Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Tao of Columbo

Just one more thing, right?!
One of the most interesting parts about Columbo are the murderers themselves. Anyone who is anyone that watches TV knows that in Columbo, the viewers follow the murderers, when they, well, murder. But there's more to it than that. Columbo, first airing in the sixties, came on in a time when TV procedurals were common. The murderers themselves are aware of murder mysteries, television and film tropes and expectations, and many of them work against them or even use those tropes to their advantage. In one of the most brilliant episodes, Jack Cassidy's character (he played a murderer in three Columbo episodes, this one was called "Publish or Perish") concocts a murder plot that frames himself for a murder he actually committed.

And we know it, the audience and the murderer are in on the scheme. Detective Columbo, our frazzled, forgetful detective, always has to catch up.

Jack Cassidy and Peter Falk meet again
The thing about Columbo is that I have a difficult time explaining exactly why I love the show as much as I do. It certainly isn't because I want to figure out how Columbo puts it all together. Many times Columbo proves the murder in ways that I could never fathom or even cheats the murderer into revealing their guilt (I'm not even sure some of the cases would hold up in court). It's not even fun to guess when Columbo figures out who the murderer is because many times I get the impression that somehow he knows from the very start. And while the endings are very satisfying and dramatic (see video just below to be spoiled of great endings), I don't really think that's the reason I enjoy the show as much as I do.

Let's look at Columbo, friends. He hardly ever judges, rarely yells, shows no pretension, exhibits very little ego. He is calm, he is patient, but mostly, he is kind, even to the murderers he's pursuing, even when they're finally caught.

Columbo goes with the flow, doesn't fight against the current, and somehow, almost too easily, he gets his way by doing so.

Observe the episode "Negative Reaction" (I call these episodes though to be more accurate I should refer to them as tele-films, because each show serves as its own TV movie, but still). He tries to find a witness at a homeless shelter and is mistaken, because of his attire, as destitute himself. Though he tries to correct the sister, she is so aggressive that he can't get a word in, and, in response, he shrugs it off, takes the soup, and converses with the witness. When the sister finally figures out that he is a detective, she assumes he's undercover, and Columbo does nothing to change her mind.

Columbo often finds himself underestimated by the murderers he investigates, and he uses their own egos to lure them into a sense of calm, waiting for them to slip up.

It's almost odd, for me, to have more interest in Columbo for its social interactions than its criminal elements, in how the murderers treat Columbo and react to him as either an incompetent cop or as a annoying nuisance. I believe in the maxim: You know people by how they treat people. In Columbo, I don't learn the characters from their crime, from their desperation, not fully at least. I learn about them by how they perceive Columbo.

But what, my dear friends, do we learn from Columbo with how he lets himself be perceived? Is there something duplicitous in his nature? Something sinister in his kindness? Is there something cruel in tricking desperate criminals to feel at ease?

The great Peter Falk saw Columbo as a very average guy who just happens to be the greatest detective ever to live.

And I mostly side with that interpertation. He's working class through and through and he takes on the very rich and influential. Takes them down a peg, and more. Is it too much to view Columbo as a metaphor for class warfare? Or to suppose that he gets some satisfaction, being "average," at bringing down the very most powerful?


But by the character interactions alone, Columbo can be interperted in many different ways. I think that's what makes it interesting, though maybe not the reason I enjoy the show, not just, at least.

When it comes down to it, I think I love the show maybe for the same reason my mother loves the show and used to watch it with me during cool summer days, when episodes were played frequently at noon on A&E.

Columbo is just so damn nice.

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