Columbo: Why We Watch

Columbo Pointing

This is part one of a two-part post on why, some 45 years later, we still watch ColumboPart two is here. This essay is excerpted from The Columbo Case Files: Season One, found here. Thank you.

*

For my wedding, I asked for and received the Columbo DVD collection. Complete to that point, it ended with the double helping of Seasons Six and Seven, and back copy text touting the guest stars like Kim Cattrall and Ed Begley, Jr. Plus a “captivating conclusion in these final episodes.”

Those “final episodes” aired on TV in 1978. But instead of ending, Columbo kept coming for 25 more years. The last one ran in January 2003.

Altogether, the show aired over 32 years; 35 counting “Prescription: Murder,” made in 1968. One half the biblical “three score and 10” is not, well, half-bad for TV.

And the Levinson & Link character is even older, dating to a mid-1960s play, and a single episode of a different TV show, with a different actor, in 1960. By then the man who would become iconic — Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo — had already been nominated twice for an Academy Award.

So the show began before I was born, the play is older than my parents’ marriage, and even my dad, who introduced me to the 1970s TV series when I was in elementary school, hadn’t himself graduated from high school by 1960.

Why then do I watch?

Why then do we?

*

When asked why they watch, most people say something about the character “Lt. Columbo.” As so many of the episodes are quite similar to each other — through 35 years of episodes, we’ll see recurring set-ups, returning guest stars (as murderer and/or victim, or even in supporting roles), and sets and backdrops used over and over — this makes sense. After all, if the shows are mainly the same, it’s the character we’re going to be interested in. And people care about people.

So even if it’s the same Universal Studios backlot — where the show was made, and which often played its own role in episodes — and even as we attend a class on the social history of the 1970s, it’s not exactly the same Lt. Columbo. The character develops.

So one thing we’re saying is it’s not just the character “Columbo” but the character of the man.

In fact, when Peter Falk himself was asked why the show endured, he always mentioned people connecting with “the lieutenant” and his homespun ways: his many stories of numberless quirky relatives, his affection for Mrs. Columbo, his never quite ready for prime time rumpled-ness …

He was Everyman … putting away murderers.

*

Of course, there have also been grievous mistakes in supposing why he’s so popular.

For instance, in 1973, when the show was only two years old, a New York Times writer said “the most thoroughgoing satisfaction” of the show was “the assurance that those who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the very best do not deserve it.”

The emphasis is in the original. And it’s not true.

That’s not why we’re satisfied and not why we connect with Columbo the show or Columbo the man. The point is not they don’t deserve it. If we thought that, we’d be judging the killers based on their wealth — supposedly something they do to us.

No.

The point is even the rich are subject to the same laws, moral or otherwise, as we are. This isn’t to say the rich don’t get away with it in real life; in fact, our love for Lt. Columbo affirms this. Because on the show … they don’t get away with it.

Most of us do not begrudge people their money. In fact, in the good news/bad news department, we aspire to it.

But we don’t want them to receive special treatment because of it. And yes, we’ve been known to give them that special treatment ourselves … and yes, we want that money, along with a special life, too … if we ever get that cash.

But the show is there — the lieutenant is there — to remind us it’s wrong.

We don’t care if they own a BMW. But. If they push it off a cliff, with their spouse (already dead) behind the wheel, and pretend it was a kidnapping gone awry, and try to weasel their way out of it, and lie like a bad toupee — we want the bastards nailed.

 *

This is part one of a two-part post on why, some 45 years later, we still watch Columbo. Part two follows tomorrow. This essay is excerpted from The Columbo Case Files: Season One, found here and here and here. Thank you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent

Ensamples

Among the worst things about The Slap is how it has fed self-righteousness in all but the two participants, and they already had it or it wldn’t have happened. But there is Solzhenitsyn, again, with the line between good and evil that cuts through every human heart, and there is Dostoevsky, always, reminding us via

Read More »

Lipstick

Pig is revelation. Revealing is when what’s here is hidden then seen. It’s really many individual ones, though widely considered they’re the same, and all the individuals are related, perhaps only proximately at first, but also in ways they themselves don’t initially see. + Key is it’s here. Problem is we don’t see it. Action

Read More »

Not For Teacher

There’s an unfortunate instructor-y thing where the guy on stage [I’ve found it’s usually a male doing this] asks a question he already knows the answer to, one of the people in the audience … err, classroom … is the target, the answer given is wrong, and the stagehand just goes and gives the answer

Read More »

Diminishing Me

You’d think a guy’d remember if it was the first time he’d seen a body but I didn’t not at first. [Hadda chance to graduate from college into one of our acceptable wars but didn’t, into the war that is, and no shot at a medical profession: left HS Chem as it had only 28

Read More »

Random

Cursing With God

More battle scenes please Once teaching a high school American Literature class — and let me tell you, once is enough —a student he says, “I don’t understand The Red Badge of Courage.  It’s a war book, but there are hardly any battle scenes.  I don’t get it.” So we did a little Socratic dialogue, and

Read More »

Trouble and Strife

Septic tank is Cockney rhyming slang for “Yank” which may suggest what trouble and strife is slang for. But it’s not fair of course, and good men, and most men some of the time, know she’s not only that. Upon noting once how, yes, “children are a bother,” Dallas Willard made the important philosophical distinction

Read More »

Idea: Inspiration

They asked Newton* how he did it and he’s supposed to have said, I thought about it all the time.  * Yes, it’s Archimedes. Keep reading. Inspiration is for amateurs. Chuck Close You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

Read More »

Pas De Duh

Is ballet a sport? The question is asinine in at least two ways. Of course it is, whether one is asking does it qualify as one or simply based on the assumptions implicit in the question itself. To put it as stupidly, would a Ferrari fit in my garage? Is Rivendell a better deal than

Read More »

Related

Metered Sins

Poetry’s a sneaky bastard. All the time sidling up to one on false pretenses — ‘It’s just the one’ … ‘We won’t intrude’ — and they’re all lies damn one’s eyes! Lies-damned-lies and no need for statistics and the pile of warm laundry does not diminish and soon loses its warmth and begins to glower

Read More »

Too Old For This

You know the line. Usually spoken by an ersatz Bruce Willis type, it is well past cliché, sliding in safely but awkwardly beyond its years to self-parody, as predictable as the pablum in which it appears. [And note, I like every other Die Hard movie.] And yet, here I am: Too old for this. I

Read More »

Are You Jackin’ With Me?

The one thing I know about The Dark Knight Rises is that it’s the most boring action movie I’ve seen in years, and yes, I saw The Expendables. But it might not be an action movie. So apart from the surety there, my thoughts remain roundaboutly, which is just, considering the movie itself. And the

Read More »