Mrs Columbo: Word Games

Mrs Columbo Word Games Kate Mulgrey with DogTo say this series has a bad reputation would be an understatement. As a Columbo fan, I have been aware of the existence of a spin-off show for many years, but have never seen a single episode. Everything I have heard about it suggested it isn’t very good, but I believe in investigating things for myself. Tracking down the full series proved a challenge. There are a few of the episodes available as bonus features on the Columbo DVDs, but the only physical media release of the whole series seems to be the French box set. That was very expensive, but I figured out how to order it directly from the French version of Amazon, and after currency conversion and with postage added, the price worked out at less than £30, which I thought was a small price to pay to satisfy my curiosity. Luckily the DVDs play without any issues on my UK DVD player and also on the DVD drive that I use with my computer, so I didn’t even need to use a multi-region player. It was just a simple matter of changing the language to English to avoid hearing the French dub, and turning off the subtitles.

It is immediately obvious that this was a series that was hanging on the coat-tails of the parent show. Columbo’s dog features a lot, and is used for a few comedy moments, including an apparent reworking of a scene in Columbo where Dog gets taken to the vet because he has no “zest”.

“What seems to be the problem?”
“Well, can’t you tell?”

This is also an excuse for a rather amusing moment where Kate Columbo realises everyone in the waiting room looks like their dogs. There is also a phone call with Kate’s husband where his raincoat is mentioned, and a trip to the garage with his car, so the iconic aspects of the parent series are all featured in some respect. They even cast Columbo stalwart Robert Culp as the villain, and Bob Dishy as the police sergeant who helps Kate, the actor who played two different sergeants in Now You See Him and The Greenhouse Jungle, although his character is renamed yet again despite being very similar. But all these Columbo references are little more than window dressing, and here is where I think this show has an unfairly negative reputation, at least based on the evidence of the pilot episode. I suspect that the fans compare it with the parent show and want it to be more of the same, when it is in fact not trying to be anything of the sort. Instead, it’s a very exciting thriller.

I’m not sure the storyline holds together all that brilliantly, but the same could be said of many a Columbo episode. Kate gets a new intercom system installed so she can talk to her daughter Jenny in her bedroom, and picks up a signal from somebody else in the neighbourhood. At first she finds it all quite funny, considering the mysterious Charles and his very needy wife Joanne seem to have domestic issues, but it stops being fun when she overhears a murder. Worse still, the crossed lines work in reverse, so the murderer hears Jenny’s voice as well.

The events that follow are built a little too much on coincidences, with the victim just happening to be attending the same French course as Kate, for example, but the way she unravels the mystery is worthy of her husband in tenacity if not quite ingenuity. Quite realistically, she lacks her husband’s confidence in this kind of a situation. The sergeant puts her in a horrible position, bringing her face to face with the murderer she has accused, and she understandably looks incredibly uncomfortable.

If we were in any doubt that this is not going to be a show that follows the usual plot beats of the parent series, the death of Charles at the hands of the hired killer makes that very clear. This could only have happened in Columbo in reverse. The rich and powerful villain is always the focus, but there is a massive surprise here when the second murder dispenses with him and instead leaves the hired killer as the antagonist. Kate immediately shows how her skills of deductive reasoning are a match for her husband and far superior to the sergeant, who thinks it’s a suicide.

“You have to find out why a man who was going to throw himself over a cliff went to the trouble of locking his car.”

Things get incredibly exciting and frightening as the episode reaches its climax. Kate has identified the murderer through some clever investigation, but made the mistake of confirming her suspicions by phoning him, just to hear his voice. That alerts him to the problem, and in a creepy and troubling moment Kate hears the murderer talking to her over the intercom. Worse still, he’s reciting “Hickory Dickory Dock”, a clear threat to her daughter, who he heard saying that over the intercom before he murdered Joanne. Then things get even scarier, with the kidnapping of Jenny and Kate hearing her talking to the murderer in the house where the murder took place, again over the intercom. This feels far more dangerous and threatening than anything in any Columbo episode I can think of, and Kate Mulgrew sells the traumatic nature of the situation magnificently. It takes a while to get there, but in the end this is an utterly brilliant episode.

Jenny Columbo Lili HaydnThings bode well for the rest of the series, with Kate taking a job as a journalist that will presumably be a way of getting her involved in murder cases. The casting of Mulgrew is often criticised because she was only 23 at the time, but she is clearly playing older than her age based on the apparent age of Jenny if nothing else. It’s obviously an age-gap marriage, but not the same age gap as the respective actors, and there’s nothing wrong with that anyway. Mulgrew is a great actress, and had no trouble at all playing a bit older than her true age. I also love the inclusion of Jenny in the series, not just because she’s a funny little cute character, but also because it raises the stakes for Kate. Unlike her husband, who can just disappear for days because of his work, Kate has a responsibility to look after her daughter, and must protect her while facing off against murderers. It will be interesting to see how that pans out. Unless this is a hugely atypical episode, Mrs Columbo deserves a much more positive reputation than it has. My first impression is that the fans are probably criticising it because of what it’s not rather than what it is. This is clearly not trying to be Columbo but with a woman. Kate’s life is very different to her husband’s, and her involvement in the stories is going to have to be different too. One thing’s for sure: the great lieutenant is a very lucky man.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Mrs Columbo: Murder is a Parlor Game

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Spinoffs, Television and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Mrs Columbo: Word Games

  1. scifimike70 says:

    I can definitely relate to the decision to judge things for ourselves despite their bad reputations. I came to enjoy quite a few things in TV and film over time that way. It’s certainly more interesting now to reflect on how Kate Mulgrew made her mark as Mrs. Columbo now that she has redefined herself as Star Trek’s Kathryn Janeway. She’s unlike most charismatic actresses and can therefore on some levels have a much more fitting realism about her. As with any spinoff to add something new to an entertaining universe, the reception might have been mixed due to whatever chances it took. But it’s the most subjectively positive responses that pay off as many reviews via WordPress and YouTube can reassure us. Thank you, RP, for your first Mrs. Columbo review.

    Liked by 2 people

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