It was a classic TV series that launched and defined an entire genre. Its title character is one of the most recognizable personas in all of television. After watching it you couldn’t help but want to run out, buy a cigar and find a crime that needed solving. If you’ve ever wanted to hunt down a guy in a trench coat and bring him home with you, you should really see a psychiatrist. In the meantime, sate your urge by picking up the first season of the immortal “Columbo”, now available on DVD.
Lieutenant Columbo first appeared at the scene of the crime in 1968 with the premiere of the series’ first pilot, "Prescription, Murder". The hour and a half long episode was a tremendous success, but plans for a full season of the show wouldn’t take off until 1971 when a second pilot, "Ransom for a Dead Man", kicked off an seven-episode first season. From there the show enjoyed a seven season run of signature two hour long episodes. In 1978 Columbo hung up his trench coat for a little more than a decade before resurfacing for an encore four season run. Even after the regular series ended a second time, fans still hadn’t had enough. There have been nearly a dozen special “Columbo” TV movies since then, the most recent being in January of 2003.
What made the show such a success? Unlike most murder shows, “Columbo” isn’t really a whodunit. Instead, each episode gives you a front row seat to the perpetration of the crime. The audience is treated to a full exposition of the murder including who did it, how they did it, and where the deed was done. It’s like getting to look at all three secret cards in a game of Clue before the dice are even rolled. What’s most satisfying is that these aren’t your run of the mill murders of passion. Each crime is carefully thought out and planned by the assailant to be, leaving you wondering how the heck Lieutenant Columbo is going to solve it.
Another successful quality of the show is its length. Each episode runs nearly an hour and half long (two hours with commercials), making them more of a movie format than a traditional TV episode. This extra length gave the show’s writers plenty of time to flush out interesting case details and allowed lots of time for the relationships between Columbo and his suspects to simmer. Guest-starring on the show was almost like landing a movie role, so a lot of famous mugs made appearances as well, further heightening the quality of the series. As well, a number of famous behind-the-camera folks made early career appearances with the show including Steven Spielberg and Steven Bochco. But it is the likable lieutenant with his trademark slouch and meandering lines of questioning that brings people back season after season, decade after decade.
Peter Falk, the man behind the trench coat, created a character that you never get tired of watching. Lieutenant Columbo (in almost 40 years the series never divulged his first name) is a quirky, seemingly forgetful detective with a passion for cigars and an instinct for hunting out the guilty. It takes a couple of episodes to get a real understanding of the depth to the character. You learn to recognize that twinkle he gets in his eye (not his glass one, the other one) when, after having only been on the case for ten minutes, you know he’s already solved the crime in his mind. You learn to appreciate the psychological games he plays with his suspects as he figures out how to get them to incriminate themselves and betray their craftily laid crimes. But no matter how well you get to know Columbo, he still surprises you in the end with the cleverness he displays in bringing the murderer to justice.
This first season release of the series seems a sure fire signal that more are on the way. People who love other murder/detective shows like “Law and Order” and “Monk” will likely enjoy watching “Columbo”. But, if it’s the fast pace and edginess of the more modern crime shows that you adore, be warned: “Columbo” is more of a thinking man’s game. The pace is more relaxed by today’s standards, but you may find it to be a welcome change when you have the chance to revel in the depth of the characters and story. The movie-length episodes, each complete with original score and talented cast, make them even more satisfying. With no cliff hangers or to-be-continued episodes, you can enjoy each self-contained crime at your leisure, or plop down for an all day marathon. Either way, you’ll be partaking in one of the most beloved and enduring of all television traditions.
This offering of the show's first season is a disappointingly by-the-book release with no real extras. There are the obligatory alternative language subtitles and closed captioning, but apart from that the episodes are left to speak for themselves, something they succeed at admirably. Nevertheless, it is a bare bones presentation. The attractive packaging is a simple montage tribute to the character and “Columbo: Season One” and will look smashing on your DVD shelf next to your copy of the first season of “Law and Order”.
With additional seasons most certainly coming down the pipe, we can only hope that Universal will opt to include some kind of bonus materials along the way. I mean, there has to be some kind of behind-the-scenes footage laying around somewhere right? If nothing else, it would be interesting to have some kind of docu-history about this television legacy. Even better would be some interviews with the great Peter Falk himself. After nearly forty years he’s bound to have something to say about the experience.
With the extras (or lack there of) considered, I turn now to offer you a brief breakdown summary of each of the episodes on the 5 Disc set. I've dug up the original air date for each episode and included the tagline from the episode start screen on the DVD. Hopefully it will whet your appetite for more. Enjoy!
Original Pilot – Prescription: Murder
(Original Air Date: February 20, 1968)
DVD Episode Summary - Lieutenant Columbo lays a clever trap for a suspicious psychiatrist who may have murdered his wife in the pilot movie for the popular series.
This original pilot was based on a stage play of the same name, originally written by “Columbo” producer/writer team Levinson and Link. Of all the episodes in this first season series, "Prescription: Murder" offers the best opportunity to get to know the character of Lieutenant Columbo. In his first appearance in the role Peter Falk brings verve to the character that mellows away in the later shows. There's an excitement to the case that leads you to believe this may be the first real case for Columbo, and you get the sense that maybe he's not a little unsure of his gut instincts. The real mystery here is why they waited three years to revisit this show for a full season.
2nd Pilot – Ransom for a Dead Man
(Original Air Date: March 1, 1971)
DVD Episode Summary – Columbo throws a wrench into the best-laid plans of an attorney who murdered her husband in the series' second pilot movie.
I'm guessing studios must have liked the idea of a wife murdering her husband better than the other way around. After all, it was the seventies. Though the second pilot parallels the first in many respects, this time it's a wife who's doing the spousal slaying. Whether or not that was a factor in the pilot's success, this one put “Columbo” on the fall lineup. There's a more sophisticated edge to the sleuth this time and a sneakier confidence about him as he nabs the first of only two first-season femme fatales.
Episode 1 – Murder By the Book
(Original Air Date: September 15, 1971)
DVD Episode Summary – Columbo investigates the case of a mystery writer who's committed the “perfect crime” in this premiere episode directed by Steven Spielberg.
That's right! Before E.T. and Jaws, good ol' Spielberg was cutting his teeth on the world premiere episode of “Columbo”. You can feel the early Spielberg style in the camera angles and character interactions. If you watch carefully you might even spot a few techniques that get re-used in some of his early films like Jaws and 1941. Also making an early career appearance is Steven Bochco, creator/writer of major TV series such as “L.A. Law”, “Murder One”, and “NYPD Blue”. With roots like that, it's no wonder Columbo's popularity has lasted almost 40 years.
Episode 2 – Death Lends A Hand
(Original Air Date: October 6, 1971)
DVD Episode Summary – An unfaithful wife is murdered after she refuses to be blackmailed in this classic episode guest-starring Robert Culp and Ray Milland.
When you have to depict a murder at the top of every episode, keeping it creative can get a little tricky. Some first season directors chose to take it as an opportunity to put a signature moment in the show. This particular time around there's an ultra-stylized take on the action as you watch the murder aftermath reflected in the murderer's glasses, an eerie foreshadowing of the mistake that leads to his demise. The last ten minutes of "Death Lends A Hand" are, as the summary suggests, absolutely classic. This episode is Falk's best performance of the season.
Episode 3 – Dead Weight
(Original Air Date: October 27, 1971)
DVD Episode Summary – No body, no murder weapon, an unstable witness and an accused war hero make for a tough case for Columbo.
Famous and soon-to-be famous guest stars are a staple of the Columbo phenomenon. Dead Weight features two big names, Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette. While the two aren't the first big names to appear in an episode, they are the first lead pair to create an interesting chemistry, not just with Falk, but with each other. Throw in some classic Columbo mind game triangles and you have another favorite episode.
Episode 4 – Suitable for Framing
(Original Air Date: November 17, 1971)
DVD Episode Summary – An art critic's dreams of wealth are shattered when he hears the details of his uncle's will in this gripping episode guest starring Don Ameche.
Columbo dives headlong into seventies culture when he tackles the art world. From classic works worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to avant garde nudes, a very reserved detective wades through it all to get to the bottom of the murder. Nudity on “Columbo”? Never you say? Well, guess again. But not to worry, it's done in a humorously tasteful way and its' a lot of fun watching the poor detective blush. The ending to this episode is another classic “Columbo” moment, one that playfully helps to define both the character and the series.
Episode 5 – Lady in Waiting
(Original Air Date: December 15, 1971)
DVD Episode Summary – Two siblings struggle for control of a family-owned corporation in this fan favorite, guest-starring Leslie Nielson and written by Steven Bochco.
One of the scariest examples of an astute feminine mind gone murderously psychotic is this episode, which also gives every big brother a reason to be nicer to his little sister. "Lady in Waiting" also features a rather signature style murder sequence, wherein we get to see the action through the eyes of exhaustion, drunkenness and a little psychosis. This isn't Bochco's greatest contribution to the Columbo dynasty, but it keeps to the level of intrigue you expect from the show. Leslie Nielsen's presence may be a bit of a distraction for post-Airplane only fans. His wry smile always left me wondering what gag was going to happen on his next line. Then I'd remember that this was “Columbo”, and that Nielsen had a respectable dramatic career before becoming the crown jester of movie spoofs.
Episode 6 – Short Fuse
(Original Air Date: January 19, 1972)
DVD Episode Summary – When an executive dies in a limo explosion, the corporation's high-powered attorney is Columbo's prime suspect.
For folks who think that Jack Nicholson absolutely stunk as the Joker, I've got some new ammo for you. Ask the question, “Why the heck didn't they cast someone like Roddy MacDowall?” OK, maybe he would have been a little old, but you must watch this “Columbo” episode before arguing. The actor, in my opinion one of the greatest of his generation, steals this episode as one of the silliest, smartest, most dangerous murderers to be pitted against Lieutenant Columbo. And the signature laugh that he lends to this character is, well, to die for.
Episode 7 – Blue Print for Murder
(Original Air Date: February 9, 1972)
DVD Episode Summary – Columbo excavates the area surrounding a building's newly poured foundation to locate a corpse in this Steven Bochco-penned episode.
These days ratings wars and burnt out writers have left us with Grand Canyon style TV show seasons. They start out with over the top season premieres, dip into mid season doldrums, and leap up to gut wrenching season finales, all in an effort to get us addicted to the series, rather than consistently entertain us. Columbo lowers itself in no such way. The first episode is as strong the last and everything in between. "Blue Print for Murder", the season closer, has some of the season's funniest moments including the good lieutenant having to go through the bureaucracy of getting a construction permit and fighting with the question of whether or not that cigar is good for his health. In the end it's a satisfying conclusion to a satisfying season.