April 21, 2021

What I've been watching: March, 2021


Shows I’ve Watched:

Columbo
China: The Roots of Madness


The Best of Ernie Kovacs

W'e've been a little short on new programs here at the Hadley network the last month or so. Or perhaps I should rephrase that; after all, strictly speaking, there's never much new television here, but I respect all of you enough to assume that you know what I mean. It's that right now we're in the midst of a succession of long-running series, which means there hasn't been that much turnover lately. And while a documentary such as David L. Wolper's China: The Roots of Madness is engrossing and terrifying and reminds you that Communist China is and always has been (and always will be) a threat to the rest of the world, the 90 minutes doesn't go very far in filling up the dance card. 

Some of our regular shows are wrapping up in the next few weeks, though (Cannon, The Best of Ernie Kovacs, T.H.E. Cat), and while this may or may not fill you with excitement, it does mean more work for me the next time this feature returns. 

At any rate, the topic this month is Columbo, and there are several takes you can have on this series, each one about as good as the next, unless your take is that it's not any good, in which case you would be dead wrong, deader than the corpse at the center of each week's episode.

The take I'm going to take, if that makes sense, is that Columbo is the direct anthesis of the kind of show I was writing about last week. In case you've forgotten, and I wouldn't blame you if you had, last week I was ranting about episodes that put a main character into what I called "false jeopardy," that is, a situation that you already know is a bogus threat, given that character is contractually obligated to return next week. The end result, if that plot point takes up the whole episode, is that it becomes a waste of time, since it's virtually impossible to sustain the suspense of false jeopardy for the better part of an hour.  

There was, I suggested, a show that mastered this abiility, and in fact turned it into an asset, a signature that made it one of the most watchable shows on television. And this is that show. 

Columbo wasn't a whodunnit, or even a how'd-he-do-it, since we got to see the presumptive murderer plan and execute their sinister scheme right at the start, before we even met the title character. You'd think, given the number of mysteries where we're shown the killer's shoes (or back, or shadow), all in an attempt to keep their identity secret, that this would be a fatal flaw. But that never happens in Columbo, in large part because of the superior writing, casting, directing, and acting, especially in the case of Peter Falk. Yes, I know Bing Crosby was originally offered the role; yes I know that several actors have played Lieutenant Columbo on stage (and even on TV, in 1960's The Chevy Mystery Show), which makes sense considering the original pilot first saw life as a play. Even so, Peter Falk is Columbo, and to imagine anyone else playing it is—well, it's really impossible to imagine, given how totally Falk left his stamp on the character.

When you add Falk to a mix that already includes, as creators, Richard Levinson and William Link; writers like Steven Bochco; directors like Steven Spielberg; and a guest cast that reads like a good year of nominees at the Academy Awards, you've got a pretty good chance of having a pretty good show. And not just the first time you watch it, or the next two or three times; Columbo has to be one of the most watchable mysteries television has ever produced.

One of the reasons it's so watchable, no matter how many times you've seen it, is that it doesn't matter that you know how it turns out; you knew it from the very beginning. Removing this distraction allows you to concentrate on other aspects of the show, such as the subtlety of Columbo's investigation: that moment when he knows who the killer is (usually by the time he's done looking around the scene of the crime); his dogged assembly of the evidence he needs for a conviction; the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the killer throughout the episode; and the coup de grace, when he lowers the boom on the guilty party, who turns out not only to have grossly underestimated the lieutenant's intelligence, but to have grossly overestimated his own. 

You watch it again, and notice how Columbo conducts his investigation like a grand master surveying the chessboard, deciding what he's going to reveal and when, in order to achieve the maximum impact. Every time he uses that trademark "Just one more thing," it usually winds up with him dropping a minor bomb on the suspect just as he heads out the door. In fact, you don't even have to be the suspect to experience the Columbo style; in "The Greenhouse Jungle," he's dealing with an unfaithful wife whose husband, after staging his own kidnapping, turns up dead (murdered by his uncle and co-conspirator, Ray Milland). As she and her tanned hunk of a lover are about to go for a sail. Columbo, stepping off the boat, tells her that, by the way, her late husband had confided to his secretary that his wife's boyfriend had offered to leave town in return for $50,000. I'll bet that was a chilly boat trip. 

You watch it again and listen to Columbo go off on seemingly unrelated tangets about his wife, nephew, or brother-in-law—people who may or may not be real, and may or may not have said what Columbo has them saying; but by putting words in their mouth rather than his own, he's able to make his point from an oblique angle, accusing without actually accusing. That's about when it begins to dawn on the suspect that Columbo isn't the fool he makes himself out to be, and it creates more unforced errors than the bullying tactics of many a detective on one of today's proceduals.

You watch it again, and you appreciate the relationship between Columbo and his suspect. Most of the time Columbo regards his suspect with a cool aloofness, a respect that belies what he may or may not be thinking. On occasion, as in episodes with Donald Pleasence and Johnny Cash, there's the sense that Columbo has genuine sympathy for the killer, that there's a mutual respect between the two. It's as if Columbo knows that this person has committed the only murder he'll ever commit—still a killer, to be sure, but also a victim of the human condition. Remember the scene at the conclusion of "Any Old Port in a Storm," when Columbo and Adrian Carsini (Pleasence) share a glass of wine? Magic, and a moment of humanity.

And then there are those times, as with Gene Barry or Leonard Nimoy, when Columbo displays a real animus, a determination not only to get the killer, but to let that killer know he's going to get hm. That's when Columbo drops all pretense and addresses the killer with—pardon the expression—deadly seriousness. No more games. The jig is up. I know exactly what you did. It's both thrilling and terrifying: thrilling for us, terrifying for them. Damn, but it's satisfying.

Every time you watch Columbo, there's always one more thing you notice about it, and that's why it never gets old. There is no "false jeopardy," no concern that the lieutenant won't get his man (or woman; there were plenty of them, too), no waiting around impatiently for the inevitable ending that everyone knows is coming. It's a clichĂ©, but in this case it's also true: the pleasure is not just in the destination, but the journey itself. TV  

4 comments:

  1. I watched the episode with Faye Dunaway not long ago, which was also the only episode Falk wrote. Perhaps the best show in the series following its original run.

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  2. Sundance Channel shows Columbo past midnight.

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  3. I disagree. This kind of format makes the guest star the focal point of each episode, while the regular, though important, is more of a supporting character. I watch tv series because I want to see the regulars as the central characters.

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  4. Love this article. I especially dig it when Columbo shows respect for the suspect. He spoke about specifically (I think) in the mensa episode (with Theodore Bikel). Though the most memorable so far for me is the one with Janet Leigh was especially touching. He not only showed respect, but I think a genuine liking and sympathy for her.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!