[Editor's note: On rare occasions, I present guest blogs assigned to former students from Rowan University -- ones whose writing and perspective display exceptional potential. This latest entry comes from Valerie Balock, and is about her recent, enthusiastic discovery and embrace of Columbo, that classic 1970s TV series.... - DB]
By Valerie Balock
He’s a short man in a rumpled raincoat with a New York accent and a cigar problem. He’s also the best detective in Los Angeles. I’m talking, of course, about Lieutenant Columbo, the titular character of a series of made-for-TV crime movies that ran from the late sixties until 2003.
Over the course of network changes and decades of production, only Peter Falk, who plays Columbo, is constant, ever the small disheveled man who cooks the bereaved an omelette and asks an awful lot of questions. As someone who grew up watching crime television such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Columbo is a welcome reprieve from the grit and edge of modern detective thrillers.
A lot of affection for the show comes from affection for the character himself. Columbo is considerate to the point of fault, making an omelette for the wife of the victim because he’s concerned that she hasn’t eaten. Even when an innocent person lies to him about the case, to protect themselves from judgment, he doesn’t get angry. Instead, he gets a look on his face like a parent; he’s not mad, just disappointed.
He’s also smart, in a subtle way that’s not apparent to those he’s pursuing. He always asks the right questions, something we the audience know because we see the murder happen, so we know what he should be looking for. It doesn’t hurt that he’s funny, either, even unintentionally so. Sometimes, and I feel so bad for laughing, Columbo will look up from something and Peter Falk’s glass eye will be facing the wrong direction, giving him a cockeyed look that keeps him real and humorous, instead of some stiff cop from a modern crime drama.
Aside from having an extremely likable main character, Columbo is notable for the quality of the show itself. The first two episodes of the first season are especially exemplary, the first being one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest directorial efforts. The first episode features well-thought-out shots and several close-ups, things that Spielberg would eventually become known for. It also has some of the best writing of the series - in this case, by future Hill Street Blues co-creator Steven Bochco.
However, it is the second episode that features my favorite moment of the entire series. Robert Culp, in the first of his four appearances on the show, has just killed someone, and his face goes still as we watch him dispose of the body and clean up the crime scene in the reflection of his glasses. It’s an innovative storytelling technique, one that I haven’t seen replicated or imitated anywhere else. And it is one of the many excellent storytelling moments to be had on Columbo.
Although it was created almost 50 years ago in 1968, Columbo retains a freshness and innovation that can’t be found in other crime dramas. It’s thrilling, perplexing, and at times even funny.
Given the choice, I would pick this show over any crime show on television today.
Valerie Balock is a recent graduate of Rowan University and an aspiring TV critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.