On Columbo as Main Character

So I have kind of a funny question for everyone.

Is Columbo the Main Character? In… Columbo? Okay, I know it sounds like a silly question, but hear me out.

Each episode of Columbo (usually) starts with the bad guy committing the crime, then desperately trying to hide all the evidence. The pilot is perhaps the most well-known for this, as it spends a huge chunk of its runtime getting to know the primary mastermind for the murder and his assistant. We know exactly what the mastermind is thinking through this whole plot.

Then in stumbles this detective, his coat a mess, his pen lost in the ether, as he stammers his way through his interrogation. In some distant way, we “want” him to succeed in catching the mastermind, because justice is supposed to be served, but from what we’ve seen so far, the mastermind’s smokescreen is foolproof, and surely can’t be beaten by this doofus.

Throughout each episode, Columbo is an enigma. This is partly because he’s one of the most Holistic detectives of all time, but he also keeps his cards extremely close to his chest. It’s never truly clear whether he’s broken the mastermind’s plan in two, he’s cautiously exploring a hunch they’re the culprit, or if he honestly has no idea and is scratching at itches, like he claims. It’s only at the end that he plays his hand, and you realize how canny he really is. (My favorite theory is that Columbo is a psychic who actually sees the murder occurring at the start of the episode, and the rest of the episode is him collecting enough evidence to make the charge stick.)

So… I mean. Obviously Columbo is the Main Character of his own show. But it’s strange to me that he feels so distant and enigmatic, and how much we empathize with the killers in these episodes, just based off of the framing. I just can’t seem to get my head around it.

…Oh, just one more thing. What do you all think about the Subjective Throughline in these episodes? The interplay between Columbo and his quarry is always so tense and exhilarating. Does it change if he’s the Influence Character, vs. if he’s the Main Character?


From the vague memories I have of the show (I was a kid watching along when my parents watched it), Columbo could very well be the Influence Character in most episodes. From what you describe the badguy may perhaps be the MC. Although I seem to recall an alternate format where perhaps there was a different MC who was really interested in the crime being solved, and they were really annoyed at Columbo’s bumbling and wanted to hire a different detective.

All this assuming that an episode has a complete story etc.

I don’t know the show, but it’s possible that they’re just puzzles to be solved, with no MC or IC.

If you watch The X-Files carefully, you’ll see that some episodes are stories and some are tales, and it frequently came down to who the writer was.

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