Poker FaceWriter/Director Rian Johnson, a new murder mystery premiered last week on Peacock. sycophantic reviews, with Natasha Lyonne’s character Charlie Cale — a makeshift crime investigator who’s on the run from casino villains with an uncanny ability to spot lies — is fast becoming a cult favorite. Who would have thought that a remake of the dusty 1970s cop series would turn out to be such rich material?
To be fair Poker Face is not literally a remake. But, as a resource no less than the Columbophile blog has pointed out, “Poker Face may be Colombo reload in everything but name“. Both Johnson and Lyonne are recognized Colombo– heads, Lyonne once threatens fight Mark Ruffalo for the right to play titular lieutenant. In an interview with Johnson tiptoe around inspirationsaying, “It’s kind of a throwback to magnum pi or rockford files or Colombo“. Or he explained that “how Colombo, we show you the murder in the first act. We’ll show you who did it. And then it [about] how Natasha Lyonne’s character will end up catching them.” And when Vulture asked John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. how he got into the casting, he gave the game: “Probably I was buggy [Johnson] about something, and he wrote: “I want to talk to you about this TV show that I’m doing with Natasha Lyonne.” It’s basically Colombo with her as a detective.”
To everyone who loves Colombo, that’s a great thing. Even outside of the unique format, when the killer is revealed first – which means it’s like a trap and not a detective –Poker Face embodies the raw, retarded, flashily uncool charm of his spiritual predecessor. Like Colombo, Cale often stalks rich and powerful people who think they don’t need to atone for their sins. Like Colombo, she is constantly underestimated and uses this trait to her advantage. Peter Falk’s portrayal of an all-time bumbling detective; the way he goes from buffoon to razor-sharp sleuth is a beauty and a joy, which means Lyonna will have to work hard if she wants to put Cale on par with Colombo in the TV Investigative Hall of Fame. But in the few episodes available at the moment (the new one came out today), it’s clear that Lyonne – salty, vivacious, irrationally confident – is a completely unique crime-fighter.
In updating the source material, Johnson has made some prudent choices to suit our contemporary tastes: Unlike Colombo, who was the LAPD’s homicide cop, Cale Lyonne is a civilian who just keeps running into suspicious deaths. She’s also blessed with the aforementioned ability to always detect when someone is lying, which adds a fun, smart little hook to the show’s formula. But for now Poker Face there’s a lot going on these days, as we can see from all the popular consumer tech that pops up and sets the plot from time to time, it doesn’t owe it to modernity like Johnson’s previous murder mystery, glass bowit was so obvious.
And that extends to the very nature of the show. As Johnson recently explained to WIRED, while Poker Face has a throughline, any given episode is standalone. It was “an extremely conscious choice,” he said, “that I had no idea what would seem so radical to all the people we offered it to. A streaming serialized narrative has just become the gravity of a thousand suns to the point where everyone’s collective memory has been erased. It wasn’t the kind of storytelling that made people watch TV because of its vast history. So it wasn’t just a choice, it was a choice that we really had to fight for.”
By now, even the casual consumer can spot the signs of “prestige TV”. Gloom, grandeur, generous budget. It’s as if ever since television has been called the new novel, it has felt the need to increase its relevance. In the process, he began to lose his pleasure. Doing something as subtly bold as stealthily remodeling Colombo, and then a resounding success, Johnson reminded viewers of something important: there are many ways to make a critically acclaimed television series that sets the conversation. Consider another mystery solved.