There was a point last summer that I swore off cop shows. My wife and I were in the middle of Brooklyn Nine-Nine because we just wanted to watch something that we didn’t have to put too much thought into — until, all of a sudden, we were thinking about it too much. Given everything I was seeing in real life, I didn’t want to watch police shows.
Except Columbo. I’d normally feel bad about being a hypocrite, but as I found out, I was far from the only one with a jones for spending roughly 74 to 100 minutes of my day watching a rich person commit a crime, then watching Peter Falk slowly break down the person who did it. “I started hashtagging my posts #DefundThePolice #ExceptForColumbo,” says Julie Klausner. The Difficult People star and co-host of the Double Threat podcast summed up a way of thinking I’d noticed elsewhere: ACAB, but Peter Falk’s character is still OK.
I had started getting into Columbo a little before the pandemic. I wanted something removed from the recent past. I also wanted something I could watch, not something I had to get into. I didn’t want to have to get that invested in another cast of characters. I wanted one person who I enjoyed watching to show up in every episode. I didn’t need another show that takes an entire season to get to the point. I want the case solved in a little over an hour. Where murder is involved, I want things to be handled as lightly as possible. I also want a lot of episodes. Not just like five or six seasons, but multiple decades’ worth.
That’s how I got to Columbo. Well, technically, I was trying to go for a John Cassavetes binge and fell down a Falk hole. I rewatched the films Husbands and Mikey and Nicky, two of my favorites. Then I pretty much worked through the rest of Falk’s filmography, until, finally, I was faced with the fact that I’d never watched that much Columbo—Falk’s defining role, the one that netted him four Emmys and a Golden Globe.
Here was my problem: my grandparents watched Columbo. Now, my Nana and Papa had great taste, but my early memories of Columbo consist of wanting to watch wrestling or cartoons—anything besides an older guy who looked a little like a hunchback going “Just one more thing” while trying to solve a case when the viewer already knew who did it.
This turned out to be more of a Freudian thing than a matter of taste. All it took was watching the 1968 pilot episode, “Prescription: Murder,” and I was hooked. For a crime drama, the show is mellow. Set in Los Angeles, it’s always sunny, people are dressed well; the early seasons especially have this almost Didionesque quality where we see glamorous Angelenos living in beautiful homes, but inside they’re almost all rotten. Then you have Columbo. He’s a schlumpy Italian-American detective played by a Jewish guy from New York, and his process for figuring out crimes is basically letting the rich person who committed it treat him like an absolute idiot without realizing that their hubris is going to get them locked up. Columbo isn’t quite hardboiled like detectives out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler; he’s also not flashy or well-dressed like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. The show isn’t gritty like many American crime shows, and it isn’t whimsical like some of the British detective shows you’ll find on Masterpiece. There isn’t a lot of violence; instead, Falk brings a comic tone to his character. Columbo, basically, is the most soft-boiled detective show I’ve ever seen. And soft is all I’m looking for these days.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was not alone. The community of Columbo die-hards is legion. The Columbophile digital empire boasts a respectable five-figure fanbase across each of its social media platforms. They’re platform specific! The Facebook page is a virtual watercooler for fans that want to talk about the show, while the site’s Instagram proves the show has plenty of fodder big fits and home decor mood boards.
And nobody is just a casual fan. You’re either really into the show, or you’re not. Laura Lippman, the bestselling author of crime novels like What the Dead Know and Lady in the Lake, counts herself among the obsessives. She’s quick to point out that she wrote a novella, coming out in an upcoming collection, that “uses, as a framing device, the idea of a youngish couple watching every episode of Columbo during the early months of the pandemic.”
Lippman told me she has a five-way tie for her favorite episode. That’s one of the great things about Columbo: everybody has multiple favorite episodes. Ask somebody what their favorite of Game of Thrones is and they’ll likely answer something like “Uh, that one where the dude’s head gets chopped off.” There’s just too much on TV these days; everybody is trying to create the new Tony Soprano or Walter White or attempting to wow the viewers with how smart the writers are. Sometimes this works, often times it fails miserably. I don’t want to have to deal with that all the time. These days, I want nothing more than limited ambition. Limited ambition, but still smart and fun.
The guest star is a big part of the Columbo allure. Much like Dick Wolf is famous for doing in his Law & Order shows, the list of famous guest stars that showed up during Falk’s run is pretty impressive. Watch enough episodes and sooner or later you’ll see Faye Dunaway, Vincent Price, Leonard Nimoy, and the guy who played his captain on the Starship Enterprise, William Shatner. (He first appeared in 1976…and again in 1994.) The series, which ran on and off over 35 years, from the 1968 pilot episode to the final special in 2003, covers a lot of ground, culturally speaking. And the wildest part is there are only 69 episodes in all. While each installment of the show is over an hour long, that’s still not much considering if you wanted to binge every episode of Murder, She Wrote, you have 264 to watch; there are over 400 episodes of Law & Order: SVU and that’s just a sliver of the Dick Wolf universe. 69, dare I say, is a very nice number of episodes. But, as Lippman points out, there’s something larger at play that makes watching Columbo solve crimes enjoyable.
“It helps that he’s going after rich white people. Talk about escapism,” Lippman says. That’s a big part of the show’s appeal: Columbo is obviously a brilliant detective. Elanie May, who directed Falk in Mikey and Nicky, called Columbo “a backwards Sherlock Holmes.” Roger Ebert, in 1995, wrote that “Falk added a squint, a dirtier raincoat and more humor” to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Alfred Fichet, from the 1955 French classic Diabolique. The lieutenant is an all-time great sleuth, but he’s also massively entertaining; we already know the answer to the mystery. But we enjoy watching Columbo figure it out.