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SYFY WIRE Poker Face

'Poker Face' duo Rian Johnson & Natasha Lyonne share their favorite mysteries, from 'Twilight Zone' to 'Columbo'

These are the high points from the golden age of episodic TV that inspired the new Peacock series.

By Benjamin Bullard
Natasha Lyonne in POKER FACE

Rian Johnson is returning to the small screen — a space he’s arguably aced already, with past directing turns on some of Breaking Bad’s most iconic episodes. Now he’s on the case to catch a killer with star Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll) in Peacock’s soon-to-debut Poker Face, whose upcoming 10-part season stars Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a regular gal in most respects… except for her uncanny knack to know when someone’s lying.

That’s a skill that could prove useful in a how-to-catch-‘em show like Poker Face, a series that Johnson describes as a return to the “story of the week” style of television that dominated the airwaves back when he was just a kid. Eager to tap that same formula in a present-day TV landscape where season-spanning plots are typically the rage, Johnson says viewers can expect each episode — populated with guest actors including Adrien Brody, Nick Nolte, Chloë Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Tim Meadows, Jameela Jamil, Lil Rel Howery, Benjamin Bratt, and many more — to tell a tidy, self-contained story within its hour-long runtime.

If you go back far enough in time, there’s of course a rich TV precedent for that kind of storytelling format; with case-of-the-week series like Columbo, Quantum Leap, The A-Team, and Murder, She Wrote all serving as just some of the inspiration for the travelogue type of cross-country journey that’ll lead Lyonne toward new weekly conundrums in Poker Face. In recent separate interviews with The New York Times, both Johnson and Lyonne flagged those and more of their favorite moments from the bygone glory days of episode-based TV series, spanning the gamut from Peter Falk’s down-to-Earth detective work in Columbo (which they both dig) to the ephemeral mystique of The Twilight Zone.

Check out some of the highlights below:

Rian Johnson: Columbo — “Any Old Port in a Storm” (Season 3, Ep. 2)

Featuring Halloween movie mainstay Donald Pleasance as a highly suspect wine snob, this 1973 episode is “a diabolically clever entrapment that Columbo pulls off, and it’s very satisfying,” Johnson explained to NYT. “It gets to the heart of what I think the actual appeal of Columbo is, which is that it’s stealthily a hangout show with Peter Falk. The mysteries are always really well-constructed, and the cat-and-mouse in this one was very fun.

“…There’s a scene where Pleasence goes ballistic on a waiter when he’s served a bad port. The phrase he unleashes — 'This liquid filth!' — is amazing. But more than that, even while Columbo is tracking him down and busting him, Pleasence develops a warm relationship with him, weirdly, and a respect. It’s kind of beautiful.”

Natasha Lyonne: Columbo — “Étude in Black” (Season 2, Episode 1)

Airing in 1972, Lyonne’s Columbo pick featured a bright triad of old-school Hollywood talent with guest stars John Cassavettes, Blythe Danner, and Myrna Loy. Cassavettes played a married orchestral conductor who frames his lover’s murder to look like a suicide, giving Falk a meaty cat-and-mouse case involving a suspect who’s too clever for his own good. “…I love what that episode is saying about the possibility of working together with people you care about,” Lyonne said, noting an affinity with her Poker Face episode opposite Chloë Sevigny.

“Of course my love for Chloë is complete, and what was fun on Poker Face is that [she and Charlie Cale] are not pals. That’s her nemesis. There is a real joy to get to do that with somebody that you know so intimately because you can take bigger swings and keep each other honest. It’s just sparky and fun.”

Johnson: Murder, She Wrote — “Murder Takes the Bus” (Season 1, Episode 20)

A stranded bus puts whodunnit writer Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) among, well, a busload of potential murder suspects at a far-from-home diner in this 1985 installment of the CBS mystery series.

“For a lot of us growing up, Murder, She Wrote was on every day, and the sheer number of hours consumed is hard to top,” said Johnson. “This episode is kind of Hitchcock-like, in the tradition of The Lady Vanishes, where a group of suspects are all displaced together. This one just happens to guest star Linda Blair and Rue McClanahan… I miss the contract that the audience had with the show of, ‘I’m not going to find this weird — we’re all just going to agree that this is how this works.’”

Lyonne: The Twilight Zone — “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (Season 1, Episode 4)

Airing three years before Bette Davis brought similar themes to theatrical life in the youth-obsessed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, this 1959 Twilight Zone episode stars Ida Lupino as a faded, aging actor who’s pathologically stuck in her own past.

“The episode is so meta and weird and tragic,” Lyonne said. “The whole thing is bizarre as hell, and she’s great in it.

“My other favorite Twilight Zone episode is ['Time Enough at Last'], but that’s also my death fantasy and nightmare — ending up in a room full of books and then my glasses break. It just seems like Ida Lupino was a little bit sexier here. She not only starred in an episode but she also directed one ['The Masks,' from Season 5].”

Johnson: Magnum, P.I. — “Home From the Sea” (Season 4, Episode 1)

Tom Selleck’s South Pacific sleuth takes a mental detour in this 1983 episode, veering between his present-day July 4th surf ski vacation (an annual Magnum ritual) and poignant memories from his own childhood.

“I have very, very vivid memories of this episode, which I saw when I was young,” Johnson shared. “Magnum is lost in the middle of the ocean and has to tread water until he’s rescued. And the whole episode is his flashbacks to memories of his father. It’s really beautifully done.

“They intercut it with his dad giving him his watch and going off to war. And then, just as Magnum is about to collapse, they reveal that the father died in the war. The scene is a flashback to the father’s funeral with little boy Magnum saluting him with the watch on his wrist.

“I was so young when I saw it. I didn’t realize it was a flashback structure, and I thought they were cutting to Magnum’s funeral. So in my head, this was a towering story of man versus nature with this titanically impactful ending, of this tragic death of this hero. So I totally misread the episode. And yet, it was this huge, huge thing in my psyche as a kid.”

Poker Face is set for its Peacock premiere beginning Thursday, Jan. 26. Peacock’s also the place to catch some of those Johnson and Lyonne-approved classic TV favorites, including full seasons of both Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. Original episodes from The Twilight Zone, meanwhile, can be streamed straight from the SYFY app.