Friday, August 26, 2022

The essential Columbo

Something lighter for the weekend.

One of the consequences of the rise of streaming that everyone should have seen coming (but almost no one did) was the rediscovery of classic shows. The pandemic accelerated the process, possibly because people sought out the familiar. 

One of the shows that has been finding a new audience is Columbo. Joe Dator of the New Yorker had a ten panel appreciation of the show and the phenomenon back in 2020.


The show was part of a wheel series where various shows shared the same time slot. As a result, there are very few episodes for such long running show -- less than fifty if you don't count the reboot -- we made it easier to keep the quality high and to line up A list talent for the guest murderer slot.

These things make Columbo relatively easy for new viewers to get into, but as with any TV show, there are high points and low points. Here, more or less in order, are the episodes I'd recommend starting with.

These are all available on Amazon's ad supported service, Freevee.

1. "Murder by the Book" The first episode of the series after the first two TV-movies. Set the mold (and the standard). A career making show for Stevens Spielberg and Bochco. All this and Jack Cassidy too.

2. "A Friend in Deed" Directed by Falk buddy Ben Gazzara   Richard Kiley is smug and despicable. Twisty, inventive murder. One of the best endings. Perhaps the ultimate example of the lowly lieutenant bringing down the rich and powerful.
3. "Candidate for Crime" If not for the previous title on this list, I might call it the definitive episode. Another one of the best endings. Story by B-movie legend Larry Cohen;

4. "Suitable for Framing" Ross Martin was always fun. Good story. Memorable closing shot.

5, "Blueprint for Murder" Falk's directorial debut. Patrick O'Neal was born to play a Columbo villain. Ripped off by the Mentalist (as was the original TV movie).

6. "Identity Crisis" Columbo vs. the Prisoner (directed by McGoohan).

7. "The Conspirators" Interesting friendly relationship with Irish poet/IRA terrorist Clive Revill. Great closing line for the series finale.

Honorable mention

"√Čtude in Black"    Neither the murder nor the solution was that interesting, but it's Cassavetes and Falk

"Any Old Port in a Storm" Fine work from Donald Pleasence, with a genuine friendship between cat and mouse.

"Negative Reaction" Good resolution and how often is Dick Van Dyke the bad guy?

"A Stitch in Crime" Good work by Nimoy and Will Geer is always fun.

"The Most Dangerous Match" For Laurence Harvey fans

"Prescription: Murder" A good detective movie but neither Falk nor the creators had a firm handle on the role (which had previously been offered to Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby).

"Ransom for a Dead Man" Lee Grant was wonderful as always in a not-that-memorable story. Great closing scene, though.


  1. If made today, Columbo would unravel a giant conspiracy over several seasons of increasingly absurd stories.

  2. Also, Columbo would be ripped.

    1. And have two good eyes (through CGI if necessary)

  3. Good point, Anon. Look at how the BBC screwed up Sherlock by escalating the stakes in each episode so that he couldn't just solve regular crimes. The whole thing got ridiculous, a waste of a great setup.

    - Andrew

    1. Andrew,

      Though it has been uneven, I'm fonder of Sherlock than you are. For me, the good parts continued to outweigh the bad. (being a huge Moffat fan might be coloring my judgement)

      The blame for Holmes adaptations going awry goes all the way back to Conan Doyle and Moriarty. Originally an extremely minor part of the stories (really more a device than a character), he's been elevated to almost equal standing with Holmes and Watson. The trend toward higher and higher stakes and making every crime a part of some grand conspiracy goes back long before Sherlock.

    2. Mark:

      If Moffat wants to make a series that's an international spy thriller, he should go for it! I just don't think that it fits in well with the Sherlock Holmes theme. I get it: Sherlock was popular so that gave Moffat the opportunity to tell the stories he wanted to tell; it just didn't work for me. I'd have felt the same way had Don Draper started to solve crimes every week.