Here’s How Every Season Ranks
The dawn of the 90s came with a new era of detective fiction television. Out of this boom were popular murder mystery series such as Murder, She Wrote and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (one of the many adaptations of the prolific detective to the television screen), but the show that has arguably placed a blueprint for what we know as long-form detective television today was Columbo.
Trailblazing the inverted detective story angle, or a ‘howcatchem’/howdunnit among detective fans, the episodes start out by showing the audience the unique villain of the episode, the crime, and how it was committed. The audience is allowed to see everything from motive to accomplices, while Columbo arrives on the scene and is tasked with the burden of proof. Throughout the episode, Columbo often assembles clues, coincidences, and inspiration to figure out who may have the solution. It is only the audience who has the burden of knowledge, and in the show fans took a liking to the way Columbo put the pieces together.
The result was 69 episodes of action, questioning, and a loyal audience across 10 seasons. With an analysis on villain lineup, setup, and finale, here’s how every season of Columbo measures up, ranked.
10 Season 6
At the bottom of the ranking, this shorter season of Columbo still offers strong direction, with arguably the strongest in the season being “Fade In to Murder.” The episode pitches Falk against a colorful adversary in William Shatner as a self-absorbed television detective. Even at the bottom of the ranking, the season during this point is able to make light of Falk’s success, throwing around jokes about the television studio and the grievances between the lead actor and the executives. In the show’s lifetime, Season 6 was definitely one of the hammier ones for the audience to consume.
9 Season 10
Season 10 was a special case for Columbo, because it was a series of made for television movies after the show was technically final after seven seasons. After a total of 69 episodes, the movie collection is often referred to as the “Season 10” of the show. These episodes continued the story of the detective in such a fashion different from the origin season. There is a nuanced take on the classic Columbo formula that is missed in the progression of the detective. In these movies, audiences will recognize characters that took a backseat in the series to more prominence, with a nod to the take on detective television today, the original layout of the series is harder to find.
8 Season 8
Season 8’s theme seemed to be all about illusion, with cases like “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” and “Murder, Smoke and Shadows” playing tricks on the detectives’ mind and normal tricks. Anthony Andrews gives a highlight performance as a murderous physic, and establishes a pattern of murders killing for power or status gains. The villains in this season are making it personal, with Columbo refusing to hold back on his metaphoric punches throughout this season, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats.
7 Season 7
Season 7 manages not to move too far advanced in the changes to the Columbo formula, and good thing too: with a season full of unassuming characters and fumble murders, it would benefit from the layout. Boasting not one but two murderesses — Ruth Gordon as Abigail Mitchell in “Try and Catch Me,” and Trish Van Devere as Kay Freestone in “Make Me a Perfect Murder.” The actresses make Columbos’ work cut out for him, and it’s nice to have a fresh of femininity to the show so often dominated by male characters.
6 Season 3
Season 3 of Columbo is a standout season in the iconic crime drama series. One of the most significant features of this season is its innovative storytelling and narrative structure. Hammering down on the breakout structure of normal detective fiction, the season aided in keeping Columbo a household name. Rather than following the traditional “whodunit” format of the genre, several episodes in season 3 focus on the “howdunnit” aspect of the crime, following the precedent that the show is able to headline through this point — making them unique and convincing audiences to tune in for more.
A gripping cat-and-mouse in “Any Old Port in a Storm” follows Columbo’s investigation of a wine expert who murders his own brother to take over the family winery. The audience knows the killer’s identity from the beginning, and the episode focuses on how Columbo will uncover the evidence to prove his guilt. Donald Pleasence is a nervous but cunning killer who does everything right, except successfully dodge the lieutenants questions. Still in the earlier season roster, the third installment won’t disappoint audiences hungry for more of Falk’s banter with some of the oddest murders in the shows’ history.
5 Season 4
In Season 4, Columbo manages to fall into robotic geniuses, military bases, and red rooms, all while keeping up with his own infallible charm. The crimes in this season are more imaginative, with the culprits becoming more creative and detailed about how they go about their murders, such as in “Negative Reaction,” a landmark case where Columbo has to change his usual approach to unveiling a culprit to his own disdain in a stellar performance by none other than TV icon Dick Van Dyke! It’s a rare moment we see in the series that allows us to get a closer look into how the detective prefers to work, and what he is willing to do to uncover the truth.
4 Season 9
Season 9 is one of Columbo‘s most episode-heavy, with six capers for the lieutenant to wade into. Audiences are taken through a case of framing in “Murder, a Self Portrait,” to “Murder in Malibu” as the show takes an approach closer and more updated to the 70s. The format in the show starts to change a bit, with extra characters and falling more into the nuances we would see later on in Law and Order. The highlight performance of the season is radiant from Patrick McGoohan, who tries in vain to stump the rumpled detective with steely dialogue in “Agenda for Murder.” While it still scores point from Falk’s origin performances, the changes would land it in later rankings with fans of the original format.
3 Season 2
Season 2 boasts performances from powerful talents, including Anne Baxter and Leonard Nimoy. Following a strong opening season and gaining traction, the murderers and plots of season 2 continue to keep the audience engaged. This season contains one of the first times we see Columbo infuriated with the culprit, in “A Stitch in Crime,” and the Star Trek guest actor is a formidable adversary that sends Columbo almost on a wild goose chase, until the very end. The audience will get their share of perspective from the detective and the culprits in this collection. Overall, season 2 showcases some of the most compelling and well-crafted villains in the show’s history.
2 Season 5
Season 5 is often cited as the strongest in the series for multiple reasons. First, it was said that Columbo might have been at the end of its run by the time this season came around, and it is now a common spread that Falk himself said goodbyes to his fans in “Last Salute to The Commodore.” And as every finale strives for, some of the most striking performances were encapsulated in this season, from “Forgotten Lady” to “Now You See Him,” (with the return of Jack Cassidy in his third and final appearance as a murderer in the series, he would later pass 2 years after). The season captured villains outside Columbo’s usual movement in L.A., while he takes vacation, and also went beyond the scope of regular L.A. locals, including government agents and dignitaries. This season is sure to take viewers through the ups and downs of a show that was sure of its finish right down to a goodbye from the main character himself.
1 Season 1
Season 1 of Columbo takes top rank for a variety of reasons. The villain lineup was the first to be established here, and also some of the strongest villains in the series are present. Jack Cassidy made his first appearance in “Murder by the Book,” going on to be one of the most prolific actors for choice of villain and accomplice in the series. Robert Culp scares the pants off viewers as a calculated and thorough adversary in “Death Lends a Hand.” Not to mention, season 1 is the only season of the show to feature the directorial talents of Steven Spielberg, creating the beginning of the establishment of the prolific series.