You’d know him anywhere by the rumpled raincoat, yellowed shirt, skinny tie and salmon-colored suit. Sartorial splendor? Not exactly. Columbo is a mess, but he was an endearing mess and one of our most beloved television heroes.
In a recent rash of Seventies fever, I’ve been consuming episodes of "Columbo" with the ardor of an addict. Not only am I tickled by Peter Falk’s portrayal of the indomitable investigator, but I’m enthralled by the parade of guest stars, so many of whom spark memories — Robert Culp, Robert Vaughn, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick McGoohan. How could I not smile recalling the delights of “I Spy,” “Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Star Trek” and “The Prisoner”?
While I watched "Columbo" years ago, in some ways I feel as if I’m seeing the series for the very first time. As a teenager or young adult, these tales are entertainment. A few decades later, we note the life lessons.
Lesson 1: Looks are deceiving
Sure, there’s Columbo’s crummy clothing, his five o’clock shadow, the cheap cigar and his penchant for chili. There’s the slouchy walk and the obsequious manner; the downtrodden body language and pesky politeness.
His interjections are unforgettable. He raises his hand to his forehead as if suddenly struck by an idea, and just when you think he’s out of your hair, he pops back in with his trademark “Just one more thing.”
But there’s more. He carries evidence in paper bags. He visits crime scenes with a barking basset. He drives a beat-up Peugeot. But don’t let the dog, the duds or the demeanor fool you. Our disheveled detective is wily, observant, relentless and ingenious.
So, the next time you encounter someone you’re inclined to dismiss at a glance, consider a second look. Know who you’re dealing with.
Lesson 2: Hubris hurts
Part of the pleasure of this classic series is the presentation of the murder first, followed by the unfolding process of proving whodunit. We know who the villain is, but we’re intrigued to see how Columbo will nail him.
Invariably, the culprit is convinced that he (or she) is cleverer than the lieutenant, especially given his game of playing a little “slow.” It’s the arrogance of Columbo’s adversaries — more precisely their hubris — that often results in their ultimate undoing.
Confidence is one thing; our society glorifies it. But hubris is something else again — a particular flavor of overconfidence — an impression of being untouchable, infallible, smarter than everyone else, above the rules. Hubris eventually leads to ruin.
If you ask me, millennial hubris is alive and well, flourishing in our narcissistic society.
Set against a Seventies backdrop, hubris is more evident as the destructive trait that it is.
Lesson 3: Listening to your gut
With cigar at the ready and finger poised on his lips, Columbo is fond of saying, “Something is bothering me.”
He asks why the suspect takes a cab, why the suspect looks at his watch, why the suspect doesn’t leave fingerprints, why the suspect goes where they shouldn’t be. Annoying as his questions are, Columbo persists and follows his intuition.
What if we all listened to our gut? What if we were more observant of details? What if we paid closer attention to signs from our spouses, our kids, our jobs and our own behaviors? What if we asked why when puzzle pieces don’t fit? Wouldn’t we be better positioned to prevent and resolve problems?
Lesson 4: Just one more thing …
As a kid, I was often glued to the television. Those series I mentioned? I loved them, they transported me, and I wanted life to deliver tales of adventure and good guys to fell the bad.
While I don’t miss the Seventies — not the sideburns, not the polyester, not the limited options for women and minorities — occasionally, I do wax nostalgic for a sort of societal innocence, as depicted by Columbo on my very own small screen.