It seems like everywhere you look on The Internet these days, social media and "the blogs" are overrun with discussions ranking Gena Rowlands's outfits in the Columbo episode "Playback" (original airdate 3/2/75). Honestly, I spent many a waking (and even occasionally a sleeping) hour wondering if I should add my voice to the din and whether or not the world really needs yet another post about this played-out topic. But then I thought...whomst but I is in a better position to give the definitive ranking of those outfits? I may personally have the fashion sense of a jacket potato, but I know a good look when ah sees it! And Ms Rowlands delivers a never-ending series--nay, a veritable phantasmagoria--of good looks in this Season 4 episode.
Well, truth be told, her outfit parade is not, in fact, "never-ending." As I learned upon rewatching "Playback" for the purposes of this post, she actually only wears five outfits. But in my mind's eye, she is in every moment of the episode, sporting hundreds of looks. I am not a scienceologist so I can't explain it exactly, but I guess this discrepancy is caused by the sheer power of each individual outfit, which equals maybe five outfits or more. It's kind of like dog years, you know? But it's clothes.
Rowlands is the wheelchair-bound wife of Oskar Werner, who has outfitted their fancy mansion with all manner of camera and electronic gewgaw, including clap technology for opening and closing doors. He married into the family business and he's running it...right into the ground. When Rowlands's HBIC mother fires him, he fires back...with a gun. He does some switcheroo with tapes of camera feeds, plugs and unplugs a lot of cables, and more to conceal his crime, but of course nothing escapes the eyeball of Lieutenant Columbo. Along the way to the perp's inevitable arrest, we get the Gena Rowlands fashion show, which is the most important thing. And so, onto the ranking.
- THE NIGHTGOWN WE ONLY SEE A LITTLE
It's an important scene in the episode, but sadly we only get a brief peek at a small portion of this hot nightie. It reminds me of the hot dress Olivia de Havilland wore in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, so I'm bound to like it. As we get but a glimpse of it, though, I sadly can't rank it any higher.
- THE PINK BATHROBE
I'm sorry, are you even a rich person if you don't wear a robe with the feathered-or-furred collar and cuffs? Please note, as expected she was also wearing the requisite matching mules. Whether you are wealthy or a sexy floozy (or both), this outfit says class.
- THE BLUE BATHROBE
Okay, you're not just rich, you're rich rich when you have more than one fancy rich person robe, right? I don't even have more than one pair of underwear, never mind having multiple robes!!!
Side note, has anyone ever used screencaps of Gena Rowlands in pink and blue robes for gender reveals? Something to think about.
- THIS GREEN LOOK
When you are Gena Rowlands in the 1975 Columbo episode "Playback," this is what you wear while you are multitasking between mourning the murder of your mother and doing some light gardening. If you think the front is it, wait til you get a load of the back.
Ha ha psych, it's backLESS! Which is even better than what you were expecting, probably. Even if she wore only this one thing throughout the entirety of the episode, it would deserve a blog post, no? So maybe you're wondering why I've ranked it at number two. Well, that's because I love it, but at the same time that middle section reminds me of something you might see on a sign at a Pennsylvania Dutch family restaurant. No offense to any Pennsylvania Dutch family restaurants who may be reading this, or to any Pennsylvania Dutch people. Or regular Dutch people. It's just not an aesthetic for me.
- SCALLOPED YELLOW HEAVEN
This is the first outfit we see her in, and it's my number one. She loves a sheer fabric! And here she is a sheer vision in yellow rayon. Simple, elegant, scalloped. It's like she is both Botticelli's Venus and the shell she rode in on. Sublime.
While she is the foremost fashion queen in "Playback," I would be remiss if I did not mention two other outfits. First, Martha Scott in this baller look.
It's actually a long sweater over a black dress; while it'd be better if it involved pants, I love it– and I'm not just saying that because Martha Scott played Sue Ellen's mother on Dallas. Mother to Linda Gray on Dallas and to Gena Rowlands on Columbo? Has an actress ever reached greater heights?
Also this number on Marcy, receptionist at an art gallery.
Marcy, please, you're competing with the art on the walls with this! I am forever a total sucker for a 70s collar, even though I never wear them myself.
By the way, the art gallery plays into the villain's alibi, but mostly it's there for one of those classic Columbo scenes that serves nothing except providing a good ten minutes at getting to see Columbo interact with places, things, and/or people he just doesn't understand. It's great!
Well, there you have it. Honestly, despite all of the incredible fashions throughout, it's not the best episode of Columbo. Oskar Werner isn't the most compelling or charismatic of murderers, and as a foil for the irritating/brilliant Lieutenant he's pretty dull. But really, who cares? While Gena Rowlands isn't in "Playback" nearly enough--I'm sorry, you have Gena fucking Rowlands and she's not the main character? What a waste!--at least we get to see her reunited with her co-star from A Woman Under the Influence, Peter Falk. That's kind of why we're here, really.
It's also interesting to see the ways the episode predicts a lot of crime procedural tropes that are still in use today, from the video feed switcheroos to cries of "ENHANCE!" leading to the eureka moments, not to mention the idea of a smart home.
We get scenes of Columbo befuddled and amazed by technology, we get scenes of his dog, and we get scene after scene after scene of all of those endless (five) Gena Rowlands looks. Not to mention all of the thinkpieces about them! Now that I've published the definitive take, though, the deluge may be over--at least until I post "Gena Rowlands's Outfits in the 1975 Columbo Episode 'Playback' Reconsidered" in 2045. Stay tuned!