Few shows have been more beloved than Columbo, which originally began as a short story and later a play from the ace writing team of William Link and Richard Levinson. A brilliant sleuth whose behavior and appearance disguised his formidable intellect, Columbo got murderers to underestimate him, then caught them while solving seemingly "perfect" crimes.
The initial Columbo television presentation Prescription: Murder, with Gene Barry as a celebrity doctor who murdered his wife, was a 1968 NBC Movie of the Week. It proved such a hit that there was a sequel, Ransom for a Dead Man, in 1971, with Lee Grant portraying a cagey attorney who tried to make her husband's murder look like a kidnapping gone bad.
Eventually Columbo became a huge hit, partly because Falk insisted it never become a weekly series and air only as periodic films. Columbo episodes were always an event. The show's writing, acting and directing attracted not only top actors, but future directing/producing stars such as Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg.
Columbo eventually aired on NBC and ABC in two incarnations from 1971 to 2003, winning 13 Emmy awards among its numerous other honors. Sadly, Falk's request for one final Columbo before his death was denied by every network, including NBC, where it had been one of the '70s' major successes.
The networks aren't resurrecting Columbo (at least not yet), but on May 23 they're doing something very close with the American debut of the Canadian series Motive. The show (WKRN-Channel 2, 8 p.m.) stars Kristin Lehman from AMC's The Killing as Vancouver detective Angela Flynn. Flynn's specialty is determining why a crime was killed, then using that information to catch the perpetrator.
As with Columbo, viewers will see the crime committed at the start of the show, along with the killer's identity. Then they'll watch Lehman and other members of her team — including detectives Oscar Vega (Louis Ferreira) and Brian Lucas (Brendan Penny) and medical examiner Dr. Betty Rogers (Lauren Holly) — decipher both the "motive" and the criminals.
What made Columbo special, however, went far beyond its premise. It became clear early in that show's history that the character's flaws and foibles (among them the famous "One more thing ..." line) were by design. It was the manner in which they were incorporated into the story, as well as the scripts' expert twists and surprises, that distinguished Columbo from its competition. Whether Motive can or will approach that level of excellence remains to be seen. Frankly, I have my doubts.
Heaven can wait, NBC can't
Things have gone so bad for NBC this season it might as well seek divine intervention. The new show Save Me, which also debuts May 23 (WSMV-Channel 4, 7 p.m.), runs in the vein of past programs like Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven from the standpoint of featuring a main character whose religious beliefs are central to the plots.
But a key difference is Beth Harper (Anne Heche) wasn't sent to Earth from Heaven. She's an Ohio housewife whose life is going bad until she gets a second chance through a miracle. Choking to death, Harper somehow gets revived. As part of her new life, she's now able to communicate directly with God.
"God gives Beth a second chance," the show's executive producer Darlene Hunt told TV Guide. "She becomes a vibrant new person who's going to work hard to fix her marriage and really show up for her daughter and be a mom."
The program's a half hour, but NBC is opening with back-to-back episodes. Skeptics and cynics are advised to give this one a wide berth, even though the program won't have the lead character openly speaking to God on air. Instead, only Harper will hear the conversation inside her head.
Given the lack of audience for almost all its traditional scripted programs, who can blame NBC for seeking new viewers via other types of shows? It will be interesting to see how they balance the thematic scales between outright proselytizing and integrating religious themes into secular settings.
Grand finale of finales
With the 2012-13 season mercifully coming to a close, several network standbys are having their finales in the next few days:
• The members of Hawaii Five-O try to help both the CIA and one of their own in the climatic episode of the third season tonight (WTVF-Channel 5, 9 p.m.)
• Grimm wraps what's been a splendid season Tuesday (WSMV-Channel 4, 9 p.m.) with Nick (David Giuntoli) and Hank (Russell Hornsby) facing yet another crisis with the return of Renard's brother.
• Mark Hamill makes a guest appearance Wednesday on the season's last episode of Criminal Minds (WTVF-5, 8 p.m.) Those who've followed the Replicator saga may (operative word there is "may") discover his identity as well.
• Having gotten the go-ahead for season two, Nashville's first year concludes Wednesday (WKRN-Channel 2, 9 p.m.) with some major fireworks as the tour co-starring Rayna (Connie Britton) and Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) concludes, and they return home to some difficult domestic situations.
• On the comedy front, ABC's fine duo of The Middle and Modern Family (both WKRN-2, 7 and 8 p.m. respectively) wrap their season Wednesday with pivotal events.
• CBS's not-so-great pair 2 Broke Girls and Rules of Engagement (WTVF-5, 7 and 7:30 p.m. respectively) also finish their year tonight. Rules of Engagement is ending its run on CBS after seven seasons, but those who enjoy it can view reruns on both local and independent stations around the country. Yet another CBS comedy, Mike & Molly, (WTVF-5, 8:30) also calls it quits tonight for another year.
• As a longtime Hitchcock and Psycho fan, I've paid little attention to the prequel Bates Motel. But reaction to the premiere episode alone was enough to convince the A&E executives it merited a renewal. The first season ends 9 p.m. tonight with answers to many of the questions its faithful want to know.