Mystery is having something of a revitalization right now, and Rian Johnson is leading the charge with his whodunit successes, Knives Out and Glass Onion. Now, Johnson’s new Peacock show, Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne, is bringing renewed interest to the classic mystery-of-the-week format.
One beloved gumshoe series in particular, Columbo, keeps coming up in the conversation. Both Charlie Cale and Detective Columbo take down powerful figures with an unassuming detective style. Their opponents underestimated their crime-fighting aptitude, resulting in their downfall and another case solved for the charismatic detectives by episode’s end.
While the love for Poker Face brims over, many fans are now seeking out this decade spanning, Peter Falk series. As someone who considers Columbo an all-time favorite show, I have some helpful warnings for new viewers. Simple considerations to help you get the most out of your Columbo-watching experience.
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The first 20 minutes of each episode is the worst part
The first thing that might surprise someone watching Columbo for the first time is that Peter Falk doesn’t usually show up until about 20 minute into the episode. The exact time varies, but for those curious, a fan has painstakingly charted out Columbo’s arrival in every episode here. For me, this part of the show, before Peter Falk shows up, is the worst part.
Die-hard fans would balk at this assertion; claiming this section is essential. Unlike most mysteries, Columbo is not a whodunit, but instead, a “how catch ’em.” This first part of the show is to establish the murder and perpetrator. Here’s the thing though, ultimately Columbo solves the murder with clues that have little to do with these introductory scenes. I’m watching the show to see Detective Columbo. If the show was called “John the Evil CEO Murderer” I wouldn’t be spending my time with it. Especially not 20 minutes, right off the bat.
There are practical reasons for this structure of course. This wasn’t a standard hour length television program, but more of a occasional special, part of The NBC Mystery Movie, or later The ABC Mystery Movie, with “episodes” running 70 to 98 minutes. So there was time to kill, but today’s audiences expect a brisker pace. I’d suggest skimming through or skipping the introductions that don’t grip you right away; get right to the murder scene and move on. All that said, I love Columbo, and many of the intros are worth watching, but everything really comes down to this next factor…
The celebrity killer makes or breaks each episode
Just behind Columbo’s lovable star, the second biggest reason to watch a new episode was to see which new celebrity would be playing the murderer. The show pulled from a reliable bullpen of then-current TV notables, Golden Age movie stars, musicians, and character actors. Casting, that under appreciated art form, defined the quality of each episode of Columbo in this way. It was a gamble to rely on the guest star to carry the show, but this format benefits the modern viewer, allowing them to watch the episodes in any order they see fit.
Here are a few great episode-picking strategies that will keep you watching Columbo:
- Follow “best episodes” lists online.
- Or, you could check the full list of celebrity murderers, and pick the actors you’re most interested in.
- Or, you can follow what I’d call the “Repeat Offenders” strategy. Start with the episodes starring the five actors who appeared in more than one episode. They play completely different killer each time they appear, adding extra meta-enjoyment as you review their different episodes against each other.
There were five actors who made multiple appearances: William Shatner (2), George Hamilton (2), Jack Cassidy (3), Robert Culp (3), and my favorite, Patrick McGoohan, who played four different murderers, spanning more than two decades between episodes.
McGoohan was the star of 60’s cult classic, The Prisoner (another of my all-time favorite shows) and a close real-life friend of Peter Falk. Their admiration for each other is apparent on screen, and watching McGoohan recreate himself for each of his four episodes is a joy.
Columbo’s quirks are the parts people remember
“Just one more thing,” smoking cigars, eating chili, talking about an unseen wife, and doting on a droopy dog named “Dog.” These are Columbo’s quirks that people remember about the show. They’re the fun little details that made him an internationally beloved character, but the show wouldn’t be considered the timeless classic it is today if that was all it had going for it. If anyone other than Falk was the lead, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about the show today–And yes, I know that the character was technically first portrayed by another actor, Bert Freed, on a random mystery-anthology show in 1960, but you know what I mean.
If Falk wasn’t such an amazing actor, all the fun character traits we remember would have come off as cheap gimmicks. The man had chops. He was a close friend and collaborator of lauded director and actor, John Cassavetes. Falk starred in his fantastic film, A Women Under the Influence, among others. (Cassavetes appeared in what many consider the greatest episode of Columbo, Étude in Black.) Another fantastic film, The In-Laws, (also in the Criterion Collection) finds him opposite Alan Arkin, putting Falk’s comedic talents to excellent use with that amazing script.
Expect a laid back experience
Timeless that it may be, Columbo is still a television show of a bygone era. Its relaxed pace is another wonderful aspect of the show, but it’s worth mentioning the laid back experience you’re in for. Columbo’s whole vibe is relaxed. If that’s what you’re expecting, you’ll be a happy viewer.
All this said, I’m thrilled for the renewed interest in one of my favorite shows, and I hope everyone finds the time to check it out. The best news is you can watch most of the show for free on Tubi here.