Episode review: Columbo Likes the Nightlife

Columbo Likes the Nightlife opening titles

The only Columbo episode to be filmed in the 21st century, Columbo Likes the Nightlife burst onto screens on January 30, 2003, wearing a backwards cap, a luminous feather boa and peeping a whistle.

Yes folks, Nightlife plunges the Lieutenant into the unlikely world of the underground rave scene of the early 2000s, complete with techno tunes, scantily clad honeys and a double homicide to contend with.

The final Columbo to air, could Nightlife buck the trend and give our main man an epic send-off in his 35th year of televisual crime fighting? Or to put it another way, is this a big fish, a little fish, or a cardboard box of an episode? Let’s find out…

Dramatis personae

Columbo Likes the Nightlife cast montage

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Justin Price: Matthew Rhys
Vanessa Farrow: Jennifer Sky
Linwood Coben: Douglas Roberts
Tony Galper: Carmine Giovinazzo
Freddie: Steve Schirripa
Sean Jarvis: John Finnegan
Giant police officer: Julius Carry
Julius: Jorge Garcia
Directed by: Jeffrey Reiner
Written by: Michael Alaimo

Episode synopsis

Warehouse rave impresario Justin Price is about to go mainstream. He’s secured funding for his flashy new nightclub, Bait, via the ill-gotten gains of business partner – and son-of-a-mob-boss – Tony Galper. In 36 hours, Tony’s cash will hit Justin’s bank account and his ticket to the big time will be punched.

Naturally, things don’t go quite according to plan. As he’s in town, Tony decides to pay a visit to ultra-hot ex-wife Vanessa but when he uncovers that she and Justin are now a couple, he flips into a rage. It looks for all the world like Vanessa will be the episode’s victim, but no! She fends off Tony’s advances and shoves him away, sending the sleazebag tumbling backwards on to her coffee table.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife Vanessa Farrow
Vanessa sports a range of strappy tops throughout the episode. I wonder why…?

It was hardly a blow of Investigator Brimmer-esque proportions, but the gentle tumble nevertheless results in Tony’s EXTINCTION! This is bad news for Vanessa, who fears mob reprisals, but also for Justin, who knows that his dreams of running LA’s hippest dance venue will be over if Tony’s death is revealed.

The two lovers concoct a plan to conceal Tony’s demise from the wider world. We don’t see what they do with the body, but Justin nabs Tony’s hotel key card and hire car keys and as soon as the cash hits his bank account, 36 hours later, he and Vanessa put ‘Operation Cover-Up’ into action.

Justin sneaks into Tony’s hotel suite and makes the place look used by ruffling sheets, wetting towels etc before checking out via a phone call to the lobby and leaving the key card on a table within the suite. He then drops off Tony’s sick hire car and leaves the keys in an exterior drop box so as to avoid contact with any staff. Vanessa is there to pick him up and the two melt away into LA traffic like nothing has happened. Nicely done, team!

Alas, the duo aren’t able to bask in their success for long. That night, Vanessa receives a MYSTERY PHONE CALL from a sinister fella who claims to know that she killed Tony. In a panic, she rings Justin – just as he receives an email from disreputable (and debt-ridden) photojournalist Linwood Coben, who somehow has snaps of Vanessa’s altercation with Tony, and her and Justin’s subsequent clean-up. Yowzers!

Justin arranges a rendezvous with Coben, who tells him he can have the negatives and all the prints for the princely sum of $250,000. Justin reluctantly appears to accept the terms, and the two agree to meet again at Coben’s dingy office-cum-apartment two hours hence. “And bring a girl with you – I’ll show her a good time,” laughs the vile Coben as Justin storms off.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife Linwood Coben
I’m not sure this is Linwood’s most flattering angle

As it happens, Justin will bring a girl with him but it’ll be getaway driver Vanessa, not a lady of loose morals like Coben is expecting. The slimeball has gargled with mouthwash and trimmed his nose hair in preparation to woo a wench and is disappointed to open his apartment door to find Justin there alone. Business first, girl later, says Justin, handing Coben a back-pack supposedly full of cash.

Coben turns over the incriminating photos and negatives before unzipping the backpack. However, instead of oodles of loot, it’s full of cut-up nightclub flyers! With Coben distracted, Justin whips a cord around his foe’s neck and eventually subdues him after a long and (by Columbo standards) rather gruesome tussle.

With Coben out cold, seemingly dead as a dodo and now tied to a radiator, Justin is on the receiving end of yet another fly in the proverbial ointment. He gets a pager message summoning him to deal with an emergency at the front door of the warehouse club he’s supposed to be managing! Acting swiftly, he swipes some additional pics of Vanessa from Coben’s filing cabinet, tears a note with directions to his club from Coben’s desk calendar and types a phony suicide note on the victim’s PC.

Before he can leave, however, he gets another shock. Coben ain’t dead! The lumbering journalist struggles to his feet but before he can bray for help, Justin shoves him from the window – Coben’s neck snapping when the line tying him to the radiator goes taut. The radiator itself promptly follows, creating one heck of a din and sending Justin dashing down to Vanessa and urging her to put the pedal to the metal before the whole neighbourhood is aroused.

When he is safely returned to his club, Justin has to deal with an ambulance crew who have had to come and rescue a dehydrated underage raver. Club bouncer Julius is hopping mad that it took Justin so long to respond to his pager summons (approx. 15 minutes), but it looks like Justin might just have gotten away with murder all the same.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Sergeant Hightower did his best to help out, but there was no sign of Mahoney, Tackleberry, Sweetchuck etc

The following morning, one Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the LAPD officers investigating the apparent suicide of Linwood Coben. And it’s Columbo who is immediately noticing little things that indicate the possibility of murder most foul. He detects the scent of mouthwash on the dead man and, after removing the corpse’s shoe and sock, finds that he’s just clipped his toenails. Upon poking around in the dead man’s bathroom, the Lieutenant discovers an open bottle of mouthwash and toenail clippings in the toilet – one of which he removes with his bare hand!

Why would a man who had suicide in mind bother to clip his toenails and freshen his breath? Seems more like he was getting ready to entertain a hot senorita than fling himself to Kingdom Come. The suicide note gives Columbo further reason for suspicion. Coben’s fingerprints are on most of the keys – but conspicuously not on the ‘I’ or the ‘E’. The suicide note features both letters numerous times, leading Columbo to believe the note was typed by an unknown assailant who was wearing gloves and whose repeated use of the two keys had wiped Coben’s prints from them.

“This ain’t no suicide,” Columbo confidently opines to a CSI colleague. “But there’s some guy out there who wants me to think it is and that’s the dude I’m going to be looking for.”

Using the age-old detective trick of rubbing a pencil on a blank sheet of paper to reveal the message written on a missing sheet above it, Columbo gleans the directions to Justin’s warehouse club that Coben had noted on his desk calendar. There’s not much activity there now, just a few chicks still boogieing to the last remnants of their disco biscuits, but Columbo does find a flyer for Justin’s new Bait club, sending him on a collision course with the murderous music major-domo.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife Matthew Rhys
*Jaws theme tune plays*

When they meet, Justin plays up the fact that Coben was a debt-ridden worm, who had a previous suicide attempt to his name. There’s nothing to trigger Columbo’s suspicions at this stage, although he does note that Justin was twice paged during their short interview – a fact he will squirrel away for later reference. The pagee, of course, was Vanessa, who continues to boil with stress at home.

Seeking intel on who might want to bump off Coben, Columbo visits one of the tabloid rags he worked for and finds out that the man had two pending lawsuits against him and was an unreliable drunkard, whom editors thought twice about hiring. “Linwood had a lot of enemies,” a magazine editor tells the Lieutenant. “I’m sure there’s more than a handful of people in this town who’d want him dead.”

Next stop for the detective is with the ambulance crew who picked up the dehydrated youth from Justin’s club on the night Coben died. There, Columbo learns that it took Justin 15 minutes to respond to the emergency pager summons, and that this all happened at roughly the same time Coben seems to have been slain. It’s not much, sure, but Justin will have some explaining to do.

The Lieutenant immediately heads off to see Justin in an attempt to ‘tie up these loose ends’ – chief amongst them why it took him so long to jump to action after the club doorman’s emergency page. It was a simple case of dead batteries, Justin bats back. But your beeper was working just fine in our meeting this morning, Columbo responds. That’s because I keep spares in my car, explains the unruffled showman, and I switched them in there and then. It’s a nice little interchange, with both men gleaning a bit of insight into the other. Justin is quick and convincing under pressure. Columbo is a threat to be taken seriously – bright pink feather boa (festooned on him by a young partygoer) notwithstanding.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Strike a pose!

While snooping around back at the crime scene, Columbo is fortunate enough to hear an answer machine message left for Coben by a Sean Jarvis, who wants some cash he is owed. The Lieutenant makes a beeline for Jarvis’s pad and discovers the not-inconsiderable nugget that Coben had been using a tree in Jarvis’s back garden to gain a vantage point from which to take photos of a neighbouring property – and that property is Vanessa Farrow’s!

Columbo heads straight there to grill Vanessa about Coben. She admits to having heard of him, but says she’s not high profile enough to be a target. Astute as ever, Columbo notices some indentations in the carpet that suggest a larger coffee table has recently been replaced by the less substantial one currently on display. Who knows what it could mean, but those little things are definitely starting to add up.

Now he knows of Coben’s interest in Vanessa, Columbo returns to the dead man’s office and ferrets around in his filing cabinet. There is a file on Vanessa and it features several sub-folders of photos, all marked with dates. Oddly, the file dated June 22nd (the last day of Coben’s life) is empty! He also uncovers legal papers that show Vanessa divorced from Tony Galper just four months earlier.

Shaken by her encounter, Vanessa arranges a meeting with Justin. He’s adamant they need to keep their distance to avoid Columbo making the connection between them. She is increasingly looking like the weak link in the chain.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife Jennifer Sky
Rabbit, meet headlights…

Back at LAPD HQ, meanwhile, Columbo gets another lucky break when he overhears another cop referencing a missing person named Tony Galper. This rings a divorce-papers-sized bell in the Lieutenant’s head and he scurries back to Coben’s (again) to delve into the filing cabinet. There’s a file all about Galper (the son of known Mob don ‘Joey G’), which includes several dated envelopes of photos. Just as was the case with Vanessa, the file dated June 22nd is empty.

Turns out that Coben was investigating Galper in the hope of landing a scoop, but in doing so he angered the mob. Prior to his death, Coben received a brick and menacing note through his car windscreen. Maybe he was the victim of a mob hit after all? Certainly there’s a valid reason to grill Vanessa further, and by chance or orchestration, Columbo runs into her in a fashion store. She claims not to have seen her ex-husband for months, but is unsettled by the line of questioning – not least when asked what she was doing on the night Coben died. She has no alibi.

Keen to trace Galper’s movements, Columbo visits the car hire joint and discovers (to his apparent amazement) that it’s no longer essential for customers to sign paperwork upon returning their cars. They can just drop off the keys and run. Likewise, at Galper’s hotel, he was able to check out without signing anything. It means that an imposter could easily have pretended to be Galper and no one would be any the wiser.

This hunch intensifies when Columbo learns from the room maid that Galper (ahem) routinely missed the bowl while urinating and sprinkled on the bathroom floor. The only time the maid noticed he hadn’t done this was on the morning he checked out. For an ace detective, that can only mean one of two things: either Galper cleaned up his widdling act (unlikely), or he was never there on the morning of his supposed check-out at all.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Freddie weighed more than Columbo’s Peugeot

Following on from this, Columbo encounters Freddie, a whole lot of messenger from the mob, who is very interested in the Lieutenant’s investigation. They suspect foul play and had been freezing Galper’s pending investments. Strangely, the final investment that cleared before Galper’s disappearance was his payment to Justin’s Bait nightclub. All of a sudden Columbo has the link he needs to connect Justin to Vanessa.

Dropping by the club, Columbo lets Justin know that he’s now investigating Galper’s disappearance as well as Coben’s murder. While he’s leaving, he notices a number of new fish tanks filled with koi carp that Justin has had installed in the dancefloor. A charming feature of a hip rave experience, or an indication of involvement in foul play? You decide

All that’s left for Columbo to do now is to prove his suspicions that Vanessa and Justin are partners in crime. He pays her a visit and whips out phone records that show she has contacted Justin’s pager multiple times – including on a number of occasions on the morning Coben was found dead. Predictably, Vanessa is soon in a tizzy. She rings Justin from a payphone, demanding to see him straight away. He, on the verge of opening the doors of Bait for the first time, refuses. She heads there anyway.

Justin is not happy to see Vanessa – and even less happy when she reveals that Columbo has a list of all the times she has paged him. Chill babygirrrrl, Justin insists. Without Galper’s body, there’s no case to answer and there’s no way Galper’s going to reappear, so if they stay cool they’ll be in the clear.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife Justin Price
Look at the bright side, Justin – no one will EVER forget Bait’s opening night

It’s at this moment that the pounding house music is abruptly cut off. And who should be behind that but Lieutenant Columbo? He has a warrant to search the place for the body of Tony Galper and he lays out his case against Justin and Vanessa in front of an ocean of presumably pill-popping witnesses.

Interestingly, the koi carp-filled fish tanks he admired earlier triggered a light bulb moment for the good Lieutenant. He noticed that one of the tanks had fewer fish than the others. And because his nephew works at SeaWorld, Columbo knows that there’s a minimum amount of water required in a tank per inch of fish kept within it.

Measuring the depths of two tanks reveals a telling sign. The tank with 14 fish in it is about four feet deep. The one with only nine fish is less than three feet deep. Why is this particular tank shallower than the others? We’ll soon find out as Columbo summons a colleague to scan the tank with ground-penetrating radar.

The image from the scan is projected onto the big screens behind the DJ booth. As it slowly zooms out, the clear shape of a human form can be seen. It’s Tony Galper, who’s almost literally sleeping with da fishes. “This place really could have been something. Too bad…” says Columbo as fellow officers move in to slap cuffs on Justin and Vanessa.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
That’s all folks…

Columbo strides out through the packed dance floor like a boss, stopping briefly in the entranceway to accept the thanks of mob boy Freddie, before credits roll for the very last time

My memories of Columbo Likes the Nightlife

As has been the norm since beginning this blog in 2015, I’ve deliberately stayed away from rewatching ‘new Columbo’ episodes so I can watch them afresh ahead of reviewing. Columbo Likes the Nightlife is no exception, and is an episode I may have seen as little as once or twice and not in the last decade.

While admittedly not recalling much of it (I’d totally forgotten there were two killings), my recollections largely centred around the suitability or otherwise of a Columbo adventure set against a rave scene backdrop. Would the episode have Columbo jigging like an idiot on the dancefloor in a bid to elicit a few laughs? I couldn’t recall. And would what seems like such an obvious ploy to appeal to younger viewers reduce the Lieutenant to a comedic parody? Going by the series’ recent standards, this was a justifiable concern.

What gave me hope coming back to this was the affirmation from several knowledgeable fans that Nightlife is a terrific episode, a real return to form, and a suitable send-off for the world’s greatest detective. Please, let them be proven right…

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Hands up! Baby, hands up! Gimme your heart, gimme gimme etc…

Episode analysis

Although seismically different in tone and style, Columbo Likes the Nightlife owes its existence to the unexpectedly high ratings enjoyed by 2001’s Murder With Too Many Notes. Never you mind that the Notes has ultimately gone down in history as one of the series’ least appreciated entries. In a world where ratings are king, Billy Connolly and co. were sufficiently appealing to viewers to tempt the ABC network to give Columbo one more hall pass in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

For while Columbo Likes the Nightlife wasn’t the first new Columbo episode to air in the new millennium, it was the first (and only) to be filmed in the 2000s, Notes having been committed to celluloid in November 1998.

Having loathed the final cut of Too Many Notes, few ABC execs had expected it to be a hit – hence why it didn’t debut until more than two years after it was filmed. So when a further Columbo adventure was given the greenlight, there were certain stipulations that had to met. Namely, it needed young actors in significant roles, and a theme that would appeal to a younger demographic.

No more of the campy, light-hearted pap that Columbo had recently stooped to, either. With the highest-rated shows of the day dominated by police procedurals, including two variants of CSI and three of Law & Order, the Lieutenant was going to have to give the audience what it wanted: a gritty, real-world murder mystery played with a very straight bat.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Columbo would need to bring his A-Game and his game face to Nightlife

The production team ultimately settled on the theme of murder set against the underground rave scene and Columbo Likes the Nightlife was born. With Falk having just turned 75 at the time of filming in October 2002, 27-year-old Welshman Matthew Rhys and 25-year-old former model Jennifer Sky were drafted in as murderous lovers Justin and Vanessa to increase the age differential and imbue the show’s opening half hour with an aura of youthful vibrancy.

In that, Nightlife, in my opinion, is entirely successful. The rave scene was indeed kicking at the time allowing the episode to embrace its era in a way not seen since 1989’s Columbo Cries Wolf. That instalment did a grand job of injecting the Lieutenant into the seedy fashions and soap-opera lifestyles of those involved in the adult magazine business to produce one of the most watchable outings of the revival age.

Nightlife is the ‘new Columbo’ equivalent of Season 4 classic A Friend in Deed.

However, where Nightlife differs is that it takes its subject matters much more seriously. Cries Wolf was a camp and bawdy romp, a perfect time capsule of its day, but is not an episode to be taken too seriously. Nightlife, however, plays it straight to deliver a gritty and plausible mystery in which people act and react in realistic ways, and in which the series’ star is treated with suitable reverence.

I might even go so far as to say that Nightlife is the ‘new Columbo’ equivalent of Season 4 classic A Friend in Deed, which gave us a dark and largely humourless but gripping encounter between the Lieutenant and a pair of conniving killers. Nightlife is not on the same level as Friend in Deed (few episodes are), but is tonally the closest the series has come to it in almost three decades. After the McGoohan-infused silliness that pervaded/ruined the two most recent episodes, that’s a blessed relief.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Nightlife is the darkest and grittiest Columbo since A Friend in Deed in 1974

Regular readers will remember that I have regularly bewailed the Columbo characterisations served up since his 1989 comeback. Too much self-referential, cartoonish goofiness, allied with stupid scenarios like tuba parping, bin rummaging, mermaid-gazing, panties-fumbling and musical singalongs, have reduced the Lieutenant to a borderline senile irritation on far too many occasions.

Here, drinking at the proverbial last chance saloon, Falk gives his single best Columbo performance since his ABC stint kicked off 14 years earlier. The Lieutenant may be venerable and faintly eccentric in Nightlife, but the broad humour and cheap attempts to earn a laugh through buffoon-like behaviour are almost entirely absent in Falk’s portrayal – and it’s an absolute breath of fresh air. He probably hasn’t been this watchable since Try and Catch Me in 1977. A long time to wait…

Nightlife’s Columbo takes his character back to basics: an inspired lone-wolf with an uncanny knack for noticing little details and a superlative mind to connect the dots in what is a complex case. Just about the only feature of his performance I’m not crazy about is his dog-like sniffing around the corpse of Linwood Coben as he detects the dead man’s recent use of mouthwash. This seems somewhat forced, but is less jarring than a similar scene of him detecting a block of highly visible cheese in Agenda for Murder, so I can’t be too damning.

It’s also reminiscent of a scene from A Study in Scarlet, where Sherlock Holmes deduces a man was poisoned to death by sniffing the lips of a corpse. On both occasions, the deduction plays a tangible role in solving the crime, so I prefer to think of it as more of an homage to a fellow great detective than another moment of heavy-handed tomfoolery.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
“Is that Marino Brothers mouthwash I smell…?”

There’s also the rather unpleasant moment when Columbo plunges his bare arm down Coben’s (presumably filthy) toilet to retrieve a toenail clipping, which has the OCD me wincing with disrelish. I might have preferred to see the Lieutenant approach this grim task a shade less readily, but at least the moment is presented in a matter-of-fact manner and not played for laughs as would undoubtedly have been the case in earlier episodes. It still traumatises me that Columbo does not wash (let alone sterilise) his hands after this scene, but what can you do?

Elsewhere, further scenarios that might once have been set against jaunty music to indicate supposed comedy are mercifully underplayed. Columbo being adorned with a pink feather boa by a clubbing hottie could have been ghastly. So, too, could his clambering up a tree in Vanessa’s neighbour’s backyard, and his encounter with a garish Hawaiian shirt. In all cases, pleasing restraint was shown – something the production team deserve great credit for.

Nightlife is a tautly-paced mystery, with little screentime wasted and almost every scene having some sort of payoff.

Instead of gimmickry, we’re given a shrewd detective who is making logical deductions to practical clues and piecing them together seamlessly to aid in his solving of the case. The path Columbo takes to uncovering Coben’s interest in Vanessa and her connection to Justin feels earned, not given. Throughout proceedings the evidence does the talking. It all points to collusion in the death of two individuals and is satisfyingly wrapped up in such a way that you feel the perpetrators will face justice. That hasn’t always been the case in recent adventures – particularly those fumbled by Patrick McGoohan – and is another reason why Nightlife makes for rewarding viewing.

It helps that this is the shortest Columbo episode of the new batch. At only 88 minutes in length, it’s a full 10 minutes shorter than most of its post-1989 counterparts. Nightlife is a tautly-paced mystery, with little screentime wasted and almost every scene having some sort of payoff, advancing the plotline and justifying its inclusion. Bravo.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Silver fox Columbo turns 20-something’s head

Although relative unknowns by Columbo standards, all the supporting cast more than earn their keep. Importantly, they feel like real people rather than simple stereotypes. Even photojournalist Coben – the easiest cliché to fall into – is given a sufficient dose of Phillip Seymour Hoffman-esque sleaziness by Douglas Roberts to ground him in a grubby reality. His murder is one of the most unsettling ever shown in Columbo – a further indication of a show moving with the times.

As Justin and Vanessa, Matthew Rhys and Jennifer Sky dovetail sufficiently well to earmark them amongst the more compelling Columbo villains of the time. She – apparently a victim of domestic violence at the hands of ex-husband Tony Galper – kills by accident and would surely have received sympathetic treatment at the hands of the police had she reported the incident.

What the episode does well is give both Vanessa and Justin good reason to cover up Tony’s death. She fears reprisals from Tony’s mob boss father. Justin needs to wait 36 hours until Tony’s money enters his account so he can pay off his debts and open his new nightclub. Once they settle on this course of action, Coben holding them to blackmail forces their hand into decisive action against him – again in a realistic manner. I’m not advocating murder by any stretch, but the script does a fine job of manoeuvring them into such a tight spot that killing Coben could conceivably be considered their only way out.

Of the two, Justin is the more interesting. Once Coben has been bumped off, Vanessa’s role is largely limited to being a damsel in distress making increasingly agitated phone calls to her lover to find out the lie of the land. One senses that she will be the one to blow the pair’s cover, and so it will prove when Columbo obtains phone records that show her many desperate attempts to contact Justin in the aftermath of the double deaths.

Columbo Matthew Rhys Jennifer Sky
Hot couple: Justin and Vanessa prior to her descent into panic mode

Justin, meanwhile, is pretty much in control of everything except for Vanessa’s rising panic. He never falls into the perennial Columbo killer’s habit of being too helpful, or of suggesting outlandish possibilities to put the detective off his stride. In short, he’s a cool customer and Rhys nicely balances the demands of being a character under pressure while exuding an aura of innocence throughout his interactions with the Lieutenant.

He and Falk enjoy good rapport in Nightlife, doubtless stemming back to their work together on a BBC TV two-part adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World in 2001. Interestingly, Falk played the villainous role on that occasion, with Rhys the central good guy. The reversal of roles here does nothing to dampen their chemistry.

As a Brit who was largely raised in Wales, it’s also pleasing to me that Rhys was allowed to retain his natural Welsh accent throughout proceedings – although according to Rhys himself, that was more by accident than design. He had intended to play the part with a London accent (a more familiar lilt to US audiences of the day) but apparently Falk was so unimpressed with his attempts that they decided to let Rhys play it in his everyday accent itself. It doesn’t harm the episode a bit.

Two further support roles warrant attention. Firstly, the appearance of Jorge Garcia as bouncer Julius is notable in this being one of his last roles before being rocketed into the collective consciousness as Hurley in 121 episodes of Lost between 2004-10. Secondly, Nightlife brought back Columbo regular John Finnegan for one last bow in the small role of Sean Jarvis, whose back garden Coben used to photograph Vanessa’s killing of Tony.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Friends reunited: Falk and Finnegan co-starred for the 13th time

This marked Finnegan’s 13th Columbo appearance over a period spanning more than 30 years since he made his debut as a construction site supervisor in Blueprint for Murder in 1972. Nightlife was Finnegan’s final career acting credit and his presence represents a nice call back for fans of the original series in an episode that otherwise feels a long way removed from its 70s’ heyday.

Such are the strengths of Nightlife that even the presence of tubby mob boy Freddie – indeed the whole mob subplot – can mostly be overlooked. For an episode that feels so fresh, the mob elements seem unnecessary. I get that there needed to be an undercurrent of menace to drive Vanessa and Justin’s actions, but the hackneyed injection of the Mafia into proceedings does the episode few favours. Fortunately, restraint was also shown with this aspect of the plot, helping to avoid the ludicrous theatrics that blighted Strange Bedfellows a few years earlier.

Still, that’s about the only negative detail I take away from my viewing of Nightlife. Everything else works just fine – right down to the techno soundtrack, which might be jarring for purists, but was authentic for the plot and didn’t overpower the episode. I was half expecting to hear a techno riff on This Old Man, but – heavens be praised! – they never went there.

The extensive use of real locations, as opposed to sets and the Universal lot, all helped add to the credibility of the episode – not least the many scenes set in the underbelly of the city. We do get to peep inside some luxury mansions, but much of Nightlife is set in warehouses, alleys and basic dwellings well outside the show’s normal socio-economic boundaries, and feels all the better for it.

It even all wraps up on a superior note. It’s fair to say that the Columbo gotcha of the 80s-90s was often a lesser experience than those of the 70s. Not so here. Columbo figuring out that the lower fish-to-tank ratio could indicate a corpse hidden beneath it is a bit of a gem, and the CSI-style ground-penetrating radar that proves his hunch correct gives is thoroughly damning. Justin and Vanessa are the most demonstrably guilty parties in years.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Strangely, both victims were found in DISCO POSES!

Even the very final scene of Columbo bidding farewell to Freddie and refusing to accept his business card is nicely done. There’s no air of finality about it, it just comes and goes without fanfare as befits a standalone outing that was not intended to be the Lieutenant’s curtain call. Alas, that’s exactly what it would be, though, as, for all its strengths, Columbo Likes the Nightlife was not sufficiently liked by the viewers of the day. It slumped to the lowest opening-night ratings of any Columbo episode.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, this seems like rough justice. Nightlife is a very serviceable murder mystery with a strong plot and capable performances. The irony is that if this vision of Columbo had been hit on years earlier, the series’ second coming could have been another golden age. Instead, the production choices all too often sent the show – and its main character – down the path of banality, showiness and pseudo-comedic claptrap.

The irony is that if this vision of Columbo had been hit on years earlier, the series’ second coming could have been another golden age.

Peter Falk never gave up on Columbo, despite Nightlife’s inability to win hearts and minds of a new generation. He had hoped to bring Columbo back just one more time in a final case that would give official closure to the character, but no network would take it. With Falk pushing towards his 80th birthday, the Lieutenant’s last boat ship had sailed.

Viewed on its own merits, Columbo Likes the Nightlife is far from the failure its poor ratings suggest. Indeed, when considered alongside 1968’s Prescription: Murder, it makes for an excellent bookend to the series. Both episodes were filmed some years apart from those that came after or before them. Both are tonally different from their other 67 counterparts, with a look, feel and sound that makes them unique entries into the Columbo canon.

Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Neither man viewed the other’s wardrobe with appreciation

Both also hinted at the potential the series and its main character had to offer. With Prescription: Murder, this promise was ultimately realised through the creation of one of the most enduring and cherished TV shows of its generation. Nightlife, for all that it did right, had the opposite effect. It became the undeserving final nail in the coffin of a show that had been dying a slow death for years.

A harsh outcome? Certainly. But what Columbo Likes the Nightlife did was to bring Columbo up-to-date in a manner that enhanced rather than diminished its central star, and let him exit stage right on a comparative high whether he wanted to or not.

How I rate ’em

Something of a revelation, Columbo Likes the Nightlife is a very pleasant surprise that cuts the cr*p to dish up the best episode in years. This sits proudly alongside the best efforts of the ABC years and is a darn sight better than I had remembered.

If you haven’t watched it for a while, or have previously dismissed it as just another example of a lesser new Columbo outing, I’d urge to view again with an open mind. You’ll find a lot to enjoy.

To read my reviews of any of the other revival Columbo episodes up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. Now that all the episode reviews are in the can, I have slightly rejigged the overall rankings and the tiering of episodes.

My next task will be to filter these into an overall hierarchy with the classic episodes to create my conclusive ranking of all 69 episodes. In the meantime, you can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.

  1. Columbo Goes to College — top tier new Columbo episodes —
  2. Columbo Likes the Nightlife
  3. Agenda for Murder
  4. Death Hits the Jackpot
  5. Columbo Cries Wolf
  6. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  7. Ashes to Ashes — 2nd tier starts here —
  8. It’s All in the Game
  9. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine 
  10. Sex & The Married Detective
  11. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  12. Butterfly in Shades of Grey
  13. A Bird in the Hand…
  14. Murder, A Self Portrait — 3rd tier starts here —
  15. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  16. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star 
  17. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  18. A Trace of Murder
  19. Strange Bedfellows — 4th tier starts here —
  20. No Time to Die 
  21. Grand Deceptions
  22. Undercover
  23. Murder With Too Many Notes
  24. Murder in Malibu
Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Sure it’s a little garish, but Columbo Likes the Nightlife is still a good fit for this Columbo fan

Now it’s your turn. Please share your thoughts on Columbo Likes the Nightlife. A fitting finale for our beloved Lieutenant, or a flash, trash, brash attempt to move with the times that was as ill a fit for Columbo as a floral Hawaiian shirt?

And what this means, of course, is that after nearly eight years of reviewing Columbo episodes I’ve finally worked my way through them all. To all of you who have joined me on this voyage of discovery, rediscovery and reaffirmation, I thank you sincerely for your support and kind words – especially during the dark days of my daughter’s illness in 2021.

And this is not the end of the Columbophile blog. Far from it! I have a glut of content in the wings to help wrap-up the 1989-2003 years, and will continue my endeavours to ensure that the Lieutenant’s legacy continues to shine brightly in the years to come. I may not be posting as regularly as I used to, but I’ll be there, in the background, waiting to welcome you back for more measured debate and reminiscences about the greatest fictional detective of them all.

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Columbo Likes the Nightlife
Heading off into the sunset. Thanks for the ride, Lieutenant..
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