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.