Columbo: How I’d Do It

PFColumbo is one of my favourite TV shows, and like many fans I wonder how it would work if it were brought back. In the twenty-first century the legacy is very much alive on social media and Columbophile’s recent post got me mulling definitively on the prospect.

It’s led me to think that, despite the absence of original star Peter Falk, the show really could be revived. Whether it should…? That’s a whole other question. Columbophile was highly eloquent about what he did and didn’t want, and we chatted briefly about it on Twitter. However the more I pondered it, the more I found myself going in a different direction. Eventually, like the little details that always bug the Lieutenant, the ideas soon crowded in my head and now it’s going to be cheap therapy for me to write it down.

I’m arguing that the format was as much a star of the show as Mr Falk. The simple concept of knowing who committed the crime from the outset is unique to Columbo and can’t be separated from it in my view. There are two major factors to the appeal of the series – watching the killer in the aftermath of the crime/waiting for him or her to be caught. And spectating as the high and mighty are brought down a peg.

The former will always be compelling. There’s a greater social context than ever for the latter. Donald Trump is aiming for the White House. Celebs achieve notoriety by showing up at various places. The cultural landscape is ripe for a Columbo’ing! Aside from the usual line up of prominent figures I’d have murderers more directly tied to real life “personalities”, so there’d be a satirical bent to proceedings. Columbophile makes a good point that – as with the classic 70s version – performers you associate with movies have decamped to television (one of the reasons the revival lacked sparkle). But there’s scope to put some less likely actors in the frame, along the lines of Johnny Cash‘s appearance in Swan Song. In this age of celebrity you might well see occasional thesps Taylor Swift, or Snoop Dogg being pestered by the great detective.

So a crucial element of a return for me would be a contemporary setting. Columbo is associated with the 70s, but back then it was cutting edge stuff, in terms of electronic music and presentation. I’d be more interested in pushing forward with the new rather than sticking closely to the old, and feel the staple ingredients would update themselves quite easily. The earlier episodes were an hour long, fairly similar to today. I’d keep the slower pace of course, in opposition to the CSI style – audiences wouldn’t mind and like before it’d enhance the old school battle of wits.

The small screen plays host to all manner of horrors, with the theatre of death having been ramped up to mega-levels in the decade or so since the last televised instalment. I’d make the murders pretty eye-popping at times, fiendishly-constructed and not shying away from gore. That’s not to say every week would see a flying head, but the new Columbo would be more wince-inducing and graphic. Mind you, its predecessor had a fair helping of nastiness – George Hamilton despatching a reporter with a poison cigarette in Caution Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health was uncomfortable viewing as I recall.

Last but not least, there’s the question of the lead actor. Peter Falk is a legend. That’s why I’d have no intention of trying to replace him, or echo his performance (though Jason Alexander would make a good Columbo in that mould). Instead I’d go for something different and cast Hugh Laurie

HLHis name has been speculated on previously and to me he’s a great fit. Columbo is full of surprises. Hugh Laurie is full of surprises. He can take the aloofness, the humour, the intelligence and gumshoe persistence, and roll it into a ball, creating a deceptive steamroller of a character. There’s no point in conjuring up Mr Falk. A fresh take on the concept requires a fresh face.

I’d shift the nature of the Lieutenant slightly, moving him away from the trench-coated bloodhound and more in the direction of slacker. To his opponents he’s a Cosmo Kramer-like “hipster doofus” (though he wouldn’t be walking into doors and so forth). Yet he epitomizes the person who looks all over the place, when really they’re paying strict attention, and waiting for the moment to strike.

That’s how I’d do it anyway.