New Columbo episodes / Opinion

‘New’ Columbo: was it any good?

Columbo new episodesI’m an unashamed Columbo purist. Give me a choice of any episode and I’d be diving straight into the 70s classics. In fact I’d watch almost any ‘classic’ Columbo outing before I delved into the ‘new’ ones. And by ‘new’, I mean any of the 24 episodes released on ABC between 1989 and 2003.

If you’ve ever read my article on my top 10 favourite Columbo episodes, you’ll have noticed that not one of them is from the new batch. That’s not to say I hate them. Dear me, no. There are several gems tucked away amongst them that really stand up to repeat viewing. But when comparing apples with apples, the quality of the new episodes compared to the old is almost always found wanting.

“There are several gems tucked away amongst the ‘new’ episodes that really stand up to repeat viewing.”

But why was that the case? Surely it’s not simply a case of rose-tinted glasses? After all, the oldest ‘new’ episode is now more than 25 years old; the newest, well over a decade. Enough time has elapsed to allow for a level playing field in terms of passing judgement. And on the surface, much was the same. The Columbo formula, so well established between 1968-78, was largely unchanged. Falk reprised the role, of course, and he brought back with him the coat, the car, the cigar – even Dog. The essential ingredients were there, but the end result, reasonably often, was something of a let down. Again we must ask ourselves why?

I’ll tell you…

TV had changed: Time waits for no man, and the world of the late 80s and 90s, when the bulk of the new episodes were produced, was massively different from the late 60s and 70s. The original series provided us with a glorious snapshot of 70s opulence and fine living. Music, fashions, automobiles, it was first class all the way. By way of comparison, ‘first class’ in the 80s and 90s seems a lot more sleazy and a lot less, well, classy.

The production values were different, too. Gone are the sumptuous scores that graced each 70s episode, replaced by saxophone swill, overuse of the ‘This Old Man’ theme, and the occasional pop hit. And where are the cutting edge camera work and editing techniques that so defined the classic series? Conspicuous by their absence, that’s where, matey. Indeed, the newer episodes more often feel rather bland and workmanlike. Not necessarily bad, just normal, not standing out against other shows of the time, and not being nearly as inspirational or memorable. Had Columbo only existed in the 80s/90s I shouldn’t think anyone would still be talking about the show today.

Columbo era comparisons

Guess which episode was filmed in the 90s?

Falk’s portrayal had changed: As discussed above, Falk brought back all of Columbo’s idiosyncracies to the new series. Yet to me it doesn’t feel the same. Falk’s Columbo subtly evolved through the 70s episodes. The mannerisms and actions seemed natural and believable for the character. In the new episodes the character feels more forced, as if Falk himself is doing an impression of the younger Columbo – or even a parody. The subtlety, the believability, has gone.

Critics have also slammed Falk’s broader comedic turns in the 80s/90s episodes, and I tend to agree. 70s Columbo was sometimes very funny (Negative Reaction has some real rib-tickling scenes, for example), but Falk’s portrayal of the Lieutenant was generally on the level and restrained. He wasn’t really playing it for laughs in the same way he seems to be in some of the new episodes. Worst of all, some of the affected mannerisms just came across as him being an annoying old codger, like your Granddad acting the fool. That’s not what I want for the character.

“Had Columbo only existed in the 80s/90s I shouldn’t think anyone would still be talking about the show today.”

Calibre of the guest stars: Okay, there were some notable exceptions (Faye Dunaway, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, George Hamilton), but as a rule of thumb the standard of guest star killers in the new episodes was at a different stratosphere than we were treated to in the 1970s. It made it more difficult to connect with the killers, because it was harder to really dig the actors. Many of them, although undoubtedly talented, could have been cast in just about any other lesser TV show of the time.

Columbo new episode killers

I’d argue that it’s harder to dig these guys than it is to dig Cassidy, Culp, Gordon, McGoohan et al

These weren’t all intended to be Columbo mysteries: Two of the very worst Columbo episodes, Undercover from 1994, and 1992’s No Time to Die, weren’t originally written as adventures for the Lieutenant at all, and BOY does it show. These were adapted from two Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novels of the 1970s and bear little or no relation to the Columbo show we know and love. At best these are misguided efforts. At worst, they’re a betrayal of the character. I find it amazing they were ever made.

Ludicrous situations: Allied to the top point about how TV had changed, the new Columbo episodes were often blighted by thoroughly ridiculous, nonsensical and needlessly showy set pieces. Even episodes that are perfectly entertaining are spoilt by some really ludicrous moments. Yes, I’m talking about you, Murder, Smoke & Shadows, with Ringmaster Columbo taking a bow at the end. And you, Sex & The Married Detective. with the Lieutenant blasting out a tuba solo, and then leading a Pied Piper of Hamelin-style march followed by a group of school children. It’s a scene so wonderfully awful it has to be seen to be believed. So take a look…

Another stunner is the denouement of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine – an otherwise watchable effort. I mean, would the level-headed Lieutenant really put his life in danger by switching the safety stickers on a lethal guillotine blade? It’s way out of character, and far too much of a risk. Consider how he handled a life-threatening situation at the end of Lady in Waiting in 1971: with wits, composure and a touch of compassion. That was the way the real Columbo would have dealt with a tight spot.

Columbo silly scenes

Busting out a tuba solo; hangin’ with Little Richard; risking death in a guillotine? How we laughed…

There are, of course, some very good new Columbo episodes. I’ll chronicle my favourites from the 1989-2003 run in a future article, but as a teaser I’d say that Columbo Goes to College is a really excellent addition to the canon, while Agenda for Murder, It’s All in the Game and Ashes to Ashes have much to recommend them. Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo was a successful departure from the usual style of presenting Columbo, while remaining true to the series’ roots. It’s a fine episode, too.

“There are, of course, some very good new episodes. Columbo Goes to College, in particular, is a really excellent addition to the canon.”

Many episodes are plain forgettable. Others are poor. Murder in Malibu, Strange Bedfellows, No Time to Die and Undercover are dreadful pieces of television. They sully the Columbo reputation and add no value to the series. Doubtless a future article on the worst ever Columbo outings will be packed with new episodes.

There was still merit in bringing the good Lieutenant back to our screens in 1989 and beyond. The biggest bonus is that it makes it even easier to appreciate the majesty of the classics. Indeed the new episodes will have introduced Columbo to a whole new generation of viewers who would’ve been too young to enjoy the 70s run. That’s why the idea of a reboot – a sacrilegious notion to many purists – would be a good way of raising more awareness of the original series. I write more about that controversial idea here.

“Watching the new episodes makes it even easier to appreciate the majesty of the classics.”

You can have too much of a good thing. From 1968 – 1978 we were treated to 10 years of TV gold. Those standards were never likely to be repeated in the new televisual age of the 80s and 90s, and so it proved. After a handful of series and a number of made for TV specials, the Lieutenant finally bowed out in 2003’s Columbo Likes the Nightlife. That was 5 years too late for me. The last really decent episode, 1998’s Ashes to Ashes, featuring Patrick McGoohan in fine form, would have been a more fitting end to the series.

But Peter Falk didn’t want it to even stop in 2003. He desperately wanted to return to screens to film just one more episode in 2007, but networks rejected the idea. You can read more about that here. It would have been Columbo’s 70th and final adventure, giving definite closure to the series, but, with Falk almost 80 years old at the time, no one would give it the green light.

To some, that’s a pity. I think it’s probably just as well. I’d rather remember Lieutenant Columbo in his prime, going toe-to-toe with Nelson Hayward, Ken Franklin and the rest, rather than going out with a whimper in an era he never really belonged in.

I would love to hear your views on this subject. Am I being too harsh on ‘new’ Columbo? What do you think the merits of the later episodes were? Please put your comments below.

123 thoughts on “‘New’ Columbo: was it any good?

  1. watched undercover last sunday , thought it was nonsense , still better than murder in Malibu , best new episode for me is death hits the jackpot , followed by agenda for murder and columbo goes to college .

  2. I like both original and new episodes, they both offer up excellent shows. I get the point of the difference in Columbo’s character but I feel that age is responsible. There was almost a 10-year break before Columbo came back on the air and when it did he seemed quite a bit older. When I view those episodes, I see an older man, who has been slowed down with age, so still essentially the same character but with a different tone. I would expect that of anybody who gets older. Some of my favourite episodes are from the newer batch.

    • I’m not saying that this is the main reason that the new Columbo was worse than the original, but there were certainly a lot less ‘star’ murderers in the new Columbo.

  3. yes i agree with al ot of these blogs but i ll say first murder in Malibu is terrible maybe even the worst makes strange bedfellows look decent wached both of them sunday. so to keep fairness ill rate worst new ones then poorest 70s new batch 1)murder in malibu)
    2)undercover 3) its all in the game 4) no time to die 5th murder with too many notes
    6) columbo goes to the guillotine 7)murder a self portrait 8) a bird in the hand9)strange bedfellows 10) grand deceptions. the rest decent enough .

    70s run 1) a matter of honor 2) dagger of the mind 3) lovley but lethalb 4)requiem 5)old fashioned murder 6)short fuse 7)fade in to murder 8)murder under glass 9)green house jungle 10)mind over mayhem .
    But there is no comparison betwwen the 2 id watch any poor 70s episode instead of a new columbo anyday.

    • I disagree with most of your choices. Even the worst of the original series are at least average, and I would say that the four worst are An Exercise in Fatality, A Deadly State of Mind , A Case of Immunity and Old Fashioned Murder. The new series, about half of them are average at best, and I would say that the worst is No Time To Die, where there isn’t even a murder.

  4. best new columbos were death hits the jackpot , agenda for murder , murder smoke shadows , columbo and the murder of a rock star , and columbo goes to college
    worst are undercover , no time to die strang bedfellows murder a self portrait and murder with too many notes

  5. Well I agree about Peter Falk’s incarnation as Columbo. If you compare to the subtle way he portrayed him from 68 to 78. it definitely looks like a pastiche of Columbo.

    I’ll go even further and say that my favorite portraying are the early ones of the first serie rather than the last.

    I like the first tv movie from 68 where he can go from funny, forgetful, impish to brutal and menacing with the mistress.

    I think he’s great in “Suitable for framing” and “A stich in crime” amongst others.

    That been said, I don’t think that the first serie is exempt of ridiculous moment, weak vilains or parody of Columbo.

    The 70’s has its beauty that’s for sure but those episodes have an outdate feel not to say it doesn’t have its charm.

    3 examples come to my mind :

    1)”Fade in to murder” : I don’t find William Shatner’s character particulary well written and I find it a bit ridiculous how Columbo pretends to take advice from not Ward but his character, detective Lucerne, I mean what was that all about ?

    2) “Old fashioned murder” : it doesn’t concerns directly the Columbo character but the repetitive joke of the sister fainting, come on, that’s a terrible joke. Also again I don’t find the murderer that much interesting.

    3) If I remember correctly, that’s in “Murder under Glass” that we saw a geisha and all the glances at her by Columbo and how he reacts toward her wasn’t very Columbo for me.

    That been said I realize that about the vilains you talk more about the casting and in this area I agree, it is more interesting in the first serie.

    In the end I’d say there is good and bad in both series but yes, maybe more bad episodes in the second one and Falk is definitely better in the first one.

  6. Totally agree about No time to die and Undercover. They are by far the worst Columbo episodes ever made. Strange Bedfellows is a very bad one as well, as well as RIP Mrs. Columbo and It’s all in the Game.
    Murder in Malibu though, I don’t think is poor at all. And I do think you’re overreacting when it comes to the Tuba scene and the final of Columbo goes to the guillotine; I enjoyed them both. Sex and the married detective is actually one of my favourite Columbo’s.
    Overall I think you’re right, the 1968-1978 episodes are generally the best ones. The “new ones” do contain some terrible episodes and the old ones, even the least ones, all maintain a very high standard. But when I look at most of the new ones and accept that a man like Columbo must have got a bit older and less energetic, I can still very much enjoy most of them.

  7. Am watching the first 45 minutes of “…Too Many Notes” and really enjoying it due to its upbeat story and the charm of the two principals–the more likeable of which appears to be dying from a drink of champagne. Well up to .his moment I was really enjoying it. Not sure why I have never seen it. Well I knew it was about to become a real downer.

    • I’m adding a couple comments as I continue through this episode “Murder With Too Many Notes”. Am surprised at the negative reviews on IMDB. The charm of the victim was just verified by a tuxedo rental owner who gave him “the bottom half” for free. There definitely is more humor in the episode, suggesting to me that Columbo has intentionally (I hope) become a bit eccentric in older age. This episode does show what the day to day of work of film music composer great John Williams might have been like. Overall, I think its an ok episode (not having seen the ending)………..

  8. One major difference is that the new version had a lot fewer star guest murderers. My 8 favorite of the new episodes, which only approached the quality of the second-tier original episodes, are Columbo Goes to College, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, Columbo Likes the Nightlife, Columbo Cries Wolf, Murder, a Self-Portrait, Murder, Smoke and Shadows, Sex and the Married Detective and Murder with Too Many Notes.

  9. I totally agree with you. It’s that 80’s 90’s slickness that kills it for me. The older episodes had a realness about them. Softer in tone and appeal. Falk’s approach to the role changed also, it came off as a parady. Yes, there are a few really good episodes and even the bad ones are appreciated just to have one of t.v.’s greatest characters around.

  10. I agree with you …but you could say he was just changing with age …like all of us.
    For me the main differences with the old and new ..were that in the newer ones felt more like he was acting as columbo…the older originals felt like he wasn’t was I remember as a child watching him

  11. I think some of the change in tone was due to the success of MURDER SHE WROTE in the 80s (another huge favorite of mine, so I don’t mind too much). You can see the similar plot setups, the gentle older sleuth, the light comedy. I am in the middle of watching the 90s ones right now on the box set I just got. It had been many years since I had seen them and I think they held up fine. Of course they can’t compare to the 70s classics–the world, TV, and audiences have changed too much. Clever and cerebral just aren’t in vogue anymore. “Serious” cop shows exist, but they are violent and action-driven. It’s like watching classic 60s Star Trek and then turning to the Star Trek movies or even Enterprise. A letdown, but enjoyable all the same.

  12. I love the newer films just as much as the old ones. Two duds, I’d say – Murder In Malibu and Murder With Too Many Notes. Those were unwatchable. But ‘Death Hits the Jackpot’ and ‘A Trace of Murder’, and others too many to mention, are terrific.

  13. I think that you have to remember that above all The Classic Columbo episodes were dependent on a brilliant, DRIVEN detective, an obsessive genius whose relentlessness was fueled by tremendous vitality and above all ENERGY that older men have lost.
    Falk tried to trade humor and homilies for fervent fun; like an aging comedian or teacher/ philosopher—the zest was gone!

  14. Completely agree with your assessment that He seems like an “Annoying old codger”, right on the money. In the original run, he seems like a guy who feigns stupidity to trip people up and lure them into a false sense of security and superiority. He would seem ignorant on the surface but you could always see the undercurrent of cunning.These nuances of the performance just aren’t there in the revival episodes, and instead of appearing as a wolf in sheeps clothing, Columbo instead gives off the impression of being an actual bumbler and a dimwit. That being said, I suppose it could be argued in that case that Columbo had simply taken his facade to the next level. Interesting to consider, even though I ultimately have to chalk it up to other outside factors instead.

    To paraphrase what you said , the style and sophistication of the 70s has been traded in for sleaziness. The early 70s episodes present a snapshot of American wealth that has an almost Regal quality to it. What was fancy before now seems merely expensive.

    Moreover though the production values are just not very strong in the ABC batch. Take “Murder Is Hazardous” for instance, in many ways this set up is classic Columbo ; Blackmail leads to murder, Columbo into the victims life, and eventually turns up the smoking gun. Aside from the fact that the Killers show is a riff on Americas Most Wanted, I could see an episode with this story fitting in nicely in the 70s. But the whole thing just feels off. Perhaps more so than the sets/props or any of the performances, the manner in which it is filmed just doesn’t look right. It visually seems to resemble a soap opera at times. I am not familiar with the technical aspect of film in any way so I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly. I have read that the ABC episodes were transferred to video, so maybe that is the reason. That, and some poor cinematography. Combine all that with some bad music, and the show just comes across as being very cheesy.

    Nevertheless certain episodes are still watchable for me, and manage to be entertaining in spite of all that.

    I enjoy your reviews and generally agree with your assessments of the episodes. It’s nice watching an episode and thinking something is off/didn’t make sense and then seeing that you and others in the comments noticed it also. I hope that you stick with it, would love to see you riff on Last Salute To The Commodore and give No Time To Die the thrashing it deserves. Here’s hoping you find the time to get to them all eventually.

  15. Actually i quite liked some of the new Coòumbo episodes, notably “Columbo goes to college”, “Death hits the Jacpot”(one of the most bizarre gotcha! for one of the most despicable Columbo villains”, also “It’s all in the Game” (i hoped Columbo will leave both go)- And many others were not witout merit, like “Agenda for Murder” and “Hazardous to your health”.. Ok, there were some real bombs like the two 87th Precincy clones, the horrible “Strange Bedfellows” and the all too funereal “Ashes to Ashes” with a big blooper: diamonds at cremation temperature will completely combust. I agree that sometimes Columbo seemed a parody of himseklf (the Tuba scene). Nut also in the first batch there were some cringeworthy episodes ( the Commodore one, Dagger of the Mind and the Mexico episode)

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