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I started watching Columbo with my dad in the fall of 2016.
I don’t know what exactly gave me the idea that a leisurely paced, 40-year-old detective series starring Peter Falk would be just the thing to distract us from, you know, everything else going on in 2016 (though safe money would be on Toast-era Danny Lavery). But it was on Netflix back then, and my dad and I—having finally made it to the end of our decadently slow binge of Alias (RIP, all those wigs)—were in the market for something new. (A TV fanatic in a family of TV fanatics, I generally have, for bonding reasons, at least one unique series going with each parent at any given time. My mom long ago laid claim to Call the Midwife; we’re working through it so slowly we may never finish.) A 70s-era detective series would be a real change of pace from the world of Sydney Bristow, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In any case, I had never watched it and my dad was charmed by the prospect of going back to a series he hadn’t seen since it originally aired: Columbo it was.
A 21st-century heathen whose formative TV-watching years came before the advent of streaming, I had very little practical understanding, before turning that first episode on, of what most pre-90s, non-sitcom television looked like; if it never made it to either syndication on Nick at Nite, or DVD box set at my local indie video store, I never saw it. I had enough pop cultural literacy to have developed a basic sense of the more foundational series, sure—Gunsmoke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Rockford Files, Miami Vice—but when I say basic, I mean basic. As in, aside from whatever small understanding of the series’ raison d’être I’d gleaned from Lavery’s Toast columns, the only real distinction Columbo held in my imagination was as “the one with Fred Savage’s cute grandpa.”
Which is all to say, everything about “Murder by the Book,” Columbo’s first official episode, came as a refreshing surprise. The format. The pacing. The 76-minute runtime. The fact that the combination of the format and the pacing made the 76-minute runtime—in embarrassing contrast to today’s perennially tedious prestige dramas—feel absolutely natural. That the episode’s director turned out to be Steven Spielberg, four years before Jaws turned him into the Steven Spielberg, ultimately felt like icing on the cake. (One of the gimmicks of Columbo, of course, is that each episode features a famous-for-the-era guest star as the murderer trying to get one over on Falk’s shabby little lieutenant, but this kind of smaller pre-frame cameo would end up becoming a series staple, too—see, among others, Jamie Lee Curtis in “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case,” Katey Sagal in “Candidate for Crime,” and Pat Morita in “Etude in Black.”)
What I loved most of all, though, was the series’ inside-out premise, which inverts the entire concept of what a detective procedural ought to be by letting the audience start each episode inside the life of that week’s murderer, their personal trials and tribulations playing out like a mini-movie before they eventually, whether calculatedly or in the throes of passion, commit the crime that will bring Columbo to their door. With most episodes, it isn’t until maybe 15 or 20 minutes in that Columbo even shows up on screen, and even then, he’s as likely to slip in behind his first responder colleagues as he is to show up on the murderer’s front step, detective credentials in hand. The show may be called Columbo, but in practice, it’s presented as though that week’s murderer is the protagonist, and Falk’s Lt. Columbo just a guest star. Sure, as the audience we know that Columbo’s the real hero, and that he’ll always get his guy in the end, but in inverting the frame of its story, the show lets us see each crime through the eyes of some unlucky, murderous sod who truly believes that they’re the smartest one in the room. The joy of Columbo is in seeing how the superficially bumbling, absent-minded lieutenant both teases out the clues we already know, then uses those clues (along with a keen understanding of the human psyche) to thoroughly smoke out every successive murderer.
As the person notorious in my friend group for always flipping to the end of a book before reading the middle, and spoiling myself on every movie/TV show I can, the fact that an entire (critically acclaimed! beloved!) series exists in which spoilers are praxis just floored me. Process is SO much more interesting than manipulative tension, as far as I am concerned; Columbo is an object lesson in exactly why. Like, of course Columbo is going to catch the bad guy by the end of the episode—that’s how procedurals work. But watching him find the clues we already saw the murderer leave behind, and getting to know him and his process a bit better each episode? I find that so much more compelling than watching literally any detective solve a normal mystery by finding clues I have no context for. I mean, the people we care about in a procedural are the investigators putting in the work, week in and week out. The crimes that work solves? An ultimately forgettable means to an end, which makes it all the more frustrating that the average procedural so often milks them for way more manufactured manipulation than they’re worth. Way better to just get all the “answers” at the start, and save my mental energy for the sweet, sweet schadenfreude of watching Columbo find “just one more thing…” to put killer after killer in their rightful place. (Not incidentally, this is probably why I love designing puzzles and scavenger hunts for other people to enjoy, but truly detest being asked to solve riddles myself.)
On that note (schadenfreude), goddamn was it satisfying, that first time I sat down in front of Columbo, to watch the scruffy little lieutenant’s steady, shambling genius just demolish Jack Cassidy’s smug, rich villain. What a rush! I mean, I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but 2016 was not! short! on its share of smug rich villains, and while it was more or less sheer coincidence that I found Columbo right when I needed to believe that smart, dogged work really can prevail over craven, entitled bad guys, it still felt to me that in Falk’s idiosyncratic lieutenant I had found the antithesis of everything that had made the last half of 2016 so acutely awful.
And you know what, to some extent I had. But as much as Lt. Columbo felt like the exact opposite of everything happening in 2016, it’s more accurate to say that Lt. Columbo has always been the exact opposite of everyone and everything other than himself. He is singular. He’s not you-know-who. But he’s also not Sherlock Holmes, or Perry Mason, or Jessica Fletcher. Casting forward to a more current TV moment, he wouldn’t fit in the Schurniverse, or Shondaland, or shuffling around the SVU. Well, no—that’s not quite right. A natural fit or not, he’d nevertheless be perfectly home in all of them, and it would drive every character, across the board, to confess to every wrong they’ve ever committed. He is Columbo. So, sure, it’s easy to say he met the moment in 2016, but that’s really because, from 1971 to 2003, he met every moment he was presented with.
Case in point: 2020, when my Columbo binge with my dad came back with a vengeance. For one thing, the series had finally found a new streaming home on IMDb TV, years after having been unceremoniously yanked from Netflix in January of 2017. (That was a dark, Falk-less time; I don’t want to talk about it.) More obviously, though, it was the pandemic. And it was the summer of racial justice protests. And it was the 2020 election (a.k.a. 2016, but worse). And, and, and, with no end in sight. All tension and no story. Apart from maybe Taskmaster, nothing on television could give me a greater sense of calm than Columbo—even if, by the time Peacock launched with its own Columbo library, my dad and I had finally reached the show’s kookier later years. Kooky was fine. I just wanted to see my ruffled, unassuming lieutenant taking snobby killers down, one by one. And judging from the level of Millennial-targeted Columbo discourse I saw fly through my timeline this past year, I wasn’t the only one.
Now, earlier I suggested that Columbo has never had any match, past or present, but I actually think that’s wrong. The current television landscape does have something of an analog to our dear, trench-coated detective: The Good Wife / Fight’s Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston). She’s a lawyer, not a detective, but she’s got the same con going in the courtroom as Columbo had on his killers’ tails: presenting a scattered, unprofessional, kooky front to hide a killer legal genius aimed right at the heart of the kinds of elite criminals we most want to see taken down. I mean honestly, it’s almost enough to get me on AO3, thinking about the kind of good trouble those two could make. (Law & Order: Columbo & Tascioni! Can you even imagine??)
As for me and my dad, we finally watched the last episode of Columbo (2003’s “Columbo Likes the Nightlife,” which features a babyfaced Matthew Rhys as Columbo’s criminal foil) this past weekend. It was bittersweet, and left us both feeling a bit bereft. That is, until we pulled up IMDb and saw there was an Episode 0 we’d never seen, which in turn led us to the Googled discovery that Columbo didn’t start in a vacuum—it was a serialized adaptation of a 1968 TV movie, which was itself an adaptation of a stage play by series creators Richard Levinson and William Link. (Which goes to show what trusting one dad’s memory of his own pop culture past will do!) Those two “episodes” hadn’t been part of Season 1 when the series was on Netflix, just like they’re not included in Peacock’s version of the first season now.
But then we fired up IMDb TV (available through Prime Video), and there they were: Columbo: Prescription for Murder (1968) and Columbo: Ransom for a Deadman (1971). And man, if that didn’t feel exactly like the shabby little detective had popped his head through my front door and said, one last time, “Just one more thing…”
Columbo is available streaming on IMDbTV (with ads) and on Peacock (both with and without, depending on your plan). A motley collection of full-length episodes can also occasionally be found on YouTube.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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