(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: Columbo
Where You Can Stream It: Peacock, Amazon Prime via IMDB TV
The Pitch: A rumpled police detective solves a murder committed by a wealthy perpetrator who underestimates the blue-collar cop, leading them to be caught red-handed.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: I’d long heard of Columbo, it’s one of those classic crime procedurals that always makes the top TV lists that I’d never seen — except when it would occasionally pop up in the background at my grandmother’s house. But there was a strange uptick in Columbo chatter early in this pandemic, when everyone started to swear off all cop shows…except Columbo. The crime drama series starring Peter Falk as the cigar-chomping detective had become an unlikely quarantine hit, mostly because it provided the easy escapism of a murder mystery (the culprit gets caught in an hour and a half or less!) but also because it’s just that good.
There’s something about Columbo that makes me want to put my entire life on hold so that I can cuddle under a blanket and spend an entire summer watching Peter Falk wander around giant L.A. mansions solving crimes. Even before I finally pressed play on the 1968 pilot episode “Prescription: Murder,” I felt this way — like I had nostalgia for a show I’d never watched.
And I was validated as I watched this hour-and-a-half pilot, which doesn’t even introduce our titular detective until nearly halfway through the episode. Instead, it’s almost lazily paced, the culprit (Gene Barry) carrying out the carefully planned murder of his wife (Nina Foch) with the help of his mistress (Katherine Justice). I would learn later on that Columbo helped pioneer the popularity of the “howcatchem,” or the inverted detective mystery, but it didn’t matter to me that we the audience already knew the killer and were just waiting for Columbo to catch up. I wanted to just hang out here forever. Columbo is a surprisingly mellow, low-key crime drama — one where the sunny glamour of Los Angeles hides the rotten core. And Columbo, in his fumbling, rambling, cigar-chomping glory, is there to expose it. It adds to the comforting feeling, that you know where this episode will inevitably end up, but it’s just so fun to find out how it gets there.
Somewhere between comfort and ~cinema~ there’s Columbo. A prestigious drama series before prestige TV became a thing, Columbo is the kind of easy viewing that offers a brief escape from reality without making you feel guilty (the fact that Columbo always catches rich people is a plus) but it’s got the pedigree (and the great-looking cinematography, hello!) to keep you watching. Falk is the obvious draw, winning four Emmys and a Golden Globe for his performance as the unassuming detective who always gets his man/woman, but there’s a murderer’s row of talent that joins him behind and in front of the camera: his longtime collaborator John Cassavetes, a young Steven Spielberg directing, or ’70s A-listers like Faye Dunaway, Vincent Price, Leonard Nimoy making guest appearances. (I can’t tell you how excited I am to get to the Nimoy episode.)
But in this climate’s deluge of bad real-life cops and sad fictional cops, there’s something beautiful about Falk’s inelegant, perceptive, pretty happy-to-be-here Columbo. He’s not hard-boiled, he’s not wrestling with the ghosts of his past. He’s just a little bothered by the unusual details of this case, and he’s going to annoy this rich person into incriminating him or herself if it’s the last thing he does.
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