When is ‘Columbo’ Not ‘Columbo’?

My wife has been assembling a whole library of Columbo episodes, and we’ve been enjoying them very much. She most recently acquired “Peter Falk’s 7 Final Columbo Mysteries”–TV specials that aired between 1994-2003.

There’s a problem with some of these late Columbo specials: they aren’t Columbo episodes at all. That is, the whole format is drastically changed.

Some of them are based on stories or novels by Ed McBain, who was famous for his “87th Precinct” police procedural tales. Having Ed McBain write Columbo is like hiring Al Hirt to play the violin, or Mickey Spillane to write an Inspector Morse episode.

Yeah, all right, we know Columbo’s a cop. But it’s jarring to see him working in a crowded squad room, as part of a whole team of detectives working on a single case–sometimes even brandishing a gun, which I find shocking. It’s like seeing the dark side of Tweety Bird.

Gone is the cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and the murderer. Gone, too, are the glamorous settings–and the whole motif of the rich, powerful, oh-so-smart individual who commits a murder and expects to get away with it. He can easily outsmart this little twerp in a tattered raincoat. I mean, look at the car Columbo drives! And he talks about his wife’s totally philistine tastes in culture, and whistles “Knick-knack Paddy-wack,” and the murderer is thinking, “I’m home free, this boob will never catch me!” And then we just lean back and enjoy it: and every self-important big shot who ever kicked sand in our faces is going down with that murder. Columbo will make sure of that.

That’s all missing from those Ed McBain-based specials. What remains is just another cop show: better produced, better performed than most, but still just an ordinary cop show with a guy named Columbo in it.

There’s a lesson in this for anyone who’s trying to tell stories in any genre. Whatever you’re writing must be true to itself. The characters, the setting, the nature of the conflict–the world of the story must be as internally consistent as the real world we inhabit.

Over the years, Columbo created a fantasy disguised as mystery, much the same as Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. Columbo’s adventures were fanciful, part of an imaginary world. His achievements were no more “realistic” than those of the Count of Monte Cristo, or Tarzan. But we believed in them. The writers and the star, Peter Falk, got us to believe in them.

And that’s what made it so much fun.

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