At last my all time favorite TV detective series comes to DVD: Columbo. I've been a fan of the scruffy Lieutenant since I first saw his show when it originally aired back in the early 70's. I was always entranced by the mystery and the good dose of dry humor that each show contained. Since these were basically a series of 90-minute movies, I was afraid that they'd never be released on DVD, or if they were, it would be individual episodes. But Universal has made the wise choice of releasing this classic series in season sets, the first of which has just come out.
Columbo isn't like most other detective shows. It isn't a whodunnit. At the beginning of every episode the viewers see a murder being committed. The motive is set up; they get to watch through the planning and execution of the act, and see the aftermath. In every case it is a nearly perfect crime with few, if any clues, and often a large number of red herrings. The mystery aspect of the show is how Lieutenant Columbo (played by Peter Falk) is going to be able to solve the crime with so little to go on. What mistakes did the killer make, what clues are there that would lead to an arrest?
Columbo (they never reveal his first name) is a very unlikely detective. He looks like a mess; he wears a rumpled old trench coat, has messy hair, and can never find a pencil for notes or a match to light his ever-present cigar. He comes across as an incompetent dolt more than a great intellect with an eye for detail. Columbo never seems to be paying attention to the important as[ects of the case; he's more interested in trivial maters. But if the devil is in the details, so too are the clues.
That is the fun of watching Columbo, seeing him basically drive the murderers crazy with his stupid little questions. He gains a suspicion of the guilty party right away from some small mistake they make, a woman not asking how her husband was killed, or someone not announcing that he's home when he returns from a trip, and then focuses his questions on them. He shows up at their office, at their house, when they are relaxing on the weekend, and continually asks them to clarify small matters. To make it worse, when he leaves half the time he stops in the doorway and says "Oh yeah, one more thing..." He nearly drives them to distraction.
The killers themselves all have something in common too; they are all very successful and intelligent people. More than that, they are snobs and egotists. People who think that they've committed the perfect crime and who are not worried, at least at first, about being caught. There is something immensely enjoyable about watching an arrogant person get taken down a notch or two, and it's even more satisfying when the person who does it is a lowly, rumpled public servant.
There is really only one complaint that I have with the show, and that is that some of the evidence that is used to trap the guilty party would never hold up in court or convince a jury. They usually worm their way out of it by a confession at the end, but this is a minor point. The appeal of the show is watching Colombo work, not the discovery of the murderer.
This set starts off with the two pilot TV movies. The first, Prescription: Murder, aired in early 1968. It was a ratings and critical success, but it took a few years before they followed it up. I was very surprised at how little the character of Columbo changed. Peter Falk has his mannerisms pegged from this first movie. He has the dazed and confused look and absent minded manner that are the detectives trademarks right for the beginning.
In 1971 the executives at NBC came up with the idea of having a rotating series of mystery movies every week. One slot in the weekly schedule would be filled by three shows, alternating weeks. This way the creators would have more time to work on the movie, and the network would still have a full schedule. NBC ordered a second pilot, to see if Columbo would still appeal to viewers nearly three years later and make sure that the feel of the first show could be recaptured. This second pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man aired in February of 1971, and then the series itself started in the fall of '71.
The full first season consisted of seven 90-minute episodes, and all of them are very good. Steven Bochco, who would later gain fame as creator of such high quality shows as Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and NYPD Blue, was the story editor and wrote three of the episodes in this first year. (Murder by the Book, Lady in Waiting, and Blueprint for Murder.) Another person who would go on to bigger and better things was the director of the first regular episode, Murder by the Book. A relatively unknown director by the name of Steven Spielberg was at the helm.
These are a fun and enjoyable series of shows, with great acting and intelligent scripts. Some of the best shows that TV has to offer.
The show is presented with a two channel mono soundtrack. The show sounds good for a early '70's TV series. The dialog is clear and the music comes through well. There isn't a lot of bass response, but that is to be expected. A very adequate sounding set of DVDs.
The full frame image has not been restored, but it looks very good. There are the occasional small spots of dirt, but these are fairly rare. The show doesn't look as bright and vibrant as when it was first aired, but it is not a dull or muted picture. There are some minor encoding errors, mainly light aliasing in the background, and they did add a fair does of edge enhancement to the picture. The latter was much more noticeable than the former. Even with these defects and a lack of restoration this set looks very good.
Unfortunately, there are no extras included with this set. I would have loved a commentary by Peter Falk on an episode, and an interview with Steve Bochco or series co-creator William Link would have been wonderful. Hopefully the next season will have some bonus material.
These are a fun and enjoyable series of shows. I found myself laughing out loud to some of Columbo's seemingly idiotic questions and his constant "One more thing..." This is a case where the trip is more enjoyable than the destination. Getting the crook is almost a let down because that means the show is over. Fans of great TV should make it a point of picking this set up. Highly Recommended.