Note – this article is speculative, albeit based on factual reporting. Please don’t take it as the gospel truth (but remember where you read it first should it prove accurate!)
The upcoming drama series Poker Face, created by Rian Johnson and starring Natasha Lyonne, is promising to be one show Columbo fans should keep an eye on given that it could be the closest thing we’ll ever get to a reboot.
Although precise details of the nature of Poker Face are hazy, there are multiple reasons to believe it could provide a satisfyingly Columbo-esque viewing experience – not least because Johnson and Lyonne are both such unabashed fans of the Lieutenant. Johnson (director of Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) even almost contributed to this blog’s ‘Top 100 Columbo scenes‘ countdown of 2020 but ultimately couldn’t quite squeeze it in – a fact I rue to this day.
Johnson’s acclaimed 2019 murder mystery movie Knives Out was a little more madcap and action-oriented than your average Columbo, but it featured some unmistakable nods to the series – notably an eccentric and razor-sharp detective (Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc) heading up the sort of all-star cast 70s Columbo delivered in spades.
Blanc noticing a tiny, missable clue early on that channelled his deductive reasoning towards solving the case could also have been a straight lift from many a classic Columbo. If you’ve never seen the film (which will have at least two sequels – the first to be released in late 2022), I highly recommend it.
Speaking about what inspired his approach to Knives Out, Johnson was only too happy to credit the role Columbo played. “I did take a page out of Columbo… very early on in the game I wanted to relieve the audience of the burden of ‘can we figure this out?‘”, he said, referencing how the key suspect’s involvement in the death of a family patriarch is clearly shown in the film. “It’s kind of like what Columbo does in terms of revealing the killer at the beginning of the episode and the tension is how is the detective going to catch the killer.”
Enjoy! I’ve got a copy of that too. Each game takes a looooooooooooong time, rather like being grilled by Columbo I imagine. Shame the creators couldn’t get Peter’s image rights!— Lieutenant Columbo (@columbophile) December 18, 2020
Johnson has very publicly declared his love for Columbo – and of the simple joy of revelling in Peter Falk’s performances – many times on Twitter (his profile has a header image of the Lieutenant at time of writing). His admission, then, that Poker Face will be a “character-driven, case-of-the-week” style mystery of the sort he grew up watching only heightens the possibility that it will have at least some parallels to Columbo.
Like Johnson, Natasha Lyonne regularly shows her appreciation of Columbo on her social channels – even jokingly challenging Mark Ruffalo (who for years has been seen as the heir apparent to the Columbo crown) to a fight in 2020 to determine which of them should be cast as the Lieutenant should a reboot ever come about.
I’ll fight Ruffalo for it if I have to. Me and you, after class, Warriors style for Columbo. @MarkRuffalo Seems like the only reasonable way to settle this hypothetical. https://t.co/rooiodGjUQ— natasha lyonne (@nlyonne) April 2, 2020
Lyonne’s love of the show was even more overtly communicated to the world this year during Season 2 of her hit Netflix drama Russian Doll, which featured her walking past the Columbo statue in Budapest in one episode, and in the next suggesting Steven Spielberg’s most important piece of filmmaking was not Schindler’s List, but Murder by the Book, which he directed in 1971. A drawling New Yorker like Peter Falk, Lyonne also has an unconventional manner about her that would make her an excellent fit to play a Columbo-like character.
Were it up to Johnson and Lyonne alone, I have little doubt the two would have teamed up already in an official Columbo reboot. However, given that the rights to the series are known to be tied up and look likely to be so for some time, Poker Face could be the next best thing. Set in New York’s Hudson Valley district, and eschewing today’s TV trend of series-spanning story arcs, Poker Face will deliver 10 stand-alone murder mysteries with Lyonne as the as-yet unnamed lead investigator.
The high-calibre of confirmed guest stars also portends well for the series, with Oscar-winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, Chapelwaite), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper, Inception, 3rd Rock From the Sun), Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All At Once) and Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order, Traffic) amongst the actors cast alongside Lyonne.
Poker Face is in pre-production and is expected to be broadcast on Peacock in late 2022. Lest we forget, Peacock is the streaming service owned and operated by NBCUniversal – the company that owns and maintains the distribution rights for Columbo. Coincidence? Not likely…
Just one more thing…
While I have your attention, you may be interested to learn that a never-before-released photograph of Peter Falk, which was used used as a study for the portrait of Columbo from 1989’s Murder, A Self Portrait, is available to buy as a print.
The photo has been in the archives of Jaroslav Gebr, the long-time Head of Scenic Arts at Universal Studios, since 1989. Now, a limited edition run of 100 authenticated, signed and numbered prints have been put on the market – and I’m delighted to say that one is winging its way to me as we speak!
For full details of the print, visit the Gebr Art website. Enquiries to Renee Gebr via email.
As a final aside, here’s wishing regular blog commentator (and occasional contributor) Glenn Stewart a swift recovery from heart bypass surgery this week! His surgeon, renowned specialist Dr Larry Bayfield, says Glenn’s prognosis is excellent – as long as he cuts down on the cigars and chilli. In all seriousness, Glenn is a much-valued member of the Columbophile community, so we hope he’ll be back posting very soon.
Episode 3, “The Stall” has clear Columbo roots in the Gotcha, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The show breaks from Columbo in its varied milieu across the oft-ignored backroads of Middle America. It’s a visual travelogue we don’t see very often, and whatever your hesitation about the Poker Face premise being too much like Columbo or not enough like Columbo, it definitely doesn’t look like Columbo. Empty desert towns (Charlie literally sleeps with a buzzard), outdoor barbecue joints, small-town AM radio signals….these are not places where you’ll see Jack Cassidy keep an address. If Columbo showed us that murder happens among the privileged of Beverly Hills, Poker Face shows us that it also happens in the middle of nowhere.
Fresh from watching Episode 1, and I must say, pretty damn good. Keep your ears open for a clear Columbo audio callback about 3/4 of the way into the pilot.
In this article, Rian Johnson walks through some elements of the series construction. Several Columbo references follow.
And, much like we stick it out through the mediocre Columbos because of Peter Falk, I’m guessing I’ll feel the same way about Natasha Lyonne if there are any so-so Poker Face episodes.
CP, did I see somewhere that you don’t have access to Peacock to see this, or did I imagine that? Hopefully, you can check it out. Nothing is Columbo – nor should it try too hard to be – but that DNA is all over this.
I just watched it, too. The pilot episode is on free Peacock. Not the subsequent episodes, evidently. Those you’ll have to pay for.
I didn’t see the Columbo resemblance. Yes, there is an inverted structure, one very clever visual clue, and a lateral gotcha (although not really a resolution). But the well-publicized premise of the series is that Natasha Lyonne’s character (Charlie Cale), who’s not a detective, can tell unfailingly when someone is lying. Another character refers to her as “the human lie detector.” But as anyone familiar with lie detectors knows, they don’t detect lies; they identify deception. If you’re trying to hide the truth in your response, by cleverly wording your answer to avoid an unpleasant truth, a polygraph will still flag that answer because, literally true or false, you are actively hiding something with your response.
But “Poker Face” has repeated instances where someone answers Cale deceptively, but she doesn’t identify it as a lie because the answer was worded evasively. That makes no sense to me. I can accept that an ordinary person might have a highly acute sense of perception, able to sense the same subtle cues akin to what a polygraph measures. But to be able to distinguish a lie from deception, to detect literal truth, smacks of a superpower. Is that the premise of “Poker Face,” that Charlie Cale is a superhero? I didn’t think so.
I also wonder about the future of the series in light of how Episode 1 ended. How will further murder cases cross Charlie’s path except by contrivance? (Then again, the murder rate in Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove wasn’t very realistic either.)
P.S. Glenn, I didn’t catch the “clear Columbo audio callback.” (I did catch the use of the 70’s Columbo font in the credits, however.) Instead, I heard a reference to “Burn Notice” and its lead character Michael Westen (a series I’ve never watched).
46-minute mark, at the casino bar, a rinky-tink version of an all-too-familiar tune.
Rich, I don’t disagree that Charlie’s capacity for “detecting” lies could be considered a stretch, but I’m going to roll with the premise. In the pilot, she does in fact explain that she can’t detect literal truth.
Lying is a form of deception, but not all deceptions are lies. Charlie is probably more accurately described as being a Deception Detector (just as, you noted, a “lie” detector really is). Depending upon the circumstance, Charlie might be able to call a particular deception a lie if (and its an important “if”) the question is phrased in a particular way. Straight “yes” or “no” statements (such as identifying the cards the casino owner is holding in the pilot) can be ID’ed as lies. Beyond the Yes/No, it may just be detecting deceptions. That’s enough for Charlie, who’s interested in the why – why are people deceiving her? So she digs.
And in the Charlieverse, she’s going to stumble across murders every week – I’ll live with that for good characters and good clues and good plots. The show’s going nowhere if after 20 minutes she simply walks up to whomever is deceiving her and asks, “Did you kill Person X?”, looking for that “yes” or “no” answer so she can say “Case solved!”. That’s where the clue-collecting comes in, ala Columbo. And people will underestimate her, ala Columbo (as long as she doesn’t advertise her Deception Detector to everyone). A big difference (as Episode 2 makes clear) is that Charlie isn’t just going up against the rich and famous killers, but the low-lifes too.
In any event, I’ll probably get a headache if I overthink the lie v. deception distinction too much. Right now, I’m very interested in following Charlie along to wherever the trail of bodies lead.
Good catch on the song (more a series of tones) in the bar.
On the lie detector business, I was referring, at a minimum, to the scene in the elevator with Charlie and Cliff (minute 47), where she asks Cliff if, after he and Jerry parted, Jerry “came back.” Cliff says, “No,” and Charlie explicitly confirms that he’s telling the truth. But since Cliff visited Jerry minutes later, that “no” would never register as a candid response on a polygraph. Yet it was truthful to Charlie.
And, in my view, what makes detectives like Columbo (and Holmes and Poirot, etc.) appealing is that they notice what we could have, and should have, noticed, too, but generally don’t. No magical skill. No special power. Just dogged persistence and attention to detail. A “detective” who solves crimes using a gift of birth, a unique skill no one else can share, is far less interesting to me.
But I, too, liked Charlie’s “why” distinction: Everyone lies all the time, so the lies aren’t important unless you know the reason why.
Thank you both for alerting me to the free episode on Peacock. I wanted to see this show and assumed I would not be unable. Watched it last night, pretty enjoyable. Didn’t make an instant subscriber out of me but gave reason enough to keep an eye out for a “free trial” offer down the road.
Personally, I didn’t think that specific Cliff/Charlie exchange in the elevator broke the rules. She asked whether Jerry came back, and he wasn’t being deceptive when he answered no. She didn’t ask whether he had seen Jerry again, nor did she imply that was her meaning. Splitting hairs, perhaps, but I bought it.
There were more blatant examples of Adrian Brody’s character deceptively replying to Charlie’s questions about her friend and Charlie not calling him on it (or displaying her recognition of his deception to viewers). However, it is reasonable to assume she was simply playing dumb a la Columbo. She does make it clear at the end of the episode that she was on to Brody earlier that day (at the latest).
Like Glenn, as long as future episodes adhere to modest consistency regarding her abilities, I could roll with the premise. (One can safely assume a ‘big twist’ ep will include a character she is unable to read — thereby confirming no superpower!) And like Rich, the bigger concern for me will be the degree of contrivance used to connect Charlie’s path to new mysteries. To that end, I’d be fine with some episodes omitting murder in lieu of other crimes.
I’ll conclude with the opinion that the pilot is worth checking out and the series shows potential for improvement.
Coming Jan. 26 to Peacock in U.S. with 4 episodes immediately dropping, followed by 6 more on consecutive Thur nights. Lyonne’s name here is Charlie Cane, and the hook is that she has an uncanny ability to detect lies. (Seems the inverse of “Knives Out”, where Marta threw up whenever she lied).
Can’t wait…..but I always try to temper my expectations.
First, many thanks to CP and the well-wishes who have provided positive support during my recent crisis (and now ongoing recovery). The Columbophile community is indeed a caring community!
The best Columbo villains have a hubris, the overweening self-confidence that makes them think they’re smarter than everyone else. Indeed, nasty surgeon Dr. Mayfield is a perfect example (No pesky nurses were whacked with a tire iron during my hospital stay). I thought myself too smart, too. I ignored the mild tension across my shoulders and arm and the fatigue, continuing to go on about my business for several days. I am fortunate that did not turn into much worse news – I was officially an idiot. Please pay attention to your body signals, and don’t be an idiot like me.
On the real column topic, I firmly believe that the world needs a new Columbo (Rich’s NYC prequel idea would be terrific). But the locked-up rights to the character puts this in danger. Think of the continual updates on Sherlock Holmes. New actors are engaged, new plots are concocted, new technologies are applied. In this way, new generations of Sherlock Holmes fans have been allowed to spawn and spread the legacy. Without regeneration of the character, years from now Peter Falk-as-Columbo will be trapped in amber, adored by a certain generation of fans (myself included), but in perpetual stasis without fresh interpretations.
Without a Columbo reboot, we at least need a jump-start to the overall legacy of the Thinking Detective, a legacy that I fear is in decline, or at least in remission. “Poker Face” sounds very promising in this regard. But please, don’t let it be another in the recent cable wave of “sad detectives”. It’s not enough for these cops and gumshoes to investigate particularly horrific murders (children are often the victims), but they have to wrestle with their own personal demons, as if this is a rite of passage to solving the crime and cleansing themselves in the process. I don’t need a tragic detective backstory. Just give me clues, character, killer and Gotcha. The toughest personal demon that Columbo had to confront was enduring Dog’s expulsion from canine class.
Insightful post, Mr. Stewart, and very glad to hear all is well.
Interesting! I don’t have any subscription services like Peacock, but I’ll keep an eye out for reviews / clips of this series. Best wishes to Glenn as well.
Great post and i really would love to see a re boot of columbo but i like to remember columbo for the real episodes that were made by the real peter falk which is what i thought this site was about i love the seventies episodes paticulary johhny cash ruth gordon robert culp jack casidy
i could go on but i ll say it respecpectfully i appreciciate all the new posts and i bear in mind al positivityvbut i stil think cp is behind in episodereviews particulary a bird in the hand which is not adisaster and surely better than no time to dieb
I want to say for the record any rudeness to The great CP is misdirected because 1 columbo is not shown livev i australia but as far as o knowvCP owns a columbo box setb
But in contrast columbo is aired every sunday regardless often a bird in the hand here pops up every nowvand then
I dont own a columbo box set but 5 usa show plenty90s episodes but never no time to die
Dear Glenn, stay strong and get well soon!
Best wishes to Glenn for a good and healthy recovery!
Dr Larry Bayfield or Dr Barry Mayfield!!! 😉
It can’t have been Barry, because he had a large, certainly real, moustache and goatee.
The greatest ever columbo the bye bye sky highiq murder is on tomorow on 5USA
Natasha Lyonne rocks! I will definitely look out for Poker Face! Thanks for the information.
I also find it fascinating that “Poker Face” and “Peter Falk” bear quite a bit in common, from the initials, to the pattern, to the number of letters in each. A coincidence? Probably. But still rather fun to notice!
Well noticed! Maybe it isn’t a coincidence?
My very best wishes to our dear and valued commentator, Glenn Stewart!
Hopefully no dissolving sutures were involved!
I know I’m like a pesky fly on this site but my heart still goes out to fellow Columbo fans so here’s wishing Glenn all the best!
Thank you for this update! I can barely wait.
Thank you for this information, I will be sure to check out poker face on Peacock.
Best wishes to Glenn on his recovery. That is an intense surgery, my thoughts are with you Glenn!
Thanks for the heads-up, CP. Although I live just south of where Poker Face is filming (in the Fishkill-Newburgh area from April to October), your post is the first I heard of it.
According to IMDb, the first episode is: “A tech billionaire gathers his childhood friends to his Miami estate, what turns into a high stakes game of poker.” Accordingly, in March, the Hudson Valley Film Commission put out a casting notice for anyone with “any experience as a REAL Casino Dealer (Poker, Blackjack).” (The HVFC also solicited Hudson Valley locals who might wish to appear as background actors.)
Even if the documented Columbophilic bent of both Johnson and Lyonne never materializes in Poker Face, their obvious respect for quality in a “character-driven, case-of-the-week style mystery” is a very good sign.
Oh, just one more thing — all our best to Glenn for a speedy recovery.
I watched a bit of Knives Out – and I’m afraid Daniel Craig’s contorted and affected performance and accent was really too much to bear. (On screen eccentricity is easier said than done.) With Peter Falk’s early Columbos, you got the feeling the mild eccentricity was an extension of the actor’s own studious character.
I completely agree Mark. Overall I thought the movie knives out was terrific, but Daniel Craig‘s accent was wretched and almost unwatchable.
I found his accent at the beginning awful, but after about 10 minutes I got past that and really loved the film. It seemed like something Agatha Christie would write.