As other social media empires rise and fall, Tumblr has solidly and quietly persisted since 2007, chugging along in the background. Though the blogging platform’s power has dimmed since its peak, there’s an element of nostalgic familiarity to its simple layout, giving it a kind of underdog appeal. Its mechanisms foster strong mutual relationships between users. In fact, a lot of Tumblr is tied to comfort—it’s chock-full of fanart and fanfiction, the works of people hopelessly devoted to books, films, and video games. Maybe it was inevitable, then, that its users found Columbo, the ultimate comfort TV show.
“I remember seeing a couple people throw around the name and reblog gifs from the show,” recalls Tumblr user @banjo-bugs, whose Columbo fanart has garnered over 20,000 notes. “Out of curiosity one day I went on YouTube and watched a clip from the Season 2 episode ‘Double Shock,’ where Columbo is brought onto a cooking show, and I was hooked immediately.”
Yes, Columbo—the show your grandma liked so much—is the internet’s new darling. Even if you haven’t seen the show, which aired in various configurations from 1971 all the way to 2003, you might already have a mental picture of him: baggy, rumpled raincoat, one rough hand pressed to his forehead in thought. Peter Falk, born Jewish in the Bronx, portrays the titular homicide detective in a strangely intimate way, a man whose insecurities belie his charms. It’s part of his shtick: Though Columbo always solves the case, he uses his blundering nature to put the killers at ease. Frank Columbo* wears the same outfit in every episode. He drives the same car. The villains are murderers, nearly universally rich and white, deserving of their fates. In short, you know what to expect when you turn Columbo on. Despite the show’s decades-spanning history, it’s even easy to know where to start: anywhere. Every episode follows the same structure—audience sees crime committed, then watches as Columbo catches up to the perp—and there’s no pesky overarching plot to keep straight.
In other words, Columbo is the perfect afternoon show, its muted colors captured in Vaseline-smeared banality. “It’s prestige television before prestige television,” says user @columboscreens, whose blog strictly posts stills from the show. “Besides the immense amounts of artistic care put into just about everything in the show, what really fascinated me was the pacing—everything is given time to breathe, and in an age where our attention is perpetually at odds with suffocating amounts of stimuli, it’s altogether too easy to conflate negative space with tedium.”
And so we come to this unexpected union: Tumblr, blue-tinged playground of creative freedom, and Columbo, timeless nostalgia-bait. It’s not the first time an older show has found a resurgent fandom on the platform—nor, with some users returning to Tumblr as a refuge from Twitter’s sinking ship, will it be the last—but it is unquestionably one of the most fertile examples. Even without Tumblr, the character is a blank canvas, his personal life mere conjecture. (We hear about his wife in nearly every episode, but she’s never seen.) “There is a striking amount of Columbo that I see in myself in all sorts of ways,” says @columboscreens, “But I connect most strongly to his relentless curiosity, love of learning, and intense, observant, analytical nature—always watching people, trying to piece things together.”
If you search Columbo’s name on Tumblr, you’ll be inundated with fanart—everything from Columbo with Sesame Street characters (by @banjo-bugs) to Columbo in a maid café. In one popular post, he’s eyeing a Minecraft manual. Some choice hashtags attached to screenshots and re-imaginings include: #columboposting, #i just love this lil guy, and #GO BABY GIRL GO (The post shows Columbo treadmilling). That one is courtesy of @lieutenant-columbro, a user who posts almost exclusively Columbo content. “I think part of it is also that people are seeking out more comfort media as of late, and Columbo is, at least to me, a very comforting show,” he says. The online consensus is this: Lieutenant Columbo is just a little guy. And sure, Falk was short—but that’s not quite what it means. Translated from Tumblr-speak, Columbo is gentle, he’s safe. He’s silly. All he wants is to help and eat chili.
This isn’t just a revival, either—it’s a reclamation. The Columbo of Tumblr (and perhaps the internet at large) doesn’t just embody the good qualities visible in his show; he also takes on the traits of his new fans. They proclaim that he’s friends with Benoit Blanc, that his wife is trans, that he’s heard of Drag Race. Because he works alone, and because we know the killers are guilty before he’s even on the case, the show doesn’t even register as copaganda. “This was not a show for blazing firefights and heart-racing chases made to glorify policing as an institution,” says @columboscreens. “Aside from Peter Falk’s immaculate characterization, Columbo the character has very literary origins; the show’s creators drew inspiration from Porfiry Petrovitch of Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. Petrovitch’s approach is relentlessly Socratic and psychological, not aggressive. He’s eccentric. He’s uniquely compassionate.” Posts are written using his uniquely choppy cadence—uh, no, not to trouble you, just one more thing, sir—and sometimes even brought to life by enthusiastic voice actors. (One prominent meme-maker, Gianni Matragrano, has a popular series of “tiny Columbo” videos, in which a tiny Columbo gets stuck in big places.)
Columbo has even developed a special appeal among marginalized groups. “I think Columbo represents a kind of masculinity that is very attractive to a lot of queer people,” says @lieutenant-columbro. “I see a lot of love from trans men in particular, myself included. First of all, I think you can start with Peter Falk himself—He’s a short guy, he has a higher voice, and a lot of trans men can probably identify with these or other traits of his.” Fandom has a long history of providing room for queer people to find their own media representation. Artistic reclamation has always been an important part of queer culture, and perhaps that’s partly why Tumblr hasn’t shuttered like so many other early social sites. But why Columbo, a man of beige and police work?
“Personally, I think it’s his personality,” says @banjo-bugs. “He’s a really genuinely kind character, he meets all kinds of people in all kinds of situations … and just wants to help. I think a character like that just radiates comfort, especially for queer people. Just being able to look at a fictional character and feeling like you can trust them, or even see parts of yourself reflected in them … sounds silly but it is strangely comforting.” A character like that—a man queer people see themselves in—can be bumbling and imperfect and still appreciated. “I think it’s ultimately about embodying a kind of masculinity that doesn’t conform to society’s standards but is still able to be very strong and successful,” @lieutenant-columbro says.
The press for the upcoming series Poker Face, which starts streaming next week on Peacock, has tied it inexorably with Columbo. Just like Columbo, it doesn’t have to be watched in order—although creator Rian Johnson does suggest you watch the first episode first—and it follows the same structure, with the murder occuring before it can be solved. Natasha Lyonne’s character, Charlie Cale, a casino worker on the run, will likely be at least a little bumbling. In 2020, Lyonne said she would fight Mark Ruffalo for the role of Columbo, and it seems as if she’s won. Ruffalo looks a lot like Falk, and shares some of his gruff-but-lovable atmosphere—but so does Lyonne. Her gravelly voice and Muppet-y demeanor make her perfect to take on the mantle of the scattered genius, a role usually reserved for white men. Like Tumblr’s queer Columbo, a female detective, no less messy, could be another thread of reclamation: A Columbo for the new age. But even a reboot couldn’t take away the enduring hold of the original—through it all, Columbo continues to charm us. “Falk characterizes Columbo as undeniably masculine, but unconventionally so for his time,” says @columboscreens. “He has no issue being openly affectionate with other men. He likes sports, beer, and Westerns, but he also likes flowers, cooking, and shopping. He is logical yet intuitive, strong yet yielding, stoic but never emotionless. He does not adhere to gender norms, he dictates his own.”
Correction, Jan. 30, 2023: This article originally misstated that Columbo viewers never learn the character’s first name. It is Frank.