To Columbo Devotees (first letter)

Dear Comrades,
We know who we are, but I still can’t quite figure out why any of us accept it.  All I have are nagging, half-developed theories, compiling suppositions, observational details….  I still haven’t secured the evidence necessary for a definitive explanation.  We know what’s going to happen and we’re always shown what has already happened (the murders, the motives, the shifting milieus).  The formulaic patterning and soothing, repetitive sameness (the kitschiness of it all) have no adverse effects upon our loyalty.  We may lack intellectual vanity or insecurity, but I suspect we’re still a cynical lot.  No hope is given to that idea called human nature.  There’s no benefit of the doubt.  We repeatedly watch and listen as liars lie.  They cheat, manipulate and steal.  Most of them do it exceedingly well and without hesitation.  It’s a given (without any mention of evil or morality, of how to live well or rightly). There is no shame.  Not for them.  Not for us.
We watch Columbo trick the tricksters across a West Coast Good Life.  The show provides a vision of this world to affirm our worst prejudices.  The acting is stiff (except for the irreproachable Mr. Falk) and the dialogue expected (even his delightful ad libs are anticipated).  They’re not unlike the awkward and inadequate exchanges inhabiting our everyday lives.  A Baroque provocation or rhetorical questioning of reality (its verifiability and truth) is constantly passed around.  How do you prove which side of the screen you’re on?
Columbo is coded as authentic.  He’s never swayed by opinion.  He never pontificates.  His idealism is conveyed through his actions, his patience and self-awareness.  We know this of course and expect nothing less.  He’s not on the make.  The man does his job in the service of Justice.  The fancy beach houses, private estates and glass towers of the California Dream are occupied by Columbo only after they’re crime scenes.  He’s warm, self-effacing and cross-eyed.  His recurring outfit defies the perpetual generation of desire feeding our suicidal economy.  He can meet the bare requirements of professional conduct and presentation but never exceeds them.  He has his own style without trying.  He’s constantly underestimated.  His suspects assume him to be their lesser (the son of backward immigrants, a fool without money or grace, a distracted incompetent, an irritatingly dogged, anecdotally digressive eccentric, a bumbling sentimentalist, etc).  We see it all for what it is, a construction, but  the rituals of delight derived from the transmission, this production we keep returning to, is in part a result of something uninterpreted within ourselves, a something never adequately addressed.  We are challenged, perhaps even inspired, to find agency.
None of us buy into the idea that a kind of class-struggle release-valve is intentionally embedded within the show.  Our outrage and disillusionment are never sublimated.  We enjoy watching, over and over again, as condescending one-percenters (and various support staff) are bested by the Lieutenant, but at the same time we are never able to forget that Columbo is as unreal to us as our own untenable situations, our collective impasses and horrors too, all the stuff we’ve never asked for, the stuff that denies our autonomy, stuff to be changed.  Whenever I consider this (which is often) I think of Peter Falk in the last months of his life, overtaken by dementia and unable to recall ever playing the part of Columbo.  He can’t even identify the character and ends up alone, without that once shared reminder of unfairness and resistance. He is bereft of all agency,  any sense of what might be absent in this life.  He leaves us having no idea.  When a generic mass-entertainment is capable of doing this to someone, to anyone at anytime, well, I’ll know for certain that all hope is lost.
That’s when we’ll probably stop watching Columbo.
jeremy