Classic TV bonanza

12th August 2008 – 7.41 am

I've managed to pick up some bargains on DVD recently. First, an internet shop had some series of Mission: Impossible on sale, and then I found the complete Columbo collected in to a single box set also on sale, making it as cheap as two individual series box sets. I now have about one hundred hours of classic TV to watch at my leisure.

And it is indeed classic TV. Mission: Impossible started off quite well in its first series and really picked up from the second. The writing is intricate and there are interesting plots that only sometimes feel contrived to fit the solution. It's also interesting to see which twists to be worked around by the IM Force have been anticipated and which require quick improvisation, as it often isn't obvious by the way the plot has progressed. By presenting just enough information at the start of the episode, when the IM Force are gathered in the flat, the plot can be followed and occasionally anticipated but still offer surprises along the way. My only dislike of the show is how snippets of the current episode are displayed in each title sequence, occasionally spoiling vital moments accidentally.

The stories are generally confidence tricks, and I have a great interest in them. I found out that the book The Big Con was a major influence in the early days of the show, and picked up a copy to read. The book is also the basis for the excellent film The Sting.

The best shows are the episodes where the targets have the wool pulled over their eyes so convincingly that they end up fighting or killing each other just as the IM Force slink away in to the shadows, with no one aware of any outside involvement, and it's a work of art to see this happen. Because of this, to go back and watch the pilot episode for the series, where the team end up being chased by gun-toting opponents and escaping by aeroplane with their recovered articles, offers an interesting insight in to how the series developed in its early stages.

Columbo is, to me, one of the finest television shows I've seen. The structure is marvellous, where we are apparently presented with a whodunnit but with the audience knowing exactly who did it, and how and why! As the audience, we are also aware that Columbo knows who the murderer is from an early stage, so the real mystery is not the murder itself but how the detective will be able to reveal the murderer. Watching as the prime suspect initially casually dismisses all the problems with the murder as irrelevant before ending up annoyed with the persistent questions over niggling clues right before the denouement is a thrill, trying to keep up with Columbo's mind as he spots revealing behaviour.

As with Mission: Impossible, the pilot episode for Columbo has an interesting difference than from later episodes. Columbo asserts to a relative of the victim that he knows who the killer is and that he just needs one bit of evidence to get a conviction. I haven't watched other episodes yet, but my memory leads me to believe that Columbo rarely admits again who the killer is before the final revelation. There may be an episode or two where Columbo is brazenly forced to admit to the murderer that he is the prime suspect, but that is to add to the tension between the characters. It is also worth noting that Steven Speilburg directed the pilot episode of the show.

I have now got myself a wonderful bundle of classic TV to watch, and will sit quite well on the shelf next to my collection of the two Emma Peel series of The Avengers, another most remarkable television series.

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