I’m always calling Columbo the gold standard of detective shows, the one that has seeped into pop culture, the most quotable main character that everyone thinks they can do an impression of, the one everyone compares themselves to when they solve even the smallest mystery. I decided to watch the pilot, written by Stephen Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg, to see if it was worth all the hype and how it would stack up today.
The first thing that strikes you about Columbo is that you know who did it from the first minute. The trick is keeping you interested for the next hour and a bit, by unravelling what always starts off as the perfect crime.
And it takes a master craftsman to keep you entertained in this situation. In the pilot, the killer is an author of a series of murder mystery books, and he murders his writing partner with a sneaky alibi that involves relaying a phone call from somewhere else to make it look as if he was in a different place. Cutting edge at the time I’m sure.
Columbo’s entrance was as cool as ever, helping the wife of the deceased writer collect herself, and get some water. I have watched quite a bit of Columbo over the years, but I don’t remember the lead character collaborating with someone as much as in this pilot. He openly discusses his theories with the wife, in a way we only see today with the “team” in Criminal Minds, CSI and all the other clones.
Columbo also harassed the suspect in now trademark fashion, using all the famous quotes like “just one more thing”, and “my wife loves…”. It was this badgering that made the suspect make a mistake, killing a witness to the event and leaving too many clues lying around. It was at this point that I thought the changes in forensics would have been exposed, but no, they noticed all the little things back then, like the fact that the woman didn’t drown, she was killed earlier by a blow to the head (or blunt force trauma as we would say today). All that was left was the trademark confession and arrest, with the killer sounding off about how he would have had it all and blah blah blah.
It was a good episode that setup this character perfectly, you knew exactly what you were getting and you were with Columbo all the way. Spielberg’s direction was hardly noticeable back then, I imagine today he would have set Columbo in a future dystopia and given him rippling muscles or a cute robot/alien sidekick. The closest thing around today is probably Monk, but with a less serious tone. Columbo has stood the test of time with ease. But as we all know, just being good isn’t enough to survive today. In 2007 I wager this would have been put on hiatus after 8 or 9 episodes, retooled with Columbo getting a fast car and a sexy wife called Pepsi, lost its hardcore viewership and been canceled within a few months. So there, make of that what you will.
Buy Columbo season 1 from any good DVD store… and even some crappy ones.