The 25 best episodes of 'Columbo', ranked

The 25 best episodes of 'Columbo', ranked

Who would have thought a homicide detective from the ‘70s would have had a cultural moment in the 2020s? And yet, that’s been the case for Lieutenant Columbo. Peter Falk’s trench-coat-wearing cop had a keen nose for detail and the ability to solve seemingly any case. “Columbo” was an interesting show in that it wasn’t a “Whodunit?” because we see the killer do the dead at the beginning of every episode. Then it’s about watching Columbo spring the trap. Every episode of “Columbo” is actually a made-for-TV movie, airing intermittently from the original pilot in 1968 all the way until the final episode in 2003. Yes, this is truly one of the iconic cop shows. Oh, just one more thing. Here are the 25-best episodes of “Columbo.”

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25. “A Matter of Honor”

“A Matter of Honor”

Columbo is a Los Angeles homicide detective, but on occasion, he ventures out of the LA area and still finds himself having adventures or cases to solve. A few of those are on this list, including “A Matter of Honor.” Columbo is down in Mexico where he happens to find himself investigating the death of a man who was killed by a bull, but it was the work of a legendary matador played by Ricardo Montalban. It’s a little silly at times, but it’s fun to see Columbo in Tijuana.

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24. “Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo”

“Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo”

This is the latest episode on this list, an offering from 1990 that aired in the ninth season. A lot of the later episodes are less than stellar, including the worst episode the show ever did, a clear ripoff of “Silence of the Lambs” from early 1992. This is a good late episode, though, with Columbo going so far as to pretend his never-seen wife has been murdered in order to trap the murderer.

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23. “An Exercise in Fatality”

“An Exercise in Fatality”

The fourth season opens with an episode that feels ahead of its time, as in 1974 “Columbo” focused on a health-junkie murderer who owns a chain of gyms. That feels very ‘80s, but maybe LA was ahead of the curve. Columbo isn’t exactly a health nut – the man has an omnipresent cigar in hand – but he knows how to solve a murder.

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22. “Requiem for a Falling Star”

“Requiem for a Falling Star”

As a show set in Los Angeles, actors play a role in a few “Columbo” episodes. Here Anne Baxter plays an old movie star who kills her personal assistant to keep a dark secret. Baxter had a tremendous career in her own right, and that’s part of the fun of “Columbo.” The show had so many excellent guest stars over the years, many of them playing arrogant murderers.

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21. “Forgotten Lady”

“Forgotten Lady”

OK, so we happen to have back-to-back episodes about fading Hollywood actresses on this list. Both are played by true stars as well, as Janet Leigh is the murderer here. This is a melancholic episode, and one of only two times the murderer is not arrested. While spoiling who did it feels OK given the nature of the show, we don’t want to spoil the twist at the end.

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20. “Make Me a Perfect Murder”

“Make Me a Perfect Murder”

We’re still in the world of entertainment to a degree, this time dealing with a TV programmer who kills her lover after he passes her over for a promotion. The killer is quite methodical and even does a walkthrough of her murder before committing it, but Columbo is still able to get one over on her, of course.

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19. “Now You See Him…”

“Now You See Him…”

It was inevitable that there would be a murderous magician in an episode of “Columbo.” It’s just perfect for a show like this. Magicians are masters of subterfuge, after all. Plus, there’s nothing Columbo likes more than to use fake awe and wonder to lure a murderer into a false sense of security. He definitely does that here, and Columbo and a magician do indeed make a fun pairing.

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18. “Lovely but Lethal”

“Lovely but Lethal”

The same year he broke through in film with “Badlands,” Martin Sheen played the primary murder victim in the third-season premiere of “Columbo.” He plays a scientist who tries to blackmail his boss played by Vera Miles. A lot of people try and commit blackmail on “Columbo.” They usually end up dead.

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17. “Prescription: Murder”

“Prescription: Murder”

This is the very first “Columbo” episode, the pilot that aired in 1968. It was based on a play of the same name that was written by show creators Richard Levinson and William Link. Yes, Columbo started as a play. Peter Falk didn’t play Columbo in the play, which feels wild to think of now.

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16. “Identity Crisis”

“Identity Crisis”

Patrick McGoohan is a true “Columbo” all-star. He appeared in four episodes, including this one, as the murderer. McGoohan also directed “Identity Crisis,” one of five episodes he directed. In fact, the star of “The Prisoner” also co-wrote two episodes. Of course, he never got one over on Columbo, even when he directed.

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15. “Short Fuse”

“Short Fuse”

Roddy McDowall is a lot of fun as the puckish murderer in “Short Fuse.” He uses an explosion in his murder, which is different than the variety of gunshots and poisonings the show generally delivered us. Columbo’s ruse to get McDowall to confess at the end of the episode is also one of the best ploys he ever used.

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14. “A Friend in Deed”

“A Friend in Deed”

Columbo is not afraid to go against authority in order to get to the bottom of a crime. In this episode, the LAPD’s Deputy Commissioner helps his neighbor cover up the accidental killing of his wife, and then gets his neighbor’s help “Strangers on a Train” style to murder his wife for the inheritance. Columbo is left to take down his own boss basically, but he does it, naturally. “Columbo” isn’t really a cop show. It’s a Columbo show.

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13. “Try and Catch Me”

“Try and Catch Me”

“Try and Catch Me” is almost like if Columbo had to catch Jessica Fletcher. The delightful Ruth Gordon plays a mystery author who kills her nephew-in-law out of her conviction that he murdered her niece. So many Columbo murderers are smarmy and often looking for money or to cover up their own misdeeds. Gordon definitely stands out as a different type of culprit.

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12. “Double Exposure”

“Double Exposure”

OK, so subliminal advertising plays a big role in “Double Exposure,” which is silly. On the other hand, Robert Culp plays such a smarmy murderer that it’s particularly fun to watch Columbo take him down. Plus, Columbo gets to mess around with technology, which is fun. This episode won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series, by the way.

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11. “Any Old Port in a Storm”

“Any Old Port in a Storm”

A lot of people consider Donald Pleasance’s murderer in “Any Old Port in a Storm” to be one of the more likable murderers, or maybe that’s just osmosis. After all, Columbo seems to genuinely like Pleasance’s wine connoisseur. Then again, Columbo often finds himself to like the person he is investigating. That’s just his way. He’ll take you down, but he’ll do it with a sheepish grin.

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10. “Fade in to Murder”

“Fade in to Murder”

This episode features William Shatner at his most William Shatner-ish, and that’s just fine in this role. Shatner plays a smarmy actor who plays a smart detective on a TV show, which makes him believe that he two is a brilliant detective. Columbo is a fan of the show, of course, but he takes Shatner down anyway. If you like Shatner’s whole shtick, this is about the best it gets.

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9. “Blueprint for Murder”

“Blueprint for Murder”

The first season ends with the only episode Falk himself ever directed. This shows just how far Columbo will go for his conviction. He literally gets a building site excavated to look for a corpse at great cost. Of course, this is exactly what the murderer wanted. Ah, but Columbo knew that. Columbo is always a step ahead.

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8. “Candidate for Crime”

“Candidate for Crime”

Politicians don’t come up as often in “Columbo” as you might think. A senate candidate kills his campaign manager, a campaign manager who had previously helped him fake death threats. They are both odious people, so you don’t mind seeing them both go down in their own way.

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7. “Dead Weight”

“Dead Weight”

Once again, Columbo is taking a figure of stature down. In this early episode, it’s a retired Marine war hero played by Eddie Albert. The interesting hook here is that Suzanne Pleshette plays a woman who partially sees the murder, but is being gaslit left and right until she begins to doubt herself. Of course, Columbo is willing to believe her.

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6. “A Stitch in Crime”

“A Stitch in Crime”

Spock may have been second-in-command to Kirk, but Leonard Nimoy gets one over on Shatner because his episode appears higher on this list. A lot of people consider “A Stitch in Crime” a personal favorite and while he like it, it doesn’t quite make our top five. Nimoy is good at an arrogant surgeon, but Columbo and he don’t have as good of a dynamic as you might hope.

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5. “Playback”


Oskar Werner is not one of the more famous guest stars on “Columbo,” but his performance as Harold Van Wick is one of our favorite. He plays the president of an electronics company that is obsessed with gadgets and fills his house with them. He tries to use those gadgets to his advantage, but even the newest technology can’t outdo Columbo’s nose for detail.

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4. “Murder by the Book”

“Murder by the Book”

This is technically the first episode of “Columbo” as a show, the premiere of the first season. They really had quite the crew working on “Murder by the Book” as well. Steven Bochco wrote the episode and it was directed by a promising young twentysomething by the name of Steven Spielberg. No wonder the episode turned out so good.

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3. “Double Shock”

“Double Shock”

Yeah sure, Martin Landau plays twins. That’s a bit of a gimmick. On the other hand, Landau rules and so does this episode. He’s so good in both roles, one a flashy TV host and the other a straight-laced banker. One of the all-time quintessential scenes in “Columbo” history takes place in “Double Shock” when Columbo is pulled onto the one brother’s TV show for a cooking demonstration.

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2. “Troubled Waters”

“Troubled Waters”

We mentioned that sometimes Columbo found himself working cases away from LA. In one of the very best episodes, he does just that. Columbo and his wife are on a cruise when a lounge singer is murdered. They just want to relax and have a good time, but duty calls. Though we never see his wife, as always, Columbo is able to solve the crime away from not just home, but land.

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1. “Etude in Black”

“Etude in Black”

Falk and John Cassavetes were great friends who loved to work together. Oftentimes that was in Cassavetes’ movies, but in the second-season premiere, Cassavetes stopped by his good friends’ new hit show. Playing a conductor, Cassavetes gives the best performance of any murderer in a “Columbo” episode. He’s fantastic, and he has a great rapport with Falk, of course. Throw in a clever plot, and you end up with the best episode the show ever did.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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