Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Get Smart

And here is the first of my three essays posted at Wonders in the Dark - Get Smart! And a bit about The Sitcom, in the 60s at least...

I love 60s sitcoms. Even now, along with a few British shows, and cartoons (Simpsons or Futurama or Bevis and Butthead) they are the sit coms I am most likely to watch when they come on TV, even ahead of great shows like Seinfeld, or All in the Family or Taxi or MASH. Get Smart, Batman, Hogan’s Heroes - even the Beverly Hillbillies - I can always watch those shows.

It’s personal preference, shows I grew up on (though already in syndication; watching them at 4 in the afternoon, between Gunsmoke and Mr. Rogers), but it’s also the style. Sitcoms changed in the 60s - especially in the mid-60s. The culture changed; the technology changed (color TV!) - sitcoms shifted along with these things. The early classics - I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver - were all domestic shows, centered in the home; this was still the case in the early 60s, with shows like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, though the latter is as much about the town as his home. But around the middle of the 60s, shows started to appear that were more and more set outside the home - Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, Gilligan’s Island. And shows still built around home and family started to get a bit stranger - Bewitched and its magic, The Munsters and Addams Family, with their monsters, even the Beverly Hillbillies, with it’s over the top farce (it’s Li’l Abner vibe.) The technology changed - most of these shows were in color; most of them used single camera setups rather than multi-camera live shooting. And the tone changed - they were parodic, satiric, they embraced absurdity, camp, surrealism. They stopped trying to be realistic, they stopped pretending to be about people like you and me in naturalistic (if comic and extreme) situations - they embraced genre stories, and made fun of them, usually by combining commonplace situations (going to work, hanging with your friends, or even the old domesticity of sitcoms) with absurd situations - spies, POWs, witches, superheroes. In many ways, they adopted the style and tone of cartoons, comic strips, comic books - directly, when it comes to the Addams Family or Batman, but a lot of these shows share the style.

It didn’t last. Sitcoms in the 70s developed in a different direction - even political and socially aware shows became naturalistic again, treated their characters and situations as real people. All in the Family and Normal Lear’s other shows; Happy Days; and all the (wonderful) workplace comedies of the 70s - The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH, Taxi, Barney Miller - did this. Showed real work places, not comic spy headquarters or German POW camps; dropped the genre parodies, the absurdity, the magic and science fiction. The 70s was a great era for sitcoms - but I miss the weirdness of the 60s.

And none of them did it better than Get Smart. It was developed and written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (with Henry staying on as story editor for two years), conceived as a combination of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. It starred Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Ed Platt, plus a mob of character actors, with single or recurring roles. It ran 5 seasons, 4 on NBC and one on CBS, fading a bit through the years, and engaging in more than a few cheap ratings boosts in latter years, though we don’t need to dwell on that. And it was exemplary of the kind of show I am talking about here. It was made right when shows switched to color - the pilot is black and white, but the rest of the show is color; it was a single camera show for it’s whole run; it was a genre parody, and one that let in a lot of genre nonsense - spies and adventure, and funny gadgets, and straight up science fiction; it was never shy about parodying other culture - movies, other TV shows, and so on; it was packed with in-jokes, puns, references outside the show (names and titles and such); and it was a work place comedy, combining the goofy spy stuff with the banalities of an office job, using both to send up the other.

And it was brilliant. The talent was top flight - Brooks and Henry are as good a pair of originators as you could ask, and the rest of the team measured up as well. Leonard Stern and Jay Sandrich, Irving Szathmary’s glorious theme song and scores, a host of fine writers to create the show. It featured a host of outstanding supporting players, but the cast - the three leads were perfect.

Don Adams carried it, of course - he’s ideal, a perfect buffoon, with his weird voice and beady little eyes, his physical flair, the way he walks, the way he could move, the way he wore a suit. It helps that he’s a little guy, looking up to everyone around him (including 99, when he didn’t pull her down to his eye level), vain and silly, his size making him a bit more ridiculous, but also a bit more sympathetic than he could have been. He is great at everything - the broad physical comedy, the little stuff (the way he can smoke or put out a cigarette), the voices, the serious detectiving, the oblivion, the prudishness and occasional bout of lust - he was always great. He had a mile long list of catch phrases, but always seemed to deliver them as though he were thinking of them for the first time ever - except when it was funnier to think he’d used the same line 4 times this month already. He was great.

His two main foils more than hold their own. Barbara Feldon was gorgeous, with a husky, sexy voice - and she was a fine actress, and marvelous comedian. The writers didn’t give her the gags they gave Max and the Chief, but she got all the reactions, and she played them with the precision and timing that Adams played the jokes. She had an infinite supply of eye rolls and head tilts, side eyes and body language, that convey a kind of infinite patience, as though she were managing this idiot until he needed to do something heroic. And Ed Platt embodies sober authority, but with a slow burn, driven to distraction by Max, but never quite breaking, and recovering when he did - he didn’t have 99’s infinite patience, or her understanding that idiot or not, Max was blessed by the gods (or the writers) and would always come out right, so he blew up now and then, but he always recovered - and could sell the idea that he was in control all along, no matter how bad things got, how ridiculous Max's solution was, Platt could make it seem as though that was what the Chief had in mind from the start. With that voice - he could sell anything.

They were a great trio. They could carry all the modes of the show - the spy stuff, but also the workplace stuff and the social stuff. The workplace comedy was obvious from the beginning: in the pilot, Max clocks in when he enters the chief’s office, mentions overtime later - the show always had that element. Office politics, boss/employee dynamics, money - wages, benefits - unions, perks, the competition, part time work, interdepartmental rivalries, regulations, paperwork, anything you could imagine in a workplace comedy. Some of it more than you’d see in actual workplace comedies later - unions and wages and benefits and hours and such, especially. The show plays the workplace jokes against the spy jokes, a pattern that extends across everything in the show. The adventure stuff is constantly deflated with banality: the Job, or things like dialing wrong numbers, the indifference the population seems to have to all their gunplay and brawling, or just the way everyone in Washington seems to know who Control is, where they are located, what their phone number is, sometimes before the spies do. And it goes the other way - the everyday concerns of an office job or apartment life travestied by throwing spies and science fiction machines and gunplay into it. Those marvelous machines - show phones, and all the other places they hid phones; the protective devices in Max's apartment; the Cone of Silence; all the inflato-coats and lipstick guns and radio controlled pool balls and giant arrows and everything else - which parody James Bond, but also mean that the spy stuff is buried deep into their everyday lives. Kind of like the way phones and computers and technology is buried into our lives, now....

There’s more of course. Get Smart was political - a cold war comedy that mocked the cold war from start to finish. A war time comedy that mocked the military, as well as spies, as well as cops - it was a product of its time, maybe, however much it also mocked the counterculture. It was a product of its time in less admirable ways too - ethnic jokes and sexism - but these things weren’t straightforward. It had plenty of ethnic jokes - but they were as often about the people who held stereotypes as they were stereotypes themselves. And sexist jokes - Max got the lines, the action, the story, at 99’s expense; this got really bad in the last year or so, when poor 99 married him, and was confined to the house for most of the last two seasons - but it also made fun of sexism. One of their running gags is 99 coming up with a good idea, an important question, a way out of their predicament, and Max either ignoring her or saying he’d rather do it his way. 99 always defers - and Max always does what she suggested. Shoot - I saw someone making fun of that on Twitter the other day! Max the mansplainer, in 1965. There is a lot of that - with 99 and Max, with the racial and ethnic jokes they make. They play the jokes both ways - it can be complicated.

Of course, a lot of it depends on the fact that nothing, in this show, is taken seriously. I mean - nothing is treated as though it were real. There is no sense that Max or 99 or the Chief, or any of the villains and supporting characters, are real, in the way Mary Richards or Hawkeye or Archie Bunker are treated as though they are real. There is always distance - always a sense of unreality. Characters don’t have to be consistent, in this world: Max can be an idiot for 20 minutes then turn into James Bond himself for the last act. Max can be a prude in one show and a skirt chaser in the next, without missing a beat. He respects 99, he ignores 99, he flirts with 99, he’s oblivious to 99. Situations are ridiculous - machines that vaporize buildings and people without a trace; magnets that can sink a whole fleet; masters of disguise who can turn into anyone (and do - they loved that plot device!); the chief and Larrabee - or even Siegfried, complete with a mustache - dressed up as old ladies, and no one noticing. And all of it completely pliable - half the world might be destroyed, but there they all are at the end back in the office arguing about time off and whether KAOS gets better benefits. It’s not inconsistent - it’s as though the whole world was being made up again in every scene. It’s a cartoon aesthetic - not as explicit as Bugs Bunny or Krazy Kat, but it’s got the same sense that it’s not subject to any of the rules of god or man, except that it should be funny. It’s an aesthetic shared with a lot of sitcoms in the 60s, that then passed out of sitcoms - except for the animated ones. The Simpsons and Futurama, Family Guy and South Park can feel a lot like that era of TV. Though probably not as much as some of those 60s shows felt like Bugs Bunny or Pogo.

In short - it was a good one. Always funny - usually with decent story lines (though they clearly struggled sometimes to find 30 little spy stories every year for the show - a lot of them feel very thin.) Max is an icon, and 99 and the Chief (and Siegfried, especially) are not far behind. They created a host of running gags, that worked almost all the way through the show - I can't list them all  can I? Missed it by that much! I asked you not to tell me that! The old X trick - second time I fell for it this month! I hope you don't mind that crack about the dummy. Sorry about that, Chief. Would you believe.... They created a host of cool and backing parts - Siegfried and Larrabee and a string of scientists to make up the gadgets, The Claw and Harry Hoo and Rupert of Rattskeller and a million lookalikes. (They leaned hard on doubles in this show - Alexi Sebastion, the Chameleon, the league of imposters, as well as Charles, King of Coronia, Connie and Floyd. They might have overdone it - but it's part of the style I think - nothing is real, nothing is permanent, no one is who they necessarily seem to be, and everything works out in the end.) I can watch this show all day and all night - it is as good as they come.


Here's another piece I posted last week on Wonders in the Dark, as part of their TV countdown.

Gunsmoke was the first and last - the first (or almost the first) western for grownups on TV; and very nearly the last western of any kind of TV. Lasting 20 years will do that - you're first, you outlast your peers, and sometimes your entire genre. When it came on TV, it led to a flood of similar shows - The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, many others - that shared its grown up approach the western, and its artistic values, and serving, as it did, as a launching ground for many significant actors and directors. It stayed on TV all those years because it was a very fine show - begun as a serious show, and taken seriously, with quality writing, a fantastic cast, solid production values, and consistently fine craft. They brought in first rate guest stars, they brought in first rate directors, they gave them first rate scripts - 635 episodes worth (though I suppose not all 635 were first rate; I can point you to some stinkers) - it changed through the years, but it was always watchable.

I watched it, of course, when I was a kid, both the reruns and the new ones. I didn't care if it had been on forever; I didn't really know it had been on that long until people started talking about it. I never saw any of the black and white shows until a long time after - they weren't the ones in reruns. It didn't matter. It was probably my favorite show when I was a kid, maybe right up to the time it went off the air, maybe beyond. (And not just the show: I read the books too - over and over, in fact; I liked Gunsmoke.) I liked all westerns - Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Big Valley, especially - but even then, I could tell Gunsmoke had an edge on them. I could tell it was more serious - it had action and excitement, good guys and bad guys, but it had characters too, who had depth, and breadth. More than that, maybe (since Bonanza and Big Valley were also strong on character), it had stories that were deeper and smarter than those other shows. I couldn't have described the difference then, and barely can now, but it's there - maybe it had something to do with the stakes - on Gunsmoke things seemed to matter a bit more.

It was designed that way. It was created for radio, and conceived as a hard-boiled western, explicitly reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (inspired by the Philip Marlowe radio show, in fact) - you can hear it in the early shows. Robbery, murder, lynch mobs, venal newspapermen gloating about circulation and Doc Adams angling for more autopsies, Matt accused of having an affair, and an innocent little boy who turns out to be the killer, and William Conrad as Dillon narrating and ruminating (in the best Raymond Chandler style) about how awful human beings really are. And that's just the first episode! (Here it is, on YouTube: "Billy the Kid"). The darkness didn't entirely carry over to the TV version, a couple years later - but there's plenty of it there. The first show has Matt soliloquizing on Boot Hill about the "Gomorrah of the Plains", keeps a good dose of his bitterness and sarcasm, and his strong sense of isolation (walking away alone as he does), in a story with a cold blooded killer, who just wants to be left alone. (You can see it here: "Matt Gets It", complete with John Wayne telling the audience that this show was going to last a while.) Chandler's influence is still there - Matt loses a gun fight in that first show, and when he recovers, has to go back to try again - that's pretty much standard procedure for a Hammett or Chandler character. And Matt has to outsmart the gunslinger - another bit you see in those classic detective stories. Marlowe would be proud.

As the show evolved, some of that fell away. Even on the radio, the characters had softened - Doc Adams, say, is a pretty nasty piece of work in those early shows. The ensemble, the relationships among the characters became more important, and anchored the show through those 20 years - but it still maintained the grown up approach. The material is dark, full of violence and cruelty, but its maturity is also in the complexity of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. Heroes fail - they can be selfish and unpleasant like the doctor sometimes, physically damaged like Chester, morally compromised like Miss Kitty might be. And the villains are seldom simplistic - they have reasons for what they do; they can be charming, some can be plaintive. If someone starts threatening bar girls, you can bet he lost a daughter or granddaughter somewhere along the line. Many episodes work in multiple foils for Matt Dillon, putting him between a couple hard bitten killers, or a couple aggrieved families - everyone with their reasons. And in those early shows, he fails as often as not - at least, fails to stop other people from massacring each other, or ends up killing people he tried very hard not to have to kill. He's there to keep the peace, but there isn't a lot of peace to keep.

This aspect is more pronounced in the early years - by the end, Matt and his friends were pretty well ascended to godhood, the villains tended to be a bit more simplistic, and the guest stars were usually a bit more obviously on the good or evil side. But it never went away completely. It evolved out of the noirish style of the early shows, into something else, though something still rooted in adult problems and complex behavior. The evolotution is reflected in Matt himself - the angry, brooding, tarnished hero of the radio show and early TV gave way to a stoic, strong hero, one who passes through the mire without being soiled. That's not criticism - it's just different, more Gary Cooper, less Bogie, if that makes sense. That element took over pretty quickly, I suppose - looking at James Arness, you couldn't quite picture him as anything other than a strong silent type - if he had stayed bitter and cracked, he would have been terrifying - John Wayne in The Searchers, maybe, something more disturbing than any villain could be. This change didn't hurt the show - it made Matt into a central hub for the rest of the show to revolve around. It made the dynamics of the cast, the strengths of the guest stars, and the stories themselves shine, with Dillon as anchor, and often as a kind of light that illuminates the nature of others.

Gunsmoke lasted a long time, surviving many changes to the technology and form of television. It moved from radio to TV, first as a half hour show, later as an hour. In the mid-60s, it switched to color. It changed through the years, but generally maintained its quality - though it's hard to miss how much better it was earlier. That's something I learned late - the color shows were the ones in syndication, in the early 70s, and onward - that's what I saw when I was 10, what I watched now and then through the 80s and 90s - it's what I knew. They were fine shows - they made me think I had good taste when I was 10... But then I saw the black and white episodes. They were a revelation. The half hour shows are superb - tight, efficient little morality plays that never really preach, great looking, with sharp, memorable characters, and even then, a cool mix of action, drama, comedy. They were great shows - but I think the show really blossomed with the hour long format.

They had room. Even now, watching the half hour shows, they can go by a bit too quickly - they don't get the chance to linger and develop - and it's the lingering and development that made Gunsmoke so good. The hour long episodes have everything: well developed stories, with characters who have time to evolve in the course of the show, to work out multiple relationships. It feels as though every black and white hour long show I remember was some kind of trip - maybe those shows were aired more often; maybe they're the ones I remember best. But there are good reasons why journeys are a staple of story telling (and most definitely of westerns) - a chance to put a number of characters in a situation and let it stew. Those shows end up being some of the best hour long shows ever made for TV.

The black and white episodes have another advantage - they look fantastic. The sets, costumes, props are all very well chosen - and in the black and white episodes,they look right. They look beat up, shabbier, dirtier; cabins and houses and street and fields look like hard places to live - they look real. The color shows lost some of this. Color, I suspect, shows up how clean the sets and clothes are; even artfully mistreated props, like Festus' costumes, look a bit too artfully messed up. Did they get more conventional later? does black and white indicate grime and wear better? Maybe. But part of it, I think, is that the later shows fell out of step with western movies. The early Gunsmokes were contemporary with films like Anthony Mann's westerns, Budd Boetticher's, mature films by Hawks and Ford, classics like Shane and High Noon. TV couldn't match the production values of top of the line films - but they could match their look. (And low budget westerns thrived in those days as well - filmmakers knew how to make westerns look good no matter what the budget.) But western films evolved between 1955 and 1970, evolved as much as any genre did. Content restrictions disappeared - you could show far more, and what seemed dark on TV in 1955 looked old fashioned next to The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Films brought in outside influences - Japanese films; European films. The style became more extreme; the look became grittier, grimier. Gunsmoke in the 70s didn't look at all like contemporary westerns (at least not the best of them.) It's a jarring effect: it makes everything, in the later shows, look clean, antiseptic, in ways the older ones never dd. By 1975, it was the last western on TV, maybe not that bad a show, but somehow it felt old, rote, even compared to what you expected to see in a western. And so it went, and that was that.

But it had a magnificent run. It set off a run of serious western shows; it has had an influence beyond. Matt Dillon is an icon - but so are others, particularly Doc. (I offer Star Trek's Bones as evidence; heck - I could offer Brad Dourif, on Deadwood, riffing on Doc, maybe more the early radio Doc, but still.) The cast and characters of the show were, in fact, fantastic. Arness, Stone, Blake and both Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis - great actors playing fascinating characters, that the writers seemed to understand. Coming off writing about Get Smart, a show that gave in to ratings desperation at the end, do you know how refreshing it is to see a male and female lead not ever get together? At least not marry (though Matt seemed to know where her room was located in the early shows...) - how many long running shows were able to keep that discipline? The main cast is matched by the guests, often as not - what a pleasure it is to watch someone like Warren Oates or Bruce Dern come in and chew up the scenery. Now - this was common enough practice in those days - a good many of those serious westerns did the same thing - brought on special guests; gave up and coming directors the chance to work. But they did it well on Gunsmoke.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


(Despite the lack of posts here, I have been busy lately - this is the third of three posts in about a week for the epic TV countdown at Wonders in the Dark - this one for Columbo.

Somewhere in Los Angeles are two people who hate each other - or at least one of them hates the other one. Maybe we will see them together; maybe we will see them separately; maybe we will just see one of them, going about some strange ritual. Maybe they'll talk - maybe they will be, or act, friendly, but more likely they will quarrel. Either way, one of this is going to kill the other. Maybe we see the killer covering up the crime; maybe we now recognize that their rituals were aimed at hiding the crime. By the time the first commercial comes, it looks like they will get away with it. When we come back, the police are on hand. Among them is a dumpy looking guy in a raincoat, who putters around, and notices things; he sticks his nose into conversations; he looks at the bodies; he talks to the relatives. He probably talks to the killer, and he'll probably notice something when he does. By the end of the first scene we know there's more to this guy than meets the eye. Over the next hour, he'll keep running into the killer, and it's going to take the killer longer to catch on that there's more to him than meets the eye, but he will - but by then it will be too late.

That is Columbo, and for my money, it's the best show ever made on network television in the USA. Columbo ran 7 years in the 1970s, came back for a couple more seasons and string of TV movies in the 80s and 90s, and every episode (except one or two here and there) fit that description above. The shows were a series of little movies, 90-100 minutes long, airing in rotation with a number of other shows (McCloud and McMillan & Wife, later Hec Ramsey too) in its first run - the longer production schedules (a show a month, instead of a show a week) meant episodes were made with a lot more care than the average TV show of the time. They looked it. It starred Peter Falk, and brought in high profile guest stars, writers and directors, as prestige television has always done. Columbo's early years boast Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg at the start of their careers; later years featured people like Jonathan Demme, and along the way, any number of Hollywood veterans and actors got a shot behind the camera - Richard Quine and Leo Penn; Ben Gazzara and Patrick McGoohan. And of course a parade of guest stars, to kill and be killed, or sometimes to offer dubious advice in the role of lawyers or uncles or ex-hubands and wives.

It originated as a television episode, became a play, then a TV movie, written by Richard Levinson and William Link. They built a detective out of Crime and Punishment and Father Brown, and used the Crime and Punishment plot as their template: we see the crime, know who did it, why, how - the police come in later, most of them all wrong about the killing, but one of them figures it out, and spends the rest of the story trying to make an arrest that will stick by talking to the suspect. Columbo was openly and unapologetically formulaic, but that is where it got its strength. It has the rigid form of a sonnet or blues song, and the almost infinite variability of those forms. The fact that the stories all follow the same structure - killing, investigation/confrontation, solution/arrest - means that all the show's attention goes to the details. The restrictions force the writers to be brilliant - every killing has to be imaginative, every killer has to be interesting, their motives have to be believable, their victims and the survivors - have to be interesting. The process of solving the crime has to be clever, and - most of all - the interactions of the characters have to be completely compelling. It worked - it held up through 9 or 10 sets of shows over 25 plus years, staying watchable right to the end. The mysteries are compelling (far more often than on other long running crime shows); Columbo's work to solve them fascinating, clever, full of quiet demonstrations of his abilities. The killers and those around them make good television - they all seem to think they can talk their way out of anything, because they are Super Geniuses, and it keeps them engaged with Columbo, as he circles them, tracking down the crime, figuring them out.

The shows are not really mysteries (except a few designed for a twist) - the suspense is all in how Columbo figures out the crime, and pins it on the killer. And the substance of the show is in the interactions between Columbo and those killers, and the people around them. (A flock of husbands and wives and children and parents and uncles and aunts and lawyers and secretaries and hangers on who are usually as loathsome and pathetic and sometimes wonderful as the killers and victims.) Columbo lurks, and talks - he tells stories about his wife and nephews and brothers in law and cousins and childhood and he gets to know the killers, he goads or soothes them, and he gets them in the end. For all the show's debt to Dostoevsky, Columbo usually doesn't break the killers down psychologically. He figures them out, alongside the plot of the crime, and usually gets them through some detail, some clue everyone's overlooked that he can get them to plant somewhere. He shows them what looks like a sure fire way out of trouble, but he's always waiting by the door. No, where the show really lives is in the characterizations themselves - Columbo revealing the people he interacts with; and revealing himself, in a way. The plots and such make for a fascinating puzzle show - but those conversations, and the situations around them, are what raise the show to something more.

It's a show with a quiet, but firm social conscience. It was always very class conscious - Columbo is often described as a blue-collar detective, and the contrast between him and the rich, arrogant, privileged set of murderers he runs to ground gives it it's tone. But it uses class and money as more than just a contrast between rich killers and middle class cop. Money is always present in the show, almost always the reason for the crime - but the exact reason for this varies. The killers may all be rich, but don't miss how often the plot depends less on straight greed than on the threat of losing ones position. Over and over: someone who has gotten rich somehow, who was not, in fact, born rich, finds themselves facing a divorce, losing their job or business, being disinherited, being exposed as having stolen it or riding someone else's talents. Columbo was as much about anxiety about money as about the corruption of money - anxiety about money, and status - of being exposed. Though don't miss either how that money corrupts - the killers and their initial victims tend to all be rich; but there are many shows where the killers get someone else, as well. Maybe a witness - sometimes, just a lower class accomplice, who has to die to protect the killer's alibi. These tend to be the killings that bring out Columbo's claws - when he gets really tough with killer (like Leonard Nimoy's doctor, who kills a nurse and a drifter, or Robert Conrad's fitness guru who poisons a woman who might have heard something), it's because they've started killing people below their station.

There's another important piece of working class consciousness: the value of work itself. Columbo himself does this - Levinson and Link say it plain in the pilot: Columbo tells the killer, you do this once, you have one chance to get it right; I do this 100 times a year - I practice what I do, I learn it. Columbo does what he does by putting in the work - you can't deny his genius, but you can't miss his thoroughness, or the way he's willing to teach himself something new to solve a case. Even his patter is usually just cover for doing the grunt work of collecting clues and evidence. But this goes beyond Columbo himself - the show always values talent. The killers who are most sympathetic tend to be the ones who are good at something valuable - Johnny Cash's singer; Donald Pleasance as a vinter; Janet Leigh's actress; Ruth Gordon's mystery writer - are all craftsmen. They are rich, some of them are pretty much evil (Cash plays someone being blackmailed for statutory rape, who murders the both blackmailer and the girl), but they got rich by working for it. Even some of the more unpleasant figures - Patrick McGoohan's parade of psychotic spies and soldiers; John Cassavetes' conductor - are partly redeemed by the fact that they are good at what they do.

That respect for craftmanship - for artistry, through effort - suffuses the show. It features artists often enough - writers, musicians, painters, chess masters, photographers, chefs, scientists - it tends to respect them, even when they are villains. And it is built on the same respect - the quality of the scripts, the filmmaking effort, the parade of character actors, in leads, and tucked into the corners. Among its many delights are the chance to spot Bruce Kirby and Timothy Carey and Val Avery in the cast a couple times a season. It's guests tend to be TV stars (Dick Van Dyke, Robert Culp and McGoohan, Wlliam Shatner), old time movie stars (Ray Milland, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Ruth Gordon), and those more independent film types - people from Cassavetes' films (including Falk and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, behind the camera.) It's not flashy casting, it's casting built on craftsmanship. It's also not above playing it for laughs - William Shatner comes on, and is pilloried, playing a comic version of both himself and Columbo - he's bald, wears lifts, and turns out to be a complete con man, as well as a helpless ham. For every real artist, there is a smug asshole who thinks he matters because he has a TV show; and there are innumerable "business consultant" types who think they are rich because they are brilliant when they are, in fact, glorified con men, preying on real businessmen, who usually act like glorified gangsters. Columbo's creators do not hold a high opinion of American business, I think.

There are other elements of social conscience in the show - it's very sympathetic to women. Lots of women get murdered; more than a few of them are murderers; they are not necessarily any more sympathetic than the men around them. But the show manages to convey their sense of having to fight harder to get anything - men in the show don't take them seriously; they fight off bullies; they are manipulated and ignored. The writers - and Columbo, often enough - notice, and let the women have their say. They aren't condemned when they cheat on their husbands; they are not treated like usurpers for holding jobs men have (though Columbo, in some episodes, seems surprised at their positions). And shows where women kill men who cheat them - well, feel a bit different than shows where men kill. Though the show can still create a female monster - Johnny Cash's wife, in his episode - blackmailing him for statutory rape, though it is strongly hinted that she was providing him with underage girls in the first place - well... villainy knows no gender.

And so: I'll end with a quick little list - 5 of my favorite episodes, since this should let me look a bit at how the theme and variation structure worked...
  1. Negative Reaction: this is the one with Dick Van Dyke as a photographer. It's interesting because while he is an artist, and artists usually get a break on the show, he is one of the most irredeemably evil characters they ever created. He kills his wife, strictly for money; he kills a harmless ex-con who almost worships him for giving him a job, purely to make his own alibi work (framing him for good measure); he takes the usual contempt for Columbo farther most, becoming abusive - only to have it all swept away at the last minute, when he sees how Columbo has set him up. A great show - using Van Dyke's affability to mask his viciousness; and the fact that it is, maybe, a show about failure and self-loathing. He used to be an artist, but he has become a hack: his fall leads him to this. Great show.
  2. Murder by the Book: This is the first regular episode, and features the Stevens, Bochco and Spielberg, and from the first shot is obviously up to something fantastic.  Long shot of the street and a slow zoom back into the room where a man is typing - Spielberg was already capable of virtuosity. The show as a whole is well made, and often rather flashy - usually not this effectively though. The rest of the episode - Jack Cassidy as the untalented half of a writing team that's about to break up, who kills his partner, and then a lonely widow who sees something she couldn't - is first rate as well. It sets up those class tensions, the anxiety about losing status: Cassidy knows he can't continue as he is without his partner to write the books; he kills the witness almost without thinking about it - arrogance of the rich. It's a fine episode, already varying the motivations from the pilots.
  3. Swan Song: This is the Johnny Cash episode. He plays an ex-con country singer, forced to give all his money to his wife (Ida Lupino), who's blackmailing him for sleeping with an underage choir girl - though it's hinted that the wife set them up in the first place. So he kills both of them. The plot doesn't hold up so well in this one - but the interplay between Cash and Falk is superb. Cash's character is a nasty piece of work, other than the singing; he starts out angry and abusive of Columbo - but he changes. This comes as close as any episode to having Columbo literally talk someone into confessing - it's also fascinating to watch Cash's guilt catch up with him. He softens, he fades on screen, and is grateful when he's caught. Worth noting too that in the mid-70s, Johnny Cash was not the hero he was in the 50s and 60s, or would be in the 90s and on - this is a down period for him, but this show could still see him for what he was.
  4. A stitch in Crime: this is the Leonard Nimoy episode - Nimoy can vie with anyone (Van Dyke and Robert Conrad's Milo Janus might be the other finalists) for the most loathsome character in the series. He plans a clever way of killing his mentor, with dissolving sutures in the heart, then kills a nurse who starts to suspect, then kills a drifter to make the cops think the nurse was selling him drugs. This, and Nimoy's mocking contempt, gets Columbo's goat, provoking near violence. All this, by the way, is provoked by resentment over someone else getting his name on a scientific project. He's a piece of work.
  5. The Conspirators: this is a bit of a wild card - this is the last episode from the 7th season, the last one in the 70s, the last one for 10 years or so. It stars Clive Revill as an Irish poet who uses his book tours as cover to raise money to buy guns for the IRA. It's different - the structure of the show is like all the others, but the plot, and Revill, are not. He is almost unique in the series for being a professional criminal, a practiced gun-runner. (As is his victim.) The story is different - professional criminals; political motives; this character. It brings up the show's respect for professionalism - he is something of a mirror of Columbo. A poor kid, ex-con, who became a writer, a poet - though also a terrorist. He's an artist, and a professional. He's Columbo's peer - he's done this before. He poses a different kind of challenge. Their interactions are increasingly cordial in the show - some of it is due to Revill's charm, but there's more than a hint of mutual respect here as well - two men doing their jobs. It's a fascinating episode, a good way for the show to go off the air...