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August 15, 2003

Wise Fool vs Idiot Savant: Columbo vs Monk

Last night I caught a rerun of Columbo and a new episode of Monk. This created a perfect situation for contrasting and comparing the two shows. The Columbo episode is one that I think I have to rank among the best, and the Monk episode was darned good too, so no unfair comparisons there. One difference, that probably does matter, is the length of the shows. Monk is one hour; I think Columbo is two, or at least 90 minutes. This does give Columbo some room to expand that Monk doesnít have. As a result the Columbo plots can be a bit more intricate, and the crimes being investigated can be set up much more.

The Columbo episode was the one where a supposed ESP guy murdered his partner in conning the CIA and Pentagon. The set up, where the con and the murder played out, took the first half hour of the show. Columbo, himself, never even put in an appearance during that time. I wasnít even sure that I was watching Columbo.

The murdered partner was a magician who had built a reputation on debunking claims of ESP. In the episode, Columbo, with the help of a 13 year old magician, debunks the ESP act that fooled the CIA and Pentagon reps. As usual, Columbo uses the suspectís own hubris to convict him, along the way using the criminal as his consultant in investigating the murder. Thus it was the basic template of a Columbo episode, but it stood out partly due to the level of the irony.

An example of the irony comes in the first half when Columbo asks the murder suspect to demonstrate his powers of ESP. Using the standard ESP test cards, he has Columbo sketch a symbol from one of the cards in his notebook. The suspect then names in the proper order, first the one Columbo changed his mind about, a circle, then the one he actually chose, a triangle. Since they were standing face to face, any reasonably observant and intelligent person can guess how this works. Columbo was, of course, very impressed. His comment was along the lines of ďIf I could do that I would be some detective.Ē The suspect agreed.

Of course, any regular watcher of the program knows that Columbo is ďsome detective.Ē He just doesnít look like one, appear act like one, or read mindsÖ quite. He reads people.

But the dropping of this sort of ironic line is usual. Itís often hard to guess, and we never really know, if Columbo, the character, means to be ironic, or if the screenwriter is simply doing a good job. In this episode my nod goes to the former because later he replays the scene in reverse. Columbo performs the same trick for the suspect. Itís his way of saying that while he may not have ESP, he knows the tricks and he can make people believe he can read minds. Itís also a way to say he indeed is ďsome detective. Itís a way to rachet up the stress on the suspect, making his nerve more prone to popping.

The Monk episode was one in which a series of mail bombs is being sent to members of a family embroiled in a battle over inheritance. The overall investigation is much shallower, partly due to the shorter time window, and partly because Monk always has some sort of a subplot going on. While the subplot may have a tie in, in this case it also involved an inheritance issue, it cuts into the depth of the show. Monk focuses more on action than on thought. In this case Monk knew who was the real bomber within the first 15 minutes of the show; the rest of the time was spent proving it.

In that respect the plot was more like Columbo plots than many Monk plots normally are. In Monk very often everyone will be perplexed until close to the end when someone has an aha moment. The someone is usually Monk, but not always. Columbo almost always knows who is the real criminal very early on. He spends the show building a case, often with the criminalís help. It isnít always clear to the viewer how Columbo knows, but itís usually pretty apparent where his focus will be. We later find out what triggered his suspicion.

I find Columbo, the show, more cerebral. But Columbo is not smarter than Monk. I think this is partly due to archetypical differences that are subtle. At first glance I thought the two main roles were parallel. Though they run more or less along the same character lines, there is a major difference. Columbo is master of his fate, Monk is a victim of his.

This importance distinction causes me to call Columbo a wise fool in the Lear sense. His job is to play the fool, but in the process of playing the fool he imparts tremendous wisdom to those who pay real attention. The experienced viewer does; the suspects do not.

In contrast Monk is an idiot savant. He canít help his idiocy, his abject victimization by his own phobias. Even in the sessions in which he purports to try to learn control with his shrink, he is pathetically incompetent. His true gifts, those of observation and analysis, only engage when he is externally stimulated by a situation that draws his attention at least momentarily. He can read people stunningly well when he notices. But he often fails to notice, so self-absorbed is he.

Columbo plays a similar role, but the key difference is that to him itís a played role. He plays the dunce, the somewhat obsessive, self-absorbed hick (witness his odd departures on his wife, his car, etc.). But for Columbo itís a tool to keep the suspect off balance and unsuspecting. When someone makes a derogatory remark about Columbo, it slips right off. That battered old overcoat he wears is actually Teflon. After all, itís not Columbo thatís being insulted, itís the ďjust being ColumboĒ mask he wears purposefully to provoke exactly the attitude that results in insults. An insult is an affirmation of that role.

Monk has no coat, only micron-thin skin. He is visibly hurt by some of the remarks, though he ignores others when heís obsessing about some irrelevant, or relevant, detail. Insults donít always catch Monkís attention, but when they do they score. What prevents Monk from returning to the job, rather than being an as-needed consultant, is that thin skin. Even with his stunning record of success, he is not capable of working within the constraints of Police Department structure. Too much of the wrong sort of stimuli penetrates, provoking the wrong reactions. Itís even a struggle for him in the independent role of consultant.

Columbo could return to a beat any day. He could write parking tickets or speeding tickets, and would probably end up with new friends every time he issued one. Monk, on the other hand, would self-destruct. Heíd ticket everyone and for the wrong reasons mostly. He would be hated, laughed at and spit upon.

A wise fool can put off the role of fool, though in doing so might become less effective. An idiot savant does not have that choice, and whatever role he does find may be the only one in which he can do productive work for his society.

It's interesting that today's detective hero is a victim; the one of a decade or so ago is not.

Posted by dan at August 15, 2003 04:17 PM
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