Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
One of my favorite filmmaking conventions is the implied, never-seen moment that would logically happen in any story, but isn’t there because it’s not necessary to the plot. You very, very rarely need to see characters take their car across town, stand there for a whole elevator jaunt and so on. It’s why you should expect a sudden T-bone crash during a silent city drive, and why it’s so annoying when a sentence starts in the lobby and picks up when they exit the elevator. (The conversation kept going on the ride up, I promise!)
With those make-believe but “it must have happened” moments in mind, I like to play a fun little game, and you should try it, too: Pick almost any episode of Columbo, and imagine the scene in which someone at the LAPD informs Lieutenant Columbo that there’s been a murder. The next logical step, as far as the world of the show is concerned, will be the cop telling him: Look — we know exactly who did it. One-hundred percent, it’s absolutely this guy. No question. But! They just don’t have enough evidence to arrest the guy and/or gal. It’s Columbo’s job to get out there and not necessarily figure out whodunit, but to gather enough evidence to pin ’em.
Unlike other famed detectives, with our man Columbo, there’s never a mystery to solve. The slow-burn opening moments clearly show the episode’s guest star commit the deed. Sometimes they kill in the heat of the moment, but very often it’s after long bouts of premeditation, I mean really, just mens rea all over the place. And the next thing you know, the murderer is out there trying, ever so helpfully, to answer the strange detective's questions. Lead him down the wrong path, leave a trail of red herrings to follow. You’ve never seen people so eager to speak to a cop in your life.
No, the joy of Columbo isn’t in trying to solve a mystery. It’s watching a hero take down a villain. The greatest thing about the killers on this show is just how sublimely egotistical they are: It’s why they can’t shut the hell up! And why they’ll never get away with it! These murderers know they are, without a doubt, the cleverest person in the room, each one a Moriarity but better, and can easily outsmart a schlubby and rumpled detective. It doesn’t hurt that it's set in Los Angeles, a city that attracts far more than its fair share of narcissists.
Colombo’s beat is the nicer zip codes, and high-profile types are the people whose world he enters — debonair ogres who believe themselves exempt from paltry concerns like “right” and “wrong,” and most definitely think they should be in charge of life and death. We’ve got killers who are film directors, famous painters, art critics, doctors, writers, lawyers, studio executives and top-ranking military men. A small handful are sympathetic; all are arrogant.
Few people in the city of Los Angeles are as dedicated to the craft of acting as Lt. Columbo. I don’t mean Peter Falk, though he’s obviously great, and his charm and charisma carry the series across six decades of television. I literally mean the fictional character, Columbo. He’s not exactly undercover and practicing monologues, but real talk: Columbo is a cop who acts. It’s how he gets his man! These killers — these fools! They think they’re in a cat-and-mouse game, but no one is the equal of Columbo, except, we can safely assume, Mrs. Columbo. He plays into the prejudices against his schlubby demeanor, pretends to be a little simple, pretends to be impressed with whatever is supposed to be so impressive. The best, most delicious episodes are the ones in which the killers catch onto his act, and decide to play along. Frisson!
I think, perhaps, I’ve been leaning hard into Columbo lately because of how certain the triumph is. We know who did it, and why — that smarmy liar sweating bullets, the one right there. The one with his fingerprints everywhere. In a few weeks, scores of criminals — from the blatant white-collar ones to those who have body counts to their shamed names — are going to exit our executive branch of federal government, and if I know anything about American history from, oh, Nixon onward, they will likely not be held accountable for their crimes in any way whatsoever. I’m hoping for better, but hmm, we shall see. Maybe, if America wants to act this way, we can solve the problem of villainy by simply deputizing our most beloved actor-detectives. If Columbo arrested Nixon, perhaps this nation could have healed. Kissinger’s still alive, maybe send Ice-T?
(Just one more thing: It’s to be expected that any successful property can be rebooted at absolutely any time, and should that happen, I absolutely endorse Natasha Lyonne.)
Columbo is free to watch with ads via Amazon Prime Video.