Columbo: Recycling “Columbo Goes to College” pt 1

It was the year 1990,
when “Columbo Goes to College” made its debut.  Our favorite sleuth tracks down two college flunkies who murdered their professor who lost his own first and middle name.  It was an era of hand-held surveillance cameras, CCTV technology, and wireless communications.  Has this episode stood well against the test of time?

I remembered,
remembered exactly what I thought of “Columbo Goes to College” after I first watched on prime time ABC.  I didn’t like it.  Who can blame me?  The episode is about two snotty nobodies and worthless punks with their stupid plan to steal the test.  When that backfires, they try to make up one stupid plan with another and murder their professor.  Their execution (unintended pun there), was a clever one.  They established an alibis by being in one place while committing murder remotely using wireless airwaves.  Today, it would have been named the Internet.

But these two low-lifes are no one important.  They’re not famous nor successful.  They’re oversized children who deserved punishment before the episode started.  Even the victim is flawed.  Professor Rusk doesn’t trust himself and neither does his wife.  There’s a security guard who is trading favors for basketball tickets and his brother, the released felon who’s favorite weapon is dynamite.  But there is the return of Robert Culp!  Oh wait a minute.  He’s not the villain.  Just pompous.  Guess you can’t have everything.

The episode kicks off with an electronic riff that’s ten years too late.   Here comes an oversized pickup truck, a frat boy in tennis clothes, and his friend, a young Robert Downey Jr. look alike still playing with remote control toys.  Like most all ABC-era Columbo episodes, it takes its time developing characters.  We see, scene after scene, how sorry and pathetic Justin Rowe and Cooper Redman are.  But they pull off the murder during the early, under-developed years of wireless video.  While I give kudos setting these two punks to fall, Columbo’s investigation rambles between rumors of infidelity, book reading, and crashing parties where the men are in black ties and boxers.  The investigation leads nowhere with false rumors, planted stories, and an unhelpful CCTV video.  But low and behold comes the cherished plot point of coincidence!  A satellite pirate manages to record Justin’s video broadcast, sells it to the local television station, and Columbo has nearly all he needs to put this case away.

Let’s jump to the audacious ending with Columbo’s lecture.  He literally puts all the pieces together in class.  The remote, the trigger, a video camera, and a firearm.  The look on Justin and Cooper are priceless.  They’re practically shrinking in their seats.  But its the return to the scene of the crime, in the garage, that has everyone’s eyes rolling.  Lt. Columbo recreates the murderer’s contraption a second time.  He props up a mannequin close to the professor’s car and, without warning, fires a gun by remote control using Cooper’s key fob.  The mannequin’s head explodes and everyone is stunned wondering where the shot had come from.  The crowd of students should have been more shocked if they realized they were two steps from being in front of Cooper’s truck where the gun were fired from.  Watching the episode the first time, I wondered, “Why would Justin and Cooper leave the camera and gun in their truck!”.  (Answer, they didn’t.  The evidence was planted.)

I would have ranked this as one of the weakest Columbo episodes in the later years.  The history, the mood, the universe of Columbo works best with a more mature cast who have finished with their life lessons.  Better than ones who can’t remember their pants.  If I had a favorite at the time, it would be “Columbo Cries Wolf”.  An episode that screamed late 1980’s, it challenged not just Columbo but his mythos.  Conversely, I found the “College” episode almost insulting in comparison.

As the decades passed,
I’ve discovered new and growing appreciation of “Columbo Goes to College”.  What I had thought as a farcical episode, is now a brilliant a gem.   I’ll explain why, in part two.



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