Opinion / Tribute

Why Columbo matters as much as ever

Columbo cigar

A colleague didn’t know what to make of it recently when I explained that I almost never watch TV.

What about Game of Thrones, she gasped? Never seen one second of it. Ah, but surely you’ve seen The Wire? No. Brooklyn Nine-Nine? Nope. Breaking Bad? Nay pet. The Walking Dead? Errr, that’s a negative. Well what do you watch? she demanded.

And I had to come clean that the only show I watch with any real level of commitment is Columbo. Still. Even though I’ve seen every episode multiple times. Even though I can quote verbatim my favourite episodes from first line to last. Even though the show is now 50 years old and virtually no one I know in ‘real life’ knows anything about it.

Now if I’m totally honest, I must admit to being familiar with other TV shows. I love Stranger Things, have dabbled in Star Trek and cast a semi-interested eye over The Tudors and Lost – before the latter descended into drivel, at least. And while all these are diverting enough, I never find them truly compelling. Indeed the only show that’s come close to achieving Columbo-esque reverence for me was The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles – a show years ahead of its time and one that would, I’m sure, succeed today.

“Modern TV seems like the sort of long-term commitment that I’m not prepared to make.”

That aside, and despite the advent of ‘event television’ that seemingly everyone’s raving about, I’m rarely tempted to tune in and I don’t feel like I’m missing out in the least. Modern TV seems like the sort of long-term commitment that I’m not prepared to make. And reality TV frankly disgusts me. But dangle a Columbo DVD in front of me and the urge to watch is irresistible. And if anything, I find it a more enjoyable and important viewing experience now than ever before. Why? I’ll tell ya…

Firstly, Columbo is comfort viewing par excellence. Watching a favourite episode is like hanging out with an old friend. Sure, you might be familiar with the gags and the character traits, but it’s no less enjoyable for all that. That’s why we like hanging out with friends, after all. Many times I’ve bust on a cheeky Columbo after the youngsters are abed and very pleasurably revisited the opulent LA of the 70s’ over a glass of vino as Mrs Columbo naps on the sofa beside me. What could be better?

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I take unashamed delight in this man’s company – time after time after time…

Secondly, Columbo is a wonderful antidote to the aggro world we live in. Yes, at it’s core it’s a show about that darkest of human acts, murder. But for all that it manages to be, for the most part, extremely wholesome viewing.

There’s negligible on-screen violence. Barely a drop of blood. No swearing. Sex and drugs are on the periphery. And Columbo is a man with a strict moral code who is inherently respectful and knows how to treat people well. He won’t carry a gun and he’s entirely happy with his life away from work. In a world where disrespect is the new norm, victims are routinely portrayed as villains and covetous social media makes us insecure about our lot in life, watching Columbo is a refreshing escape and a hark back to a simpler, more well-intentioned age. Plus the satisfaction of seeing the ‘little guy’ take down the morally-bankrupt privileged elite of society never gets old. I can think of some of the real world privileged elite of today who could stand to be taken down a peg or 10. Where’s Columbo when you need him…?

My love of the show has also brought me in contact with hundreds and thousands of fellow fans from across the world via social media channels. It’s a very friendly, respectful and fun community to be part of, and if you’re reading this, I include you in the circle of trust!

Thirdly, Columbo as a show was nurtured and protected by those who really loved what it stood for. Even after show creators Richard Levinson and William Link moved on to new projects the quality remained sky high. As well as embodying Lieutenant Columbo and mastering every nuance of the character, Peter Falk became the conscience of the show. He was committed to excellence and surrounded himself with those he felt comfortable with, would bring the best out of him, and with whom he trusted the character to.

“As well as embodying Lieutenant Columbo and mastering every nuance of the character, Peter Falk became the conscience of the show.”

As a result the show survived the departures of Link and Levinson, of Steven Bochco, of Peter S. Fischer and other stellar talents when they moved on to pastures new because they were replaced by those who were similarly committed to the show and respected what had come before it.

The quality of the writing, and of the relationship building between leads, was paramount. The best writers would eat, breathe and sleep the Columbo character, making sure that every exchange was authentic and playing to Falk’s inherent warmth, charm and humour. And the standards consistently achieved, in the 70s particularly, were astoundingly high with only the series’ attempts to be different (Dagger of the Mind and Last Salute to the Commodore spring to mind) really resulting in less successful outings.

As custodian of the show and the character, Falk was demanding of writers, producers and directors and meticulous in his approach to shooting. Never one to pander to studio desires to get episodes in the can as swiftly and cheaply as possible, Falk was a stickler for doing takes time and again until he felt it was done to his exacting standards. But the enduring results prove that his approach was right. He might have rubbed studio execs up the wrong way, but can never be accused of going through the motions or dialling in his performances. Columbo is iconic because of his commitment to excellence.

Falk Spielberg
The calibre of Columbo contributor is why the show remains so watchable today

Finally, Columbo was event television before the concept was invented. We mustn’t forget that at its peak in the 70s, Columbo was spectacularly popular with tens of millions of viewers tuning into each episode. It also quickly became a global hit. In the age before home VCRs were commonplace or affordable, this was the show that people left dinner parties early to get home in time for, and that would be talked about around the water cooler the next day. No one wanted to miss it.

It helps that Columbo was simply awash with big names. Not just contemporary TV stars such as Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy, but bona fide silver screen legends including Ray Milland, Kim Hunter, Ruth Gordon and Myrna Loy – often in small, but well written and interesting roles. As a result it stands the test of time incredibly well, especially those 70s’ episodes, which were packed with star power in a way the comeback episodes were never able to adequately replicate (no disrespect to Faye Dunaway).

So with all that goodness to fall back on, is it any wonder that I eschew today’s televisual blockbusters and continue to pledge my loyalty to Lieutenant Columbo, more than 50 years after he first graced our screens?

I think not. Indeed the only show I can imagine piquing my interest in the same way as Columbo of yesteryear would be a Columbo reboot. But as there seems to be no danger of that happening anytime soon, I’m perfectly happy to sit back and enjoy yet another night in the company of Messrs Falk, Cassidy, McGoohan et al. I already know it’ll be time well spent…

What do you most enjoy about watching Columbo? Hit me with your opinions below. And please accept my sincere thanks for reading.

This article was written to commemorate the 7th anniversary of Peter Falk’s death on 23 June 2011.

Peter Falk Columbo Fade In to Murder
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138 thoughts on “Why Columbo matters as much as ever

  1. I am emotionally attached to two TV characters — Walter White of Breaking Bad and Lt. Columbo. Had the two gone against each other, who would have won? I would give Columbo the edge.

  2. Great article, took me back. I don’t remember any particular episode, but what sticks with me is when Columbo when finish questioning someone, then start to walk away, then turn back and say that something still puzzled him, and then he’d zing the person.

  3. I agree with everything you said. I was in my teens in the 70s and it was definitely “must watch television”. I still relish watching the show. I enjoy trying to spot the exact moment in each episode when Columbo knows that this is the guy. It’s always way before you’d think. It’s also delightful when the muderer knows the jig is up. That’s what makes it fun for me. I’ve seen every episode many many times, but it doesn’t matter. In fact, just finished watching the Robert Vaughn one on the cruise ship. My favorite one is Robert Culp as the football team manager. His “oh shit I’m cooked” moment is priceless.

  4. One more thing… What makes shows like Columbo stand out so well from most of today’s television (there are a few gems which still pale in comparison mind you) is it truly relied on the star power of a Peter Falk, a James Garner, Tom Selleck,Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Robert Conrad those names alone carry such huge weight to which having actors of that caliber today is few and far between. Also I find myself comparing every crime show to Columbo in terms of the level of mystery and brilliance of the crimes and sadly most pale in comparison. They’re usually cookie cutter, straight to the point ripped from the headlines material lacking the creativity, style and fun of a Columbo or Rockford case.

  5. Lt Columbo matters more now for the same reason Jim Rockford and Thomas Magnum does because this character like the other two I mentioned were unlike any other tv hero at the time. Rockford and Columbo were two regular guys other regular guys would grab a beer or catch a game with. They were working class yet secretly sophisticated and the ladies couldn’t get enough of em. They really lack this kind of characterisation on crime shows today. No one’s as humble and polite as Columbo or earthy and street savvy as Rockford. Today all you get are “detectives” who depend on evidence and forensics Instead of old fashioned sleuthing and using their wits. Did we ever see Columbo using a computer in the later runs? Or spend most of the case at the coroner? I don’t think so

    • No we haven´t, but the scripts are rigged so Columbo can display all his wit and his mannerisms. I think we all agree that none of Columbo´s cases could ever occur in reality (how many real-life Galeskos would shoot their own thigh?), and his “gotchas” would send HIM, not the offender, to jail! So, let´s enjoy Columbo for what it is, a lovely extravaganza from more innocent times, and forget all about “relevance”.

    • Whenever we see Columbo in front of a computer screen (“Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health”, “Columbo Likes The Nightlife”), it’s the victim’s computer and Columbo only takes a look at it because he gets a clever clue out of it that helps him to uncover the killer’s cover up.

  6. Terrific tribute. I got into Columbo a few years back and it’s now one of my favourite series. I don’t like the later seasons, but all the 70’s ones are gold. I love watching Columbo because of the characters and for all those guest stars, many of whom were among the best actors to have ever appeared on screen.

    I love watching Columbo mess with the suspects head, trying to trip them up in someway so they reveal their guilt. Peter Falk put so much effort into this role and it shows on screen. I agree with you when you say watching Columbo is like hanging out with a friend. On top of all that, I watch because of Columbo himself. He is so sharp, so decent and so loveable.

    Like the original Twilight Zone, this series never fails to entertain and the twists and turns of the stories never fail to surprise, move and shock. It’s quality TV.

    • Yes, Maddy. Columbo never fails to entertain and along with many others was and is so iconic. I feel like Columbo both variations are better than 99 percent of current tv

        • Indeed. It was a patient show, with many instances of Columbo or others merely shown THINKING. Can anyone believe that Columbo’s contemplation of Bo Williamson’s music choices in “Blueprint for Murder” would have survived in a production done today?

          • Definitely not Tim lol they wouldn’t take the time to show that. I doubt that they would do most of what Columbo did today

    • Also on the point on how this series had some of the best actors on screen make appearances: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ruth Gordan, Don Ameche, Janet Leigh, Myrna Lou, Louis Jordan, Leslie Nielsen, Johnny Cash for crying out loud! These are just few of the legends of Hollywood. That’s like an equivalent of Robert Downey, Jr, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Angela Basset, etc coming to do a guest spot on television today thoufh you won’t see that because there’s nothing worthy for them grace their presence

  7. That coat, that coat…tsk tsk.
    Here’s what I like about it:
    – His influence on my own thinking. Don’t tip your hand. Keep your eyes and mind open. Look for where the pattern breaks. Watch the details. Be considerate and polite. The professionalism. He’s like a spirit guide.
    – 1970’s women. Nurse Melissa is one of the sweetest, most beautiful gals I’ve ever seen. She’s so cute, peeking through the doorway while Columbo talks to Patrick McNee.
    – The Perfect Murder undone. Especially when it’s some cold bastard like Dale Kingston, who imagines he has it all under control because the Lt’s not a genius like him.
    – And it’s nice being this familiar with a story, where I can just let it play in the background and rerun the cool parts.
    A few weeks ago, I found the last episodes of the 2nd series for sale at the library, and completed the set. Thought I’d be more bothered by the aspect-ratio chopping they did– still wish they hadn’t. But it seemed messed-with in only a couple places on “A Trace of Murder”. And like with the 2nd series in general, watching him do his thing outweighs any complaints about technicalities.

    • I just want to say, watching Columbo “play” The bumbling detective and catching it is always one of my many delights and watching the show over again

  8. Another reason that i greatly enjoy Columbo is that the actors are of an era that is well and truly gone forever. I contemplate some of the male stars and actors, even in minor roles and their physical appearance, hair, teeth, physical build, it’s not seen anymore on the screen. YOu can see stubble, open pores, crooked teeth, brushy eyebrows, crazy hair, and lots more. For the women, similar, women of that era were natural, thin, styled and manicured. These days, women don’t appear the same, we are all more groomed and styled, our shape has changed, our presentation totally different. I remember all those sorts of norms, and Columbo has captured it authentically on film, forever.

  9. I loved Peter Falks explanation of Columbo…”you know that I know that you know that I know.” Classic!

  10. Thanks again for the great article on why Columbo is still relevant. I couldn’t agree more and I;d like to add somehting.
    I watch Columbo primarily because I like to watch a good detective. Note that I said, a GOOD detective, so not just any. I’m very critical as to what I like.
    Only recently I noticed that Columbo is not only my all time favourite, but that it’s also one of only two detective shows that were not adapted from books, which were already terrific before the the screen adaptation (the other one being Jonathan Creek, if you don’t know it, look it up, it’s great). But here are the two points what all great detectives have in common, in my opinion:
    1. The main character, the detective, has to stand out as a unique person. The detective alone should be a reason for watching the show. That doesn’t mean he has to be involved in all kinds of personal problems like booze, drugs, divorce, a child that has died, or some other nightmares from the past. More the opposite, I don’t like the personal life of the detective as a distraction from the main story. No, the detective is the medium through whom the plot is unraveled.
    This takes a great personality, with specific character traits, to carry the show. Moreover, the actor playing the character has to be formidable and in all probability playing the part of his/her life. This applies to Columbo specifically, because the format of the show doesn’t provide the suspense of the classic whodunnit. That’s why Columbo is such a great detective (and greatly portrayed by Peter Falk): just watching him follow up the clues, cornering the murderer (as we know in advance!) by being bothered by little things, that ‘don’t add up’.
    Like I said, Columbo is my absolute favourite but good examples of other formidable actors and their detective characters are Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe, Bruno Cremer as Jules Maigret, John Taw as Inspector Morse, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Alan Davies as Jonathan Creek, Warren Clarke as Andrew Dalziel and, more recent, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, but he only played him once Murder on the Orient Express).
    2. It’s all about the story. Detective novels or television shows need great stories and every episode needs to be just right. I like the concept of the whodunnit, but also “the Columbo concept” so much because, for me, it is the best way to tell a story: there has been a murder. Now why was that person murdered? Slowly the plot gets unraveled and if that is done well, there is no greater joy. The reader/viewer is supplied with clues and is invited to think along. ‘Why did he make that remark and why did the detective just buy a phoney moustache?’
    When this is not done properly, it shows. Then I put the book down or, like Dorothy Parker, throw it away with great force. I can’t stand bad stories, with muddled up story lines or when the culprit is someone you haven’t encountered until the end of the movie.
    But when it’s done well and you were taken along to the very end and surprised by the way the detective catches his killer, the it’s absolute bliss. And then there is no need for serial killers cutting off their victims limbs or other sorts of extreme violence. A great story doesn’t need those. The suspence and the entertainment are in the why, the how and the who.
    Columbo has exactly that.

    P.S1 My apologies for the length of the post.

    P.S.2 For all the Peter Falk fans here: when you have a moment, watch the movie Murder by Death. Its a comedy taking on bad detective stories, featuring Peter Falk and, amongst others, Truman Capote. Its great.


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