Watching The Metro Columbo
I have repeatedly and insistently made you aware of my obsessive interest in the classic – that is, ancient – 1970s TV detective show Columbo.
You’ll be glad to know that I have now finished all seven seasons on Amazon Prime. You’ll be even gladder to know that I’m not going to write anything more on it.
Except… to say that apart from a very uneven S5 – which culminates with an episode of Columbo, ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’, directed by Patrick McGoohan, that is so stupendously, mind-bendingly atrocious it seems to be from an entirely different TV detective show, one that was never commissioned because the pilot was so bad – the quality and the ‘mystery’ of the ‘TV mystery movie’ is maintained right to the end, in 1977. (Don’t’ worry, I’m not planning to watch the 1989-2003 reboot.)
Oh, and that Patrick McGoohan, despite laying a giant directorial egg with ‘Last Salute’, puts in two fine performances in other episodes: as a repressed homosexual commandant of a military academy in ‘By Dawn’s Early Light’, and a devilishly charming CIA agent (and probably also repressed homosexual) in ‘Identity Crisis’ (which he also directed). In both episodes, particularly the latter, a strong and warm friendship, romance even, develops between McGoohan and Columbo’s characters, a reminder that they were close friends in real life.
The bad news however is that I’m now going to tell you about another seven season TV detective show that I watched on Amazon. In fact, the reason I watched all seven seasons of Columbo on Amazon was because I watched The Mentalist first – and it has some similarities and resonances with it, beyond the number of seasons.
In fact, I until The Mentalist, I don’t think I’d watched seven seasons of anything.
Not as ancient as Columbo, it originally aired 2009-2015 – but because I gave up on terrestrial TV in the late noughties, I had never seen it until I was served it up by Amazon algorithms last year. (Though you may well have done.)
It was something of a revelation, because apart from Columbo I’d never really liked detective shows. Then again, The Mentalist is a kind of metrosexual, more openly psychological Columbo.
Yes, there’s a whodunnit element, but that’s not really the point. The central character, Patrick Jane, a reformed psychic, uses his insight and skills to ‘read’ people to help the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) close cases. He assesses their personality, their truth or falsehood, their guilt or innocence ridiculously quickly. Which is something that Detective Columbo also does in a much more understated way – until the denouement at the end. (Columbo frequently uses the line, “I’m no psychologist…” which of course is complete baloney.)
As in Columbo, this often means a series of confrontations and dances. Jane is also incredibly, almost preternaturally charming. But unlike Columbo, Jane is very confrontational from the beginning. In fact, he says outrageous things to people three seconds after meeting them, such as “Why did you murder your husband?” He is deliberately provocative so as to ‘read’ them better. Or he just offers unsolicited advice about things he isn’t supposed to know: “Lay off the anti-depressants. They’re making your slow and you’re still not happy.”
Of course, this creates drama, but it is also often very funny. In fact, The Mentalist, even more than Columbo which is also often funny, is frequently laugh out loud hilarious.
Jane, played by the blond, blue-eyed, handsome Tasmanian devil Simon Baker, is like a stand-up comedian – saying the things out loud that are loudly thought but not supposed to be spoken.
And he does it with such an incredible, blindingly brilliant, heart-melting smile that he (usually) gets away with it. Likewise, the writing is very sharp, and the psychology surprisingly accurate, for the most part.
As for ‘the metrosexual Columbo’ aspect, Jane – in addition to his ambiguous name – is extremely attractive. Breathtakingly beautiful, to be precise. His hair, his skin, his eyes are all endlessly adorable in close up, even when he has supposedly spent the night on the sofa. He is never actually rumpled in the way that Det. Columbo always was. Instead of a crumpled old Mack, he wears nice vests, jackets and shirts, with battered shoes (that references his traumatic past – or Det. Columbo).
He is the pampered love-object of the camera – admittedly, colouring my judgement about this series, though Baker as an actor is quite mesmerizing in the role – it’s not just about his gorgeous eek.
Jane also has genius level emotional intelligence, hates guns and is no good in a fight (in this regard, like Det. Columbo). In fact, he’s an out of the closet coward when it comes to physical violence, and frequently has to be rescued by his feisty tiny female CBI boss, Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), who is very well-versed in guns and subduing and cuffing bad guys twice her size.
And instead of huffing on a cigar, Jane drinks tea. Which in the US, especially a decade or so ago, was way gay.
Like Det. Columbo, he drives a French car – but a very stylish classic one (1972 Citroen DS 21 Pallas) instead of a beaten-up old wreck (1959 Peugeot 403).
And finally, like the scruffy Italian American cigar-muncher, Jane is more supernatural or mythological figure than real person – or living one. Not just because of his apparently magical powers of divination. Before the series begins, his family were slain by the serial killer Red John in revenge for his fake ‘psychic’ reading of him on TV – catapulting Jane into a spell of five-alarm madness and self-recrimination.
Not long after his release from the mental hospital, ‘the mentalist’ turns up at the offices of the CBI, looking dishevelled and still more than half mad, pleading to be allowed to help track down Red John. He is retained as a consultant after he demonstrates his uncanny ability to close cases.
Jane, who has chronic insomnia, is a kind of undead, if devlisly pretty, man walking, doomed to roam the earth to avenge his family and atone for his own vanity and fakery, using his now-renounced ‘psychic’ powers for good, depriving people of their useless illusions, exposing frauds and murderers. A scourge of the supernatural, he himself seems to access supernatural powers. As he says himself, “The human mind is amazingly powerful. It can do things for real that sometimes feel like magic.”
Or as he says when a believer in psychics and the afterlife tells him that there are things beyond human understanding.
“That would be golf and musical theatre of the ‘30s and ‘40s.”