Deconstructing Columbo

My writing partner, Assaf, loves the old Columbo TV series. Seriously loves it. He’s done Columbo-watching marathons. He’s consistently enthused about and appreciative of the show’s writing. And, like any good artist, he’s looked behind the curtain at what works so well, to analyze the how and the why of it.

In other words, deconstructing Columbo.

Different people have at different times noted that there are only three (or seven, or twenty-one, depending on who’s doing the analysis) original stories in our collective creative reservoir. Everything, every story, every idea at some level, one can argue, falls under—or into—one of these archetypes. I do think that Jung was on to something, so I tend to agree; I believe the real creativity comes not in the story itself but in its telling. Studying how others have used the archetypes to create something that feels new and fresh is obviously enlightening.

And yet… and yet. I’m so much more slapdash than Assaf. I reach the end of a novel by Thomas H. Cook, for example, and exclaim aloud, “how did he do that?” But I don’t go back over the book to analyze it. Maybe I’d be a better writer if I did. Yet for all of there being only a few stories to tell, I don’t want to lose the magic fairydust that glitters around the storyteller. I want to hold Cook in awe—and Aaron Sorkin, and Anton Chekov, and Phil Rickman, and a plethora of other brilliant writers who have captured my admiration and my imagination.

When I say, how did he do that, the truth is that I don’t really want to know. I want words to remain what they’ve always been throughout my life—a waterfall of sensations, tumbling and frothing all around me, spinning a tale so complex that it can never be unraveled: Scheherazade in a tattered bookstore’s aisles. I want the weaving of the words into an ephemeral magical reality to be mysterious, a gift from the artistic gods, a doorway into an enchanted land.

I admire Assaf, don’t get me wrong. He is serious about his craft. He takes notes, he thinks, he learns, he grows. And he’s right: readers have the luxury of paying no attention to that man behind the curtain. Writers don’t. If we’re going to create the magic, we need to understand that there’s a method in creating it. Magic doesn’t just appear; magic is hard work.

And yet the illusion is still there, the illusion that it does just appear, that it shimmers in the air around us, that we live in a wild and enchanted world where anything can happen. I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to give up the experience for the analysis. “The whole place,” says Columbo in one episode, “is one big magic trick. You can't believe anything you see.”

I want to believe it, there’s the problem. I want to live in a land formed by words and inhabited by beings that never drew breath. I want to lose myself and my own struggles with the alchemy of writing in someone else’s ability to turn the basest of metals into gold. I want to believe in the magic. I want to dream.

It’s the dreams that keep us going. Technology, politics, business, they’re the gears and wheels of society. But culture—culture needs dreams, culture needs magic.

Perhaps Columbo does say it best: “I don’t thinks it's proving anything, Doc; as a matter of fact, I don't even know what it means. It's just one of those things that gets in my head and keeps rolling around in there like a marble.”

So my deconstruction of Columbo comes down to that: something that “gets in my head,” a thought or turn of phrase or character that stays with me long after the book’s been closed. Can I create the magic and still believe in it? Can I be a writer and still be a reader?

What do you think?