My television goals were moderately ambitious these past few months under quarantine: “I’m finally going to finish ‘The Americans’ and start ‘The West Wing,’” I told myself. “And then I’ll investigate Korean dramas.”
Instead, I’ve been watching “Columbo.”
A quick primer for younger readers. “Columbo” is a vintage television franchise that ran on and off between 1968 and 2003, with its Golden Era in 1971-8. Conveniently, those particular seasons stream free on Peacock and Amazon Prime Video’s IMDb TV channel.
The show was a procedural in that the title character — a permanently disheveled, cigar-smoking homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, played by Peter Falk — solved a murder in each episode. But “Columbo” isn’t a whodunit, or even a howdunit or whydunit. First, we watch the culprit execute his or her dirty deed, then we watch Columbo put the pieces of the puzzle together, often while keeping his prey appraised of his progress. It is formulaic in the best possible way.
It also avoids the traps of “copaganda”: Columbo never resorts to force and he does not hunt the downtrodden but white elites who want to preserve or increase their status. The episodes are perfectly self-contained dives into their rarefied, insular worlds — high-level chess, winemaking, Shakespearean theater, fashion, pro football — and so I watch them in no particular order, guided only by the pull of favorite stars in scenery-chewing guest spots: Anne Baxter or Donald Pleasance here, Johnny Cash there.
“Columbo” carries a particular nostalgic weight for me because I used to watch it with my father when I was in my early teens — and because we were in France, we had a dubbed version. (Amusingly, both Falk and Burt Reynolds at his studly peak shared a French voice, provided by Serge Sauvion). I wasn’t sure whether the show would hold its appeal decades later, but happily, it does. Here are just three reasons.
The logic and mind games
The Black Lives Matter movement has rightfully initiated a re-evaluation of crime shows and the harmful role they have played in making (anti) heroes out of violent, regulations-dodging cops. But “Columbo” eschews both the genre’s traditional clichés and the subversions of those clichés — which are themselves, by now, conventional.
Columbo relies exclusively on observation, deduction and psychology, which gives his police work an abstract quality: Visual signifiers of law enforcement are largely invisible, whether they are uniforms, patrol cars, police stations and jails or, most important, guns. Technology-based investigative tools are absent, aside from the occasional fingerprint.
Partly this is because we’re in the early 1970s, before DNA analysis, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, online databases and cellphones. But mostly it’s because the only tool Columbo needs is his brain.
Sherlock Holmes, say, used the same approach, but Columbo stands out because of the pleasure he derives — not that he would admit to that — from taunting suspects in manipulative mind games. The exchanges rely always on the tension between two opposite life philosophies: A self-effacing (possibly calculatingly so) working stiff confronts people blinded by hubris. It’s a neat way to undermine power, or the projection of it.
It is also an entertainingly mischievous strategy that is part of a long tradition encompassing the fools of classical theater and the quirky lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni, portrayed by Carrie Preston in “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.”
Which brings us to …
The class warfare
Columbo always punches up because he takes down members of the elite. The social ills he uncovers are not caused by, say, drug use or poverty, but by an amoral sense of immunity fostered by affluence and status. Columbo is solidly middle class — the 1972 episode “Étude in Black” reveals that he makes $11,000 a year (about $69,000 today), which is respectable. But the same episode’s killer, a classical conductor played by the director-actor John Cassavetes, pointedly lives in a mansion that at the time cost $750,000. The discrepancy is made even more acute by the fact that our lieutenant always dresses just short of shabbily, slouches about and drives a junker.
“Columbo” is one of the very few American series fueled by class warfare. Whether they are driven by coldblooded entitlement, delusions of grandeur or simple greed, the murderers treat the self-deprecating, ostentatiously low-grade cop with seething annoyance, willful condescension or hypocritical benevolence.
It is hard to overstate how satisfying it is to see smug criminals get caught right now. Imagine the joy of seeing a rebooted Columbo go after hedge-fund managers, big-game hunters, studio chiefs, YouTube influencers, real-estate magnates or celebrity chefs who picked killing as an acceptable problem-solving method.
The best rogue’s gallery ever
In the end, “Columbo,” which relies on the art of conversation as much as a well-made play does, is a great source of delight for fans of a certain style of non-naturalistic acting. You say hammy, I say stylized.
It can’t be a coincidence that the show started shortly after New Hollywood took flight in the 1960s. Falk himself was a full-fledged member of his buddy Cassavetes’s indie gang — whose raw, idiosyncratic portrayals of American outsiders blossomed outside the studio system. Falk was in Hollywood but not of it, and his casting subtly underlined Columbo’s perpetual outsider status.
The show often illustrated the friction between the old and new screen generations. In the gloriously campy “Lovely but Lethal,” for example, Vera Miles (playing a cosmetics mogul) kills Martin Sheen (playing the younger chemist who steals a revolutionary skin cream).
Miles was among several guest stars aging out of a Hollywood whose Golden Age was, at that time, still close in the rearview mirror. Another memorable one was her “Psycho” co-star Janet Leigh. In the episode “Forgotten Lady,” Leigh is simultaneously chilling and poignant as a Norma Desmond-like older actress who rewatches her past oeuvre — including the actual Leigh movie “Walking My Baby Back Home — on a loop.
And then there are the performances that don’t need any meta-reading to be magnetic, like Ruth Gordon’s steely crime novelist in “Try and Catch Me” or Lee Grant’s turn as a preternaturally self-possessed lawyer in the visually inspired, psychedelic episode “Ransom for a Dead Man.”
Thinking of all those great actresses, maybe we don’t need a “Columbo” reboot after all: Just give Elsbeth Tascioni her own show.