrewd a cop as he ever was, but the softer, more human aspects of the character that enable us to truly love him are almost entirely absent.

Columbo Undercover Burt Young
It was honours even in the most convincing villainous hat competition

Some viewers won’t mind that too much, especially those that believe we’re just seeing a different side of his character that the storyline demands. Certainly, when Columbo is in disguise and interacting with a variety of differing characters there’s valid reason for him to put on a show. But in Undercover, even when he’s in the Columbo role he rarely feels like his old self, being much less circumspect and much more direct in all his dealings.

This was also true in No Time to Die, but there was justification for that. There, he was involved in a personal, family matter in a race against the clock to save his niece from peril. He didn’t have time to spare on his shop-worn bag of tricks. That’s not the case in Undercover, so for me, the lack of his established character traits feels much more grating.

The Lieutenant also engages in some outlandish behaviour that he would never have entered into during his heyday. In one scene of note, he kicks open the door of Mo Weinberg’s apartment, charges in and draws a gun on him in what’s quite possibly the most non-Columbo act Columbo is ever involved in. What happened to the man who despises guns and would talk his way out of tight spots? He finds himself on the receiving end of similar treatment a short time later, when a masked goon sends him to the floor with a big forearm, then knocks him senseless with a kick to the head!

The latter is particularly galling because it goes against everything series creators William Link and Richard Levinson wanted for the character. Their Columbo was never intended to be involved in physical tussles with foes. Mental battles, yes, but a gun-toting Lieutenant who gets his a*s whupped in a grimy apartment block? That’s a million miles away from their vision for the show. Levinson had died in 1987, so never saw Columbo’s comeback adventures to pass comment, while Link had stepped back from Executive Producer duties some years earlier. I’m unaware of his opinions on Undercover, but I would wager they weren’t terribly complimentary.

Then there are Columbo’s interactions with Dorothea McNally, the past-her-prime hooker from whom Columbo gains two puzzle pieces in exchange for a few $20 bills. Quite apart from his lack of embarrassment at her ribald ways, he lands an uninvited chuck on the chin and a smacker on her boozy lips at the end of their meeting! Granted, he’s fresh from canoodling with Lauren Staton in It’s All in the Game, but this is a weirdly out-of-character moment that was thrown in unscripted by Falk and which I’m very surprised made the final cut. Who is this man? And what has he done with Lieutenant Columbo?

Columbo Undercover Dorothea McNally
What would Lauren Staton say?

Just about the only time Columbo feels like the Columbo we know is during his interview with Irving Krutch and Suzie Endicott at police HQ in the episode’s closing minutes. Here, he’s as unthreatening and mild-mannered as he’s ever been, happy to make the pair feel at ease prior to delivering the stinging evidence that will prove Krutch is a killer and force Suzie to confess the truth. This scene doesn’t occur until the episode’s 81st minute, though – a very long wait for desperate viewers seeking any sense of familiarity from the leading man.

This problem is exacerbated by having Columbo play the role of delinquent Artie Stokes in several scenes, and later a Mafia boss paying his respects to a mobster mistress with links to Krutch. He’s a phony, and boy does it feel like it. What’s interesting is that Falk made a name for himself early in his career playing gangster types in the likes of Murder Inc. and Pocketful of Miracles (earning two Best Supporting Oscar nods in the process), while he put in a sometimes terrifying turn as a former mob guy in Mikey and Nicky (1976). Undercover gave Falk the chance to relive those halcyon days, but he’s laughably unconvincing.

His Mafia boss is every Mafia boss comic cliché you’ve ever seen, from the black coat and fedora to the humourless, affected Italian accent. He’s similarly implausible as Artie Stokes, a sour face and world-weary demeanour unable to disguise the fact that he’s about as dangerous as a puppy (who’s luckily facing off against a man about as dangerous as a hamster). No wonder Geraldine Ferguson immediately sees through his charade and identifies him as a cop within moments of their meeting. That Mo Weinberg – a crook with a police file a foot thick – failed to do so is indicative of the episode’s patchy writing.

Columbo Undercover Mafia boss
Don Columbo’s eyebrows struck the fear of God into all who saw them

This inconsistency is perhaps best exemplified in the erratic characterisations served up in the script. The supporting cast in this episode is mammoth – certainly one of the biggest ensembles of the entire series. Some of those characters are interesting and authentic feeling, while others are hackneyed stereotypes that only serve to plunge the episode further toward the abyss.

Burt Young’s Mo Weinberg is one such character. Although Young (of Rocky fame) is a good actor who is more than grubby enough to convince as a lawless scumbag, Weinberg is a drop-kick who comes across as a gullible amateur with no street smarts. He falls into line with Columbo’s suggestions at the drop of a hat, swallowing his story hook, line and sinker, and later allows himself to be jumped in his own home, by a much older man, after being distracted by a note pushed under his door. What an absolute clown! Columbo’s message “YOU’RE A HORSE’S ASS” seems a pertinent description of this cretin.

Weinberg is a drop-kick who comes across as a gullible amateur with no street smarts.

Far worse, though, is that simpering little toad Bramley Khan, who is amongst the handful of worst Columbo characters ever created. Khan as played is a cerebral but lily-livered fop, a camp popinjay who faints at the sight of his dead business partner and screams like a ninny when aggressively questioned by police. And yet we’re supposed to accept that this is the man who knocked Columbo out cold with a furious kick to the head? Don’t make me laugh!

This guy couldn’t break out of a wet paper straightjacket. The idea that he could have the courage and fortitude – even if the adrenaline was pumping – to knock a man senseless and toss an apartment is so preposterous I just want to scream. I don’t know whether Khan is a straight lift from the Jigsaw novel, or someone heavily adapted or even created for Undercover, but there’s no excuse for a character this lame to be part of the Columbo universe.

Columbo Undercover Mo Weinberg
There are two villages missing their idiots when this pair comes to town!

Faring somewhat better in the script are Shera Danese’s Geraldine Ferguson and Kristin Bauer’s Suzie Endicott. Bauer has little to do other than smile and make doe eyes at Ed Begley Jr., but she does it well and really is a stunning mademoiselle – the type who could easily bewitch a man into spending all his waking hours with, preventing them from finding time to commit murder in the process. Her motives aren’t sketched out very well, mind you. Was she fully in on Krutch’s plans and set for a bumper pay-out once he recovered the cash, or was she simply a fool willing to cover for the man she loved without asking questions? It’s left up to the viewer to decide.

As for Danese, she ought really to have never appeared in Columbo (or any show) ever again after her petulant antics on the set of Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star, yet she collects her fifth series credit (her third since Columbo’s 1989 comeback). Fortunately for the viewer, nothing more is expected of Danese than to be herself: a sassy, mildly obnoxious cynic with a withering stare and foul mouth.

The role of Geraldine is a much better fit for Danese than lawyer Trish Fairbanks in Rock Star, or Vanessa Barsini in Murder, A Self Portrait – episodes in which she was arguably the weakest link acting-wise. Here, she’s tolerable, neither ruining nor illuminating the episode in two lengthy scenes she shares with the Lieutenant. Aptly, she even becomes one of the series’ very few characters to openly cuss when she responds with “Bullsh*t!” to Columbo’s warnings about her life being in jeopardy, which seems a very Shera thing to say.

Notably, Geraldine becomes the second female in three episodes to ask what Columbo’s first name is. As was his reply to Lauren Staton in It’s All in the Game, Columbo simply states that it’s ‘Lieutenant’. Geraldine is later gunned down to become the episode’s fourth victim (a record body count for the series), although it wouldn’t be the end of Shera’s Columbo career. She would return in A Trace of Murder three years later for a sixth and final bow. The perks of being married to the boss, eh?

Columbo Undercover Shera Danese
Gerry’s beret-and-blazer look was on-trend for about 5 seconds in 1994

The best of the bunch when it comes to female co-stars is QUEEN Tyne Daly, who steals the show despite having only 8 minutes of screen time. Cast as down-on-her-luck floozy Dorothea, Daly has that rare gift of endearing herself to viewers and co-stars alike and she’s such fun to watch. Her scenes with Falk were all shot in a single day and it’s a testament to the rapport between them that they are amongst the most watchable and enjoyable of the whole episode. Viva Tyne, she’s a national treasure!

Another actor to come out of Undercover smelling of roses is Harrison Page, AKA Sergeant Arthur Brown, who swiftly establishes himself as one of Columbo’s most capable and agreeable sidekicks. Time and again I’ve had reason to lament that Columbo has had very few significant black characters, and Brown is just the tonic. His relationship with the Lieutenant seems genuine. The two cops seem to ‘get’ each other and are sufficiently at ease with one another for Brown to poke some gentle fun at Columbo’s appearance and smirk away during some of the older man’s more eccentric moments.

He also has a heart, showing genuine concern for Columbo’s wellbeing after finding him unconscious in a trashed apartment, and later in breaking him out of the hospital after discovering the corpse of Mo Weinberg. Yes folks, Sergeant Brown is a keeper, one of the few ‘new Columbo’ characters to treasure and a guy I’d have very happily seen return to the series in a future instalment. I’d go so far as to say he’s second only to Bob Dishy’s lovable Sergeant Wilson in my list of favourite Columbo colleagues – high praise indeed.

Columbo Undercover Harrison Page
I’m a paid-up member of the Sergeant Brown Appreciation Society

Columbo’s two other sidekicks, McKittrick and Mercer, are really only there to make up the numbers, but pop culture nerds may be delighted to realise (as I was on this watch-through) that Mercer is played by Joe Chrest – better known to millions of Stranger Things fans as Ted Wheeler, the slow-witted, bespectacled father of Mike and Nancy. I love Stranger Things, so this connection between two of my favourite shows tickled me pink.

Making his third Columbo appearance over a 20-year period (following small roles in Any Old Port and Murder Can be Hazardous to Your Health) is Robert Donner as Zeke Rivers, a traffic enforcement officer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of LA’s parking zones. A laconic, anally retentive figure who has an interesting part-cordial, part-antagonistic relationship with Columbo, Donner is a welcome presence whose scenes are fun without being overplayed.

So large is the cast of Undercover that it’s only now I’m able to turn my attention to Ed Begley Jr.’s murderous insurance agent, Irving Krutch. Given the deliberately shadowy nature of the episode’s plot, Krutch’s behind-the-scenes machinations mean he has the least screen time of any primary Columbo killer – just 17.5 minutes in total, a third of which comes in the closing scenes after Columbo has already figured things out.

Krutch is certainly an unorthodox villain for the series, being down to earth, innocuous-looking and frankly a little goofy. I don’t really buy him as a man capable of murder, but we see so little of him I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and assume his jovial manner with the detectives is as much an act as Columbo usually puts on for his suspects. Begley Jr. is a lovely chap and a decent actor, so I can’t fault his performance here – even if Krutch has an irritating habit of referring to himself in the third person. Alas, Krutch’s limited screen time, combined with the banal nature of the story, renders him one of the series’ most forgettable villains, which seems rough justice on Begley Jr., but them’s the breaks.

Columbo Undercover Ed Begley Jr
There’s no way 40-something Krutch is satisfying 20-something Suzie for hours on end – wake up and smell the coffee, Columbo!

If it was just about the performances, Undercover wouldn’t be a bad piece of TV. Sadly, though, there’s so much wrong with the entire story that the noteworthy contributions of the wider cast can’t come close to salvaging it. Like No Time to Die before it, Undercover has no business being a Columbo episode at all. But even as a standalone police procedural, it’s a flimsy and highly contrived tale that all too often feels like it doesn’t have a grip on its own identity.

Perhaps feeling the sting from the negative feedback received about No Time to Die’s joyless nature, Undercover attempts to offset the darkness of the subject matter with some attempts at comedy, which fall absolutely flat. The worst of the lot is the furore surrounding Columbo’s trousers, which are confiscated by a nurse to prevent him leaving the hospital, leading to Sergeant Brown sneaking him a pair of multi-coloured parachute pants in which to make good his escape, which is predictably accompanied by a comedy musical number.

It’s a gag that has no greater depth than someone thinking ‘let’s get Peter to wear some stupid trousers in this episode’, and then working backwards to concoct a scenario (including wonking Columbo over the head, sending him to hospital and having his regular trousers pinched) to enable the idea to come to fruition. It’s rock-bottom humour that does nothing to enhance the episode and is tonally at odds with everything else going on – a criticism I would also aim at the episode’s bizarrely jolly score.

Following on from this, we are given a scene of Columbo changing into his Mafia boss costume in the back of an unmarked police car, pasty legs akimbo as he searches for yet more trousers while his fellow officers chuckle outside. The scene could only have been made worse had the elderly female passer-by done a comedy faint upon seeing Columbo’s meat and two veg being exposed – an idea that I feel 100% sure was considered. Matters aren’t helped by Columbo’s sidekicks yelling to him across a public street that they’ve got his Mafia costume with them. Did they forget this is supposed to be an undercover sting operation? It’s awful, awful stuff (watch below if you dare).

The comedy aspects may have failed but are hardly the smoking gun when considering why Undercover is such a woeful outing. The execution of the entire treasure hunt and the puzzle piece premise is weak and tacky – right down to the pristine condition all the individual pieces are despite being years old and inherently susceptible to loss or damage. It all comes across as being very child-like in its presentation, and I suspect is more convincing in written, rather than visual, form.

What I don’t get is why all these people with a puzzle piece, and knowing its potential value, don’t truly have them under lock and key. One guy has his stuffed in a kitchen roll, Geraldine’s is loosely slipped behind a painting frame support and Krutch evidently carries one piece down his underpants at all times, or at least that’s what his confession scene suggests. If so, ewwwwww. That’s gonna be one clammy, stinky little piece of photographic paper! And our mate Columbo happily picks it up in his ungloved hand…

Enragingly, after all the killing, costumes and hoo-hah, the completed puzzle is next-to useless because there’s no significant point of reference on it to indicate exactly where the loot was hidden. All we’re shown is a snippet of a presumably long stretch of road beside a presumably long breakwater. In reality, it would take eons to find the crate of cash in a trial-and-error police search that would cost the taxpayer as much as the stolen money amounts to in total, but at this stage of the episode most viewers will be well beyond caring.

I have my doubts about the veracity of the evidence Columbo has against Krutch, too. To my mind, it would be extremely difficult to get a usable fingerprint off the raised surfaces of a coin, but this is the Columboverse, so I’m happy to accept it. In any case, Krutch’s swift confession makes it a moot point when he could very easily have held out – even accusing Suzie of framing him after taking a coin from his wallet would be entirely plausible.

Columbo Undercover
This is helpful how, exactly?

A further, major reason why Undercover sucks is in how poorly it portrays the city’s underbelly. Right from the very first scene, when the two thugs slaughter each other in a ramshackle apartment block, it’s as schlocky and cheap-looking as TV gets. The characters we meet in these places (notwithstanding Tyne Daly’s excellence) are broad caricatures with nominal authenticity.

One gets the feeling that no one involved in this production had any idea what life in the tough parts of town were really like – as opposed to the 70s’ series, when many of its cast (and some crew) would have lived the high life exemplified in the mansions, motor cars and high-class eateries. The gulf between ‘new Columbo’ and the original series has rarely felt as pronounced as it does with Undercover, which is, from first to last, a soulless experience.

A further reason why Undercover sucks is in how poorly it portrays the city’s underbelly.

The crowning turd on the episode is the final moment, when Columbo abandons his gleeful colleagues with a ‘toodle-oo’ (his equivalent of ‘Tisn’t’ perhaps?) and sets off to take Dog to the park against a boisterous orchestral rendition of This Old Man. It doesn’t quite represent everything that has gone wrong with the series, but is a stark reminder of how far standards have plummeted and is absolutely in keeping with the 90-odd minutes of swill that preceded it.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Every fault in Undercover can be traced back to the ridiculous decision to buy the rights to this unsuitable tosh in the first place – and the man to blame for that is Peter Falk. As custodian of the character and the show’s golden legacy, he ought to have known better than to attempt to crowbar Columbo into a world where he really doesn’t belong.

Columbo Undercover
Columbo wasn’t feeling his best after a night on the town with Dorothea McNally

How I rate ’em

Undercover is a righteous stinker that shouldn’t be part of Columbo saga, and yet here it is, biting its thumb at the bewildered viewer who has likely given up trying to guess which way the series is going next. It avoids bottom spot in my rankings by the skin of its teeth, the supporting cast’s stronger performances marginally elevating it above the daytime soap stylings of Murder in Malibu.

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 College — top 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 Guillotine — 2nd tier starts 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 Star — 3rd tier starts here —
  14. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  15. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  16. No Time to Die — 4th tier starts here —
  17. Grand Deceptions
  18. Undercover
  19. Murder in Malibu
Columbo Horses Ass
Peter’s note to self after watching the final cut of Undercover

Over to you, gang! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Undercover and see whether you agree with my assessment of its many, devastating lows. If you are a fan, what is it you like about it? And can we all at least agree that Sergeant Brown comes out of the episode with his head held high?

With just five episodes remaining, I’d like to think it’ll be downhill all the way to the finish line from here, but then I remember that the next episode is Strange Bedfellows, featuring the crazily miscast Norm from Cheers as a murderer, and Columbo entering into a pact with the mob to close out his case. Bottom spot in the rankings may yet be up for grabs.

Until next time, farewell – and remember to stay on your guard should anyone push a HORSE’S ASS note under your door…

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Columbo Undercover
STOP! (Hammer Time)

Hit PLAY below for an up-beat send-off to this miserable experience

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