Category: Golden Age Article

A Look at Elementary, Season One

The first season of Elementary finds a tattooed Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) living in modern day New York as part of his rehab from heroin addiction. Ex-Surgeon Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) has changed careers and is now a sober companion for recovering addicts and lands Holmes as a client. Holmes is called in frequently as a consultant for the NYPD in solving strange and unusual cases.

Probably the first thing to get out of the way is that this is Sherlock Holmes in name only. Unlike Sherlock, which seeks to bring Holmes into the twenty-first century and updates the character accordingly, Elementary changes almost every detail about Holmes other than his name and general methods, and a few personality quirks. You can’t change not only the period, but also the setting, the background of the character, but also the gender of Holmes’ assistant, and that character’s nature, personality, and potential and have something that can really be compared to Doyle’s originals. The series is least convincing when it tries to re-use names, concepts, quotes, and characters but in ways that have little relation to the original story.

The best way to enjoy Elementary is to enter it with no expectation that it will be anything like Sherlock Holmes and to enjoy it on its own merits.If it helps, take my wife’s joking suggestion and mentally rename him Bob.

The mysteries are well-crafted and engaging. The plots are clever, usually with Holmes reaching several mistaken solutions on the way. Sometimes, the actual solutions are quite shocking such as, “Child Predator,” but all really have a great deal of inventiveness, although it does seem that Holmes accuses way too many innocent people of murder in some of these episodes.

Elementary’s Holmes and Joan Watson both have histories that are slowly unraveled, with Holmes’ drug addiction and the events that surrounded it. While Elementary’s Holmes ends up on the side of the angels, he can go into some gray areas particularly as a matter of revenge.  Holmes tends towards arrogance, whicht makes him uncomfortable and awkward as he faces the world of drug rehab, which keeps forcing him into moments which cut against his pride.

Joan Watson is a bit of an enigma. Her career change from surgeon to sober companion was a come down in the world. She finds herself drawn into the world of criminal investigation. At the start of the season, she’s following him as part of the obligation to be in contact with him, but she becomes increasingly involved and engaged in the world of criminal investigations. She finds a new path through the course of the season and it’s very fun to watch.

The characters do work well together, and we learn quite a bit about them throughout the season. However, it’s very well balanced developed so that by the end of the season,  you have a sense that there are greater depths to explore. The supporting cast is understandably less explored. Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) has a few moments that reveal his differences with Holmes as well as his appreciation for him. Despite having an episode, in which he was accused of murder, Lieutenant Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) is mostly a functional role in this first season.

The series does have a bit of story arc in the second half of the season involving its Moriarty. It’s certainly not a bad arc, but I found myself unexcited by the ending which seemed to drag and not really end strongly.

Overall, this series is more like a non-humorous version of Monk than it is a proper Sherlock Holmes. It’s enjoyable for what it is,when it doesn’t halfheartedly try to be something it’s not.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Trent’s Last Case

Trent’s Last Case (1913) features amateur detective Philip Trent being called in to solve the murder of a business tycoon with many enemies and a complicated relationship in the tycoon’s own house.

Trent is  a departure from the thinking machines that dominated detective fiction of the time. He was an eccentric, a romantic, and a painter with a light touch and a good deal of humor. Still, he also has a sharp mind.

The case itself is a solid puzzle. Trent uses his deduction and wit to come up with a clever solution which proves to be wrong. We don’t learn who the murderer is until the very end, and the person who did it was someone you never would have guessed.

The story had a great impact on the future detective novels. There is a little bit of over-indulgent social commentary to wade through, particularly after the start. However, even after over a hundred years, the novel holds up well as a light and engaging read.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Trent’s Last Case is in the public domain and is available for a free Download through

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A Look at the Revived Columbo: The Best of the Revived Movies, Part Two

See Part One and the Worst of the Revived Movies.

5) Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star (1991)

The plot of this one involves a famous defense attorney murdering his girlfriend. It is well-written and a solid story, but Dabney’s Coleman Emmy-nominated performance makes this a standout. He manages to capture that classic Columbo villain arrogance. The final reveal is a stroke of genius as well.

4) Agenda for Murder (1990)

Patrick McGoohan’s third appearance as a Columbo villain is his best. He plays a high-powered lawyer with big-time political ties and kills off a man who threatens to reveal a scandal that could derail his ambitions. The murder is cleverly executed and the chemistry between Falk and McGoohan is superb.

3) Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health (1991)

Another 1970s Columbo Guest Star returns with George Hamilton playing the host of a program in the style of America’s Most Wanted. The murder method involves poisoned cigarettes and is ingenuous and there are good comic moments between Falk and Hamilton. I prefer this over Hamilton’s 1975 appearance in, “A Deadly State of Mind.”

2) Columbo Goes to the Guillotine (1989)

It had been nearly eleven years since the last Columbo movie. So the return film had to be good.  It was superb. A mentalist murders an old friend as an act of revenge for having been abandoned in a foreign prison so many years ago and uses a magic guillotine to do it. It’s a baffling crime for Columbo to unravel and part of that involves Columbo exposing the mentalist as a fraud in a very clever scene. The story also has a dramatic ending that features an attempt by the killer to get rid of Columbo. It’s a great return for Columbo.

1) Death Hits the Jackpot (1991)

An almost-divorced photographer buys a winning lottery ticket but wants to avoid splitting the winnings with his soon-to-be ex-wife. So his Uncle Leon (played by Rip Torn) comes up with a plan. Leon will cash in the ticket and give his beloved nephew the lion’s share of the winnings once the divorce is final, but Leon kills his nephew instead. Torn is superb in this one. He’s probably the most menacing Columbo murderer ever. He’s excellent as the calculating and insincere sociopath, making for a solid and underrated performance.

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A Look at the Revived Columbo: The Best of the Revived Movies, Part One

Having examined the five worst Columbo movies, in the next two articles, we’ll examine the ten best.

10) A Trace of Murder (1997):

A  woman teams up with her boyfriend to frame her tycoon husband for the murder of one of his enemies. The script is very clever and the resolution is classic Columbo if a bit over-emphasized.

9) Undercover (1994)

Another Ed McBain adaptation, but unlike No Time to Die, this one is good. It’s hard to view this as Columbo as it’s not an inverted mystery and Columbo has a partner, but despite violating typical formulas, this is a superb thriller.

8) Columbo Loves the Night Life (2003):

The last Columbo movie and a very interesting one that has Columbo entering a new century. Both the character and the formula show a great deal of flexibility as he faces very modern characters and has to adapt to modern crime-solving technology. Columbo enters the case as usual with little knowledge, but with plenty of instincts and a desire to learn. Whether it’s an electric typewriter ribbon in the 1970s or cell phones in the 1990s, Columbo has always mastered new technology in a way his opponent couldn’t predict, and it’s certainly the case here. It’s a pity Peter Falk didn’t get to do more because this movie shows how the character really stood the test of time.

7) Ashes to Ashes (1998)

Patrick McGoohan makes his fourth appearance as a Columbo murderer and the second in the revived series, playing an undertaker to the stars. The murder itself is far from the cleverest plot conceived as it was concocted on the fly. However, the solution is clever, and the chemistry between McGoohan and Falk is perfect as always.

6) It’s All in the Game (1993):

The production was nominated for a Golden Globe and Faye Dunaway took home an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress. The script was  written by Peter Falk. The plot was about two women conspiring to murder one woman’s no-good lover. One of them, Lauren, begins to flirt with Columbo. The movie works for several reasons. Dunaway is one of the few guest stars who rise to the same caliber of talent as the 1970s murderers. In addition, the script is clever. On the surface, Lauren is trying to seduce Columbo so  he won’t notice clues she’s the murderer. Columbo is acting smitten in hopes of luring her into a false sense of security, but it feels like there’s more going on. At the same time, while we see the murder occur, there’s so many questions about it particularly in regards to motive and what the relationship between these two women is. There’s far more mystery in this than your typical Columbo. On the negative, this is probably the most cynical interpretation of him. Plus a few of the scenes where they’re trying to act romantic don’t quite work, such as when Columbo brings her a big collection of roses. Still, despite these negatives, this is one of the best of the new Columbo movies.

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A Look at the Revived Columbo Episodes: The Worst of the Revived Movies

The original 1970s Columbo was pure entertainment gold: one of the best mystery series of all time, with Peter Falk playing the great detective as he matched wits with powerful and rich murderers played by some of Hollywood’s finest actors.

However, the Revived Columbo that returned in 1988 was a bit more like Silver laced with Bronze. Falk was still great, but the writing was problematic at times. It could be soap operatic or lame. They tinkered with the formulas and often not successfully. And plus, while the original Columbos were family programs, there were numerous attempts to sex-up Columbo scripts and make it more edgy, resulting in stories that felt out of place or even creepy.

But there were still more good movies than bad, more that recaptured the old magic rather that messing it up and still more that were tolerable thanks to Peter Falk’s presence. Over the next three weeks we’ll take a look at the worst and the best of the Revived Columbo series, starting with the five worst episodes and then celebrating the best from that era the next two weeks. So we begin with the top 5 worst Columbos of the revived series:

5) Murder with Too Many Notes (2000)

This was a story where the basic lack of a sensible motive really hurt. The Murderer Findlay Crawford reached an amicable agreement with Gabriel McEnery that would have allowed McEnery to begin a new career on his own without damaging Crawford’s reputation. And Crawford killed him because-—I don’t know. Beyond that, the pacing is slow and boring. The most interesting thing is the discussion of how music and films work. When your plot digressions are more interesting than your plot, that’s a problem. The movie does have an amusing bit between Columbo and Crawford that did go on a little too long. It also should be noted that the film begins with an intensely violent murder scene that actually does turn out just to be the film that Crawford but is kind of jarring and unpleasant.

4) Murder: A Self Portrait (1990)

The villain is a French painter who lives with his wife, his ex-wife, and his mistress. He kills his ex-wife and finds himself locked into a battle of wits with Columbo. The villain is such a stereotype, the only thing the plot forgot was to give him a mustache and a beret. The story itself had potential, and there are some fairly decent moments with Peter Falk, but it felt like the story was trying too hard both to be edgy and to tell a non-conventional story, and the painter’s rather dull collapse makes this one a disappointing conclusion and a bit of a mess..

3) No Time to Die (1992)

The first of two Columbo films that were adapted from Ed McBain books and abandoned typical Columbo formula. There is no major guest villain. Just Columbo and a team of dull cops chasing down clues to find the kidnapper of Columbo’s nephew’s bride. The story isn’t just below the standard of Columbo, the plot is below the standards of a decent made for TV mystery.

2) Uneasy Lies the Crown (1990):

A very clever title as it’s about a dentist who murders a patient through applying a temporary crown and the idea for the murder is actually  well thought out. However, what overwhelms the best elements of the story is a poor performance from James Read as the villain and the way the story peters out towards the end as he folds like one of Columbo’s suits.

1) Strange Bedfellows (1995)

After TV show Cheers ended, George Wendt (who played Norm) had an opportunity to move beyond being Norm from Cheers and perhaps move to being a bigger star. He had a short-lived Sitcom and then there was this episode of Columbo. Sadly, it was not to be, and this film didn’t help. Wendt wasn’t bad in this, he even delivered the response to Columbo saying, “Just One More Thing,” that dozens of murderers only dreamed of. But this was a failure of concept and script, with probably the stupidest idea for a murderer to come up with the entire series.. Wendt plays stable owner Graham McVeigh, who kills his brother and decides to frame a mafia figure for it. Guess what? The Mafia didn’t like that. The film gets into a sort of alliance between Columbo and the mafia to squeeze McVeigh. This ends in an over the top and painfully bad scene that’s worst than the conclusion of, “Dagger of the Mind,” from the 1970s run. In many ways, this sort of squeeze play to force the villain to turn himself over to Columbo is reminiscent of the 1970s story, “A Case of Immunity,” which was far better than this film.

Despite the flaws and the many weaker installments, the series still starred Peter Falk who made many episodes watchable and even delightful particularly when matched with the right co-star.. And while I wouldn’t want put any of these episode in the same class as the best installments of the original series, there were plenty of fine episodes and we’ll turn to take a look at them next week.

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