It wasn’t the 10-year break in the 80s that did for the crumpled detective, but rather a truly berserk episode from season five
The Columbo character-type is so familiar – paving the way for gun-shy, cerebral TV tecs such as Morse or Fitz from Cracker – that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it was when the series became a global smash in the early 1970s. Here was a murder mystery where the key eyewitness was the audience, made complicit by watching the killer execute their foul deed at the top of each episode. The headline star, embodied by Peter Falk, would only amble in after an ad break or two. To look at his clapped-out Peugeot, you might suspect this shambling lieutenant would be late for his own funeral.
Yet underneath the slovenly suit was fierce cunning. Columbo would identify the culprit seemingly through intuition alone, then patiently chip away at their alibi with his sly mantra of “just one more thing” until they incriminated themselves or begged for jail simply to escape him. Wealth and influence could not dissuade the little guy in the shabby raincoat. The snooty maestro, the chess grandmaster, the crooked politician … all were undone by Columbo. He was justice incarnate: rumpled of the Bailey. It made him beloved.