Mallory Ortberg: The Case For Making Columbo America’s Doctor Who: "'I worry. I mean, little things bother me. I’m a worrier. I mean, little insignificant details — I lose my appetite. I can’t eat. My wife, she says to me, “You know, you can really be a pain.”' - Lt. Columbo, Ransom For A Dead Man
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves; be therefore as cunning as serpents and as harmless as doves.” - Matthew 10:16
I have a specific axe to grind; I will not attempt to disguise my motives. It is my belief that we live in an era of entirely too many Sherlock Holmes adaptations and not nearly enough Columbo adaptations. Moreover, I believe that this modern proliferation of Sherlocks — the BBC’s Sherlock, of course, but also the recent Robert Downey, Jr. films and Elementary – is the reason we have no Columbo film franchises, no new Columbo TV series, no Columbo-Cons. If you will pardon the colloquialism, it is the Cumberbitches who are holding down the Columbros. I say this as someone who still enjoys a good trip to Baker Street every now and again: we must love Sherlock a little less, that we might love Columbo a little more....
Lt. Columbo has been described as “scruffy,” “rumpled,” “modest,” “schlumpy,” “little,” “inconsequential,” “anti-zeitgeist,” and “the lunchbox detective.” Do you not already love him? How many detective stories have you read, how many mystery movies have you sat through, how many rentless bummers of police procedurals have you endured where the super-sleuth’s eagle eyes are constantly flashing above his expensive, attractive peacoat? Where is he getting the money for all those expensive peacoats? Why is he constantly being invited to ducal receptions and international cocktail parties?
Not so Columbo. No dour, cocaine-addled super-brain is he; no arch and upwardly mobile cocktail-swiller, no Belgian. He is as American as American can be in the best possible sense. There is — unlike almost every other detective in the canon, from Marlowe onward — a moral lightness and an untroubled heart at the core of him, an innate goodness that resonates outward and either puts people at ease or deeply unsettles them, as their own consciences dictate. Remember in Julius Caesar when Caesar tells Antony he trusts “Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights”? Columbo is perhaps the only fictional detective one can imagine sleeps soundly at night. Columbo is the detective of the people; Sherlock is a detective solely for himself. There is a great humanity to Columbo. He is as morally pure as Jessica Fletcher, although not of her social class.
And do not allow yourself to believe for even one second that there are not deeply classist, capitalist reasons Sherlock abounds in this day and age of ours, while Columbo does not. Sherlock is more often than not nowadays played as relatively young and good-looking, self-aggrandizing and mercurial and aristocratic, a troubled genius too good for the idiotic plebes that surround him; Columbo is blue-collar and humble. Real Marxists love Columbo.
From “A Cop Like No Other“:
There was always a subtle level of class warfare in each Columbo. The killers were usually rich, powerful, and openly disdainful of this blue-collar bumbler who just wouldn’t go away. To watch each of them slowly come to realize, in horror and desperation, that Columbo was smarter than they had ever imagined was pure joy.
From “Lt. Columbo, Class Warrior“:
Ever notice how this Los Angeles homicide detective never had a case in which a gas station attendant beat his wife to death or two drug dealers had a fatal shootout? The villains are uniformly movie producers, physicians, famous writers, monied gentry and globe-trotting business people. They are also usually good looking and well dressed, and look down on the rumpled, uncouth, Columbo, so clearly out of place in “their” world.
And of course we the audience know they are underestimating our hero, who despite outward appearances is morally and intellectually superior to them. They send him on wild goose chases and he doggedly checks each out (“Yes, sir, we did look into your theory of mobsters, we questioned 100 of them and none of them were involved”), because he is a dedicated working class guy who unlike the upper crust suspects, isn’t sloppy or arrogant enough to forget that one critical detail that undoes the whole endeavor. There are many conversations in the series that are suffused with class resentment. Columbo asks one villain “How much does a home like this cost?” and when he finds out says “Oh, sir, I could never afford that on a policeman’s salary.” And we love these exchanges, because we know that this working class hero is still conning his prey, and he’s going to bring that smug, rich S.O.B. down in the end.
Columbo says things like “Watch my hand, it’s full of grease. This is my dinner. Would you like a piece of chicken?” to suspects. He is deliberate. He moves at the pace of justice. Unflagging, unwearying, unrelenting; he is the Anton Chigurh of goodness. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards Columbo. It is his fundamental goodness, as much as his native intelligence, that make him a good detective. He is not a remote genius; he is not a refined gentleman; he is a good man, and it is this that makes him not just a good detective but my detective. He is America’s detective. A good and a quiet man who brings his own lunch and will not go away until order is restored.
But how to reboot Columbo, a show (series of miniseries? String of TV movies?) so closely associated with its original star? Of course Peter Falk is untouchable by a magnitude of several light-years as the original Columbo. He need never be imitated; his legacy is entirely safe. The answer, of course, is to turn Columbo into America’s Doctor Who (but, you know, good): reboot it every five to ten years with an entirely new detective, a bit more gently grizzled than the detective who came before, but always with the same trench coat and glass eye. Fading movie stars could rejuvenate their careers with a single guest appearance as an upper-class murderer.
I dare you to look me square in the eye and tell me you would not watch Kathy Bates in a rumpled old trenchcoat trying to keep track of her notes among the young and beautiful and murderous. Or Giancarlo Esposito. Or Jake Johnson from New Girl in about fifteen years. Rhea Perlman. Sam Rockwell, that beautiful weirdo. JOHN C. REILLY. Danny Pudi, in about eight years. An unshaven Stanley Tucci. Danny Trejo. Richard Kind. Margo Martindale. John Cho. Each one would bring a different characteristic of Columbo’s to the forefront — his core kindness, his feigned absent-mindedness, his needling slyness, his love for animals, his whimsy, his native intelligence, his love for cigars.
There have been sixty mabrillion hours of new Sherlock with forty gatrangulon hours of gay ship-tease that will never be realized, and all I ask for is one perfect reincarnation of Columbo. The first re-installment could be called Just One More Thing. I am handing you perfection on a damn platter. Take it with both hands.