Saturday, June 10, 2006

Closet Columbo

Hi, my name is Jeff and I have a problem: I like to watch "Columbo".

"Columbo" was a series in the 1970's about a rumpled LA detective played by Peter Falk. Why I've become addicted to it I have no idea, but like much in my life, I blame Dell Computers.

When I worked for Dell upon first moving to Austin, they had me on a horrendous shift, on the clock from 4 in the afternoon to 3 in the morning.

On Tuesdays through Fridays.

That meant that not only was I working when all other people my age were partying, but I only had one weekend night in common with the rest of humanity. As a result, I didn't socialize much and found myself parked in front of the television in the middle of the day most days.

That's when it happened.

A&E started showing reruns of Columbo every day, and I got totally sucked in. I went so far as to learn how to program my VCR so I could tape every show. I still have most of those tapes, meticulously labeled, and the old checklist of episodes I used to keep track of what I'd already seen.

Pathetic, I know, but then so was my life at that point.

Now I own the first four seasons on DVD and the next one should be coming any day now. I also TiVo some episodes from later seasons, and watched one earlier today. One of the things I like about it is spotting famous actors before they were famous. In this particular one ("How To Dial A Murder"), a very young Kim Cattrall and Ed Bagley, Jr. showed up.

One of the other fascinating things to see (besides the episodes themselves, which are all very good) is how technology has changed since these were filmed. In one early episode the criminal is traveling by plane, and it was completely unlike today's Southwest Airlines-inspired cattle-car experience. There was a lounge on the plane with a piano, stewardesses with trays of drinks, people smoking and laughing it up ... it was like a Vegas hotel with wings.

Then of course was the episode featuring a newfangled device that the murderer used to stage his alibi -- a phone voice recording machine! Columbo had never even seen one, and he had to have its purpose explained to him.

Only the richest of the rich had car phones. There were no desktop computers, and in one adventure featuring none other than Martin Sheen ("Lovely But Lethal") you got a scene with the ultra-advanced room-sized corporate computer complete with tape reels and a teletype machine for output.

What strikes me about these technological innovations is how they're used -- as pieces in a murder plot. The devices seem so dated now, so archaic, but the motivations of the people behind them are as timeless as humanity itself. Greed, lust, revenge, hatred, rage, all the old sins with new enablers, unchanging backdrops against which our morality plays and technological advances perform.

I guess "Columbo" is just one more piece of the Geek puzzle out here in the country. I sometimes feel like technology is passing me by as well, outpacing me like it has these old episodes, but at the same time I'm comforted by that thought that some things are eternal. Murder, yes, but also justice, and people like Columbo who use nothing more complicated than the power of their minds to make sense of a world that sometimes seems mad.

Oh, and just one more thing -- if you get the chance, tune in to one of those old shows. I think you'll like them, too.

1 comment:

Denise said...

Great remembrance of Columbo and that rumpled trench coat he wore! I remember Patrick McGoohan in one and the way Columbo would hit his head and say, "One more thing..." You just knew he was figuring it out!! Forgot about Columbo -- I've been watching some of those old movies and there would not be a plot if they'd had cell phones. In "An Affair to Remember," Cary Grant would've called Deborah Kerr when she didn't show up on top of the Empire State Building, and then what plot would there be! I've noticed they're using cell phone now to advantage, not writing around them. But nothing beats Columbo, McMillan and Wife, Barney Miller and the best Barney of all (no, not that dinosaur) -- Barney Fife, Mayberry's finest!! If you want some great TV, then get the first three seasons of "The Andy Griffith Show." He has an episode about Opie and the Birds (Season 4), and it's as poignant as the day it was filmed. Reminds me of the birds underneath your roof. You will not regret watching an old Andy Griffith Show with Barney!