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.