Created by Richard Levinson and William Link, the series debuted in 1971 with "Murder by the Book," which was actually the third appearance of Falk's Columbo (there had been two previous two-hour NBC World Premiere Movies prior to the series launch.) Interestingly, "Murder by the Book" was directed by a then unknown talent: Steven Spielberg.
Columbo was unique in so many ways, the first was that the viewer learned the killer's identity in the first few minutes of every episode. Up until then, detective shows and mysteries had tried to keep the audience guessing "Who Done It?" until the very final scene. Levinson and Link turned that formula upside down, letting viewers in on the intracacies of the crime from the killer's viewpoint, their motivation, and what they did to cover their tracks to avoid discovery.
Often, Columbo was not even introduced until 20 minutes or more into the episodes (which ran a network 90 minutes with commercials instead of the usual 60 minutes for dramas.)
However, as soon as the audience caught a glimpse of the short, rumpled, cigar-smoking detective with the tan rain coat, they knew that they were watching something really special. Columbo feigned a scatter-brained approach, but it was soon obvious to viewers and the episode's killer that beneath his step-and-fetch-it manner lay the cooly brilliant mind of a master detective. And, it was the cat-and-mouse interplay and dialog between Columbo and the criminal that was at the heart of this brilliant series.
Smartly written and tightly crafted, the dramatic tension was created as Columbo slowly chipped away the layers of subterfuge left by the killer to reveal the mechanics of the crime and the killer.
Throughout the series, which spanned three decades after several relaunches as specials, Falk's black hair turned gray, but he wore the exact same rain coat while pursuing some of the best actors and actresses on TV or in the movies who portrayed various extremes of melevolent killers. A virtual "who's who" of the acting profession did a turn on Columbo.
To say that Columbo affected the TV mystery genre is to give it far too little credit: it changed it forever and produced a detective from which his alter ego, the vastly talented Falk, will also never be able to escape.
Let's hope the studio takes a clue from Colombo and quickly releases the rest of these outstanding episodes!