Review of the television series Columbo, created by William Link and Richard Levinson
Recently, I found myself in (temporary) possession of Columbo: The Complete Series on DVD, and I confess it’s consumed more of my time than is probably optimal. If you’re anything like me, you have fond memories of watching Peter Falk pester murderers with a never-ending stream of ‘just one more’ question. I’m happy to report that the series is, in fact, just as good as I remembered it to be. And apparently I was not the only one who appreciated the program: between its original 7-season run and the TV movies of the 1990s, Columbo netted an impressive number of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, including 14 nominations and 5 wins (1 Golden Globe and 4 Emmys) for Falk’s portrayal of the rumpled detective.
Here’s a summary of the show, for those of you who’ve forgotten or who aren’t familiar with it (in which case, you’re missing out on something wonderful, and I highly recommend that you rectify this oversight. Fortunately for you, season 1 is currently available on Amazon Prime. Go watch it).
Lieutenant Columbo is a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Every episode begins with a murder. Unlike most procedurals, the audience knows right from the get-go whodunit. The murderer is usually played by a very charismatic (and fairly famous) actor or actress—over the years, such gems as Ray Milland, Robert Culp, Roddy McDowell, Faye Dunaway, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, George Hamilton, Tyne Daly, Martin Landau, Dick Van Dyke, Ed Begley, Jr., and Dabney Coleman have hammed it up opposite Falk’s Columbo. The rest of the episode plays out as something of a cat-and-mouse game wherein the clever and confident killer gradually discovers—to his or her great annoyance—that the apparently bumbling Columbo is far more astute than he seems. Columbo’s particular style of investigation involves allowing (or even encouraging) the suspect to underestimate him, which makes the final exposure of the culprit all the more enjoyable.
See, Columbo, he doesn’t look like much. Clad in a wrinkled raincoat and cheap suit, puttering around town in a decrepit and faded old Peugeot, he’s easily dismissed as an incompetent and unobservant nonentity—hardly a threat to a self-possessed and intelligent murderer. After all, he can never find a pen—or a match for the cigars he’s perpetually trying to light. He loses his train of thought every five minutes, and professes befuddlement at the circumstances surrounding murders he’s assigned to investigate. But those who sneer at his demeanor and his dress soon learn that Columbo is not what he seems.
Time and time again, the disheveled Columbo brings the rich and powerful to their knees. All their schemes, all their arrogance, and all their fame and money and influence—none of it is a match for Columbo’s investigative prowess in the service of justice. He’s not wealthy, he’s not well-dressed or sophisticated or attractive, but he has right on his side (and the entire police department and justice system). So the mighty are brought low—a concept which is by no means unfamiliar to Christians. (Job 5:12-13; Psalm 37; Prov. 29:16, 23)
However, as I watched through the old episodes and bask in the deliciously evil performances of the murderers (to say nothing of the hilarious 70’s fashion), I was struck by Columbo’s patience in the face of near-constant derision, scorn, and mockery. People take one look at the raincoat and the car, at the unprepossessing manner, and decide that Columbo is not worthy of their respect. He endures snide remarks by the boatload. The wealthy and powerful individuals involved in his cases demean him to his superiors and try to have him thrown off the case. They laugh at him to his face, and they talk to him like he’s five years old.
And how does he respond? He accepts their condescending suggestions and reprimands with humility—sometimes he even seems grateful. He is unfailingly polite and courteous, even in the face of rudeness, anger, and spite. He often acquiesces in the criticisms of others, and laughs along at jokes made at his expense, even though they are none-too-kindly meant. And it’s not because he’s oblivious to their scorn. He knows exactly what they think of him, and it doesn’t seem to bother him one particle.
Why? Because theirs is not the opinion that counts. Columbo is there to do a job—to solve a crime. It’s something he does well, and he knows it. His supervisors know it. He doesn’t care about the approval of the wealthy snots he’s investigating, because he doesn’t work for them. He knows what matters to his employer, and that’s what he focuses on. His pride is never wounded, his goat is never gotten, and his ego is never on the line, for the simple reason that nothing any of these people do in any way affects his identity as a police detective. The most malicious barb is easily deflected, like so much water off a duck’s back.
I wish I could say the same thing about myself. After all, I too have an Employer, a Boss whose good opinion I value (or should value) more than anyone else’s. (Gal. 1:10) If I were truly focused on pleasing Him, then the opinions of others—particularly the unjustly negative opinions of others—would not trouble me. But they do. When someone criticizes me or attacks me or disrespects me, I want to justify myself. I want to defend my good name. I want to strike back. I want to convince the world that they’ve got it all wrong.
But why do I care so much about the world’s opinion, anyway? I’m just doing my job. My job is to represent the gospel well in this world—to believe that Christ died in my place for my sins, to act in a manner consistent with that belief, and to tell others the good news. If in the course of doing that job, I am unfairly maligned, disrespected, or misjudged, well, what do I care?
Now, I realize that, to some extent, part of representing the gospel well is getting along with folks. (Rom. 12:18) We don’t want our obnoxiousness to get in the way or to deter people from faith. But we have to remember that the gospel itself is inherently obnoxious to those who are perishing. (I Cor. 1:18) So even if we’re being as nice and kind and peaceable as we can be, there are going to be some folks who deride us, who hate us, and who say all manner of false things against us. (Matt. 5:11)
But you know what? That’s ok. Our Boss knows the truth. And in the end, His opinion is the one that matters. And He will give praise where praise is due. (Matt. 25:23) In the meantime, let’s try to do our jobs well.
Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.