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SYFY WIRE Poker Face

How Rian Johnson’s Poker Face Was Born Out of a Columbo Binge During COVID Lockdown

We'd like to think Peter Falk's disheveled lieutenant would get along swimmingly with Charlie Cale.

By Josh Weiss
(l-r) Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo in Columbo; Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in Poker Face

Rian Johnson has noted on several occasions that his new Peacock series, Poker Face (you can stream all of Season 1 right now), was conceived as a loving throwback to the inverted murder mystery shows of yesteryear like Columbo.

Growing up, though, Johnson wasn't all that tuned into the weekly investigations undertaken by Peter Falk's disheveled lieutenant known for his dilapidated Peugeot 403, a love of cigars, and a talent for calling out guilty killers on their conflicting alibis.

"I didn’t really watch Columbo as a kid," the filmmaker behind Knives Out and Star Wars: The Last Jedi admitted while in conversation with Deadline. "It was a little too mature for me. I was much more into The A-Team and The Incredible Hulk."

RELATED: Will Poker Face’s Charlie Cale Get An Origin Story? Rian Johnson & Natasha Lyonne Weigh In

It wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic placed all of Hollywood on indefinite pause that Johnson found the time to discover what he'd been missing all these years. With nothing left to do but while away the interminable hours in lockdown, he burned through Columbo.

"That’s where this whole thing really started. It was comfort food. The thing that really hit me was how much it is, at heart, a hangout show with Peter Falk," he continued. "I wasn’t watching each new episode really for the mystery plot. It was for Falk and the guest star. It was, 'It’s Oh, Dick Van Dyke, this will be amazing. Oh my God, Johnny Cash and Ida Lupino in this one, this is going to be phenomenal.'"

Rian Johnson Put His Own Spin on Columbo with Poker Face

The star-studded "howcatchem" formula — in which the murderer and their motivations are revealed at the very start of the episode — stuck out to Johnson as a way "to give screen time to the villain and to have them be built into a substantial character and play out the dynamic between them and Columbo, which is one of the things I love," he explained.

"In a way, these type of shows have more in common with sitcoms than they do with Agatha Christie books, in that you’re coming back every week to get a hit of something familiar, to hang out with a character or characters that you like, and to get something new in the same shape that you’re familiar with every single time."

This television binge inspired Johnson to create the Columbo-ish hero of Poker Face, Charlie Cale (played by executive producer Natasha Lyonne). A drifter who roams the country in a beat-up 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, Charlie unintentionally finds herself at the center of various homicides and uses an almost supernatural ability to detect lies in order to bring the perpetrator to justice.

While the narrative takes place in contemporary times, Poker Face pays tribute to its '70s-era forebears with retro title cards and a roster of characters (Season 1 guest stars range from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Chloë Sevigny) with an aversion to modern technology.

"It’s very character-based for me," Johnson said. "It’s not like I want to be in a world without technology. It’s fun to me to explore character. Like the Nick Nolte character who purposefully lives in the past, or Ron Perlman’s character. I guess a lot of the characters are people who live in their own little weird bubble. And that anthropological aspect of that is very Columbo, doing a deep dive into these little bubbles of workspaces or people’s lives."

The complete first season of Poker Face is now available to stream on Peacock. Thanks to the loose nature of the anthology format, you can jump in anywhere. Don't know where to begin? Click here for SYFY WIRE's rundown of the best five episodes released so far!

Want to check out more gumshoe work while you await Charlie's small screen return? All seasons of Columbo and Murder She Wrote are also streaming on Peacock!