December 28, 2021

Columbo – “You know, my wife watches this show…”

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Everyone loves a good mystery. Life is full of mysteries. Unfortunately, most of them go unsolved. Who shot JFK? What really happened to Amelia Earhart? Why do my socks keep disappearing from the dryer? Is Uptown Pokies really as good as it sounds?

Luckily, that vacant hole of questions and open ends can be knotted back together with a little creativity. Mysteries have been around for several millennia, but it’s only within the last century or two that the detective genre has been around. Early attributions of the genre can be accredited to the likes of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, which was published in “Graham’s Lady and Gentleman Magazine” back in 1841.

The genre quickly gained popularity over the next several decades and exploded when Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stepped onto the scene in 1887, with the release of the novel “A Study in Scarlet”. Later authors, such as Agatha Christy, would release immensely popular works like “Murder on the Orient Express” which would cement Detective Novels as its own definitive genre.

Thus, when media began to jump from novels to radio to television, it only made sense that certain genres would be carried over too. The detective genre’s framework fits almost perfectly into the era of serialized television. Whereas before, every novel was a new mystery, now a new mystery was ready to be tackled by our charismatic detective every week. Each work, some poor unlucky soul would be done in, and the detective would uncover the villain’s dastardly schemes and get justice done.

Columbo

Normally, I don’t really dig into older detective serials and crime dramas. Shows like NCIS have really soured me on the format, and that old lady from “Murder She Wrote” was basically carrying an Egyptian Curse over her head from how many people dropped dead when she was around.

However, after hearing nothing but good things about Columbo, I decided to give it a try and see what the deal was. I intended to sit down and watch the first episode and write my impression. Unfortunately, I ended up procrastinating… because I watched the second episode. And both were an hour and a half long!

The premise of the series is pretty simple. Every week, some poor sod gets done in for whatever reason, and it’s up to Lieutenant Columbo to figure out who did it and why. However, what sets this series apart from other detective stories that I’ve watched or read, is that the criminal and how the crime is done is immediately revealed to the audience.

The first episode slowly follows Ray, a psychiatrist, and his girlfriend plot and executing a plan to murder Ray’s wife. In fact, in this 90-minute pilot, it takes more than 30 minutes before we’re even introduced to Detective Columbo. This changes the focus of the mystery away from “whodunit?” to “how will our hero catch this guy?”. This knowledge that the audience is provided with adds an extra layer to nearly every scene, as Columbo and the villains exchange barbed words and subtle innuendos about each other’s intentions.

And none of it would work if it weren’t for the character of Detective Columbo himself. He’s a squat, disheveled, puttering little man in a beige trenchcoat and a cheap car. His outward insecurity makes for a stark contrast between Columbo and certain other detectives played by smarmy British actors I could name. It’s also fascinating to see Columbo pull off some real detective work instead of relying on some technological wizardry from the forensic department (Yes, that’s another dig at CSI and NCIS).

For instance, in the second episode, someone tries to present Columbo with fake evidence, and he immediately shuts the person down because he had a guy tailing the person who saw them get the evidence made. Columbo isn’t a one-man army and actually uses the resources a police department has at its disposal to get the job done. (Just to throw some more shade at NCIS, in that show, it seems like if the main cast of, like, five people don’t do the job personally, there is literally no one else on Earth who can).

My impression, in these first two episodes at least, is that Columbo is ready and willing to work with anyone else who’s qualified on the case, and those characters actually do their jobs, even if they are nameless guys in suits with no speaking lines.

I just appreciate that. Again, compared to NCIS (this is the last time I’ll complain about it, I promise), which opens with the protagonists stealing Air Force One to get it into their jurisdiction instead of the FBI’s (which is something they never face any consequences for), Columbo being friendly and cooperative with other departments and agents is a breath of fresh air.

I also like Columbo’s approach to interrogating witnesses and suspects. You see, in other shows that I promised not to continue naming, there’s usually an “interrogation scene” where the detectives sit down with the witness / suspect and try to nail them on various details of their story until something new comes up, and they have to rush off to the next lead of the case.

Columbo doesn’t work like that. He simply chats with people and goes round and round in his mannerism until the suspect / witness gets frustrated and cracks. Basically, he annoys criminals until they incriminate themselves.

Which is hilarious.

What I Didn’t Like

This is where I have to admit an unfair bias that going to negatively affect my opinion. I have only been on this planet for just over two decades. I’ve grown up with modern television, Netflix, and the internet (I never had cable, though, weirdly enough, although I am old enough to remember VCR tapes and Blockbuster). The point is, I think I might have my generation’s attention span because I was not prepared for how long each episode of Columbo is. They’re basically feature-length movies, and they move at a snail’s pace compared to modern television.

Which, on the one hand, works for a slower-paced, methodical detective show.

On the other hand, it felt like the show was really being indulgent with certain long takes and panning shots.

This show doesn’t just stick to the important bits of a scene. You watch Columbo open a door, close it, sit down, pull out a cigar, fumbled about in his pockets for a pen he always loses, ask for a lighter, swagger around a room, and look at nothing in particular until an impatient officer finally manages to get his attention and pull him back to Earth.

This happened several times across episodes one and two. I don’t know if the show gets a better handle on its pacing in later episodes, but it’s clear that this show comes from a different era of TV. I can’t imagine a modern show taking its sweet time as this one does.

I should mention, I don’t think this is a dealbreaker. I enjoyed both episodes regardless and intend to keep watching. However, there are some people who just cannot watch something that’s too slow. If you’re one of those people that fall asleep during “The Godfather”, then give Columbo a pass.

In addition, while I am happy about how the show handles the police work that Columbo does, there are some bits I’m unsure about the legality of. I mentioned that in the first episode, there’s this Psychiatrist named Ray, who murders his wife. Well, in order to get the girlfriend to flip, Columbo misleads Ray into thinking that the girlfriend is dead. Ray then admits that he never really loved her and that she was just a patsy he used to help get rid of his wife. The girlfriend in the adjacent room overhears this and flips.

While I can see how it would be an effective tactic, I’m not exactly sure on the legality of whether or not police are allowed to trick people like that? Obviously, undercover cops are allowed to lie to get the job done, but usually for the purpose of gathering information that cops can use to get hard evidence (as far as I understand it.

Admittedly, I’m neither a lawyer nor a police officer). However, considering just how many laws get unintentionally overlooked on TV, this is more of a nitpick than a real critique. It would be like critiquing Commissionaire Gordon for using city funds to install a bat shaped beacon on top of the Gotham City Police Department. One could do that, but such a person would deservedly be called a “party pooper”.

Overall

As I think you can tell from what I’ve written already, I had a great time. I do love a good murder-mystery (as my shelves of Sherlock Holmes books, Agatha Christie novels, and various spy thrillers would attest), and it’s been great to dig back into the genre. I think the last time I watched or read a crime drama was when an episode of NCIS was on in the background in my parents’ house- with no one in the room to watch it.

Huh, do you think I have a chip on my shoulder? Nahhh.

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