We start this episode with a lot of shots of disembodied ventriloquist dummy heads, which had me on edge right from the beginning. The story centres around ventriloquist Noel Abbott, who is a recognisable, famous entertainer, but takes the trouble to make regular visits to traumatise… sorry, to entertain children at a hospital with his creepy… sorry, with his whimsical puppet Archie. One day his dummy goes rogue in front of the kids, telling Noel he’s “sick of being your partner”, and then slowly turns its head towards him and says, “I hate you.” OK, so maybe I was right first time with “traumatising”.
This is of course a crime drama not a horror flick, so the dummy isn’t actually possessed. Instead, Noel is suffering from schizophrenia, and he decides to turn to his mentor for help: Victor March, a puppet maker who taught Noel everything he knows. This man is clearly like a father to Noel, but when he realises that his young friend is mentally ill he turns his back on him and cannot even look at him. That’s a mistake, because he ends up being chiselled to death.
Last week we were very much in Columbo territory, but this is nothing like a Columbo script. There is no motive other than mental illness. There is no premeditation, no clever covering of tracks, no creative alibi, just a violent crime. So if this isn’t following the usual Columbo plot beats, what is it doing instead? Well, not much, unfortunately. It could have been a scary thriller, in the same vein as the excellent first episode of the series, but there is little attempt to do that. It really shows the significance of the musical score in an episode like this. The incidental music is often sombre and sad, to indicate a good man losing his mind, which really is a very unhappy thing to see unfolding before our eyes. Re-score this with scary music and you could have something that feels like a Twilight Zone episode at times. But that’s not what is being attempted here, despite all the shots of ventriloquist dummies presumably being intended to unsettle us.
In the end, this is a very simple case for Kate. The killer is mentally ill, and cannot help giving himself away. He’s hanging around the crime scene, for a start. Then he gives away Victor’s old dummy to Kate, saying, “can that clown be Victor’s gift to Jenny?”, to which any sane parent would say, “no thanks!” Then his troubled mind starts him off on a train of thought that the dummy might actually reveal the crime it witnessed, so he goes and gets it back. When he is invited to perform at a party for Jenny’s friends, he loses control of himself, making Archie say, “dead men tell no tales.” He couldn’t make it any easier for Kate to figure things out, short of just saying he’s the killer, which of course is inevitably what happens eventually, via his treacherous puppet.
Last week, Kate confronted the killer on her own, but there was some logic to that scene. She had already informed the police, and she was very confident that her adversary was actually a good person who had made a mistake many years ago that he was not keen to repeat, and had recently only acted in self-defence, so it wasn’t hard to understand how she felt safe being alone with him. However, what happens at the end of this episode beggars belief. To a certain extent, the same reasoning could apply, because Noel is actually a good person. That’s what makes this such a sad story. But he is mentally unwell to the point that he has lost control and brutally murdered the man who meant more to him than anybody in the world. Confronting him on her own seems incredibly reckless.
This certainly had its moments, and the series continues to be far better than its reputation would suggest, but I am hoping for a higher standard next week. The first two episodes benefited from great actors playing the killers, but Jay Johnson does only a passable job as Noel, and was never going to hit the heights of a Robert Culp or Donald Pleasence performance. But the biggest problem seems to be a writer who wasn’t quite sure what he was doing with his script. It isn’t a mystery, it isn’t a challenging case, it isn’t really much of a thriller. In the end, it’s nothing more than an unhappy tale of how mental illness can ruin lives. That’s a worthy topic, but needs to be handled with a bit more subtlety than a chisel-wielding ventriloquist who thinks his dummies are alive. That’s horror stuff, but this isn’t a horror either.
Thankfully, we have Dog to cheer us up. In a much-needed moment of light relief, Kate hides a pill inside his food, only to watch him lick his bowl clean and leave the pill behind. I can confirm dogs really can be that cunning. In fact, we used to give one of our dogs a pill completely concealed in the middle of a treat. He would carefully eat the treat, moving it around his mouth like an oenophile sampling a particularly fine vintage, and then the drool-covered pill would drop out of the side of his mouth as he walked away. Now that’s what I call a criminal mastermind. RP
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Certainly new territory for the Columbo universe and it would have been interesting to see how Lt. Columbo himself would have dealt with this one. For their tradition of humanizing the murderers, this may the most daring example. With the issue being more frequent in today’s crime shows like the Law & Order franchise, it’s fairly interesting to look back on how older TV episodes dramatized the mentally ill culprits. I can remember quite a few in Charlie’s Angels. There’s always the risk of stigma towards the mentally ill with this kind of fiction. So for personal reasons, this is an episode that I probably wouldn’t want to see. Thank you, RP, for your review.
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