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Why Columbo is Like Law School

by on September 6, 2011

First off, I solemnly promise that not every one of my posts for the next three years will be about law school and my experiences therein (eep, I’m already talking like a lawyer. I’ve been assimilated! Resistance is futile!). The reason why I’m keeping this thing going is partly to escape from law school, because they told us in orientation we needed to have an escape valve. Monopolizing the blog which is supposed to be taking my mind off law school with posts about law school reminds me of the classic story about two monks who were traveling down the road. They came to a river, and saw a  woman waiting to cross.  Being nervous about the current, she asked if the monks might carry her over the river. One of the monks hesitated, but the other promptly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and set her down on the other side. She thanked him and went on her merry way. As the monks continued on their own path, the first monk was brooding and preoccupied. Finally he spoke out. “Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”

“Brother,” the second monk replied, “I set her down on the other side. Why are you still carrying her?”

Whereupon the first monk whipped out his lightsaber. “You will not take her from me!”

“Your own anger and lust for power have already done that. You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind until now, you’ve become the very thing you swore to destroy.”

“Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan! Instead I’ll lecture you about my evil plans of  evilness! Blah blah blah empire!”

“Blah blah blah democracy!”

“If you are not with me, you are my enemy!”

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes. Which, technically, is an absolute statement, but I see the ominous choral music is starting. Let’s fight!”


*vmmm vmmm ksssh vmm bmm bmm ksh*

Right, so, technically, the classic story doesn’t morph into a scene from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, but obviously it should have.

At any rate, this post, however, will be slightly different than escapist fare, because a simile has been going through my mind for the past couple days and I wanted to write it out. Throughout the past couple of weeks, my professors have offered one or another variation on the same thing they want to see come exam time. On that rather ominously looming day, we’ll likely be presented with a set of facts about some poor chap named Bob, and we’ll be asked whether Bob is, for example, liable for battery. The professors won’t mark us down if we write that Bob is guilty when in fact he’s pure as the driven snow. What they want to see is how we arrive at the result we arrive at. Can we explain why we found Bob liable, and explain the reason for our reason, and the counter-arguments, and so on, and so forth, etc, etc, etc. At one point one professor said that it’s not like a mystery where we need to know who ‘dun it, and it occurred to me, maybe it is sort of like a certain kind of mystery. I refer, of course, to Columbo.

Columbo, starring the recently deceased Peter Falk, was a show that inverted the usual mystery pattern. Usually in a mystery such as Monk, or Psych, or Murder She Wrote, you wouldn’t know who the murderer was until it came time for the Big Reveal, where the detective would helpfully explain exactly why and how the murderer had committed the crime. ( Monk actually lampshaded this at one point, in the episode about Mr. Monk’s one hundredth case, in which a murderer played by Andy Richter complained about Monk telling him, the criminal, all about his own crime. It was hilarious). But Columbo didn’t do that. In Columbo, the episode showed you who the murderer was right from the beginning, and it even showed you the murderer doing the crime and setting up his abili. Then Lieutenant Columbo would amble on looking very rumpled, and he’d start asking questions. There would always be the moment where he’d finish a conversation with the murderer, start to walk away, then turn around and say, “Just one more thing,” and then he’d ask the one question that would throw the murderer for a loop. The whole show was about the process, the way in which Columbo went after the murderer until he or she finally couldn’t keep up the lies anymore, and they’d break down and confess, or they’d make an incriminating mistake and Columbo would catch them. It was brilliant. And I think that’s what all the professors were driving at. They all want me and my fellow 1Ls to be like Columbo. Whether or not Robert Culp confesses isn’t as important as whether we can get him in the parking lot hunting for the contact lens, and if we get him there by putting the required potato in the exhaust pipe. The potato is the key. And I will probably never be able to write that sentence again, but it was worth it.

So, I hope this will be a sort of Life Lesson not just for any law students who might be reading this, but for everyone else. Remember the potato. Don’t get fixated on the result so much that you miss the fun getting there. And always be sure to carry strange women across rivers. Because sometimes, supreme executive power can derive from a farcical aquatic ceremony.

  1. Remember the potato; got it. But I’m not so keen on carrying strange women across rivers; you’ve got to be careful in this modern age, to be sure they aren’t perpetuating the violence and heresy of the system.


    I would have tried to work in a Star Wars reference, but I’m afraid I don’t know any that well *hands head*

    I was more of a Quincy girl myself. Don’t remember much of Columbo.

    • Just so long as they aren’t distributing swords. Because we all know that’s no basis for a system of government.
      I’m not sure I could make references from the original movies, except for maybe “I find your lack of faith disturbing. I’m more familiar with the prequels. Which is kind of sad, I suppose.
      I definitely need to watch Quincy. Right after I finish Psych, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a rewatch of Mr. Bean….:)

  2. VERY well-written post, good sir!
    Columbo was such an underrated show, much like the character himself.

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