Follow TV Tropes


YMMV / Columbo

Go To

  • Alternative Character Interpretation: There are two competing alternate theories about Columbo (other than Obfuscating Stupidity). One is that he's a Genius Ditz. The other is that he isn't smart at all, just an average cop. He himself claims in one episode that the main reason he's successful is that he's a professional with years of experience in hunting murderers, while most of the murderers he captures are amateurs who are doing it for the first time and thus making rookie mistakes.
    • There's also the theory that Columbo is a proletarian version of the classic Police Procedural. Almost all the villains are rich, powerful, wealthy people who look down on the disheveled and dogged Columbo, yet he proves time and time again that he is intellectually superior to them, despite his act.
    • Either that, or (as he freely admits) Mrs. Columbo solves all the crimes when they talk about it over dinner (which he probably cooks, given that he's shown quite a proficiency and interest in cooking on a number of occasions).
    • Advertisement:
    • Is Columbo a Manipulative Bastard? He's overly nice to people in a bloodhound sort of way; he convinces people that he's just a country bumpkin more interested in whatever 'hat' the villain wears than solving the crime, only to reveal in the end a cold detachment and clinical mind that the bumpkin persona allowed free reign. He plays with the feelings of the criminals, making them like him (more often than not) or at least pity him and drop their guard, or he pushes them subtly and continuously to the point where they break. The answers to some of these questions depend on what you consider canon. Core canon is the NBC series, natch. But if you accept the ABC Columbo movies as canon, then Obfuscating Stupidity and Manipulative Bastard are both canon (since we get to see glimpses of them).
      • Peter Falk gives his take in his memoirs "Just One More Thing". In it he says Columbo is absent minded, but that's because he's concentrating all his thoughts on cases he hasn't solved.
      • Sometimes, he looks like a troll — plainly trying to annoy and distract the suspects so they may be provoked into blurting things he would never get via normal investigation.
    • Advertisement:
    • There are some clear hints that, while he might not exactly be a literal genius and might be genuinely absent-minded and eccentric, at least some of it is for show or played up in order to throw the killer off guard. For example, in "Death Lends A Hand", when Columbo is only around the victim's husband — who he does not suspect is the killer — he acts in a professional and reasonably intelligent fashion. It's only when the actual killer (a private investigator hired by the husband) shows up, and Columbo gets a reason to suspect him (the ring the killer wears, which matches a cut on the victim's face from when he struck her) that he starts to act the clumsy oaf.
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: The broadcast control room scene from "Make Me a Perfect Murder", as outlined below in Padding. Needless to say, the scene itself is not only lengthy and adds nothing, but it's also just bizarre.
  • Advertisement:
  • Broken Base: Even to this day some people heavily debate the ABC seasons. Some fans don't consider them to be canon- despite the fact Falk made them. Some consider Columbo's behavior to be sillier- even though he had plenty of oddball moments in the classic episodes. Others consider the tone to be too different, in part because they were set in the 80s and 90s when the times had changed. Other fans however don't see any issue with them and accept the entire series as a whole.
  • Ending Fatigue: Some episodes may leave a feeling that it's about to reach a conclusion but can't finish up. May overlap with Padding:
    • A Trace of Murder could have concluded shortly after Columbo meets the killer and their accomplice at a diner and noticed that the two seem to know one another, but it takes more time for Columbo to tie up more loose ends and find a way to provoke both to sell each other out.
  • Fair for Its Day: While they're not necessarily supportive or protective, the male network executives in "Make Me a Perfect Murder" (aside from Mark) never mistreat Kay Freestone on the basis of her gender, and their one main criticism of her work (making guesses in programming) is shown to be totally justified later.
  • "Funny Aneurysm" Moment: Throughout the series, Columbo expresses a severe dislike of dentists, and the few times he has to go it ends up being a total nightmare for him. It's believed that a bad reaction to drugs during a dental visit is what led to the onset of Peter Falk's dementia, the illness that killed him.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: While fairly popular in the US where it was made, Columbo was a smash hit in Japan, to the point where there were several novelizations of its episodes in Japanese and some episodes were released commercially there that weren't released in the US.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
    • In "Mind Over Mayhem" the boy genius remarks that he's "too smart" to become a police officer. At the time this was written off as him being too much of a genius to work in anything other than a scientific field. HOWEVER, 30 years later, we find out that they actually do refuse to hire police applicants if their IQ is too high.
      • In a way this information also sheds an oddly-tragic light on Columbo's interactions toward the Mensa-style organization seen in "The Bye-Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case." Columbo ducks the question of his IQ several times and refuses to take an IQ test when offered, even after the episode's killer acknowledges that he's clearly a genius. Columbo stoically claims that even when he was a new recruit he was never any brighter than any other officer.
    • Two actors who played murder victims later became victims of actual murder: Barbara Colby ("Murder By The Book") and Sal Mineo ("A Case of Immunity").
    • In "Forgotten Lady" Dr. Willis mentions the Shah of Iran. For modern viewers unfamiliar, the Shah was the leader of Iran before the Islamic Revolution only a few years after the episode was filmed.
    • Again in reference to "Forgotten Lady", Peter Falk himself died of practically the same condition that Grace Wheeler was suffering from.
    • A rather nasty one courtesy of "The Conspirators"- modern day terrorist groups may very well be doing the exact same thing to supply their own organizations.
    • In "Etude in Black", Columbo leaving his new dog locked in his Peugeot can raise eyebrows due to hot car fatalities receiving more frequent news coverage. Columbo even gets called out for this.
  • He Really Can Act: William Shatner's chillingly persuasive and ambiguous portrayal of an actor who may or may not have split personality disorder comes as a bit of a shock to those familiar with his usual hamtastic style.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight:
    • "Etude In Black" is the same episode in which Columbo gets Dog. Trying to think of a name and hearing that the victim named her bird Chopin, he considers naming his dog Beethoven.
    • 20 years before The Professional existed, a subplot of "Make Me a Perfect Murder" revolves around a TV studio producing a film by the same title, also about a professional hitman.
    • Patrick McGoohan's "old man" Steinmetz makeup from "Identity Crisis" isn't too far off from the way he'd look some 25 years later in the ABC episodes.
    • Leonard Nimoy, most famous for playing the Vulcan Spock on Star Trek played one of the killers in season 2. Some 25 years later, Lt. Tuvok, another Vulcan character, would make use of the "one more thing" Columbo line a few times on Star Trek Voyager(and that's not getting into that series starring Kate Mulgrew, who played the title role in Mrs. Columbo....)
    • Speaking of Mrs. Columbo, it puts Columbo's stock response to Fielding Chase in a new light in "Butterfly in Shades of Gray".
    • "Double Shock" is about two brothers, Dexter & Norman Paris and it is initially ambiguous who the real killer is. They both are actually helping each other. Then in 2006, a show about a Serial-Killer Killer named Dexter Morgan premieres and he finds out he has a brother in the first season. Dexter's brother is the arch villain of said season.
  • It Was His Sled: Not a proper example of the trope itself, but the Trope Namer is used as a plot device in "How to Dial a Murder", although they carefully avoid giving away the spoiler.
  • Magnificent Bastard: Columbo himself, as well many of the killers (notably the ones portrayed by McGoohan and Cassidy).
    • Columbo, is a veteran police lieutenant for the Los Angeles police who, under his indifferent and debonair façade, is actually firmly dedicated to the pursuit of justice. Facing killer who often premeditated the murder and hid it into either an accident or a disappearance so as to be above any suspicions, Columbo is always able to see through the killer's machination, quickly deducing their guilt in a matter of minutes after meeting them. Appearing simple-minded in order to make the killer-of-the-week lower their guard, Columbo uses annoying insistence, derivative informations, and even manipulations of events, to lead or outright trick suspects into confessing, or at least reveal incriminating information. In the mean time he also uses double-entendre to pressures the suspects, seemingly only to make them sweat. When that doesn't work, he instead focuses on the details that “trouble him”, and, working very hard, is able to establish links between seemingly unrelated coincidences and reconstitute the entire murder to prove the guilt of the killer. Simple, honest, hard-working, and incredibly intelligent with Nerves of Steel, Columbo remains one of the most iconic detective in television history, the show he starred in having massively popularized the concept of Reverse Whodunnit.

  • Memetic Mutation: "An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this... LIQUID FILTH!
  • Narm: Even forgoing that Rudy Strasse is insane and plans to commit rape and murder, a lot of what he does falls into this, especially when he tries on lipstick.
  • Narrowed It Down to the Guy I Recognize: Zig-zagged. The "narrowed it down" bit is missing due to the show's format, but very often memorable actors like Johnny Cash or Leonard Nimoy would be in episodes as the killer (the killer often takes up the most screentime in an episode, even more than Columbo himself). Other episodes would have big-name actors in minor roles. The episode "Lovely But Lethal" features both Vincent Price and Martin Sheen, who are the killer's professional rival and the murder victim respectively.
    • Exploited in "Last Salute to the Commodore", in which the audience is led to believe that the killer is Robert Vaughn, who had already played the killer in a previous episode- we don't see him commit the murder, but he gets rid of the body, he is established as having a strong motive, and generally acts suspicious, and Columbo treats him as the prime suspect. It later turns out that he is innocent, and he actually becomes a victim himself, revealing the episode to be a true "whodonnuit".
  • Padding: Many of the two-hour episodes suffer noticeably from this; since the Lieutenant didn't have a personal life by conceptual mandate, the writers were forced to stuff in scenes like him taking the dog to the vet or asking a suspect where he'd bought his shoes.
    • Probably worst in "Make Me A Perfect Murder" where he plays with the control console in a TV broadcast studio, making various 2D shapes "dance" with simple animations on the screens while music plays(this being the mid-70s, so don't expect anything too fancy out of these simple vector images), as he has a cheerful expression on his face. This goes on for about five minutes or longer and has zero bearing on the plot or character development whatsoever, and it makes it clear that a lot of Columbo's behaviour throughout the series may not be that much of an act, because no one is even around to" watch him!
    • "Last Salute to the Commodore" has many detractors on the IMDB, due to pacing. Much of the film has Columbo learning nautical vocabulary, while Columbo's usual chemistry with interviewing the murderer is absent, due to the episode being a Who Dun It.
    • The opening of "Murder, a Self Portrait" has Columbo at a Basset Hound contest with other Basset owners, except that the dog does not play any real role in the murder plot where Mr. Barsini murders his ex-wife.
  • The Problem with Licensed Games: In a rare example predating video games, there was a Columbo board game. The problem was, it really had little to do with the character and the only image of Columbo was a simple drawing showing him from the back, one can assume because they didn't have permission to use Peter Falk's likeness.
  • Retroactive Recognition:
    • Jamie Lee Curtis plays a waitress in "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case".
    • Steven Spielberg directed the 1971 episode "Murder by the Book".
    • The nurse Columbo asks when looking for Dr. Collier in "A Deadly State of Mind" is played by an uncredited Priscilla Barnes.
    • While they weren't unknown at the time, Ron Rifkin and Lainie Kazan appear in "Make Me a Perfect Murder" as TV special director Luther and Valerie Kirk, respectively.
  • The Scrappy: Detective Sergent Fredric Wilson, the outcome of a long and bitter attempt to foist an eager young sidekick on Falk.
  • So Bad, It's Good: Some episodes are a let down, depending on who you ask, and/or some can be enjoyed for their badness.
    • "Last Salute to the Commodore" feels like the script was written while doing drugs. Columbo invades personal space a couple times, the cast acts like they're on tranquilizers, and the pacing feels like nobody even cares about finding the killer. The film opens with a ferry called "TITANIC" carrying a rather happy group of people who seem to magically teleport onto the boat. A YouTube review highlights the episode.
    • "Butterfly in Shades of Gray" features an over-acting William Shatner playing Fielding Chase. It's like he was having a laugh playing the role, and he was given permission to fool around and act over dramatic.
  • Special Effect Failure:
    • At the end of "Columbo Cries Wolf", Columbo finds the location of the body by dialing the number of the victim's wrist pager and punching in a message, the resulting beeping revealing where the body is hidden inside a wall. However, as these bracelets are more than a decade ahead of real technology (this being the late 80s), the message is a small slip of paper glued to the bracelet- and it's not even cut straight, which really makes it obvious (the clarity of modern DVD copies also makes the grain of the paper stand out even worse).
    • "Mind Over Mayhem" features a robot programmed by a boy genius which is used by the killer to operate the war room computer to establish an alibi for the time of the murder. However, the robot's claws are so large that it presses several keys at once when it types.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot:
    • "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo" involved Vivian Dimitri, the ex-wife of Pete Garibaldi, a man Columbo had arrested years before, plotting to kill Columbo's wife because her husband died in prison of a heart attack, for which she blames Columbo, as well as her husband's partner Charlie Chambers. It's too bad that the case in question was never one that had been filmed as an episode. In a strange way though, much of the given backstory sounds similar to the plot of "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case"
    • "Lovely But Lethal" casts Vera Miles (Lila Crane from Psycho) and horror icon Vincent Price as major characters. The plot is about rival cosmetics companies. There was so much potential here to have Vincent Price as a killer in a plot worthy of him alongside another actor from a prominent horror film, rather than an episode about makeup.
  • Values Dissonance: The ending of "Prescription: Murder" originally had Columbo saying lines to the effect that he believed that Miss Hudson was a weak-willed woman who would eventually run her mouth about the crime no matter what. The dialog was eventually cut and all modern releases of the episodes lack the lines in question.
    • In the episode Death Lends A Hand, Columbo in one scene is caught by a woman pushing her kid on the swings, before he even introduces himself as a detective. The woman is not even a suspect, but the wife of a witness who has gone abroad. Obviously most police forces today would be in serious trouble if a woman complained that a middle-aged man in a trench coat claiming to be an officer randomly started playing with her child in a park- seemingly innocent in the 70's, but looks outright predatory in the modern era.
    • "Swan Song": Viewers today will lose a lot more sympathy for Tommy Brown, since an early scene reveals that he had slept with Maryann when she was only sixteen.
  • The Woobie:
    • Helen Stewart from "Dead Weight". While Columbo questioning what she saw is understandable given it's his job, the episode only makes her more miserable. Her emotionally abusive mother doesn't believe her and takes every opportunity to say needlessly cruel things to her. Her ex-husband cheated on her with apparently numerous women during their marriage, and her own mother blames her for the breakup. And the episode's murderer, Hollister, charms her into doubting what she saw while starting a relationship with her. At the end, when Columbo reveals how Hollister committed the murder, she is left in tears.
    • No doubt made much worse due to some severe behind-the-scenes issues during the filming of this episode thanks to the fact Falk was having a heated negotiation over his salary, which showed in his acting skills and apparent indifference to the other actors or even the job itself. Suzanne Pleshette had been friends with Falk for some time but the experience not only led to them not speaking for many years, but Eddie Albert called Falk an "asshole".
    • Numerous murderers are pushed around by Asshole Victims, such as Beth from "Lady in Waiting" who is held down by her dominating brother and mother for her whole life. Once her brother is dead her life turns around and she's suddenly more assertive and in control of her life for once. She later takes it to the point of becoming a Jerkass Woobie, or just a plain Jerkass, however.
    • Paul Galesko of "Negative Reaction" starts out as this, until he frames and kills an innocent man to cover up his crime. The fact he didn't merely leave his nagging wife and instead opts to kill her and an innocent party pushes him into Jerkass territory.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: