Columbo is my mother’s favorite TV show. It — along with Starsky and Hutch and Three’s Company — were among the few American television programs that she watched when she moved from Taiwan to the United States in the late 1970s. My mom was of the mindset that TV would rot young children’s brains, but Columbo, when it came on, was an exception.
My mother isn’t alone, either. Columbo is a show that still holds a lot of weight in the television world. While it certainly feels like a period piece, it hasn’t aged out of entertaining modern television viewers in the way that a lot of other old cop shows have, mostly because of the character of Columbo himself. Here’s a man a little slow to move and a little awkward in speech, but who always seems to get the better of people who’ve succeeded in everything they’ve tried in life. It doesn’t matter how many fancy cars someone has, how powerful a politician might be— if they’re a murderer, Columbo will find them.
Police procedurals often follow the structure of imposing an idea of “fairness” onto an otherwise chaotic reality. A crime is followed by the tracking down of the guilty party and sending them off to be dealt with. The detective is always unquestioned in their judgment, and because the convictions and the rest of the criminal justice process happens off screen, the detective seems only distantly responsible for the darker parts of a criminal’s fate. Because of this, the seemingly clear-cut world that police procedurals function in can serve as a dangerous representation of “justice,” especially considering the realities of the racism and classism that has long permeated both the American justice system and the genre of television that emulates it.
While Columbo does impose an unquestioned justice-focused structure onto a world of crime, the show differs from other police procedurals because of the way the story is structured, who the villains are, and how Columbo himself is portrayed. Lieutenant Columbo doesn’t quite fit in with most police detectives found in procedurals. He doesn’t banter. He refuses to carry a gun (even purposefully dodging a shooting proficiency exam in the episode “Forgotten Lady”). He never dehumanizes the criminals he searches out nor does he hold a personal grudge in most cases. He often even becomes friendly with the guilty parties and usually respects them and their intelligence (when they have it). Sometimes Columbo even builds relationships with them, as he does in “The Conspirators,” when he drinks and plays darts with his leading suspect— of course, it’s through the drinking and playing darts that Columbo gathers the evidence to prove his new friend is the murderer.
Columbo investigates slowly and gently. He doesn’t rush to conclusions. He works at a meandering pace. Because of this, it’s clear that Columbo doesn’t visit a crime scene certain that he already knows who the murderer is and why they did it. In fact, it’s we as the viewers who know the most about the murder alongside the actual murderer. Because each episode of Columbo begins with the murder (as well as the lead up to the murder), we already know the truth of the crime that Columbo must solve. We see who the murderer is, what their motives might be, and whether the crime has been meticulously planned or if it has been carried out in the heat of the moment. Because of this information (that we see with our own eyes), we have total faith in what Columbo discovers in his investigation. There is never any questioning of Columbo and whether or not he’s made a mistake at the end of each episode. He has found the truth, as simply as we have seen it.
Still, as many fans of Columbo will attest, knowing who the murderer is does not ruin the suspense of the show. Instead of caring about who the murderer is in each case, the viewer instead tries to find out how Columbo will solve the mystery, and to their amusement, how he will fit into this new situation. Which brings us to the point that — whatever case Columbo is attempting to solve — he never fits into the environment of his suspects. Columbo always serves as a direct contrast to the people he investigates, who are almost all wealthy and powerful. These people (all murderers, dodging the tricky topic of what types of crimes are prosecuted) are members of society who would normally get away with murder because of their privilege. They’re powerful politicians, wealthy architects, and successful mystery novelists. They’re people who are accustomed to being prioritized and treated in a very specific way.
Columbo, with his ratty old trench coat (which he refuses to upgrade, even when Mrs. Columbo gives him a new one as a gift), cheap cigars, and messy hair, grates against the polished world of his suspects. He doesn’t follow the nuances of high-level politics or the cutthroat infighting of movie making. He doesn’t belong to fancy clubs and is never dressed for fine dining.
Columbo is never purposefully rude to those he encounters, he consistently breaks the unspoken “rules” of wealthy polite society where, if you don’t fit in, you should at least be embarrassed about it. Though Columbo is clearly hyperaware of all that’s going on, he still always seems like he’s without a clue. He brings cheap watercolor paintings to be evaluated by a famous art collector. He looks at a priceless antique and says “My wife has a vase just like this.” He even asks how much things cost and fails to mask his comical surprise at the answer.
In the context of the show, it’s fairly radical that a man like Columbo can win the day every time. Unlike the people who he questions, he doesn’t respond to insults with witty comebacks and can’t tell a valuable antique from a cheap copy. He’s a man who is not supposed to be able to solve this more elevated sort of crime. But he does. Which makes him a bit of a conundrum for the people who want him to be the dumb “working class” man whose incompetence provides them with their escape.
Over time (and many, many episodes), Columbo reveals his hidden depths. He likes to listen to classical music. He can cook. And most importantly, he’s smarter than these murderers are, even if he doesn’t present his intelligence in a way that his suspects value. He infuriates people and tells boring stories about random family members and about his wife about and his dog who he’s named Dog. He rambles instead of getting to the point. Even his trademark “Oh! And one more thing” catchphrase reveals how his existence frustrates the people he encounters. His brilliance (the brilliance that will eventually send each murderer to prison) comes as an afterthought, something said as he’s on his way out of the house, the very last thing on his mind.
These criminals may have all of Columbo’s attention, but he isn’t here to serve them. He isn’t here to put their needs and their impatience first. He’s here to solve a mystery and to make sure that whoever has stooped to murder doesn’t get away with their crime, no matter who they are. And he refuses to mold himself into something that will make the people he encounters more comfortable as he does so.
There’s another version of Columbo where he’d still be working class and wear the same clothes, but he’d be polite. He wouldn’t interrupt people’s fancy dinner parties and he wouldn’t ask silly questions. He’d go after the same villains, but only by playing their game. It’s hard to imagine that this other version of Columbo would have the same brilliance or even the ability within those structures to go after the criminals that the entire system seems to want to let get away.
Columbo’s bumbling nature and his willful ignorance of the rules of polite society don’t only serve as fun character traits that make him memorable, they’re central to the very way that he tracks down his murderers. The villains that Columbo faces are shielded by the system and by propriety. It’s Columbo’s ability to be underestimated, to refuse to be intimidated (or even notice when he’s being intimidated), to be out of place and comfortable with it, that makes him the detective that unveils murderers who would have gotten away if only everyone had been polite about it.