Columbo and the Myth of Exceptionalism

Oh boy, a post about old American television shows! Perfectly on brand for a blog that started as being about Hindi film. Anyways, I love Columbo, and I want to talk about why I love Columbo, and then you also can love Columbo, and then we can use our Vast Collective Mental Powers to cast Shahrukh in a high budget Columbo remake on Netflix*.

Let’s talk Ayn Rand! Ayn Rand says, certain people are simply Better than other people. And because they are better, they deserve to live a different kind of life. She says that if you are a super talented engineer/writer/whatever than rather than using your talents to help average folks, you deserve to be appreciated as the engine that runs society, excellence and achievement above all.

Image result for gary cooper patricia neal
Also, Gary Cooper cheated on his wife for the only time in his life when he co-starred with Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead and somehow I blame Ayn Rand for that too.

This is a philosophy with which I personally do not agree. I think every human being and every human life (not like life and death, but like your time on this earth) has equal value. And I think the best way to make that happen in the world is through many hardworking decently good at their jobs folks doing many small jobs, not through One Great Person doing One Great Job. In fact, I do not believe that any One Great Person can accomplish anything, without also having many decently good people around and supporting him.

Come to think of it, this is why I find film as an art form so fascinating. Because it requires so many people working as a team to accomplish the end result. Not just working as a team, but contributing their own talents to it. Rajamouli had the vision for Bahubali, but it was Prabhas and Anushka and all the technicians and costume designers and set designers and everyone else who really made it happen. In the end, it is the vision of ALL of them put together that created this art. You don’t get that with a novel, or a painting, or a statue. Sometimes you get it a little bit with a musical recording, the composer writes something, the lyricist adds on, and then the musician makes it sing. But film is really the ultimate in collaborative art.

Pritam wrote the music, Irshad Kamil did the lyrics, Sunidhi Chauhan and Shahid Mallya sang it, Imtiaz conceptualized the moment, Geeta Kapoor came up with the steps, and then Anushka and Shahrukh brought it to life.

Now, what does this have to do with Columbo? Every murder on Columbo has a similar killer and a similar victim. The killer is brilliant, at the top of his field, a shining star in the world. The victim is a small person who got in his way, his nagging wife, his mistress, his less talented rival. Or even a blackmailer or a thief, a criminal of some kind. The killer kills not through desperation but through arrogance. A Columbo killer goes through elaborate tricks to cover up his crime, there is no one moment of hesitation or doubt. He is not afraid if being caught, he truly thinks he does not DESERVE to be caught. That his value to the world is such, it outweighs the life of this small meaningless person who was in his way.

Enter, Columbo. Columbo represents the average man of society. He is an average man himself, he likes his simple pleasures, he likes his wife, he likes his comfortable old coat and his dog. But he also speaks for the average man. He is not paid by any one client, his only job is to represent society and balance the scales of justice. He does not care what talents the killer possesses, what supposed “value” he has, or how sinful and weak the victim may have been. Every life has equal value. Every victim deserves to be avenged.

Image result for columbo peter falk

Columbo takes place in a very particular time and place, Los Angeles of the 1970s. This was the era when LA was the place to be. New York was dying, was harsh and sick and poor. Chicago was on the way out, torn by racial strife with a dying downtown. But LA was FUN!!!! It was bright and sunny, you could build a big house and have a big car, you could mix with the movers and shakers from every industry, celebrities in the arts, in business, in politics, they all flocked to LA. It was a playground for the privileged. And in that playground, Columbo appears as the monitor, the one who says “play fair, play nice, this isn’t a game and you haven’t escaped the real world yet”.

Columbo is a really interesting show to watch interspersed with my true crime. The thing is, the “real” police are a lot more like Columbo than I realized. First, they almost always know who did it right away. It’s the wife who acts weird and inherits everything. The challenge is figuring out a way to prove it. There is no “who done it” or even “how done it”, it’s all “how prove it”. But second, like Columbo, they are just people doing a job day in and day out who get good at it over time. They aren’t stunningly brilliant folks who make big intuitive leaps, they are people who have seen a lot of dead bodies, and a lot of grieving families, and a lot of crime scenes, and sort of know how it is supposed to look. They are professionals.

We don’t get enough of that in fiction, and I think it is really important. Forget the brilliant surgeon who saves lives, forget the amateur detective who makes the police look like fools, look at the people who follow the steps and go into work every day and do the best job they can. Because those are the people who make the world work.

Image result for ER tv show
Forget all the helicopters and stuff, at it’s core that was the appeal of the show ER. It was a medical drama about the gritty hard working day to day doctors. The ones who dealt with vomit and car accidents and just kept coming in to work every day. Very different from Chicago Hope with the Genius Doctors or even Grey’s Anatomy with the hyper competitive surgeons. These were the people who saved your life because it was their job and they did it enough to get good at it.

Right now, my city is covered in snow. And you know what is helping? It’s not our mayor giving press conferences or anything like that. It is the CTA workers who are dealing with frozen tracks, and the snowplow drivers (city and private) who get up in the morning and do their job and the maintenance guys at small apartment buildings who shovel the sidewalk all day long. There is no One Great Hero, just a bunch of small people doing the jobs they are supposed to do as best they can. Like Columbo.

*Shahrukh remake. Shahrukh is a cop in Bombay. He dresses like he is trying to be cool but it just looks cheap, same with a “cool” haircut and beard. When he meets movie stars or directors or writers, he talks about how he dreamed of being an actor but was too short and dark so he became a cop instead. But slowly you realize all that narcissism and stuff is part of his act. He’s very smart and very good at his job, and he has cultivated the vain part of himself with an awareness that it makes people open up. Bombay is a world of wealth and fame and power, but average cop Shahrukh just sees murderers and victims and always finds a way to bring them to justice. And at the end of every episode, he lets his real intelligence shine through and suddenly appears handsome and scary and powerful as he confronts the murderer and shows his proof. Also, he is always talking about his wife and kids and the little bits we get are based on him and Gauri (“I’m not so good with women, except my wife, I met her when we were only teenagers and I guess I never learned to talk to anyone else”. “My youngest, you know the one that was born when the other two were teenagers, he is always telling me I overthink things. ‘Papa, don’t try so hard!’ he says”)

Image result for shahrukh khan candid

13 thoughts on “Columbo and the Myth of Exceptionalism

  1. Pingback: Columbo and the Myth of Exceptionalism — dontcallitbollywood – Sarah's Attic Of Treasures

    • I am so glad you like it!!!! Stupid Ayn Rand, awesome awesome Columbo.

      And for our Shahrukh remake, any notes? My first thought was to make him just regular Columbo, average guy with old clothes and stuff. But I feel like he is too handsome for that, we have to acknowledge his appearance. On the other hand, Peter Falk was kind of handsome too, he just acted average.

      On Wed, Feb 17, 2021 at 9:26 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Can we have an opening scene where Shah Rukh walks down the street in jeans and a tee, confident gait and sexy dimples? Music plays, he boogies a little, stops to buy tea and winks at the pretty tea seller, pets a dog, women watch him pass and swoon. That’s the real man.
        Then his phone rings and he has a case!
        Next scene, he’s donning his Colombo persona, shaggy, head-scratching, self-effacing. He confronts the perp, case over and he dances his wife around the kitchen, back to dream guy.

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        • Yes!!!!! And we can even use the Famous Rain Coat. He can be all cool and sexy, then he gets a case, grabs his raincoat and covers the sexy, rumples his hair, puts on his glasses, whole different person.

          On Wed, Feb 17, 2021 at 10:20 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          • Hard to cover the sexy with SRK, even in My Name is Khan. The only place he was successful was in that horrible half-pint thing whose name I forget on purpose.

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          • I think the key is going to be finding just the right rain coat. Spend 5 years on that, then the rest of the show will all fall into place.

            On Wed, Feb 17, 2021 at 11:07 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Nice addition of the family details. That side really is his most normal, homey side, it would work well for a Columbo character.

    Agree about Columbo’s role as an equalizer. That’s my favorite kind of crime, the stories that bring a clever but humble character to bear on injustice and corruption, using crime as a way of exploring the edges of what behavior a powerful person can get away with. There’s a Mexican author named Paco Ignacio Taibo II who created a classic Columbo-like detective I love, a bit grittier and goes a bit further in illuminating the bigger power structures behind the privileged criminals.

    https://crimereads.com/the-politically-engaged-wildly-entertaining-novels-of-paco-ignacio-taibo-ii/

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    • Yes! There’s an added meaning when it is an “average” person who balances the scales. If Superman defeats Lex Luthor, that’s not the same as if Clark Kent defeats Lex Luthor.

      On Wed, Feb 17, 2021 at 9:42 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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