Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I recently discovered Columbo.

When I met my Slate editor, face to face for the first time, at a wine bar in Brooklyn, she pouted cold water on my plans to buy a sporty convertible like a BMW Z3 or an Audi TT. What I needed in Dubai, she declared, was the anti-Dubai vehicle: a jalopy, she said, like Columbo. At the time I didn't realize the importance of the Columbo reference, having only a passing familiarity with the TV show, and knowing Peter Falk primarily as the former angel (playing himself) in pre-89 Berlin in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. ("I can't see you, but I know you're there...")

My new flatmate, Eliot, has the complete first season of Columbo. Watching the show, he says, "is an unfortunate habit I picked up from my dad."

What a truly brilliant character Columbo is! He's the perfect illustration of Elvis Costello's famous remark, "My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant" (indeed, reaching that noble goal far better that Elvis Costello himself).

By far the best episode I've seen so far is the second full-length film, "Ransom for a Dead Man," in which the murderess issues the following speech:

"You know, Columbo, you're almost likable, in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it's the way you slouch in here with your shop-worn bag of tricks." (The word "slouch," by the way, should always connote movement, not posture.)

"Me? Tricks?"

"The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife. Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and bumbling along, but it's always the jugular he's after. And I imagine that more often than not, he's successful."

But here's the thing. I always try to imagine what characters might be like when they're not onstage. So let's imagine for a moment that Columbo really exists. It goes without saying that no lieutenant in any homicide department anywhere in the world could ever come across case after case after case where the crafty murderer almost gets away with the crime, but doesn't.

After all, cop shows never show the boring bits where the cops sit around in the car outside the house, drinking coffee and eating donuts waiting for a suspect who never shows.

Doesn't Colombo ever investigate a sordid, run-of-the-mill crime of passion? A sloppy crime?

Actually, I imagine that between each episode there are ten or even a hundred more cases in which Columbo acts really awkward and makes a complete nuisance of himself for no good reason. He fumbles and he bumbles, and then what? Nothing but a whole lot of unpleasantness for everybody.

Is was often asked if Hamlet faked his own madness. I'd like to know if Colombo is faking his awkwardness. I'd say he's not. He's a hopelessly clumsy man who, at a certain point in his life, realized he'd always be that way, and he might as well make the best of it.

And that's be beauty of it: Nobody could ever really be Columbo, because the real Colombo would be a useless pain in the butt 99% of the time.

Anyway, I've decided to bide my time on the hot set of wheels, investing in a sensible Toyota Corolla in the meantime.