family observations

Columbo’s Dead Air Space – Johnny Cash Edition

My husband enjoys watching reruns of Columbo.

For the kids out there who aren’t familiar with Columbo, this is a TV series that features actor Peter Falk playing Los Angeles homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo. Columbo always appears to be bumbling around while solving the murder, but he always knows right away who did it. Whoever he hounds the most is the one who committed the crime.

Having watched the series too many times to count, when I walk into the living room and see it on the screen, I often say, “Oh, this episode.” And Hubby laughs.

Once you know the plots of all the episodes, you start noticing other things about the show.

  • Certain actors appear again and again in different roles.
  • Columbo’s wife never makes an appearance, though Columbo frequently talks about her.
  • Peter Falk’s actual wife shows up a few times in the series.
  • Specific locations and pieces of furniture are repeated in the series.
  • The homicides always seem to occur among the well-to-do.
  • Columbo is never referred to by his first name. We’ve only seen it once in the series, when Columbo flashes an ID card. It’s Frank, in case you’re wondering.
  • Columbo often whistles the song “This Old Man.”
  • Columbo is forever carrying around crime scene evidence to make his point. Whoever is in charge of evidence at the police department must go bonkers over this.
  • Columbo’s rumpled rain coat and beater car are his signature pieces and he can’t bear to part with them.
  • Columbo never carries a gun and can’t stand to use them.
  • He rarely ever gets angry. The one episode where he slams his fists on a desk features Leonard Nimoy playing a doctor who is the murderer.
  • When the murderers get ticked off because Columbo keeps showing up to ask more questions, Columbo always blames his superiors, who want him to “tie up loose ends.”

Recently I’ve noticed another curious feature of Columbo episodes that probably wouldn’t fly in today’s action-packed dramas. There’s a lot of dead air space in the shows, by which I mean activities that don’t move along the plot. You’ll often see Columbo standing for a time, just thinking.

There’s an episode called “Swan Song” that features Johnny Cash where this dead air space happens numerous times, and it’s not insignificant. At the time, Johnny Cash appearing in an episode would have been a huge deal, kind of like Taylor Swift or Beyonce appearing in a serial drama today. The producers were obviously going to give him a lot of air time.

As the episode opens, he is singing to an audience verse after verse of “This Little Light of Mine.” All we really needed to figure out he was a singer was one verse, but Cash kept going and going. Throughout the episode, it was obvious that many scenes were set up to give Cash an excuse to sing and play guitar, rather than furthering any plot points.

However, there is one dead air space scene in the episode that doesn’t feature Johnny Cash, and it’s absolutely hilarious. Columbo spends about 5 minutes talking to a funeral director played by Vito Scotti. Columbo wants to go into the funeral home to talk to someone, but the funeral director instead tries to convince him that he needs to plan for his funeral. Because, surely, as a homicide detective, he is likely to die young!

Did this scene need to be in this episode? Nope. But I’m so glad it is. Not every story needs to get right to the point. Sometimes a detour along the way can be delightful.

Thoughtful comments welcome.