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3.0 out of 5 stars Columbo's 1989 return: Lacks a worthy adversary . . ., January 5, 2010
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This review is from: Columbo - Mystery Movie Collection, 1989 (DVD)
After an eleven year hiatus, Columbo returned to television in 1989, with a series of two hour movies. Four were aired in the spring, and one in the fall of that year. As part of NBC's Mystery Movie, the series had originally run from 1971 through 1978, with Peter Faulk, as the iconoclastic LAPD homicide detective. Besides reprising his signature role as the disheveled detective with a brilliant mind, Faulk also serves as co-executive producer. The new exploits are very solid efforts, and make for interesting viewing, particularly for fans of Columbo, but they do not come close to matching the brilliance of the series at its peak.

One of the great things about the original series, was Columbo matching wits with a devious criminal adversary, who was deliberately trying to outsmart him. Episodes with well known, quality actors, like Robert Culp, Robert Conrad, and Jack Cassidy, come to mind, as some prime examples. This antagonistic, confrontational element, is largely missing in the 1989 mysteries. No disrespect to the fine actors featured in these movies, but these mysteries do not feature guest stars with the same kind of gravitas as in the past.

In some of the original episodes, the decisive proof or evidence, that Columbo used to make his case, was sometimes rather tenuous, or not particularly rock solid. In these new cases, the leads that Columbo follows may be obscure, but the proof is typically more definitive, with less wiggle room. We expect Columbo to be an irritating pest, and he is, but he seldom appears to be fool. Most of the audience is aware that the Lieutenant is a genius, so the writers don't try too hard to make us believe he's a moron. The movies are longer, and more time is devoted to the lead in and commission of the crime, and it takes a while before Columbo makes his appearance. The Lieutenant appears not to have learned much about forensics in the intervening years, still disturbing the crime scene. Basics like taking photos, is not yet part of his standard protocol. In keeping up with the times, there is a little more spice, as sex is a major component in Sex and the Married Detective. It is a nice change of pace to see the Lieutenant demure, when broaching the subject with a sex therapist he suspects of murder.

What does remain a part of Columbo's modus operandi is a flair for the dramatic (no matter how unlikely), and a tendency to grandstand. In one episode a psychic test is recreated, at great time and expense, to help trap a killer. In another episode Columbo gathers the players in a deception, and sets the stage, complete with spotlight, just so they can parade in front of the killer. These kind of stunts may endear him to fans, as they make Columbo look like a genius, and feed the Lieutenant's huge ego. Like most television, Columbo does not reflect reality, it is entertainment that romanticizes the pursuit of crime. The plots are typically way out there, like using an electrified metal fence to kill, and a murdered woman's dreams as clues. As entertainment, there can be a fine line between brilliance, and the ridiculous. Opinions will vary, but the writing here probably falls about equally on both sides of that line. For any other program, the writing might be very good, but for Columbo it seems to fall short of the mark.

Columbo's best cases were arguably those where he was up against a self-confident deliberate murdered, who usually looked down on him as an inferior, incompetent, irritating buffoon. Columbo's return is a welcome one, but none of the 1989 movies has that kind of edginess. The mysteries, while quite creative, lack some of the emotional fire present in the past. Fans may not want to pass it up, but this set is probably not representative of Columbo's best casework.
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