What’s this? Mrs Columbo isn’t Mrs Columbo any more? There have been some odd ideas floated around as to why this happened, and in the absence of a detailed interview with somebody connected with this show we can only really speculate. Let’s take the reasons we can find on Wikipedia as our starting point.
Firstly, we have this: “poor ratings and reception from both audiences and the original producers of Columbo.” Only the first two words of that reason can have any relevance. There is no way dramatic changes would have been made to a show that was performing well, so it’s worth keeping that in mind. As for the opinions of the original producers of Columbo, if they didn’t matter when the show was created, they certainly didn’t matter by the time the second season was being aired. At this point Columbo was a show that had finished so the original producers, who did not own the rights to the character, were an irrelevance. The network was simply trying to keep exploiting the world of Columbo, via a spin-off.
Secondly, we have this utterly ridiculous suggestion: “it has been speculated that an additional reason for the character revision is the fact that Mulgrew was aged only 23 when the first season was broadcast.” This is of course nonsensical. Kate Mulgrew is clearly playing older than her real age, and again if it wasn’t a problem for Season One then it doesn’t suddenly become a problem for Season Two. Does whoever “speculated” that silly idea really think the execs would have changed the whole direction of the show because of Mulgrew’s age, as if they had suddenly woken up from a bad dream halfway through this project, even if the viewing figures had been good? Of course not.
So there can be only one reason this happened, and it’s the reason just about any major change is ever made to any television show: poor ratings. Despite that, the decision to remove the Columbo connection is a very bad one, because it robs the show of its USP. It wouldn’t be so bad if they had continued doing what they were basically doing for most of the first season and followed the Columbo formula: showing us the murder and revealing the murderer from the start, and then having Kate figure it all out and spring a gotcha moment on her enemy. But we don’t get to see who shoots the victim in this one, so it becomes much like any other crime drama. That doesn’t automatically make it a bad story, but it does make it a very commonplace one in the world of crime dramas. The change therefore goes far beyond the status of the main character and becomes a functional change in the way these stories work.
Although it’s not really an important issue, I want to talk briefly about the title change. All over the internet the same “fact” is repeated, that the series title changed from Mrs Columbo to Kate Columbo, and then to Kate the Detective and finally Kate Loves a Mystery. Nobody seems to be able to say at what point each of these changes occurred, and the only visual evidence is a Kate Loves a Mystery opening on YouTube that is taken from the final episode of the show, so that doesn’t help much. The source of this “fact” can be traced back to a book about television shows, which is apparently normally reliable for information, but that’s all we have to go on. Watching the episodes doesn’t help, because the title was changed back to Mrs Columbo for syndication, and those are the versions you can find on YouTube if they haven’t yet been removed by the time this article goes live. As for my French DVDs, they are all titled Mme Columbo, so that doesn’t help either. TV listings magazines for the start of the second season offer conflicting information. Not that it really matters, but my best guess is that Kate the Detective was used once or twice at the beginning of the season, and not even necessarily for the first episode, maybe even just the second, and that all the rest were originally broadcast under the title Kate Loves a Mystery. I can see no logical reason why the title would ever be changed from Mrs Columbo to Kate Columbo, as that achieves absolutely nothing, so I’ll take that one with a pinch of salt unless evidence appears for it in the future. Whatever the case may be, this show became Mrs Columbo once more for syndication, so somebody obviously realised that the Columbo connection was really its best selling point, and it made more sense to be consistent, despite Kate now being divorced and going by her maiden name of Callahan.
That raises another question: why would the writers need to go beyond a title change? Why change the name of the character? Her surname is rarely mentioned in most episodes anyway. Based on the evidence of the first episode, I think there is a scripting reason for that as well. Kate is quite flirtatious with new regular character Sergeant Mike Varrick, and I suspect the writers realised that a single lead character offered more possibilities than a married one. It also solves a problem the first season had, where the only way to explain the absence of Columbo himself was to make him look very bad indeed as an entirely absent husband and father, and that was starting to wear a little thin. Kate’s daughter Jenny remains a good way to add jeopardy to the story, and knowledge of her existence is used this week by the killer to get Kate to leave the relative safety of a crowded bar and go with him.
Mike is a good additional character, and solves another problem. Previously, Kate was getting involved with murder cases by coincidence and going it alone, which was unrealistic and unsustainable. Now she is working for The Valley Advocate instead of The Weekly Advertiser, which allows her to actually be investigating murder cases rather than stumbling upon them while researching local interest stories. She also has a friend in the police force, and is proving to be a useful ally to him.
As for the murder case this week, there is little to recommend it apart from an early performance from Ted Danson. The whodunnit element isn’t all that engaging, and the writers are concerned more with exploring the world of prostitution and the emotional toll it takes on the women who earn their living that way. It’s a worthwhile topic to investigate, particularly the sad story of how one of the women ends up falling into the world of prostitution after her marriage is failing and then blackmail keeps her trapped there, but it all gets a bit melodramatic. There is an attempt to liven things up with a big car chase at the end, which starts from the very clever idea of Kate driving crazily fast to attract the attention of a police car, while she is being held at gunpoint by her passenger. Having successfully done that, I wasn’t quite sure why she decided to keep driving until she nearly killed herself in a crash. I felt a bit sorry for whoever owned that van, which was crashed into twice, once when Mike was apprehending an accomplice, and then by a bizarrely reckless Kate.
So we have some changes that solve problems that existed with the first season, but also changes that perhaps go too far and rob this show of its selling point. If this episode is anything to go by, the next seven weeks will be traditional whodunnit stories, but I’ll reserve judgement for now. After all, based on the pilot episode I had assumed we were getting a series of thrillers rather than Columbo stories without Columbo in them, and how wrong was I about that? If nothing else, this is certainly a show that keeps changing so often that we never know quite what to expect. Whether it has much left to offer with this shift away from the original concept remains to be seen. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Mrs Columbo: It Goes with the Territory
Any influence for change, certainly with the title, in a TV series can be an interesting discussion in reflection of many examples in our TV history. In the case of an actress newly in the lead for such an enjoyable franchise that was lead by a man for a long time, in reflection of Kate as Janeway for Star Trek, Jodie for Dr. Who or Queen Latifah for The Equalizer, the presumption to make changes may seem like an insecurity and makes the obvious risks even more consequential. Title changing can be as daring as it gets and indeed for Mrs. Columbo. Thank you, RP, for addressing this.
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