Monday, August 26, 2013

Netflix Pix: Why "Columbo" is the Quintessential TV Detective

There are any number of sites that review shows available for Netflix streaming, but those mostly focus on newer, contemporary series.  Columbo is a show I've seen before, at least in its later incarnations, but I hadn't watched it in years until I saw it on MeTV while visiting my sister last summer.  More recently my Dad and I started watching on Netflix, and we were hooked.  But this essay won't focus on a particular episode; this will be more of a general overview of the character.  More than likely, this will be the first in a series of similar program overviews.

What is so distinctive, so entrancing, about the character of Columbo?  For one, he has a distinctive appearance.  Peter Falk's glass eye gave the character's face a distinctly asymmetrical look.  But even more distinctive was the withered old raincoat he always wore.  It wouldn't have been unusual except for the fact that the show was set in Los Angeles.  Who wears a full-length trench coat in Los Angeles?  Nobody I'd want to know. 

What separates Columbo from the multitude of cop shows on the air today?  For one thing, we're (generally) spared the litany of pointless subplots that you see on Law and Order and its ilk: we don't see Columbo argue with his wife (she's mentioned but never seen); he never struggles with a drinking problem; he doesn't carry on affairs with his co-workers.  There is relatively little in each show that doesn't pertain to the case at hand, which is surprising because these shows are movie-length.  The show originally aired as part of The NBC Mystery Movie from 1971 to 1978 (the first of two pilots aired in 1968).  It aired about once a month, alternating with shows like McCloud and McMillan and Wife. The show was revived by ABC in 1989 as a series of standalone movies, the last of which aired in 2003(!).  I actually remember watching the final movie when it aired and enjoying it.  Maybe it was the fact he still drove that old Peugeot.


How did I get this far without mentioning the car?  Columbo drove the same 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible throughout the series.  Like the glass eye and the coat, it was one of those little things that wasn't all that important in and of itself, yet became part of the character with time. That's a lesson in TV writing, folks.  The character remains recognizable in large part because he was portrayed consistently.  Across the four decades he was on TV, the producers wisely never attempted to re-invent or "re-imagine" the character for a new generation.  Younger viewers learned to love him for what he was.  And what was he?

Columbo never tried to intimidate suspects.  He didn't go on brutal rampages or beat confessions out of the non-compliant.  He was, above all, a thinking man's detective, in the mold of Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes.  He used his brains, and was possessed of a keen observational skill.  He could be clever, even devious, but he always got his man.  More often than not, he would simply trick the suspect into tipping his hand, revealing information that only the killer could know.

In the episode "The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case," Columbo investigates a murder at a MENSA-like organization for the gifted.  Near the climax of that episode, he gives a speech to a suspect that sums up his entire philosophy.  It also lays out what makes the show is so quintessentially American:

 "You know, sir, it's a funny thing.  All my life I kept running into smart people.  I don't just mean smart like you, or the people in this house.  You know what I mean.  In school, there were lots of smarter kids.  And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there, and I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around.  But I figured ...if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, and kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen.  And I did!  And I really love my work, sir." 

  I don't mean to make this a political piece, but if you were to ask a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian, there's a good chance they'd each say that this speech sums up what they're all about.   Whatever the case, the show's theme was clear: a working-class detective winning a battle of wits against suspects who are rich and famous. 


For those of you who made it to the end, here's some odds and ends pertaining to the show's history and mythology:

 "Columbo" Retrospective (Interview excerpts)

Peter Falk on "Larry King Live" 2005 (with Paul Reiser)

"Just One More Thing" British Radio Documentary (Part 1)

"Just One More Thing" British Radio Documentary (Part 2)

"Just One More Thing" British Radio Documentary (Part 3)

 UK Columbo Fan Site

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