Tonight, the four of them settle down to “Swan Song,” from the third season. Real-life country music star 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, how their real image and their TV image kind of bleed into each other.”
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 wife role, which tickles Hastie, who wrote The Bigamist, a book on this pioneering female director. In one post-crash scene, Brown offers Columbo a big 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 (there were some lamentable reboots after) 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, fumbling Lt. Columbo—whose genius is to fool the perp into thinking him incompetent—suss out how the crime was committed and so achieve justice.
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) must face the music.
The guest stars were also choice, like Hollywood greats Anne Baxter, Ray Milland and Myrna Loy. And Columbo was a proving ground for young directors who went on to movie stardom, such as Jonathan Demme and 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!” McNamara jokes that they should’ve all worn shabby raincoats in Columbo’s honor. 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.