Classic Television

In addition to watching '24' and 'Lost', I've been watching a lot of the last seasons of 'Columbo'. I've been a Columbo fans for years and have finally completed my DVD collection of the 1970's films. It's fun to watch the director credits as such notables as Steve Spielberg and Jonathan Demme cut their teeth on the series.

The 1970's mysteries have some nostalgia for me as I used to come home from the cottage and watch McCloud, McMillan and Wife and Columbo with my mom. Nostalgia aside, it's always Columbo that I come back to and I've often wondered why.

On watching the series again, Peter Falk has a major impact on the character of Columbo. Consider the pilot episode where you see a well dressed, somewhat normal Columbo that hardly gives you the hint of the evolution of the character and series. It is in the subsequent episodes and the focus on the quirk and brilliantly manipulative character, you see the dynamics of the series progress.

What truly sets Columbo apart from any television show in memory is the strange and wonderful structure of the stories. First of all, the series of mysteries of Columbo, Mcmillan and Wife and McCloud were all small features, clocking in at two hours including commercials. Columbo set itself apart as it always introduces the antagonist (murderer) first and walked the audience through the crime. Columbo doesn't even show up until at least fifteen to twenty minutes into the program. This means that the audience is starting out with much more information than the hero detective and the focus of the story is on how Columbo will figure out the method of the crime.

On top of the unusual story structure, Columbo also features such terrific guest appearances as Ray Milland, Patrick McGoohan, John Cassevetes, Donald Pleasance, Leslie Neilsen, William Shatner, Dean Stockwell, Robert Vaughn, George Hamilton, Johnny Cash, Leonard Nimoy, Martin Landau, Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh and Ricardo Montalban. Very few television shows today gather such significant talent.

One of the pleasant surprises that grew out of the move from VHS to DVD is the release of old television programs. For me, Columbo is one of the treasures of the mystery genre.

As a footnote, I've also revisited the 1980's classic, 'Magnum P.I.'. What is of particular interest in the first season is seeing the series evolve and grow. The memorable Mike Post score and the opening credits don't fully appear until at least seven episodes into the series and the characters are vague and ill defined. Over the first half of the series you can see the wheels turning and the show defining itself. The DVD provides us with the original series before syndicated edits and is a very satisfying look at the evolution of a new series.

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