Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me About Columbo?

I grew up without a television set; nevertheless, I was aware of shows like The Brady Bunch, not to mention The Addams Family, and, later, Family Ties, Cosby, and Soap. I watched them on friends' televisions, my grandparents' television, and the occasional television that we rented. Yet somehow, I missed Columbo.

I'd heard about Columbo, of course, but for all I knew it was one of those odd 70's shows where people stand around in yellow and orange kitchens, having pointless conversations accompanied by incredibly boring camera work. (Guy one talks. Guy two talks. Guy one talks. Guy two talks. Pan of kitchen. Guy one talks.)

But Season 4 of Diagnosis Murder isn't available yet, so in desperation, I ordered Columbo over Netflix.

I love it! Yeah, it is more or less the same plot over and over and over, but sometimes, it gets downright clever. The camera work isn't that bad. The acting can be quite good. Peter Falk is adorable. The clothes (now that the 70's have come back) are surprisingly modern. The timing is excellent. And the whole thing is so very relaxing.

I should state here that I enjoy television that doesn't demand too much investment. There's this idea in our culture, which I have addressed elsewhere, that if something doesn't MAKE ONE THINK or MAKE ONE FEEL, that thing must be shallow and a waste of time. But I'm a huge advocate for the well-made piece of entertainment. It doesn't have to much me THINK and FEEL; it just has to satisfy my entertainment needs.

I'm also a big believer that anything can be judged to a standard, but that it should be judged to an appropriate standard. There's no point comparing Columbo to War & Peace, but it is perfectly okay to compare it to, say, Diagnosis Murder and other murder mystery shows.

In fact, the producers of Diagnosis Murder were producers on Columbo: they use the same approach, which is to tell the audience the identity of the murderer right off the bat. I actually like this approach. I was never one to try to guess the murderer anyway. I'm more interested in the detection process, how the murderer will be caught (which is probably why I like forensic type shows). The payoff is that the writers can make the murderer as cunning as possible; they don't have to drop incredibly obvious clues. The one catch with Monk is that Monk's brilliant observations are really, well, the sort of thing police do catch. However, in the interests of playing fair, the show can't make the clues too obscure (the audience can't be too surprised when the murderer is revealed). The downside is that obvious clues pit the audience against the detective: why can't he figure it out faster than us? But Columbo (and Diagnosis Murder) avoid this.

And of course Peter Falk, like Tony Shalhoub, makes a great detective. He is smart, tenacious, and unflappable. And he has all the required tics and idiosyncrises. I have mixed feelings about idiosyncrises. The detective has to have them to make him/her memorable: a detective like Monk is all about his idiosyncrises. However, the idiosyncrises can get distracting. I personally prefer sarcastic Monk to totally freaking-out Monk (although the Alice Cooper episode with freaking-out Monk is worth the freaking-out).

Likewise, I prefer subtle Columbo to bombastic Columbo. In the pilot, Falk played Columbo as low key and tough. When the murderer said (they always say this), "You just won't give up, will you?" Falk ducked his head and gave this slow, private smile. It was utterly charming and very subtle.

Yet in the next few episodes, Falk was all over the place. It was almost as if the director said, "Hey, they love Columbo's idiosyncrises. Give us more!" so he did. I was very disappointed.

Now he's settled down to somewhere between the two, which I can handle. In any case, Falk reminds me of Leslie Jordan (completely different personality type): short men who can walk into a scene and completely steal it.

This isn't the same thing as Dustin Hoffman stealing a scene because he acts well; Falk (and Jordan) can do it through good-old fashioned radiating charisma. It's a remarkable thing to see. Part of it, I think, is that something that Charles Grodin, Craig T. Nelson (I've been watching Coach episodes lately), Richard Dean Anderson, and Thomas Haden Church all have: the ability to make you laugh by lifting an eyebrow or just looking blank. It's something about the way their faces are constructed. (By the way, Thomas Haden Church is totally underappreciated for his excellent comedic talents. He is the master of the deadpan.)

Closing tangent: I've noticed all the above examples are men; this is nothing against the excellent comedic abilities of, say, Dawn French (Vicar), Emma Chambers (Vicar), Jane Leeves (Frasier) and Melissa Peterman (Reba). However, after a brief glance through IMDb's top comedy movies, I'm forced to the conclusion that women are not called on to play the "straight man" very often.

The one exception I could think of is Gillian Anderson, who does it very well. There's an X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully go to a town where, due to some astrology thing, everyone's personalities are accentuated to the nth degree (turning the teen flirts of the high school into man-seducing psychopaths: it's a kind of Buffy meets Amityville Horror deal). Mulder gets even more obnoxious than usual, and Scully minds it much, much more than usual. There's this ongoing fight about the car, and how Scully never gets to drive, and about how far she has to pull up the seat (Gillian Anderson is only slightly taller than me at 5'3" and David Duchovny is over 6'). It's totally hilarious, but it's all played straight. Great stuff.

Back to Columbo: if you want to veg (and yes, in my world, vegging IS okay), check out Columbo: non-demanding, tons and tons of fun.


1 comment:

ZZMike said...

I remember Columbo from the Old Days. Seeing first runs. Waiting for the perpetrator to trip himself up.

Then there's Monk. Shaloub is a fine actor; he makes one of the most irritable people in the world almost likeable. But I can only take him in small doses. (The networks run "Monk Marathons" some holiday weekends. Three shows are enough. I even saw the one where he meets his brother - the guy who makes Monk look like a wild-eyed extrovert.)

I remember a Columbo episode where the writers actually hit you over the head with the Clue: He doesn't know whether the victim is a sulicide or a murder. He's walking through a mall[?] and sees a mother tie her young son's shoes. The scene drags out. Then he realizes that the victim's shoes are tied by someone else. Case closed.

But that's another case of the actor making the role.