Staying with mystery-of-the-week structure 70s & 80s, Rian has done what many of his counterparts haven’t been able to
For years, Peter Falk’s Columbo remained the quintessential series for the inverted detective story, also known as the “howcatchem” format, in which the identity of the perpetrator is known to the audience, and the thrill is watching him get caught despite all odds. Many American TV shows Monk, Criminal Minds, and the Canadian show Motive tried to revive the format in their own style, but couldn’t make people forget Columbo which aired around the world for four decades. Rian Johnson takes one page out of the famous yesteryear series and comes up with his own show named Poker Face which is likely to revive the audience’s interest in the long-forgotten format.
The reason this series stands out in a clutter of detective shows today is its ability to keep the audience guessing, but in the other direction. Usually in detective shows on TV, the murder takes place off camera, a detective or team arrives to investigate and catch the person responsible before winding up the episode. It may give hints to the audience regarding the identity of the murderer, but only the detective knows what’s going on till the final reveal.
However, in Poker Face, the audience knows who the murderer is by the end of the first half hour, why the murder was committed, and how the perpetrator was able to pull it off. It is only the appearance of the lead character Charlie Cale that changes the whole game, and from then onwards, Charlie has the upper hand. Not only she finds out the truth using her talent, but helps the viewers as well who are very happy to see the antagonist in custody. Interesting, isn’t it? Watch the show and you will be amazed!
Former poker player turned Cocktail waitress Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) works in a Las Vegas casino, and since she can deduce whether a person is telling the truth or lying, she is kept away from the poker table. The only work she could find due to her talent is in the casino where her boss Sterling Frost (Ron Perlman, revealed in the last episode) keeps her so that she couldn’t cheat him or any other casino owner in the country. After one suspicious death, Charlie is on the run from the same boss and that’s where she discovers that by using her lie-detecting abilities, she could help those who can’t help themselves.
She plays an amateur detective in all 10 episodes including the pilot while avoiding her former boss and his lackey Cliff LeGrand (Benjamin Bratt) who is usually one step behind her. How she manages to help people she meets while being on the run makes the story all the more interesting. Every week, there is a new case for her to solve, and by the end of each episode, she saves the innocent and moves to another location.
The best part of Poker Face is its ability to entertain an audience at a time when they have so many options to choose from. It takes the audience back to the days of quality TV shows when no matter which network aired the show, they would watch it because of its quality, its ingenuity, and its ability to stand out. Natasha Lyonne may have done quality work in the past but post-2023 she will be remembered as Charlie Cale, just like Peter Falk was remembered for Columbo, no matter how many projects he worked on later in his career. By keeping her hidden away in nearly all of the first half, (a deliberate move by the writer), her character forms a connection with the audience who, till the crime was committed, was involved in the story. Charlie makes her entry in their presence and is relatively new to whatever is going on-screen, but once she makes her presence felt, the readers realise that she was there all along and knows more than them.
By staying with the mystery-of-the-week structure from the late 1970s and the 1980s, the creator, writer, and the director of the pilot, Rian Johnson has done something not many of his counterparts have been able to do. He sends the audience back into the days of Columbo, Murder She Wrote, Columbo, The A-Team, Highway to Heaven, and the Quantum Leap. Like Columbo, the series follows a howcatchem format; like Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, Charlie has no issue finding trouble wherever she goes, like Highway to Heaven, and the A-Team, she helps those who have no one else to support and just like the Quantum Leap, the unlicensed sleuth continues her journey from one place to another, hoping the next would be her last.
The writers use interesting crimes to keep the viewers on the verge of their seats, trying to guess the perpetrator’s next step and how Charlie would be able to counter it. By not making her part of the police force, they gave her the kind of freedom TV detectives didn’t enjoy and that’s what helps her the most in solving crimes. With guest stars like notable performers Adrien Brody, Simon Helberg, Ellen Barkin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ron Perlman to name a few, this series is more into the last century than the current one and if you know how that’s a good thing, then nothing else will convince you to watch it.
And then there are the interesting storylines which you may or may not have seen before on TV, but not the way they were shown here. After failing her employer’s attempt to fix a poker game with her help, she goes in hiding but ends up solving the murder of a lottery winner, bringing the culprits to justice for his mentor’s murder, hanging out with a heavy metal band on the lookout for a new hit, helping the FBI in catching criminals from the past, and discovering how a murder was committed on stage, on a race track, with special effects and in an area surrounded by snow on mountains. If that’s not all, she finally manages to reconcile with her ex-boss but before that, you should enjoy her trip around America, and how she makes it memorable.
There is hardly anything wrong with the series except maybe the length of the episodes which varies from 45 to 60 minutes. It is shot more like a mystery movie from the 1970s than a TV episode from 2023, and for some that might not be ideal because the attention span of viewers isn’t what it used to be. Also, they might find the pace slow considering everything happens fast in the police procedurals that are full of action and romance, two ingredients this series lacks.
Also, one or two episodes could have strayed away from the ‘howcatchem’ format to give the audience a chance to watch Charlie take up the traditional whodunnit challenge. Watching all ten episodes in the same format sort of makes it repetitive which is not a good thing. Although the producers released the first four episodes together, and then went for the weekly release, most of the audience today would binge-watch all episodes, and feel very familiar by the time it all ends. The reason why Columbo was accepted in this format was simple; it aired mostly once a month and after a gap and that’s why viewers didn’t get tired of the show.
The ‘howcatchem’ format comes full circle with Poker Face where lead actress and one of the executive producers Natasha Lyonne joins hands with the Knives Out creator Rian Johnson to create magic. The way Lyonne performs as an amateur sleuth, she appears more spontaneous than scripted which is one of the reasons she reminds the viewers of Peter Falk’s Columbo. She might not have a catchphrase like ‘Just one more thing’ but her reaction on realising that the person in front of her isn’t being truthful is pure gold because that’s when the perpetrator’s reign ends and the chase begins.
Since the lead character is on the run, she can’t use a cell phone, an ATM card, or even a computer, making it ideally a pre-Internet series for the viewers. Fans of the afore-mentioned series would love the gadget-less product in front of them because it reminds them of the good old days when the Sheriff used to uphold the law, a good Samaritan was always in the vicinity, and when crimes weren’t gruesome but calculating. The mystery of the week format enables the cast to vary from episode to episode and the viewers don’t have to carry a character forward, except the hunter and the hunted.
What makes Poker Face a must-watch series is its ability to engage viewers that too in the era of countless platforms. To be compared with a legendary series is an amazing achievement which is one of the reasons why the series will return for a second season. The writers, producers, and directors have worked really hard in keeping viewers busy for 10 weeks, and when the behind-the- scene-job is well done, it always translates well on screen. After all, who doesn’t want to own a superpower that could help them differentiate between good or bad, truth or lies, and honest or dishonest? Not me!