TV review: Columbo

Long time readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of murder mysteries. Starting in the early 1970s, there was a TV crime procedural set in Los Angeles featuring Peter Falk as a homicide detective named Columbo. Wearing a crumpled beige raincoat, tie askew, a cigar, and a perpetual puzzled expression on his face, he became a cultural icon. I wrote a brief appreciation of the show and Falk when he died in 2011

What made this show distinctive from other crime shows is that there was no mystery at all. The opening sequence showed the murderer committing the crime and covering it up. The rest of the show was about how Columbo identified the murderer and pinned it on them. The stories always seemed to take place with the wealthiest of people in high society living in opulent houses and driving expensive cars, a stark contrast in class to the clearly blue collar Columbo who drove a beaten up and unwashed Peugeot convertible. We never saw his own home and although he frequently talked about his wife and other family members, they were never shown. I liked the fact that his personal life was not a part of the show. In some modern shows, the drama in the detectives’ personal lives sometimes overshadows the crime story. I also liked the fact that any violence was always off-screen and there was no blood and gore, no chases, or any of the other tropes of police shows.

There are several advantages to this form of detective story in contrast to the traditional one in which the audience does not know who did it until the end. In those stories, in order to maintain the suspense, one needs a large cast with many people having the means, motives and opportunities to commit the crime, which tends to lead to implausible plot lines in order to create the surprise at the end. Columbo usually had an idea of who was guilty and then played a game of cat and mouse with them, with them getting increasingly irritated, in order to get them to trip and provide the incriminating evidence, often aided by the fact that the murderer underestimated him, mistaking his shabby appearance and non sequitur laden conversation for incompetence.

TV shows such as this with just one or a few main regular characters use fairly well-known guest stars to flesh out each episode. In the traditional format, the main guest star cannot have too large a role because it would be too obvious that they were the murderer. In Columbo, the guest star is the murderer and with Falk shares most of the screen time.

I was not in the US when this series originally aired and had seen just a couple of episodes in reruns. I recently discovered that Peacock TV has the full series as part of its free streaming service and I have started watching all of them. The nice thing about this is that apart from being free, there are very few commercials. In the roughly 75-minute episodes of Columbo, there are usually just about four commercial breaks of about one-minute each and some episodes have no commercials at all.

Here is a scene from one episode with guest star Dick Van Dyke that gives you a good flavor of the show.


  1. johnson catman says

    I enjoy the Columbo shows, but my wife finds him irritating. So I will catch an episode here and there when she is not in the room. I also like the original Perry Mason series with Raymond Burr. It is in black and white because it only ran through the mid 1960s and didn’t make the transition to color, though it did have one test episode in color. If you haven’t seen the series, it is worth a look.

  2. john doyle says

    At the turn of the century (OMG, I get to use that), I worked with an actor, Michael Pasternak
    who would do a spot-on Columbo for corporate clients.

  3. avalus says

    Columbo is pretty much my favorite crime show just because it did not do the contrived “who is the murderer” mystery.

  4. dean56 says

    There are some good things on free streaming services. I’ve been watching the early 2000s run of Battlestar Galactica on Tubi (I can handle occasional ads). I will admit I’m a sucker for very cheese monster and science fiction movies, and they also have a slew of those together with documentaries about the people that made them and related items.

    Not directly related to Columbo, which I liked, so I owe an apology for that.

  5. Mano Singham says

    johnson ##1,

    I am sensitive to writers who overload their characters with too many quirks and tics in the effort to make them ‘interesting’ but I think Columbo does not go too far in that direction, just enough for humorous purposes. I did find the character Monk irritating and gave up after a few episodes.

  6. K.Swamy says

    Don’t forget Barnaby Jones, Canon & Mannix just to name a dew. These were my staple TV shows that I grew up with. Columbo is still my all time favorite.

  7. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    Oh great. Thanks for telling me about Tubi. BSG, MST3K, Elvira, etc. Now I’ll never get anything done.

  8. prl says

    What made this show distinctive from other crime shows is that there was no mystery at all. The opening sequence showed the murderer committing the crime and covering it up.

    That’s an inverted detective story: “An inverted detective story, also known as a “howcatchem”, is a murder mystery fiction structure in which the commission of the crime is shown or described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator.” Police procedurals are sometimes in that form.
    The Wikipedia entry on inverted detective stories mentions Columbo as an example, but it is by no means the earliest, or latest, one.

  9. Silentbob says

    Good post Mano. So you like murder mysteries? Interesting that that’s a thing that catches your attention. I wonder what inspired this interest. Anyway, I’ll see myself out.

    Oh, just before I go -- one last question…

  10. shanti says

    Columbo my favourite detective program too. I love the character he plays always so polite despite the suspects
    treating him like a fool and a joke. I think Columbo has a total of 69 episodes unfortunately in Sri Lanka
    they started showing the program again recently and was enjoying watching them but suddenly stopped after
    about 10 episodes. We do not have Peacock TV here so not sure whether it will resume again

  11. crivitz says

    If you’re unable to watch Peacock, Columbo also streams free with ads on the IMDb TV streaming service, which I’ve been watching via Amazon Fire TV.

    It’s a show that I didn’t much care for as a kid when it was originally broadcast in the 1970s, but is kind of fun to watch nowadays. I’ve been slowly making my way thru each episode chronologically for over a year now and I’m on season 3 now.

  12. says

    Have you ever seen Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier in Sleuth? Its a murder mystery and it’s got a lot of mindfuck and some very good acting.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Marcus @#12,

    Yeah, I saw Sleuth and it was terrific. Because I am such a fan of mysteries, I was able to guess what was going on about three-quarters of the way through but it still was thoroughly enjoyable.

    I would recommend that anyone who gets the chance to see it should do so.

  14. mnb0 says

    “What made this show distinctive from other crime shows is that there was no mystery at all. The opening sequence showed the murderer committing the crime and covering it up.”
    @8 beat me to it; the genre Columbo belongs to is a pretty old genre, so no, that’s not what made Columbo distinctive. That honour wholly goes to Peter Falk.
    My all time favourite genre, French crime noir, never is a mystery. It’s no “howcatchem” either; it’s “howcrimesgowrong”.

    Sleuth is excellent indeed. I’m somewhat surprised, MS, that you never have mentioned (or perhaps I missed it)

  15. flex says

    The inventor of the inverted detective story, like Colombo, was the now largely forgotten author, R. Austin Freeman.

    Freeman was a medical doctor who joined England’s Colonial Service, served in Africa until he was invalided home after coming down with blackwater fever. His service in Africa, and with it the exposure to the indigenous people there, freed him from some of the more overt prejudices against Africans. However, interestingly enough, he retained a lot of the, typical for the time, prejudice against people of Eastern European descent as well as people of Jewish descent.

    While he wrote a good bit of other fiction, he is most well known for the creation of Dr. Thorndyke. The character Dr. Thorndyke was someone who we would now call a forensic specialist, but at Freeman’s conception of Dr. Thorndyke was of a medical doctor who also trained as a barrister. With the usual author’s license Dr. Thorndyke was imbued with whatever knowledge was necessary to solve the crime, whether the knowledge required was of the latest photographic techniques, or the types and ranges of inland snails, or the exploration of deneholes in Kent. This is, of course, an author’s conceit, but probably necessary when a recurring character is used to solve mysteries by using scientific methods.

    I don’t usually recommend R. Austin Freeman’s work; the racism and anti-Semitism isn’t so blatant as to be repulsive but it pervades his works so subtly that it could reinforce the opinions of someone who already leans toward those erroneous beliefs. Freeman was also a strong supporter of the eugenics movement, and wrote a couple books suggesting that the ‘criminal classes’ were the result of genetic disposition and should be culled from the human species. These ideas are, of course, completely debunked today and if Freeman was alive today and espoused the same ideas, he would be considered a white supremacist. That being said, I feel it would be quite likely that had Freemen lived in the present day, he probably would not have adopted those views. I can condemn the beliefs of a previous age while recognizing that the inhabitants of that age, being intelligent individuals, might have held different views had they been exposed to different knowledge. That doesn’t excuse their beliefs, but does encourage some forgiveness for their holding them.

    After that preamble, I would submit that the novel, Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight is both an excellent example of an inverted detective story, as well as a good read. It is available, in the public domain, from Project Gutenberg Australia. The Australian Project Gutenberg site hosts a great many detective novels from the early twentieth century. Some of them are worth reading.

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