I love a waste of time


Every Sunday afternoon, I make sure I wake up by at least four o’clock so I can catch an old Columbo movie on Sun TV. I love Columbo. What’s not to love about a detective who, although unfailingly polite, irritates criminals by getting off-topic and wasting their time until they get so exasperated they blurt out a confession in a fit of apoplexy? (Unless you’re a criminal, of course.)

The whole time-wasting thing is inherent to the show. Each two-hour movie is like an hour of Columbo and an hour of Columbo. It’s an hour-long television show plus an hour of an actor just killing time and inhabiting his character. We end up learning a lot about that character that way—for example, that he can’t swim, is afraid of heights, and is the only Italian in the world who can’t sing—although we never definitively learn his first name, oddly enough. There are always several moments in every episode that have little or nothing to do with the plot and go on forever. He’ll tell winding, pointless stories about the never-seen1 Mrs. Columbo and her habits, ideas, and likes and dislikes. Or his battered old jalopy will get pulled over by traffic police and issued a ticket on the grounds of its advanced decrepitude. Or he’ll go to a soup kitchen to investigate a lead and be mistaken for a homeles man by a nun who’s compelled to replace his appalling raincoat2 with something more suitable. Or he’ll wonder if it rained the previous Wednesday night, ask the man sitting next to him at the bar (who doesn’t know), ask the bartender (who also doesn’t know), ask the entire barroom (none of whom know), find a payphone and call the local newspaper (who don’t know either), and, on the newspaper’s recommendation, finally place a second phone call to the weather service (who know that it did indeed rain).

It never feels like it’s being padded out, though. I don’t know if a show so slowly paced would work now (although Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent is clearly indebted to Lt. Columbo), but it works here simply because Peter Falk is simply so watchable when he’s just hanging around being Columbo.

1. Not counting the semi-sequel show Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew, which was an obvious mistake that eventually was officially divorced from Columbo and had its title changed to Kate Loves a Mystery.
2. Which belonged to Peter Falk himself, rather than being selected by the wardrobe department. He was deeply involved in esablishing his character both behind the scenes and on camera.

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