Editor's Note: Episode 30 of Columbo, the iconic detective TV series, was titled "Playback." And that's just what we're doing now, playing back (i.e. re-posting) this 2019 article about an Amherst film professor and some of her student researchers, aka "Team Columbo." Our reason? That professor—Amelie Hastie, the Nancy and Douglas D. Abbey ’71 Professor of Film and Media Studies—has just published her book about the show and its place in television history. It's called Columbo: Make Me a Perfect Murder (2024), and it has just become available from Duke University Press. So read the following. It's criminally fun.

Pater Falk the star of 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—the professor has dubbed them “Team Columbo”—have come here on this drizzly spring 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 celebrating the semester’s end and sending off McNamara, who graduates in just days. Plus, they’re happy to extend 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, she adds, of Leonard Nimoy’s dish of potatoes, meat extract and bananas.)

Professor hastie and three students watching the television show Columbo together
Watching Columbo: Professor Amelie Hastie in the foreground; L to R: Maeve McNamara, Sabrina Lin and Kiera Alventosa

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. 

A stack of books related to the T.V. show Columbo

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.  

Professor Hastie and her three students in her living room
Left to right: Professor Amelie Hastie, Maeve McNamara, Sabrina Lin and Kiera Alventosa enjoying some "Columbo" chili.

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, sometimes on semester breaks. “When my family gets together, we watch episodes over and over again,” says Alventosa. “It’s like this great intergenerational home experience.” 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, a spinning top, a bunch of jacks. More laughter all around, then the professor says, “I hope they remind you to have joy outside work.”