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'Poker Face' is worthy spiritual successor to 'Columbo'

Director Rian Johnson tips hat to influences

Ever since COVID reacquainted me in 2020 with Peter Falk's "Columbo," I've considered how neat it would be to see the murder-mystery genre diversified by creating a female version of the Columbo character.

Until recently, one niche of character portrayals where women have been underrepresented, especially outside of relationship-oriented dramedies, is the "clever mess" category.

You'd recognize this character as a man, because he's Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House and Peter Falk as LAPD Lt. Columbo. Their brilliant insights were offset by their rumpled clothes and five-o'clock-shadowed faces, and the many people they managed to infuriate by being impolitic.

While House was openly, confrontationally offensive, Columbo passively aggressively employed his attempts at manners to irritate his suspects into committing distracted errors.

Natasha Lyonne's Charlie Cale - the starring character of the new "Poker Face" streaming series on Peacock, created by "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" writer-director Rian Johnson - qualifies as the same sort of "clever mess" as House and Columbo, but she's also far more transgressive, in her own casually unaffected way.

Whereas a previous generation of self-espoused "feminist" storytellers, like Joss Whedon of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," had focused on creating "strong female characters," recent years have seen gals like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rachel Bloom make the case, through sitcoms like "Fleabag" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," that audiences should sympathize with female characters even if their personal lives and relationships are disaster zones.

Lyonne is well-suited to carry this standard forward in Johnson's "Poker Face."

Her face is a young enough 40 to retain hints of her teen years (she's 43 in real life), but her raspy honk of a voice recalls the chain-smoking Selma Diamond as the original old lady bailiff on "Night Court," back in the early '80s.

Lyonne's character, Charlie, is an unhygienic slob who lives in destitute conditions even before a catastrophic misstep against a terrifyingly powerful person forces her to go off the grid and live out of her car, forever heading down the highway, like if Bill Bixby's Dr. David Banner didn't need to hitchhike to his next destination in "The Incredible Hulk."

Charlie's sole exceptional talent is her ability to tell whether anyone's direct statements are true or false, but she's frequently determined and resourceful enough to piece together the rest of the facts of a given situation after that.

We're told that, for a while, Charlie's talent earned her a comfortable living through low-stakes card games, since she was smart enough to want to avoid attention, but too aimless to succeed at staying off the radar of people powerful enough to eventually get her banned from gambling places.

What makes Charlie most fascinating is how fallible the narrative allows her to be, not only when it comes to common-sense considerations - in spite of her flawless ability to spot an intentional lie, Charlie is remarkably bad at reading people's true natures otherwise - but also morally.

In the pilot episode of "Poker Face," we see Charlie railing on social media against the larger injustices of the world, but when faced with two competing evils, she's willing to cut a deal with the greater evil, simply because the lesser evil was responsible for the death of someone she was close to.

This is not a criticism of the show, because it's both shocking and refreshing to have a murder-mystery show be honest about its protagonist being motivated not by the grand desire to see broader justicee, but by the need to settle scores against those who have hurt her and those she cares about.

What's most compelling about "Poker Face" is that like "Columbo," it has the confidence to allow Charlie to be the least interesting character in her own show.

As with "Columbo," the opening of each episode is devoted to our guest murderers and victims, but they exist in a high-tech yet low-rent world where the fashions, music and other aesthetics are straight out of the 1970s, even as the internet access, smartphones, streaming media, online file-sharing, and digital audiovisual recording and playback equipment are all state-of-the-art, regardless of how isolated the rural locales are that Charlie finds herself in.

Johnson tips his hat to his influences by recreating what appear to be the exact same title sequence fonts as the original "Columbo," then goes one better by following much the same nonsequential storytelling formula as "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion," flashing back to reveal how Charlie was already involved in each episode's story, but simply operating outside the focus of those episodes' openings.

Because of Charlie's need to earn quick cash with no strings attached, she winds up working at a number of entry-level positions that few people pay attention to, which allows her to see what each episode's murderers seek to conceal from those whom they're actually worried about.

Whereas "Columbo" often made the mind games between its disheveled detective and his affluent suspects into coded commentaries on class, the three episodes of "Poker Face" after its pilot have pitted the vagabond Charlie against a succession of equally desperate graspers with all-too-modest dreams, from auto shop mechanics and barbecue chefs, to has-been metal bands looking to make unlikely comebacks.

Charlie retains her underdog status against such working-class foes not only by not being a cop, but also because she's hiding out from the law herself, and all it takes is for her to withdraw some money from an ATM, or get caught on camera in a viral video, for her ill-intentioned pursuers to arrive at her location four hours later.

With Charlie's demonstrated lack of long-term planning skills, I have no idea how "Poker Face" will sustain that chase in a world that's much smaller than when the protagonists of "The Fugitive" or "The A-Team" eluded the authorities.

What I do expect is that Johnson, a filmmaker who excels at unexpected and satisfying conclusions, will continue to employ episode writers who share this strong suit, because in 2023, the twist ending of a murder-mystery episode hinged on a passing familiarity with the 1980s sitcom "Benson," and no, I'm not spoiling anything with that reveal, because I guarantee you still won't figure out how that episode ends.


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