Characters come to life as a collaboration between writers, actors, directors, and the production crew, but with the passing of Peter Falk, I had to stop and wonder what made Columbo so memorable as a character. Much about the Columbo format was interesting: they showed you who and how at the beginning, and the surprise would be in the discovery. The reveal was in how Columbo would get the killer. At the time, it was a very new format.
Columbo, too, was special. And the reason? As he appeared, American society was becoming self- and image-obsessed. Columbo wasn’t. He was obsessed with things other than himself. Monk, another fictional detective, is also obsessed, but his obsession is at least partly about himself and the effects germs might have on him. In a world where Catherine Zeta Jones sued the paparazzi who *dared* to release a picture of her eating cake *at her own wedding* because of the worry of what it would do to her image, Columbo shuffled around in a crappy raincoat, with disheveled hair, five o’clock shadow, in a shitty car.
He offered us a break from people who think only about themselves, the way they look, and how their latest purchase defines them.
Moreover, he occupied his professional position because of merit. That much was clear. He wasn’t articulate. Sucking up didn’t appear to be one of his skills. Rather, he bothered people. It was never clear whether he knew how irritating he was. Columbo was deceptively competent–and somebody had the sense to reward that with a position that fit Columbo rather than letting an important job go to a pretty-boy ass-kisser. It’s reassuring to think that maybe those kind of people are in positions of authority somewhere–instead of the ones who usually do, in fact, give important jobs to their pretty-boy, golf-playing, ass-kissing buddies regardless of how competent they are.
He was devoted to his family, his wife, and his lazy dog. There was an infinite supply of Columbo cousins and nephews upon which he drew.
There’s quite a bit to admire about this character, especially given that he also always got his “man.”