Natasha Lyonnes' Poker Face Is Resurrecting Columbo Energy on TV

Natasha Lyonnes' Poker Face Is Resurrecting Columbo Energy on TV ...

Long enough, talk to anyone involved in the Peacock detective series Poker Face and they'll eventually, always, invoke the name of one of television's most famous characters: Columbo.

Lieutenant Columbo, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective, first appeared in the 1968 pilot episode of what would become the popular long-running gumshoe series bearing his name. With his wrinkly beige raincoat and perpetually-lit cigar, Columbo would dip into crime scenes as an unassuming stranger, only to then lay down the hammer with a well-placed "just one more thing" that will end the case for good.

Columbo was refreshingly open-minded for its medium, and it aided in popularizing the "inverted detective" storytelling technique, in that each episode would begin by presenting the crime itself to viewers, then have Columbo determine not only who committed the crime, but how and why.

Poker Face is a 10-episode detective series that tries to recreate a tried and true TV format while still honoring it. Yes, each episode begins with the revelation of who murdered who before introducing its central sleuth.

Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) is a sleuth who knows everything about lying. What she doesn't know is that she just successfully susses out lies half the time. It's also not as powerful as one might assume. For instance, people lie about even the smallest things so often that it's difficult to discern what they're lying about in the first place.

Charlie's journey across the United States to look for the week's cases, according to Poker Face co-creator, producer, and director Rian Johnson, is in keeping with the geographically diverse legacy of classic detective dramas like Columbo.

Johnson tells Den of Geek that everything in the show was embedded into the story from the start. “Doing that Columbo or even Quantum Leap thing of having every episode be an anthropological deep dive into a tiny corner of America that you might not otherwise see,” Johnson says.

Rian Johnson is well-known for his hardboiled detective tales, including the "Fly" and "Ozymandias" episodes of Breaking Bad in 2019. Glass Onion was just discovered on Netflix last year by the tech world.

Johnson is a huge fan of murder mysteries, 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 sank out.

Johnson says he approached her with the intention of doing a case of the week show with you at the center of it, and that was it. She is as advertised — like everything you would expect her to be. She has this mute, bizarre, astounding intelligence.

Lyonne has previously been able to appreciate her incredible intelligence both as Nicky Nichols on Orange is the New Black and as the creator and star of the mind-bending Russian Doll. That's not even to say she's already proven to have a "good in everything" bent, yet she makes a compelling case for her destiny as a case-of-the-week TV detective. Benjamin Bratt, who plays Frost Casino CEO Cliff Legrand, concurs with Lyonne's Columbo virtues.

Natasha Lyonne would certainly be a different show, according to Bratt. "She's a very engaging person to watch. I find her to be 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."

Charlie Cale lacks one essential piece of his ensemble, which is the police badge, because she, like Columbo, had the law on his side to punish murderers and other evil-doers. According to executive producers, writers, and sisters Lilla and Nora Zuckerman, this creates some fun storytelling challenges.

“Charlie has to get her own form of justice,” Nora says. “I think the show uses the writer's muscle that you would find in a con show. With con artists, you have to figure out how to con the bad guy and get paid in such a manner that works outside the law in shades of gray.”

"We kept asking ourselves "What's the poetic justice?" 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 poker face episodes premiered Thursday, January 26 on Peacock, and new episodes premiere each Thursday thereafter.