What “Columbo” Tells Us About Police Media

Illustration by Matt Brown, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License

On July 18, 2020, NBC’s streaming service Peacock released the entirety of the classic detective show “Columbo” for free streaming. As of last Wednesday, it can now only be viewed with ad breaks or Peacock’s premium service. In the year’s time that the show was free, it regained its popularity not just with older audiences but newer, younger ones as well. There are no exact metrics, but, considering how viewers have made esoteric memes based on the program, it seems safe to say that younger demographics have engaged with the show quite a bit. So why was a show that premiered in 1971 picked back up by audiences so quickly a half-century later?

Well, the most likely answer is pretty simple: “Columbo” is just that great. The original run of the show lasted for 9 seasons with more than a dozen TV specials released as late as 2003. Considering how long the series lasted, it should come as no surprise that this classic detective drama still has cross-generational appeal. However, there might be a more socially-relevant reason for the contemporary popularity of “Columbo,” which is how the series portrays police work.

The show’s creators crafted a specific formula to follow: a moderately-wealthy, white man executes an elaborate, premeditated murder. The hero, Columbo, using only his wits and always acting within the letter of the law, reverse engineers the murder plot. After the detective confronts the culprit with his undeniable evidence, the killer accepts defeat and surrenders peacefully. The formula is not immutable—sometimes the killer does attempt to assassinate Columbo before he can make the arrest, but Columbo never responds with violence in kind. In fact, for a show about murder, “Columbo” features surprisingly little violence. The good detective does not simply avoid using his firearm—he does not carry his service weapon on his person at all. This is what makes the series such easy watching: Not only is it predictable but it also never prompts the viewer to ask tough questions about the police.

Every episode of “Columbo” is crafted with surgical precision to avoid moral ambiguity. One never has to wonder if the killing was a crime of passion or self-defense or if the killer needed money to survive. Likewise, Lt. Columbo’s superiors never reprimand him for stepping over red tape or using excessive force because he always gets a warrant and never uses force of any kind. Overall, the series provides an idealistic vision of police work that is just, uncomplicated, and very different from what Americans have seen on the news lately.

The recent killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have occupied the collective consciousness of the United States so thoroughly that it might be easy to forget that Americans have been shown police violence on TV for decades. Whether you want to think as far back as 2014, when Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman, or farther back to 1991, when officers beat Rodney King, you probably struggle to think of the police without thinking of police brutality. In this context, audiences are desperate for television that shows the police following the rules and never using more violence than is undeniably necessary.

While “Columbo” is certainly preferable to contemporary audiences compared to a franchise like “Dirty Harry” that glorifies unchecked police violence, one could make an argument that those engaging with the series are denying reality. According to the FBI, the police only solve about 60 percent of murders—a pitiful job performance compared to the 100 percent success rate of fictional detectives. Even if law enforcement lived up basic expectations of efficacy, police officers are not perfect specimens who never break the law and never hurt people. The public may feel psychologically-assaulted by the sheer volume of evidence of police wrongdoing, but trying to drown out the noise with fairy tales of magical crime solving does nothing to reform law enforcement in a way that actually protects potential victims of police brutality.

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