Talk to anyone involved with Peacock detective series Poker Face long enough and they’ll eventually, invariably invoke the name of one of television’s most iconic characters: Columbo.
Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo (first name unknown but probably Frank) first appeared in the 1968 pilot episode of what would become the beloved long-running gumshoe series bearing his name. As portrayed by veteran actor Peter Falk, Columbo continued the Sherlock Holmes tradition of intensely idiosyncratic problem-solvers. Unapologetically blue collar with his wrinkly beige raincoat and perpetually-lit cigar, the detective would drop into crime scenes like an unassuming transient. Then he would lull murderers into a false sense of security with his benign presence only to then lay down the hammer with a well-placed “just one more thing … ” and ask the question that will close the case for good.
Structurally, Columbo was refreshingly revelatory for its medium. The series helped to popularize the “inverted detective” storytelling format in that each episode would begin by presenting the crime itself to viewers and then have Columbo determine not just who did it, but how and why they did it.
Any modern TV show seeking to bring the classic detective procedural to the relatively new world of streaming then would be well-served to look Columbo‘s way for inspiration. So Poker Face does just that. This 10-episode detective series (the first four of which premiere Thursday, Jan. 26 on Peacock) seeks to elevate a tried and true TV format while still honoring it. And yes, each episode begins with the reveal of who murdered who before bringing its central sleuth into frame.
That sleuth is Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), a scrappy underdog with an unusual talent: she is able to tell when something is lying. How is she able to do this? She doesn’t know, she just successfully susses out lies one hundred percent of the time. While this ability is impressive, it’s also not as useful as one might think. As Charlie mentions during the series’ pilot, people lie about even the smallest of things so frequently that it’s hard to determine what they’re lying about in the first place. Additionally, the ways in which this ability could be useful (like say, gambling) often end up being more trouble than their worth. To that end, Charlie leaves her Nevada home behind and takes to the road and where she encounters a diverse array of murders that require her own lie detector brand of deduction.
For Poker Face co-creator, producer, and director Rian Johnson, Charlie’s trip around the country to find cases of the week is in keeping with the geographically diverse legacy of classic detective dramas like Columbo.
“That was something baked into the DNA of the show from the beginning,” Johnson tells Den of Geek. “Doing that Columbo or even Quantum Leap thing of having every episode be an anthropological deep dive into a little corner of America that you might not otherwise see.”
If anyone would know the appeals of case-of-the-week Columbo-style storytelling, it’s Rian Johnson. Though Johnson has some impressive TV credits in his resume (including the “Fly” and “Ozymandias” episodes of Breaking Bad), film is where the writer-director has made his hay. Known for crafting movies like Brick, Looper, and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Johnson’s most recent efforts have been hardboiled detective stories starring Daniel Craig as the indelible (and almost unintelligible) Benoit Blanc. Knives Out launched the Blanc franchise with a murder mystery surrounding a squabbling rich family in 2019 and was just followed up by tech world whodunnit Glass Onion on Netflix last year.
In addition to creating murder mysteries, Johnson is a big fan of them. That’s why when the director and his friend turned Poker Face co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne put their heads together to collaborate on a project, something in a beige raincoat came tumbling out.
“I went to her with just the biggest idea of ‘I think we should do a case of the week show with you at the center of it,’ and that was it,” Johnson says. “As a collaborator and as a friend, it’s been a joy. She is as advertised – like everything you would imagine she is. She’s got this crazy, insane, amazing brain.”
Of course, TV fans have previously gotten to know Lyonne’s amazing brain as Nicky Nichols on Orange is the New Black and as creator and star of the mind-bending Russian Doll. That’s not even to mention her most recent role of a lifetime as the presenter selling the one good joke on a Golden Globes telecast. But even though she’s already proven to have a “good in everything” aura, Poker Face makes a compelling case for her destiny as a case-of-the-week TV detective. Like Peter Falk before her, Lyonne has some tools in her charismatic crime-solver arsenal including lush and eminently imitable hair and a distinctive tone of voice for “just one more thing”-ing. The actress’s co-star, Benjamin Bratt (who plays Frost Casino head of security Cliff Legrand), concurs with Lyonne’s Columbo bona fides.
“It could certainly work without Natasha Lyonne, but it would be a whole different show,” Bratt says. “Peter Falk (as Columbo) was a very compelling person to watch. I find she’s kind of cut from the same cloth. She’s going to be fun to hang out with once a week for sure. She is the linchpin, the creative center of this universe.”
Even if Charlie Cale has many of the same traits that defined Columbo, she is missing one crucial piece of his ensemble: a police badge. While Columbo had the power of the law on his side to punish murderers and other evil-doers, Charlie has to get a little more creative. According to executive producers, writers, and sisters Lilla and Nora Zuckerman, that makes for some fun storytelling challenges.
“Charlie has to get her own brand of justice,” Nora says. “So I think the show uses the writer muscle that that you would find for a con show. With con artists, you’ve got to figure out how to con the bad guy and get comeuppance in such a way that that works outside the law in shades of gray. It doesn’t always look like exact American legal justice.”
“We kept asking ourselves ‘What’s the poetic justice? What is the kind of justice you want to see this particular character face?'” Lilla adds. “We would try to find these characters soft spots, and really press on them at the end of the episode. I think that’s what’s going to give the audience a sense of satisfaction.”
The first four episodes of Poker Face premiere Thursday, Jan. 26 on Peacock. New episodes premiere each Thursday after that.