The first draft for a thing for Time that ended up being rewritten from scratch and, bizarrely, about an entirely different television show altogether (although, if/when it goes live, you will see mention of Columbo in there).
Somehow, more than four decades after the fact, I have become entirely addicted to Columbo.
It’s tempting to point to Netflix as being at least one of the causes for my current quasi-need to watch old, more-than-a-little hokey television crime shows made even before I was born. After all, if it wasn’t for their ease of availability — The first seven seasons of the show are right there for the streaming right now, each episode featuring at least one familiar face wildly protesting their innocence despite their being the guilty party — I doubt that I’d currently be in the predicament I’m in, spending at least a couple of evenings a week watching Peter Falk bumble his way through investigations.
Of course, Netflix has all manner of material on offer that I’ve yet to end up hopelessly hooked on, so I can’t throw all of the blame in that direction. I should also blame the Nerdist Writers Panel and whichever guest talked about the series in hushed, reverential tones (I’ve long forgotten, sadly). It was, she said, a great example of American Class War fiction, with the working man constantly unraveling schemes of those who consider themselves above not only the laws of the land, but morality itself. Hearing that description, how could I do anything but watch the pilot episode?
What I found when doing so was something that seemed so unusual and curious that I went into the second episode almost immediately after, thinking Well, they can’t keep this up all the time, only to find out that, not only can they, they do. The more episodes I watch — I’m midway through the third season already, appallingly — the more I marvel at the way in which Columbo is, in many ways, the murder mystery show that can’t quite help but contradict the genre over and over again.
Let’s start with the most obvious break from the norm: There is no mystery in this murder mystery, with each episode showing the murder in its opening act. That changes the shape of everything that follows in ways that aren’t even immediately apparent; not only is there no need for the viewer to try and guess the murderer’s identity, but showing the murderer and murderee interact straight away removes any need to waste any more time later on with exposition regarding motive. Furthermore, Columbo also does away with the traditional red herrings as the cops track down dead lead after dead lead, because again: We already know who did it, so why bother?
It’s also a show that happily ditches another important detective story tradition, by removing the cult of personality surrounding the detective. As viewers, we have no idea who Columbo is, any more than the murderers do. Sure, he talks about his home life a lot, but the one thing that the show makes clear over and over again is that Columbo will do or say anything to get people to lower their guard. For all we know, his wife is as fictitious as his bumbling persona and scatterbrained forgetfulness. We never go home with him after the case is over, so we have no proof about anything that he’s saying.
But how could we follow him home after the case is over when every episode ends with the arrest of the murderer? It’s a weird storytelling choice, and one that I keep coming back to again and again. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense — Each episode opens with the murder and closes with the murderer being discovered; there’s some sense of symmetry there– but, at the same time, the viewer is robbed a particular sense of closure as a result. No scenes of everyone else laughing and reassuring us that they’re going to be okay in this show; the bad guy gets caught, but everything else is left unknown and up to the viewers’ imaginations.
It all adds up to a show that should be cold and far less likable than it actually is. I find myself wondering, with increasing frequency, what Columbo would be like without Peter Falk in the title role, and suspect that the answer is “a show that would’ve been cancelled in its first season.” There’s so much about Columbo that pushes against everything that has been proven, over and over, to “work,” and yet it works nonetheless. There’s a lesson here that should be remembered by everyone in television: When you have someone so charismatic at the center of your work to win the audience over so effortlessly, it’s a license to play with everything else without anyone even noticing.