This is the other kind of Zeitgeist show. Not necessarily something that you know about because it's all over the media and everyone is talking about it...but just something that completely permeates the culture without you even realizing it's happening, because it's just that good.
Not sure how many of the post 80's generation this applies to, but when I was growing up, 70's & 80's, everybody KNEW about Columbo. It was a staple of every major impressionists repertoire: Rich Little, Fred Travalena, John Byner, Frank Gorshin etc. (Side note of nostalgia...do we even HAVE impressionists anymore?) They only had to do a few squints and rub their eyes and do the "Just one more thing," and everyone immediately GOT it and giggled with the recognition.
I've just finished a re-watch of the original series. ALL the episodes from the first run of the show when it was part of the "Sunday Night Mystery Movie" umbrella, which also included McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and (I was surprised to be reminded) Quincy ME. Banacek was in there too at some point. They're all good shows and I have fairly positive memories of most of them, but I think it's fair to say that Columbo is the only true classic.
Every single one of those episodes held up brilliantly. Yes, there was a smidgeon of cringe-worthy 70's sexism in a few episodes and of course you have to be truly aghast at some of the clothing, or possible be in AWE at the sight of Roddy McDowell in INCREDIBLY tight trousers or Robert Vaughn rocking the exact same leisure suit in two separate episodes as two separate, but equally smarmy characters.
It's hard to say whether it's genius of the concept, whereby we see (in every episode except one) the murder and know exactly who did it, HOW they did it and in most cases more or less why they did it and the WHOLE mystery is HOW Columbo will figure it, the brilliance of the character and characterization by Peter Falk, OR the amazing line-up of guests, both the actual guest murderers and the supporting characters.
The guest actors are SO MUCH FUN, especially the truly "smug snake" types (sometimes multiple appearances as different smug snakes) played by Jack Cassidy, Patrick McGoohan and Robert Culp.
William Shatner (camping it up fiercely) and Leonard Nimoy is different episodes. Roddy Mc-Fucking-Dowell in his tight trousers, having quite the meltdown in his revelation scene. John Cassavetes (obviously having a blast with his buddy Peter Falk.) Classic stars like Louis Jordan, Ruth Gordon, Janet Leigh, CELESTE HOLM! Possibly my ALL-TIME favorite is the Johnny Cash episode (with Ida Lupino as the victim) which is on the ONLY disc from the classic series that Netflix couldn't provide. It's STILL on the waiting list, but I have it memorized from whenever I actually saw it because it's so vivid in head. Johnny Cash's acting was brilliant and it was probably the first time I ever heard Sunday Morning Coming Down.
It's also fun when there's a certain amount of 70's style "ripped from the headlines" in terms of celebrities playing versions of either themselves or other famous types. (Robert Conrad as a Jack Lalanne-style fitness guru or Nicol Williamson CLEARLY playing Werner Erhard.)
The best are where Columbo and of course the never-seen Mrs. Columbo (sorry, Kate Mulgrew, you were a great Starship Captain, but you were NEVER really Mrs. Columbo) are "big big fans" of the baddie. This is genuinely heart-breaking in Forgotten Lady with Janet Leigh. (My second favorite episode.)
You'd THINK 7 seasons of guest stars killing someone and then basically getting harrassed by this annoying schlub would get old. IT NEVER GETS OLD. The plots are the same and yet all different enough that IT NEVER GETS OLD. One reason being that each guest murderer has a different approach to Columbo. Some get hostile immediately. Some try to con him. Some are amused. Others are taken in by the act. Some try to get him thrown off the case. Some try to pull rank and get him fired.
Then you've got the perfection of Peter Falk embodying the part as few actors have EVER become a television character. It's nearly mind-boggling to believe that the original pilot was written with Bing Crosby in mind because the full character, complete with tics, catch phrases, body language, expressions, it's all there in the very first Pilot episode.
One of my favorite things about the show is that with the exception of a few really slimy bastards (generally ones who not only commit murder, but then try and frame someone else for it) Columbo is NEVER overtly hostile with them. Never gets up in their face in a nasty way. With some of the female murderers, even after the reveal, he actual offers his arm to escort them out of the room. Or calls them "too classy" to try and run away or kill him. And in general the murderers take their exposure very well. (Roddy McDowell melted down, Ross Martin went balistic and I think Robert Conrad was snotty until the very end.) What I really love is the variations on the silent "oh shit." That MOMENT when Columbo springs the single fact that proves they did it and the camera goes to a reaction shot and some many of them did it so subtly, that it's a thing of beauty. Just the slightest change to the eyes or tensing of the jaw that communicates that they know it's all over. Some of the episodes just end with that moment, because there's nothing else to do or say. Not clever gloating or snarky epithets. It's just over.
Oh let's not forget the DOG! The best Bassett Hound ever!
One of the greatest Columbo moments happens in Try and Catch Me, with Ruth Gordon (one of the last episodes of the original series) where he has the dog out at marina somewhere, acting as lethargic as ever, and in a conversation with Ruth Gordon, he says completely dead-pan, "He likes the salt air. Makes him frisky." It's hilarious. Honestly.
In the third episode of the I series of QI, Frank Skinner mentions having an all night argument with David Baddiel about whether or not Peter Falk's glass eye was playing a real eye in Columbo. I think we can assume it was, although if not it might explain why Columbo needed to get another cop to take his shooting test for him. There are a few shots where the glass eye is noticable, which I always find amusing. Then Stephen Fry said that Columbo was the greatest TV detective ever. Who I am to argue with Stephen?