Monday, 11 July 2016

Mrs Columbo (1979)

Have you ever asked yourself the question - what was the worst decision ever made by any television network anywhere in the world? You might imagine it would be a very tough answer question to answer. You would be wrong. The answer is very easy to answer. The worst decision ever made by a TV network was NBC’s decision to commission a spin-off from the Columbo series. The new series would be Mrs Columbo.

The decision was breathtakingly clueless.  Throughout the long, successful and illustrious run of Columbo there had been frequent references by Lieutenant Columbo to his wife but we never ever see her. In fact it has been plausibly suggested that Columbo was unmarried and that his stories regarding his wife (and various other relatives) were simply part of his armoury of psychological weapons to be deployed in order to unnerve suspects. Nonetheless this never-seen and possibly mythical character was to be the heroine of the new series and she was to be a journalist and amateur detective.

There were a whole series of reasons why the spin-off series was a bad idea. Firstly, Mrs Columbo was only an interesting character in Columbo because we never saw her and we could therefore speculate endlessly on what she was really like, whether she was really as Columbo described her and whether she really existed or not. Secondly, making her a journalist and amateur detective was a hackneyed idea. Thirdly, when we are actually introduced to Mrs Columbo we know instantly that she is just wrong. This is not the kind of woman Lieutenant Columbo would marry. Fourthly, the actress chosen for the role is at least twenty years too young to be Mrs Columbo. Fifthly, the unlucky actress in question, Kate Mulgrew, is hopelessly miscast as an amateur detective. Sixthly, judging by Murder is a Parlor Game, the quality of the writing was absolutely deplorable.

Remarkably, even though the series was cancelled after just thirteen episodes during that mercifully brief run the title of the series was changed twice. It started in 1979 as Mrs Columbo. It was changed to Kate the Detective but the ratings remained dismal. It was then changed to Kate Loves a Mystery, and the ratings remained dismal. The name changes were part of a desperate attempt to persuade viewers to forget that there had ever been any connection to Columbo. Even the heroine’s name was changed, supposedly after a divorce.

Murder is a Parlor Game was the second episode aired under the Mrs Columbo title and is included as an extra in the US Columbo third season DVD set.

This is an inverted murder mystery (the formula used so successfully in Columbo). This means we know the identity of the killer right from the start and our interest is in seeing the detective unravel the mystery and outsmart the criminal. A retired Scotland Yard detective is confronted by a figure from the past. Chief Inspector Morly (Donald Pleasence) is threatened with either death or a revelation about his past or both. A struggle ensues and the other man is killed. Morly’s bungling attempts to make the murder look like suicide are good enough to fool the police but not good enough to fool his neighbour Mrs Columbo.

The fact that the story is far-fetched is not a major problem. Realism is not a necessary ingredient for a good murder mystery. The problem here is not the story but the totally inept execution.

This episode achieves something that I would have considered to be impossible - getting a lousy performance out of Donald Pleasence. This achievement was made possible because the episode is hopelessly ill-conceived. Is this a serious murder mystery? Is it a seme-serious murder mystery with a slightly tongue-in-cheek flavour? Is it an out-and-out parody? I don’t know, and it’s obvious that Donald Pleasence didn’t know either which is why his performance is all over the map.

There is yet another reason why this show was doomed. It tries to adhere to the successful Columbo formula with each story being an inverted murder mystery. This is a very risky formula. It requires very disciplined writing. It depends on the viewer accepting that the detective hero  really is smart enough to outwit the murderer. It needs a reasonably smart murderer - he has to make at least one mistake otherwise he’d never get caught and there’d be no story but the murder has to be clever enough to provide the detective with a genuine challenge. It also requires, crucially, superb acting chemistry between the actor playing the detective and the actor playing the murderer. Columbo was able to get away with an inherently risky formula because (mostly) all of these requirements were fulfilled.

Sadly Murder is a Parlor Game fails to fulfill a single one of these requirements. Most fatally the murderer is such a bumbling incompetent that we feel embarrassed for him. 

An inverted murder story has to be exceptionally well done if it’s going to hold our interest. We already know the answer to the mystery so persuading the viewer to keep watching is a challenge. There is no real reason to keep watching Murder is a Parlor Game. Even if you ignore the incredibly ill-advised concept of a series about Mrs Columbo and judge this episode on its own merits it has to be accounted a failure - the inept writing, the hopelessly confused tone, the miscasting of Kate Mulgrew and the generally poor acting are enough to sink it like a stone. It doesn’t even have a so-bad-it’s-good quality to it. Avoid.

1 comment:

  1. As always enjoyed your review. The behind the scene story for this series is more interesting than any of the episodes. I did a review awhile ago about the series. MRS COLUMBO was a mini series pilot of six hours five episodes. This was a period where networks were using the mini-series form for pilots (DALLAS is the most famous example). The ratings were not good. Fred Silverman the man who made the decision to put MRS COLUMBO on made even a dumber one. Network NBC was a mess and desperate for programs. To the surprise of everyone including Kate Mulgrew NBC picks the series up as a weekly program. Everyone involved with the production knew the problem was the Columbo tie in. So they tried hard to reboot it without Colimbo, except the network promotional department continued to feature the Columbo connection. The weekly series changed the style of mysteries and a love interest. No series could have overcome such bungling and when you add the quality of the episodes the series dies after 8 episodes. If you are curious about more of the details my old post is here