Columbo was a static, dialogue-heavy show with almost no action. The murder plots it featured were often ludicrously convoluted. The pacing, by today's standards, was beyond sluggish. It was mushroomish.
Wait, though. I'm not criticizing. I think these are all reasons to like the show.
And the reason to love it? That would be Columbo himself, the king of the TV detectives.
Why crown Columbo over, say, Jim Rockford or Thomas Magnum or any of the 50-or-so CSI dudes (and dudettes)? Because he pulled off a trick the competition never could. He made you keep watching and caring even though his show was talky and slow and all the conversation revolved around tiny details and seeming mundanities and you knew who the bad guy was before the first commercial.
The pleasure came from seeing how the little schlub in the cheap suit worked it all out and got his man. It was, in the end, a show about thinking...and thinking and thinking and thinking some more. Until, in the last two minutes, it finally paid off.
Let movies have the flash and razzle-dazzle. Columbo showed that TV could work wonderfully when it simply boiled a story down to its basics.
(1) An antagonist
(2) A likable protagonist
(3) A conflict (in this case, the antagonist's doomed struggle to keep his guilt hidden from the protagonist)
Of course, it helped that Columbo could be pretty funny. But the humor, at its best, wasn't forced or extraneous. It grew out of fondness for our hero -- and the profound satisfaction that came from seeing a (supposedly) regular Joe outmaneuver all the condescending big-shots.
In the last five or six years, Columbo became my go-to show whenever I got sick. It was the TV equivalent of Campbell's chicken noodle soup with Club crackers. I admit that nostalgia probably played a part in that. I never watched Columbo as a kid in the '70s, but I was aware of its existence, and I get a kick out of seeing so much polyester wrapped around the likes of Eddie Albert and William Shatner. Mostly, though, I appreciate the low-key vibe, the frequently ingenious precision of the plotting and the chance to spend time with one of my favorite people...even if he didn't exist.
Lt. Columbo was created by writers Richard Levinson and William Link. But of course it was an actor who really brought him to life. As you probably know, that actor died recently, which is why I'm writing this tribute now (a little belatedly, alas). Peter Falk was an accomplished performer with a long résumé. He had much to be proud of. But at the top of the list, for my money, is this: With his passing, millions of people around the world feel as though they've lost a friend. I'm one of them.
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If you'd like to give Columbo a try, you're in luck: Not only is it available on DVD, many episodes can be instantly streamed to your TV or PC via Netflix. (That's how I tend to watch them these days. After all, you never say to yourself, "Hmmm, I'm starting to feel a little headachy. Maybe I'll be sick in three days. Better send Breaking Bad back so I'll have a Columbo handy.") Just in case you're starting to feel a little headachy yourself, you'll find below, in no particular order, a few of my favorite Columbo outings.
Etude in Black
The killer: John Cassavettes
An Exercise in Fatality
The killer: Robert Conrad
The killer: Dick Van Dyke
By Dawn's Early Light
The killer: Patrick McGoohan
The killer: Robert Vaughn
A Matter of Honor
The killer: Ricardo Montalban
Murder Under Glass
The killer: Louis Jourdan
How to Dial a Murder
The killer: Nicol Williamson
Now You See Him...
The killer: Jack Cassidy
The killer: Johnny Cash