An illustration of Peter Falk playing the TV show character Columbo

“I’ve definitely watched way more Columbo than the average 21-year-old,” concedes Maeve McNamara ’19, speaking of the classic ’70s TV detective show, and everyone breaks into laughter at the professor’s cozy apartment.

McNamara, Kiera Alventosa ’21 and Sabrina Lin ’21—known as “Team Columbo”—have come here on this drizzly evening for several reasons. First of all, Amelie Hastie, professor of English in film and media studies, wants to thank them for their research help on her forthcoming book Columbo: Make Me a Perfect Murder, for the Duke University Press Spin-Offs series on prominent television shows.

Team Columbo is also extending their tradition of gathering for an episode and eating themed food made by Hastie: she sometimes works from Cooking with Columbo: Suppers with the Shambling Sleuth, which features old recipes from various co-stars and Peter Falk himself, who plays Lt. Columbo of the LAPD homicide unit.

“The recipes are super gross and totally unhealthy,” admits Hastie cheerfully. (Beware especially of Leonard Nimoy’s dish of potatoes, meat extract and bananas.)

Tonight, the four of them settle down to “Swan Song,” an episode from the third season. Johnny Cash plays a country music star named Tommy Brown, an art-meets-life trick the show sometimes deployed, like when William Shatner played an actor playing a detective in “Fade in to Murder.” As Lin says, “I just love that meta stuff.”

It seems Brown is tired of the older wife who helped him reach stardom, and so he stages a plane crash, in which she dies but he miraculously survives (a parachute is involved). Ida Lupino revels in the role of the wife, which tickles
Hastie, who wrote The Bigamist, a book on this pioneering female director. In one post-crash scene, Brown offers Columbo a bowl of chili, so that’s what Team Columbo eats tonight too.

In the show, it’s squirrel-meat chili. Hastie wisely opted out of a strict homage.

The original Columbo series won a dozen Emmys and was a “howcatchem,” not a whodunit. (For modern comparison, think Hulu’s Killing Eve.) The audience knew who was the murderer; the fun was watching the disheveled Lt. Columbo—whose genius is to fool the perp into thinking him incompetent—suss out how the crime was committed and so achieve justice.

A stack of Columbo DVDs
Three students gathered in their professor’s cozy apartment to watch the classic TV show they’d researched.

The character of Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link; Hastie has consulted with Link, now 85. The writing duo counted among their influences Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The narratives could be delectably clever—Team Columbo especially loves “Étude in Black,” in which a two-timing conductor (John Cassavetes) has to face the music. The guest stars were also choice, like Hollywood greats Anne Baxter and Ray Milland. And Columbo was a proving ground for young directors who went on to movie stardom, such as Steven Spielberg.

Tonight, when Falk first appears on the episode, all of Team Columbo cheers. When they spy the chili, Hastie cries, “Our tie-in!” Noting his spectacularly ugly suit, Hastie explains that Falk dyed a blue suit brown to get that sickly pinkish tint. The others remark on the notable lack of racism and sexism in the series (Columbo is always respectful), unusual for its time. Hastie explains that Levinson and Link never made the villain African-American, to defy the era’s violent stereotypes.

A few times, between scenes and mouthfuls of (vegetarian) chili and cornbread, Team Columbo hit pause to reflect on their research experiences. McNamara, for instance, traveled with Hastie to Los Angeles to work through the Writers Guild Foundation collection of Columbo screenplays. Meanwhile, Lin wrote summaries of the novelizations of the series, and Alventosa researched episodes. Team Columbo also played the Columbo board game together, part of an effort to scrutinize marketing tie-ins.

Fun and scholarship go together with these four. In fact, before Team Columbo leaves, Hastie gives each student a small thank-you gift. Silly things, like a figurine, some jacks. More laughter all around, and then the professor says, “I hope they remind you to have joy outside work.”

Illustration by Jenny Kroik

Photo by Jiayi Liu