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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pragmatics of Columbo

Columbo is a detective known for a rumpled raincoat. Underneath he has on a suit that is of better quality than this coat. The murderer is always characterized by a certain arrogance. Wealthy, intelligent, sometimes famous too, the killer plans the crime meticulously. The television audience sees the crime committed in the beginning, so there is no mystery about who did it. The entire show consists of a series of interviews by Columbo (no first name) of the suspect. He is unfailingly polite, if a bit annoying. The suspect never suspects she or he is suspected, but gets annoyed since Columbo always has "one more thing" to ask. One little, nagging detail that is bothering him. At the end, of course, he arrests the suspect. We never know exactly when he knows who the killer is, but obviously he has to know he can prove it before he makes the arrest. There is never any violence or overt aggression (aside from the initial murder).

So the entire show consists of conversations, pragmatic interactions. He keeps the suspect off-guard by showing up at home or place of work, for returning when he's almost out of the door. The fact that the suspect always feels superior to the slovenly and absent-minded lieutenant allows for the persistent deployment of the trope of hubris. Columbo is Socratic in that he never assumes the attitude of one-who-knows. He is always just asking questions and trying to figure things out. The show is rich in pragmatics, in Gricean maxims and implicatures. It only depends on one basic situation playing itself out in the exact same way in every episode. For example, never takes the suspect to the police station, where he would be the dominant person and lose the advantage of the Socratic irony.

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