In the slightly shambling detective Columbo, the late Peter Falk created onew of the more memorable crime fighters of his time in a series that was also unique in its aproach to police drama.
Peter Falk's legacy: a raincoat for the common man
When Peter Falk died last week, there were plenty of plaudits for his most famous work as the seemingly slow-witted, cigar-smoking Los Angeles police lieutenant Columbo. And rightly so: Falk played this cunning detective with all the nous of someone who had already garnered two previous Oscar nominations for Murder Inc and Pocketful of Miracles. But there was also a more general feeling of loss, a nostalgic sense that they don’t make television detective series quite like Columbo any more.
Lieutenant Columbo’s shabby attire (which Falk happily admitted came from his own wardrobe) and shambling demeanour were a world away from the flashy aesthetic of CSI’s band of crime-fighting forensic scientists, who arrive at work with sharp clothing and sharper teeth. The deceptively polite manner with which Columbo played his arrogant suspects was at complete odds with the swearing, confrontational cops of The Wire, even if Jimmy McNulty and his colleagues can often seem just as dishevelled.
Columbo, then, is from a different time – and, to be fair, it would be difficult for any programme that first aired in 1968 to maintain relevance. But when the repeats were judged safe enough to be broadcast on daytime television it suggested that this was the kind of inoffensive, undemanding police drama which wouldn’t put anyone off their tea and biscuits. The last time I heard Falk utter his immortal “just one more thing” line was in a doctor’s waiting room, one afternoon.
Still, Columbo did have his glory years, and they were in the 1970s. As detective shows with just a smidgen of humour and nudge-wink enjoyment go, this was something of a halcyon period. Kojak (1973-78) was another cop-with-a-catchphrase (in Telly Savalas’s case, “who loves ya baby”) and a visual joke: for Falk’s raincoat read Savalas’s lollipop. Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak also introduced us to the maverick investigator unafraid to bend police rules to get his man – something echoed in Starsky and Hutch, and much later, NYPD Blue and The Wire. But Kojak’s attitude was there to serve the entertainment of the story rather than make gritty social comment.
Columbo, Kojak... by their titles alone, 1970s police shows were very obviously character-driven, concerned with the actions of a specific detective nailing those up to no good. There was also corpulent Frank Cannon, hero of Cannon, whose expensive tastes perhaps mirrored Kojak’s predilection for lollipops or Columbo’s weakness for a cigar. Ironside, unsurprisingly, was centred on the crime-fighting skills of the wheelchair-bound Detective Chief Robert T Ironside.
The landscape in 2011 is very different. Admittedly, Dexter follows the life of police forensics expert Dexter Morgan. But then, he does brutally murder guilty criminals rather than allow justice to take its natural course. Otherwise, a quick look at the schedules reveals that we now overwhelmingly prefer televisual crime-solving to be a group effort, preferably involving whizzy methods used in Crime Scene Investigations bureaux. Such a shift is not really so much of a surprise. When you’ve got a long-running drama series to fill up with storylines, it helps if you can detract from the notion that all police procedurals are essentially based on the same idea – find the criminal – and perhaps encourage the notion that melodramatic relationship issues are as interesting as the crime-solving.
But if there’s one detective drama that does stand apart somewhat, it’s actually Columbo. It might be deemed daytime fare these days, but it remains hugely innovative in one key way: it wasn’t a traditional whodunit but, as the show’s creators once described it, a “howdhecatchem”.
In other words, right from the start of every show, we knew the identity of the criminal. The drama lay in how Columbo would expose him or her – and also in seeing how the investigation played out from the culprit’s point of view. Of the high-profile police dramas that followed, only Law and Order: Criminal Intent (which finally ended last week) has tried anything similar – and even then only in a select number of storylines.
So, happily, Peter Falk’s stirling work on the show that defined him remains unique. And in a world where so many detective dramas are indistinguishable from one another, that’s quite an achievement.
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