Lt. Columbo, Class Warrior

With the passing of the great Peter Falk, most of his obituaries are focusing on his role as Lieutenant Columbo, one of the best known characters in the world. I remember seeing Falk in a documentary filmed in the Andes, during which he walked through a market in a small village that probably didn’t have electricity, much less television. The natives clustered around him, pointing and saying “Columbo! Columbo!”.

What the commentaries about Columbo I have read today miss, and what explains a large measure of its international appeal, is that Columbo is the ultimate show about working class resentment of and triumph over the rich and powerful. Ever notice how this Los Angeles homicide detective never had a case in which a gas station attendant beat his wife to death or two drug dealers had a fatal shootout? The villains are uniformly movie producers, physicians, famous writers, monied gentry and globe-trotting business people. They are also usually good looking and well dressed, and look down on the rumpled, uncouth, Columbo, so clearly out of place in “their” world.

And of course we the audience know they are underestimating our hero, who despite outward appearances is morally and intellectually superior to them. They send him on wild goose chases and he doggedly checks each out (“Yes, sir, we did look into your theory of mobsters, we questioned 100 of them and none of them were involved”), because he is a dedicated working class guy who unlike the upper crust suspects, isn’t sloppy or arrogant enough to forget that one critical detail that undoes the whole endeavor. There are many conversations in the series that are suffused with class resentment. Columbo asks one villain “How much does a home like this cost?” and when he finds out says “Oh, sir, I could never afford that on a policeman’s salary”. And we love these exchanges, because we know that this working class hero is still conning his prey, and he’s going to bring that smug, rich S.O.B. down in the end.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.