When life gets too scary, let’s take a break from analyzing the news and focus on the funny, anti-reality world of television…
What’s better than an English, cocaine-addicted super sleuth? The mystery genre of books, movies and television has been greatly influenced by Arthur Doyle’s literary depiction of Sherlock Holmes, a detective who solved mysteries that baffled the police. This subgenre of super sleuth comedy crime shows began with Columbo, progressed into Monk and then transitioned into shows like Psych, The Mentalist and Sherlock. The progression of these shows proves that the comedic and unconventional protagonist with unnerving observational skills continues to be a successful formula for mystery television programs.
In the late 1960s Columbo revolutionized crime-solving television dramas, depicting a protagonist who ingeniously unravels mysteries underneath his rumpled trench coat and bumbling politeness. Peter Falk’s portrayal became an instant success; in fact, “no other actor in the history of television has played the same prime-time character in four different decades” (Berman 44). The reason for this prolonged and continuing popularity is definitely credited to the intriguing balance of mystery and comedy. Columbo offers audiences a “whodunit formula and comedic imperfection” that keeps audiences interested and full of laughter (Berman 44). Furthermore, Columbo follows a “cat-and-mouse format, in which the audience witnesses a murder, then watches as Columbo slowly and methodically picks up clues and closes in on the killer” (Park 2). This format hooks viewers into the mystery from the first few minutes and then the presents a logical, satisfying and comedic means to revealing the murderer. The comedic characterization of Lt. Columbo in his iconic rumpled trench coat gives him “an everyday quality we could all relate to. And we see those say personal traits today in characters on crime dramas like Monk” (Burman 44).
About thirty years after Columbo’s premiere, Monk followed that series’ comedic precedent, “establishing itself as one of the most influential series of the last decade” (Hale 1). Adrian Monk’s severe OCD allows him observe obscure clues and ultimately helps him to solve murders. While audiences would never see Adrian Monk in a rumpled trench coat, there are definitely similarities between him and Lt. Columbo. Both protagonists are considered to be unconventional or “outsider heroes” (Hale 1). Adrian Monk’s OCD causes him to act outside of conventional social and behavioral norms, but this disorder also allows him to be an extremely gifted detective; in fact, Adrian Monk refers to his OCD as both a gift and a curse on multiple occasions. While other crime dramas also focused on a tortured hero, Monk was the only program to emphasize the comedy, not the pain.
While Monk and Columbo share a similar comedic format, Monk incorporated a significant change: the protagonist’s dependency on a strong female character. Sharona Fleming and Natalie Teeger assist Adrian Monk with his investigations, but more importantly help him to manage his OCD. While Adrian Monk is the super-sleuth, he would not be able to solve any of those mysteries without the help of his assistants. The series Monk uses Columbo’s structure and then exaggerates it. Instead of the subtle comedic role of Lt. Columbo, Adrian Monk makes audiences laugh out loud as he tries to climb the Ferris Wheel to catch a murderer, despite his deep fear of heights and aversion to germs. This type of screwball comedy combined with mystery will allow the “fans of television’s favorite obsessive-compulsive Sherlock [to] also dig the loopy sleuths of Psych” (Thomas 2).
Lastly, Psych’s Shawn Spencer is a fake psychic with real observational talents that helps him solve murders. If Monk exaggerated the screwball comedy of Columbo, then Psych took that exaggeration and intensified it. While Lt. Columbo hid his skills under the guise of dopey, blundering politeness, Shawn Spencer magnifies his abilities under the guise of being psychic, and is pretty showy about it. However, Shawn is such a likeable character because “he is a total and unabashed fraud” (Thomas 2). Shawn absurdly dresses up his observations through his signature gesture of placing his hand to the side of his head and pretending that ghosts or visions are telling him this information. The fact “that otherwise rational people have an easier time accepting clues from the beyond than from a run-of-the-mill mind like a steel trap is just one of the several delicious twists of Psych” (Thomas 2).
Similar to Adrian Monk, Shawn has a partner who he relies on to help him solve crimes. Shawn’s best friend Gus is not the one to pick up on the obscure clues, but he is the one who drives Shawn everywhere, keeps Shawn’s behaviors somewhat in check, deals with all the finances for their “Psych” office and even claims Shawn as a dependent on his taxes. Together Shawn and Gus take a new and creative approach to crime solving. Between the witty comebacks, hilarious schemes and constant trickery Psych keeps audiences entertained and laughing while Shawn solves yet another case.
The subgenre of comedy crime shows began with Columbo, but certainly does not end with Psych. In fact, this subgenre of television continues to steadily grow. This growing popularity can be caused by a “nostalgia for the days of plain, simple justice” because viewers “crave a hero who they know will put the culprit away – and do it with style” (Park 2). Audiences can always rely on Lt. Columbo, Adrian Monk and Shawn Spencer to both reveal the culprit and provide them with many laughs.
Berman, Marc. “Screwball Drama.” Mediaweek 13.42 (2003): 44. Communications & Mass Media Complete. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Hale, Mike. “Obsessive Influence.” The New York Times. (August 7, 2009): 868 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2014/10/25.
Park, Jeannie. “Veteran Sleuths are Donning Revamped Gumshoes.” The New York Times. (March 5, 1989): 1573 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2014/10/25.
Stndrds79. “Columbo’s Great Investigative Style.” Online videoclip. Youtube. Youtube, 8 Jul. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.