Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, it’s probable that you’ve seen, heard or read something this week about the new Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne vehicle Poker Face.
Hand-in-hand with the extensive coverage the series has received have come references to Columbo by the dozen – perhaps little wonder when Johnson (the series creator and sometimes writer/director) and Lyonne are such self-confessed Columbo nuts.
Critics are in general agreement that Poker Face has been heavily influenced by Columbo, while its central character (Lyonne’s Charlie Cale) has many traits in common with the good Lieutenant. But under close inspection, what aspects of Poker Face will Columbo fans find familiar, and is it a show worthy of celebration? I’ll attempt to answer that today…
The Columbo influence on Poker Face
The most obvious aspect of Poker Face that Columbo fans will associate with is that the show follows the ‘inverted mystery’ format, with viewers shown the crime upfront, which will then be unravelled by Charlie Cale over the course of the episode. Each episode is also a self-contained mystery, albeit it set against a wider story arc of Cale being on the run from a rogue casino boss. Each instalment is therefore a stand-alone entity that can be enjoyed for what it is, rather than it being a mere stepping stone towards some sort of dramatic finale.
The star power of the supporting cast is also a pleasing hark back to Columbo’s classic era. In lieu of Ray Milland, Jack Cassidy, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh et al, we have Adrien Brody, Benjamin Bratt, Chloe Sevigny, Ron Perlman, Ellen Barkin, Nick Nolte, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and many other familiar faces from the small and large screen. Each episode has serious strength-in-depth to the cast, which, like Columbo before it, makes watching Poker Face an exercise in identifying A-List stars.
In terms of characteristics, Cale, like Columbo, is an acute observer of the world around her who is swiftly able to identify out-of-place aspects of a given scenario or crime scene. Little things bother her and she can’t get them out of her head until she can figure out their meaning. She learns fast and has a deductive, reasoning mind that allows her to logically attach meaning to these tiny details and join them up cohesively just like the good Lieutenant did so well over so many years.
In the first episode of Poker Face, Cale’s clever observations include her noticing that CCTV footage of a metal detector not going off in a casino means that a supposed murderer cannot have killed his lover in the way that police have accepted. Foul play was certainly involved and it’s not long before she’s able to fully realise the who, when and how of the crime. It’s such a Columbo move, offering keen fans flashbacks to classic lightbulb moments in episodes such as Playback and Swan Song.
Similarly in episode two, Cale again notices inconsistencies in CCTV footage that lead her to challenge the accepted version of events when a young sandwich maker is said to have been killed by an errant trucker. The way she unwraps the elements of the crime through serial numbers on scratch cards and a beer bottle cap in an apron pocket could have come straight out of the Lieutenant Columbo playbook.
Lyonne has an easy charm that makes her a highly engaging screen presence.
What Cale has over Columbo is an inherent ability to know when someone is deliberately lying about anything, not just when trying to cover up their involvement in a crime. And while this sixth sense could become an easy way out for writers, allowing Cale to crack her case of the week too easily, it has been used with impressive restraint in the series’ opening episodes. This gift gives Cale good reason to doubt people and to challenge the accepted narrative without offering her solutions on a plate. So far, so good.
The similarities between Cale and Columbo don’t end there. Part of what makes the Lieutenant such an enduring screen icon is the sheer pleasure of watching Peter Falk. Columbo swiftly became a character we could really love, so even episodes with lesser mysteries remain essential viewing because of Falk’s charm and his interactions with his fellow guest stars. Lyonne is very much cut from the same cloth and is terrific to watch. This is surely the great role of her career.
Like Falk, the husky New Yorker has an earthy, easy charm and an eccentric energy that makes her a highly engaging screen presence. Like Columbo, Charlie Cale has a way with the Average Joe and an ability to put people at ease and allow them to open up. Once she’s on the scent, she never gives up and is driven by a moral compass that drives her to help others – even when it’s not necessarily in her own best interests to do so. On top of all that, Cale is also non-threatening, diminutive and scruffy: someone who can easily be overlooked by her adversaries in the build-up to her delivering a sucker punch. How reassuringly familiar! Heck, she even drives a beat-up, unreliable classic car.
The biggest difference between the two (sex aside) is that Cale is not a cop. Indeed, she’s on the run from casino heavies and having to be extremely wary of the police herself. She has to get creative to ensure that justice is served, and in the episodes I’ve seen that’s been done in various entertaining and plausible ways. Having Cale moving from place to place is another key difference. She can’t afford to stay in one place for too long, allowing Poker Face a further way of engaging its audience with a range of unfamiliar locations from America’s roads less travelled.
Naturally, Cale keeps running into crimes that impact the people she meets on her journey: an aspect of the series that could feel rather artificial for some viewers. However, in the best traditions of murder mysteries, crimes follow great detectives wherever they go. Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and Columbo have all had ghastly crimes to investigate while away from their familiar stomping grounds, whether for business or pleasure. It’s a trope as old as the genre and Poker Face uses it no more gratuitously than countless other series before it.
From what I’ve seen so far (three episodes in), the calibre the writing is another aspect that compares favourably to Columbo. It’s no mean feat to tell a compelling murder mystery, but Johnson and co. have succeeded in balancing light and dark, playfulness and pathos, and allying that with clever mysteries that bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the Lieutenant’s classic cases.
Third episode, The Stall, is perhaps the clearest example of this. Without giving too much away, eager fans may recognise familiar beats from Any Old Port in a Storm, Identity Crisis, Make Me a Perfect Murder, The Most Crucial Game, Dagger of the Mind, Etude in Black, Suitable for Framing and Columbo Goes to the Guillotine amongst other episodes. More than just a homage, The Stall feels like a love letter to all that is good about Columbo.
Is it worth the time for Columbo fans?
Poker Face, of course, is not merely paying homage to Columbo. Afficionados of retro TV will recognise shades of many other shows, including Rockford, Murder, She Wrote, Magnum PI, The Littlest Hobo, The Fugitive and even Quantum Leap (thematically, not literally) – all programs that Rian Johnson grew up watching and enjoying.
However, it is the Columbo connections that have garnered a whole glut of worldwide headlines since the Poker Face’s launch – a development that tickles me pink. There can be little doubt that fans of Johnson (the director of Knives Out and Glass Onion) and Lyonne (star of Russian Doll and Orange is the New Black), who may be unfamiliar with the greatness of Columbo and Peter Falk’s performances, will be seeking out the show to see what all the hype is about. It helps that both shows are available on the Peacock streaming service in the US. It’s very likely a new legion of Columbophiles will emerge and that could never be a bad thing.
Regardless of whether or not Poker Face will go on to have the enduring appeal of Columbo, it is a worthy project and one that I suspect a large proportion of Columbo fans will take to their hearts. In Johnson and Lyonne, we have two extremely gifted creative minds who both love and respect the Columbo series and character. They have rolled back the years to provide a viewing experience full of fun, wit and classic TV Easter Eggs, and having such a prominent strain of Columbo DNA throughout the series can only be good for the Lieutenant’s legacy. For that reason alone it’s well worth giving Poker Face a chance.
The 10-part first season of Poker Face is streaming now on Peacock in the US and Stan in Australia. Release dates elsewhere TBC.
If you’ve seen Poker Face already, do share your opinions on the show below. What are its best aspects? Is there anything that doesn’t work for you? And how do you like the Columbo connections scattered throughout?
I finally finished the 10-episode season. As I said previously, I thought the Columbo-ness overhyped, and that disconnect only increased in the second half (although Natasha Lyonne does a kind of Columbo imitation in Episode 8 (at around the 40:00 mark)). The last four episodes deviated greatly from the Columbo formula, either with their endings or with their stories as a whole.
Judged without regard to its purported roots, Poker Face has many good moments. Episode 9, which could never be compared to Columbo, is quite well done, and has a very satisfying (if not entirely surprising) ending. And there’s a big mid-episode twist in Episode 6 (although not a particularly novel one for fans of stage thrillers).
One bothersome point is how Charlie often pieces things together with very little to go on (and without even the help of her lie-detecting abilities). This happens most noticeably in Episode 5. There are also moments when a Charlie-detectable lie is shoehorned into the episode in a fairly contrived fashion (like in Episode 7).
Two notes about the finale, neither of which should spoil anything. Was anyone fooled for a second about Cliff’s reason for enticing Charlie into taking the gun from the glove compartment? And who decided to cast Clea Duvall as Natasha Lyonne’s sister? Were they separated at a very young age and raised on different coasts? Lyonne is a quintessential New Yorker, her N’Yorkness obvious with every syllable she speaks. Duvall was born and raised in L.A., and sounds it. Each dialogue exchange makes you wonder how these two possibly could have grown up in the same house.
I thoroughly enjoyed the “Poker Face” run, both for its nods to Columbo and, conversely, for its willingness to stray from Columbo form. The pilot explicitly gave us 3 Easter eggs that would define the show: “This Old Man”, and the “wandering the earth like Caine in Kung-Fu” reference seen in the “Pulp Fiction” clip. Like Columbo, Charlie is underestimated and underappreciated. She is, as CP says, “an acute observer” with “a deductive, reasoning mind” who uses seemingly trivial clues (often triggered by her Deception Detector) to solve murders/attempted murders. We know who the villain is before she does, but after that, the show follows the broken narrative structure of “Pulp Fiction”. While it is grounded in the basics of Columbo with similarities and a mostly episodic approach, I do agree that the mainstream media has been too quick to champion this as a Female Columbo.
Natasha Lyonne is just as comfortable in the role as Peter Falk was in his (hopefully, she won’t be exaggerating schtick over the course of the show). Each character helped mitigate those times when their show’s scripts disappointed. For me, the theater episode didn’t really work. The chaotic tone was purposely nodding to “Deathtrap” and “Sleuth”, which is fine, but it meant that Charlie came upon the clues too quickly and easily in service of that tone.
The “Columbo” template was hard to break, and wasn’t that successful when it did. I think one of the strengths of “Poker Face” is that it can go off its own template effectively (as the last 2 episodes did) without damaging the brand. That said, I hope Rian Johnson doesn’t option any Ed McBain novels.
The writers gave Charlie too many shortcuts. In Episode 5, she intuits that “legless” Irene climbed two stories up a vine — based on what? Had she ever witnessed Irene exhibit any feat of extraordinary upper-body strength? Irene didn’t even operate her own wheelchair! Joyce was always pushing it. But Charlie simply looks out the bathroom window and knows!? There are other examples, but that’s the starkest. I realize that these are only 50-minute episodes, and that a lot of time is used up first showing the crime, and then winding back to show how Charlie was always lurking at the fringes while the crime was being planned and executed. (A very clever addition to the Columbo formula.) So perhaps shortcuts were a necessity. (Of course, the entire human-lie-detector shtick is also a shortcut, but I’m not dealing with that one here.) I missed the methodical nature of Columbo piecing together a case from his cat-and-mouse interactions over those nettlesome “loose ends.” Intuition played a part in Columbo latching onto something small in order to choose his prime suspect, but thereafter he put his case together in small steps. Charlie too often takes giant leaps.
But as I’ve said, remove the Columbo benchmark, let Poker Face stand on its own two feet, and it’s leap and bounds above most of its competition.
We rightfully complain about the filler in 2-hour Columbos. In this case, “Poker Face” would benefit from a bit greater length to flesh out Charlie’s detecting. There are indeed times that it seems too rushed.
I liked the first episode. It was a good introduction to the main character Charlie Cale with a good storyline. But I always kept thinking she is not a cop and dealing with dangerous people. I think the show would have been better had she been either a private detective or part of the police force. This is a bit like a fugitive storyline, having nine lives, always on the run. Columbo was good because he was part of a police force. But Poker Face has its own charm and worthy of watching.
Forgive my ignorance on the subject but were there any other t.v shows that had this “inverted mystery” such as Columbo? A “how’d he catch him?” rather than a “whodunnit?”
Or is Poker Face the only other one?
Just finished watching episode 8. Interesting plot, but does our protagonist mention anything about the way the murderer poisons both victims? I don’t think so, but I could be wrong.
Take a look at the examples listed here: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ReverseWhodunnit
One of my favorites is the Canadian series “Motive” (available on Freevee). At the beginning of each episode, after a short introduction, you’re told who is the “killer” and who is the “victim” — sometimes the reverse of what the intro suggests. What you don’t know is why; in fact, it’s generally unclear initially what possible connection these two characters have. The episode establishes the relationship and reason for the crime.
Thank you CP for introducing me to this brilliant show. The acting is superb with great guest stars including Oscar winners & nominees. Each week, I see someone I know from TV or a movie.
My favorite episode thus far is “Rust In Metal”. I loved the “Spinal Tap” references and the songs they sang were hysterical. “Staple Head” and “Merch Girl” are actually better than some of the songs I have heard sung at a concert.
I am thrilled that “Poker Face” has been picked up for a second season.
Columbo had his own “special power” with knowing who the killer was right away for those who are upset with this concept of knowing when someone is lying. I mean, can we be real.
Great comments on comparisons with Columbo.
How Columbo zeroes in on the killer is often a good barometer to the quality episodes. The best ones have an early subtle clue that Columbo picks up on (Ken Franklin drives back to L.A. instead of flying in “Murder By The Book”). The episodes that lack an initial clue to the murderer make it appear that Columbo has supernatural instincts, and that can be the canary in the coalmine that tells us the writing won’t be particularly strong (“Old Fashioned Murder”, for ex).
Charlie’s Deception Detector provides her a quick insight that there’s some truth-shading going on. My take is that this insight sends up a red flag for her to be more receptive to finding the clues around her and interpreting them. The driving question for her, as explained in the pilot, is learning the Why of someone’s deceptions.
I agree with you, Glenn, that the strength of the early clue pointing Columbo initially to the killer is one measure of an episode’s quality. Columbo focusing all his suspicion on one person early on must be justified. And he must focus on his prey fairly quickly. It’s a structural necessity when the audience knows who did it. Viewers would tire quickly if Columbo spent significant time going down what they know are blind alleys. It’s not necessary that we know what that (what I call) “click” clue is when Columbo first spots it, as long as we learn what it was before the credits roll.
But I wouldn’t cite “Murder by the Book” (as much as I revere this episode) as among the best in this category. There Columbo listed “a lot of little things” that collectively put him on Ken Franklin’s trail. I maintain that the best “click” clues are one thing: the cigar match in “Mind Over Mayhem”; the hospital feather in “Troubled Waters”; the car radio setting in “Blueprint for Murder”; Paul Gerard’s lack of concern that he, too, was poisoned in “Murder Under Glass.”
That said, it’s also a fair conclusion that this element isn’t the most crucial measure of a great episode. Several of the best “click” clues come from middling episodes. But it certainly is an important factor to weigh in the balance.
Great examples and, on the flip side, I remember Last Salute as an ep with perhaps the most eye-rollingly mailed in click, in which Robert Vaughn merely meeting Columbo at the door apparently was enough to trigger his spidey sense. A sign of things to come.
A less extreme example is Crucial Game, as Paul Hanlon’s lack of motive and seemingly strong alibi belie early suspicion.
When looking at “Last Salute,” you must keep in mind that Columbo latched onto the wrong suspect. That’s an indispensable element of that episode. (It’s my view that Charles Clay became the murderer’s second victim precisely because Columbo mistakenly perceived him to be the killer. I wrote about that in: https://columbophile.com/2019/08/11/trying-to-salvage-last-salute-to-the-commodore/.) So a weak “click” clue here is less a bug than a feature.
But the episode was still responsible for giving Columbo a reason to latch on to the wrong suspect. In its rush to lead both the Lt and the viewer down the twisty path, Salute takes a shortcut (assuming Columbo can ID the killer instantly with minimal clues) — then takes another shortcut in the gotcha when he needs to wrap things up (tisn’t).
A weak click clue would have made sense in this case. My objection is that Falk’s acting at the initial meeting implies no clue at all. Just, “hi, so you’re the son-in-law? Hmm, I’m on to you.” Yes he is goosing the viewers to believe what they thought they saw in the opening but doing so lazily.
Except that’s not the click clue in “Last Salute.” We don’t actually see the click clue moment; we hear about it later. It was when Columbo learned from the security guard that Clay confirmed with him the precise time of his departure from the Commodore’s island. Clay had a high-quality watch; the guard had a “drugstore watch” — why check except to solidify an alibi? Columbo has always suspected people who make a point of checking the time: e.g., Dale Kingston with the parking attendant in “Suitable for Framing”; Harold Van Wick with the gate guard in “Playback.”
Columbo does act strangely toward Clay as soon as he meets him — but Columbo acts strangely toward everyone in “Last Salute.”
Wait a minute… I remember this guy from that cruise…
So much potential but just another typical Hollywood failure. The writing is atrocious and the murders are completely unbelievable for the most part. There’s a lot more that sucks that could be easily rectified with just a smidgeon of common sense from the writing team. I’ll give it a C- after the first seven episodes.
Just for some context of your definition of “atrocious” writing, please share with us your preferred TV shows that have great writing.
I too would love to see what examples of tv shows that have great writing and common sense you have.
I’ve tried to find this series, would love to give it a try. But unfortunately I don’t seem to be able to watch it, neither online nor on DVD, but then I live in The Netherlands. Does anyone here know of a way for me to watch it?
Apart from the yellow title credits and the understated, disheveled, husky voiced new yorker protagonist, the comparisons stop there. After quite a reasonable first episode, Poker Face goes down hill quickly. The acting is terrible, plots are cringe worthy and I am actually not sure who this show is aimed at. It has more in common with the littlest hobo with the crass lexicon of the poorest Tarantino flicks.
I have endured 5 and a quarter episodes of this tripe and cant stomach no more. Back to the 5 USA channel in the U.K on Sundays for me, where we have Columbia all day.
NO. The author of this site shows tremendous industry in gathering facts (or at least, reports of facts) without necessarily showing a concomitant insight into what they signify. It reminds one of the time Sherlock Holmes (now THERE was an author with insight) observed to Watson that the official police were very good at amassing facts without necessarily knowing what to do with them. This review is in that same vein.
COLUMBO was conceived by two writers born just at the time the Prohibition (google it) was being repealed and reflects the values system of their generation. It is not the values system of the present day (sometimes I feel as though I must remain the sole existing repository of that values system in still-living form) and that makes all the difference in the world in comparing this show with COLUMBO. Columbo was a bona fide authority figure who, however unconventional in response to the dramatic needs of the series or eccentric in response to the demands of comedy he was, represented law, order, professionalism, and all the time-honored traditions of the society in which Levinson & Link grew up before, during, and after World War II. The main character in this new series, a creature of the post-1960s, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-hippy-dippy (hell, post-trump) world can make no such claims. It’s a fundamental difference in the willing-suspension-of-disbelief aspect of the two series.
In fact, this series owes more to The Big Lebowski for its main character and to Pulp Fiction for the rest of its affect than it owes much of anything to COLUMBO. The fact that the series creator decided to reprise COLUMBO’s crime-fighting technique and superimpose it on what well could be “Dude” Lebowski’s little sister or favorite female cousin hardly makes this a reprisal of COLUMBO, and instead lumps it in with other remakes of Miss Jane Marple but with a 21st-century Tarrantino-esque tone. This tone has much more impact on how a viewer experiences this show than the mere method of detection involved. Frankly, probably the only reason COLUMBO gets mentioned at all in connection with this series is the maker’s unabashed promotion of it by blantantly ripping off the name of the iconic earlier series reminiscent of what we now call “click-bait” (one wonders if he has permission of the owners of the COLUMBO series to use it in this manner). It has little more to do with COLUMBO than right-wing-extremist weirdo Kelly Anne Conway has to do with late comedian Tim Conway, some click-bait I fell for just a few minutes before writing this.
Bringing quite a bit of politics in here I see.
I’m enjoying “Poker Face” so far. I guess it’s the closest thing to Columbo I’ve seen.
(Episode 5 was a little far-fetched, IMO)
Another problem is the SHORT running time, except with the pilot episode. This doesn’t allow for much cat-and-mouse between Charlie and the killer.
And, for me, I have to suspend my disbelief about the whole “Charlie can always tell if a person is lying” thing. I don’t care for any movie or program that has to so with superpowers, and I believe giving Charlie the ability to be a “human lie detector” closely rubs up against that. I know it was necessary for the pilot, however.
It’s not a bad series but they should have named Natasha’s character Frankie as the ultimate tribute to Columbo. Peter Falk would have been proud!
Unlikely (among other things, Falk was consistently and absolutely adamant that Columbo’s first name was not something that existed at all, for all practical intents and purposes).
Daniel, you’re right but I like to mess around with the endless debate. Everyone knows that Columbo’s first name was Lieutenant and his wife’s name was Mrs. Columbo. As for their kids, who the hell knows!
In the one early episode where he showed his I.D. card, it showed his photo and the name Frank Columbo.
Add me to the nearly endless list that loves this blog. Thank you.
I watched the Poker Face pilot. As someone very active in the worlds of Sherlock Holmes, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan, I am more than familiar with homage, pastiche, and parody. And I’ve written a lot of commentary on both.
I get all the trappings of Columbo in the pilot (don’t have Peacock Premium). But I haven’t seen anybody else look at it from the perspective that Charlie is:
A) A conspiracy theorist nut;
C) Quite the heavy drinker (usually a safe assumption about people who need beer for breakfast, as she clearly did);
D) You did mention she’s not a cop;
E) The whole trailer-park lifestyle is a fourth point that could be explored, but could also upset some folks, so I’ll skip that.
And NONE of that is remotely Columbo. You couldn’t bring Columbo to mind with any or all of those elements of her character.
So while I liked the pilot as a crime (not cop) show with Columbo overtones, I think the non-stop gushing needs to bring in a little more critical analysis.
Elementary wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. It was a good police procedural with a Sherlockian overlay. And that worked – I liked the show, and it’s Holmes bits.
Poker Face strikes me as an ‘on the run’ series freely using seventies-style influences. But it’s not ‘The New Columbo’ (Which is exactly what Wired called it. I’m sure there’s been plenty more).
And while the guest star thing is in the Columbo style, I do ‘I Know that Actor’ posts on FB. It started with the terrific guest stints on Columbo. But Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, Suits, White Collar, Leverage, Bones, The Rookie, Royal Pains, Death in Paradise, House: The past few decades, it may be more uncommon for episodic TV to NOT have that characteristic.
The comparisons to Columbo might make more people check out Falk’s show, which I agree is a good thing. But the ‘fait accompli’ praise is a bit much.
And thanks for putting out an updated Columbo-Phile book last Fall. Great to see that readily available.
Thanks for all the hard work. I know that good, regular blogging is tough. Be well.
Bob, I rummaged through some of your blogging on Black Gate, and props for giving the late great guitarist Rory Gallagher some due recognition for his love of detective fiction, spies, and the underbelly of the hard-boiled gumshoe genre. His lyrics often read like a well-worn pulp paperback.
With due respect, I think you’re looking at the Poker Face/Columbo connection through the wrong lens. Charlie (or any fresh TV procedural character) should absolutely not be like Columbo in looks, demeanor, or lifestyle. Aping Columbo that directly is not very original. I thought CP nailed the key similarities: relatability to ordinary folk, non-threatening, a strong moral compass, a sense of justice, plus a keen mind with solid observational and logical reasoning. (Oh, and a catchphrase – “Bullshit!”) Those are the key character components – the rest is just window dressing.
As an authority figure, a police lieutenant would typically be in the dominant position in any investigation. So the trick for Levinson, Link and Falk was to make Columbo an anti-authoritarian, easy to underestimate. Johnson and Lyonne are doing the same thing – helped in no small part by the fact that women have not often been in this type of amateur investigative role (ironically, one of the pioneers of that genre – Mrs. Columbo).
I think the “non-stop gushing” about the show that we’ve seen throughout the media is not because there’s been no “critical analysis”…..it’s actually precisely because there’s been a surfeit of critical analysis (and we all know that CP can be quite critical when required). The Columbo bar was raised early in the promotion of Poker Face, and the backlash would have been quite severe if it hadn’t measured up in some way. For many, it does, but not by being a Columbo clone. There’s a shared DNA between the shows, and a commitment to quality. Those are rare commodities, and I look forward to seeing Charlie Cale traverse the forgotten backroads of an America outside the toney mansions of Los Angeles.
Glenn – I see your points. I’m just not swung over to them. Not yet, anyways. 🙂 I am curious to hear about the Rockford Files influences. I grew up watching that show afternoons with my dad, and it’s still a favorite.
Rory Gallagher: Wow!! That man was simply amazing. The talent was just tremendous. And he clearly loved hardboiled/noir. I am never disappointed when I listen to his stuff. It’s a shame he couldn’t overcome his inner demons. There was a lot more music left inside him.
If you’re a hardboiled/pulp fan, ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ will be back again this summer, and it will break the 100-essay mark. Which isn’t bad for a hardboiled/pulp column at a World Fantasy Award-winning website. But the mystery genre appeals everywhere, right?
I’m not sold on any true Rockford Files influence beyond someone at society’s fringes cracking cases. And Rockford had his police buddy Becker for help.
The 70s procedural mentions in all these media pieces strike me as spiritual influences rather than direct ones. I trust Johnson’s overt Easter eggs in the pilot as the most influential shows – “This Old Man” at the casino bar is one. The other is the clip from “Pulp Fiction” showing Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield looking to roam the earth “like Caine in King Fu”. But that travelling-avenger-of-justice trope also applies to The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk as well, which is why I’ve seen those references sprinkled in some of the reviews as well.
As Rich notes below, perhaps we just see in Poker Face what we want to see. And that’s fine by me.
I agree, Bob. Imagine for a moment if there had been no Rian Johnson-Natasha Lyonne hype about Columbo. Imagine, instead, that the hype had been about the combined Johnson-Lyonne love affair with “Mission: Impossible” and “The Fugitive” — about how “Poker Face” would be about a woman on the run, encountering episodic crimes everywhere she flees, but because of her precarious situation, always having to leave before the crime is finally solved — leaving the actual comeuppance of the villain to someone else she has cleverly inveigled to finish the job. Same scripts, same show. Would we still be talking about “Poker Face” on a Columbo blog? Would various plot points have been identified as “familiar beats” from Columbo episodes? All are fairly well-worn devices not unique to Columbo.
There might be some harkening back to Columbo because of the inverted nature of the “Poker Face” mysteries. But without the pre-show Columbo hype, critics might have focused more on how the inversion in “Poker Face” differs from Columbo — how Charlie’s presence and tangential participation during these events is screened from us until we go back and rerun the full picture of what happened.
Perhaps we each see in “Poker Face” what we want to see. Those who crave more Columbos see more Columbos. Those who are lesser fans of even the later, lesser Columbos don’t see in “Poker Face” anything to rival Columbo at its best.
Frankly, I wonder if all the Columboness analysis might not do “Poker Face” a disservice. It creates a measuring stick it can never measure up to. Although I’m sure it helped get people to tune in.
Only 3 episodes in but very much enjoying it so far. Episode 3 is certainly the most Columbo like of the opening episodes, and the entire murder plot could’ve easily been lifted straight from it if you replace the USB with one of the many tape recorders that featured in episodes.
I couldn’t agree more that the third episode, The Stall, really put me in the mind of Columbo, especially with the use of the recording while stepping away to commit murder. I could just see Robert Culp’s face.
My wife and I really like the show a lot, it really holds our attention. I recommend it to everyone, Columbo fan or not.
Here’s my stab at the great CP Poker Face Quiz — his statement about Episode 3 (“The Stall,” which I’ve now managed to watch): “eager fans will recognise familiar beats from Any Old Port in a Storm, Identity Crisis, Make Me a Perfect Murder, The Most Crucial Game, Dagger of the Mind, Etude in Black, Suitable for Framing and Columbo Goes to the Guillotine amongst other episodes.”
Any Old Port in a Storm: Asphyxiation in a sealed room.
Identity Crisis: A recorded speech creates an alibi (although I see Double Exposure as more analogous).
Make Me a Perfect Murder: A watch timer counts down to when the killer must return.
The Most Crucial Game: The missing train noise from the radio broadcast.
Dagger of the Mind: Faking the final phone call (like planting the fake bead).
Etude in Black: Climbing in and out of a window.
Suitable for Framing: A female accomplice helps establish an alibi.
Columbo Goes to the Guillotine: The killer locks the door on the inside using a cord.
Agree on Identity, MMAPM and TMCG. My stab at some others:
**Any Old Port: brother killing brother (of, half-brother) for business/financial motive.
**Dagger of the Mind: husband/wife killers, man/sister-in-law pairing.
**Etude in Black: parrot/dog killed is a clue.
Love the program so far. The little touches, like a near perfect copy of the Columbo title font, whenever we first see Charlie in the episode, the background music is a banjo that seems to be playing a version of One Is The Loneliest Number.
It does annoy me that so far she seems to be the reason why the murder occurs. If she had answered her phone call, if she hadn’t lent out a DVD, if she hadn’t encouraged the lead singer to allow the drummer to hang with the band, people would be alive. I hope this is not going to be a regular occurrence.
I caught that too! Good news in the latest episode, she’s not the reason for the murder!
Agreed, Love Poker Face and its nod to Columbo. Not sure if anyone noticed, but in the first episode, as Charlie is sitting at the bar, you can hear “This Old Man” playing. It was introduced in the Columbo episode “Any Old Port in a Storm” in 1973 .
So glad you pointed out “This Old Man”. My sister and I LOL’d several times during the first episode. Fun show and I liked the shout out to Michael Westen from Burn Notice(underrated show) and Encyclopedia Brown.
I, too, enjoyed the shout-out to the delightful Encyclopedia Brown. Surprising that Hollywood hasn’t yet strung together a few of those stories into a low-budget kids movie.
I am (and have been since the 70’s) a huge Columbo fan. I recorded every episode on VHS back in the 80’s. Did anyone else pick up the Poker Face title credits use the same font as the NBC Mystery Movie used? Love the homage!
It’s not quite the same font but is suitably similar for fans to notice and love the nostalgia!
While this new show isn’t the first to use Columbo’s inverted mystery format with great mystery shows like Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Matlock and Monk all using the format to great affect like Columbo did, it’s great that this new show is bringing that type of mystery style back instead of the tired procedural format or straight whodunits. I haven’t seen Poker Face, not too sure I want to see anything of Rian Johnson’s after the mess that were the Star Wars reboots, I’m very happy to see a show take heavy inspiration and pay homage to a classic show instead of having the gall to try to reboot or “re-imagine” it. Shows that there’s a real respect for the show there, I wish the people involved with the Magnum, PI, Quantum Leap, MacGyver, The Equalizer, Walker, Texas Ranger reboots had that same respect and love for the those shows.
I was wondering, when you’ve finished reviewing every Columbo episode then would you be reviewing this show?
No, much as I enjoy the show I won’t be going into in-depth analysis. There’s plenty of Columbo content beyond the episode reviews to keep me going.
Love it! Loved Natasha in Russian Doll and I’m glad they’re not trying to do a reboot, but also glad they’re acknowledging the inspiration. Some shots look like they could have come straight out of the 1970s until someone holds up a cell phone.
OK, this is an interesting new take on Columbo – tumblr fanart and being an LGBTQ icon. Also, ties into Poker Face.
Maybe I am becoming a curmudgeon as I grow older, but I was disappointed by the first episode, which is the only one I’ve seen. I wanted Poker Face to be more like Columbo. It has the inverted format and an appealing, underestimated sleuth, but the similarities end there. Adding a super-creepy motive, graphic violence, and profanity does not improve or update the basic formula that made Columbo so popular. I also prefer that the murderer be arrested.
I haven’t seen anything creepier than anything I’ve seen before on Columbo (Julie Newmar getting tossed off a balcony). So far the other three shows have seen the guilty arrested. The pilot ep was a bit different to set up the plot, which is a waste of time, but didn’t effect the other eps. As far as profanity, I could give a fcuk one way or the other.
Appreciate the warning, Claude! I was scrolling through the comments before commenting to ask about whether the show is as clean as Columbo was. Guess I won’t be recommending my family to try it for our weekly mystery night; a shame. 🙁 So much TV has to dip into violence and profanity these days, when Columbo is one of the best proofs that neither is necessary to tell a good story that can entertain a mature audience.
Claude, there is nothing wrong with the way you feel about this new series. But you gotta remember that this is mainly for today’s millennial audience, and they expect and want graphic violence and profanity. I like it so far but the original Columbo will always be my fave!
You are right. This show owes vastly more to Pulp Fiction (and even The Big Lebowski) thabn anything that was ever on COLUMBO.
Does anyone know the name of the opera musical score , and who composed it that played at the end of the Columbo episode, a self portrait?
She is stumbling across a lot of murders, but they’ve added a twist which is that she unknowingly does something which leads to the murder taking place. In 3 of the episodes so far, if she hadn’t been there and doing something innocuous (like lending a DVD) then the murder wouldn’t have happened.
I’ve watched two episodes and I am *throughly* enjoying it so far. It’s a nice homage without being a copy, and I’ve always adored Natasha Lyonne. She’s got a lot of Falk-ness to her, for sure. I never even considered how it *might* encourage new people to watch Columbo, and I love the thought of it! Thanks so much for discussing it. 🙂
The title font is also reminiscent of Columbo. A nice little surprise.
The opening title and credits had me excited! I couldn’t love it more. After watching the second episode, I took a break to watch “Murder can be Hazardous to Your Health” and couldn’t stop smiling at the similarities. Natasha is fantastic as Charlie. The overall look is modern yet nostalgic. I love the style, hair, and makeup. She looks beautifully disheveled and put-together, just like her classic car. Here’s to many more seasons!
CP, an outstanding summary of the similarities that echoes my thoughts very well.
For those who are wary that Charlie’s gift for deception detecting will become a tired and overused gimmick, here’s how NPR’s review puts it: “Fortunately, Poker Face makes sparing use of Charlie’s special talent for knowing when people are lying. As she explains it, as long as a person is lying intentionally — that is, they know what they’re saying isn’t true, as opposed to being wrong — she can always tell. This could easily become a lazy shortcut, where she always suddenly solves the whole case based on her magical abilities. But her special radar is deployed rarely, to the point where you’ll forget she even can do this until it comes up. And it isn’t usually about a big and central lie (like “I didn’t kill him!”), but about a small and seemingly insignificant lie (like “I had fish for dinner”) that sends her looking for an explanation.”
In the 4 shows available as of 1/28, Charlie’s instincts only tell her that a protagonist is being deceptive about something – in Episode 3, it’s about paprika. She doesn’t get why that’s significant – it only comes to her later after she pieces together other clues. If Charlie simply walks up to a suspect 20 minutes into the show and asks, “Did you kill Mr. X?” to get a Yes or No answer, you and I would tune out very quickly.
I’ll take a moment to add to CP’s similarities with a few differences. Most importantly, there is no “class warfare” element to who the killers are. Columbo showed us the monied murderers, while Poker Face reminds us that killers come from all walks of life. But the show does seem to lean into the idea that the wheels of justice turn a bit easier for the rich – in Episode 2, an itinerant off-the-grid trucker is arrested just a shade too easily by the local cops who seemingly shut the door to any real investigation of the case. Charlie looks to give justice to the forgotten victims (and of course that’s a Columbo trait as well). The show also looks very different from Columbo, traversing the oft-forgotten backroads of Middle America and doing some world-class world-building of different environments that have been ignored by most television.
Whenever you see Columbo glom onto a suspect without any real clue pointing to them, you could playfully speculate that maybe he has Charlie’s gift of deception detection as well. But really, the best Columbos have an early clue – however minor – that allows our hero to zero onto the villain. In Poker Face, all it takes is a deception for Charlie to do the same, and then ask the question: Why is this person not being honest?
Columbo fans, listen up for an audio callback about 3/4 into the pilot. So far, I’d say the reference is well-earned.
Glenn, unlike you and CP, I’ve only seen the pilot. (I pay enough for streaming subscriptions, so will stick to free Peacock only.) So I must defer to your collective judgment on the Columboness of Poker Face. I do wonder whether viewers would have made the connection if it had not been invoked by the creators so prominently in the run-up to the series. Yes, it is an inverted mystery — although with a very interesting twist (at least in the pilot). In Columbo, while we see the crime being committed, the storyline remains linear. In the Poker Face pilot, we see the crime being committed, then flash back to Charlie and the victim before the crime. Expecting a Columbo structure, this confused me at first. Does the victim have a twin sister? Then I got it. It was actually a nice, new touch.
[I will also confess to having no great affinity for Poker Face creator Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” franchise. That got a lot of advance hype too, as an Agatha Christie revival. It was a very poor attempt to resurrect Dame Agatha — and “Glass Onion” is abominable (except for one four-minute sequence: 45:40-49:40 on Netflix). This reviewer expressed my reaction quite well: https://youtu.be/6toXVLt4laA .]
However, I do want to ask this: Does Poker Face justify the “sparing use of Charlie’s special talent for knowing when people are lying”? Why doesn’t Charlie take the “lazy shortcut, where she always suddenly solves the whole case based on her magical abilities”? If you had this ability and wanted to solve the murder of someone you cared about, isn’t that exactly what you’d do? Even if only for your own knowledge — the Poker Face equivalent of the Columbo “click” clue, setting him down the correct road — wouldn’t you ask?
In the pilot, it wasn’t as if she was trying to gather concrete proof for a court case. She arranged a gotcha more out of “The Sting” or Mission: Impossible than Columbo. She turned the tables on the murderer, releasing the forces of rough justice to avenge the crime. You don’t need objective evidence for that. On the other hand, the murderer in the pilot knew of her special ability. Charlie may have been afraid to show her hand too soon. In subsequent episodes, where she’s dealing with people who don’t know her, is there also an apparent reason why she only asks her suspects what they had for dinner instead of whether they had committed murder?
Because if there isn’t, her restraint isn’t realistic.
Very fair question, Rich – If she has the ability to ask someone directly, right after the murder happens, if a person associated with the victim is the killer, why not do it?
Could she make an unfounded accusation – without the clues – at that stage? I suppose so, but if she ever got knowledge of guilt so quickly, without the requisite clue-gathering, that wouldn’t necessarily be enough for her anyway. As CP notes, Charlie wants to find a way to stick it to the villain, not necessarily in a court of law. That requires some evidence to convince others. Plus, I think sheer decency on Charlie’s part means that she wants to be sure about her instinct before she wields it with the killer. And despite her very rough edges, Charlie is, like Columbo, essentially a decent person.
Charlie doesn’t always know precisely why someone is being deceptive (why lie about paprika?), so she needs the clues – that process can’t be short-circuited. But once she puts it all together, we’ve seen her (through the first eps) have no trouble at all making a direct and forceful accusation – followed by her caveat that might not be able to prove it in court (nor would she want to….she’s on the run).
Finally, I’ll add another difference between Columbo and Poker Face….the episode running times. The pilot is 67 minutes to set up the premise, but Episode 4 is only 48 minutes. Unlike in the longer padded movie-length episodes of classic Columbos, there isn’t a protracted cat-and-mouse between Charlie and the villain. If there were, we’d rightfully wonder when the heck Charlie was going to get to the accusation.
Except that what Charlie uses to “stick it to the villain” isn’t necessarily related to her murder investigation. In Episode 1, she uses the villain’s plan to rig a card game; in Episode 4, she uses a song’s resemblance to an old TV theme. Neither resulted from her hunt for murder clues. In Episode 2, the only link between Charlie’s sudden realization about a propitiously positioned dash-cam and her prior investigation was that other, unrelated security cameras had played a part previously. Episode 3 is the only one, to my mind, where there was a direct relationship between what she’d gradually uncovered and how she took the villains down.
As I’ve now seen Episodes 2-4, I’ll offer my own reason why Charlie’s talent/power only nibbles at the fringes initially. It’s because she frequently comes to these cases indirectly. In Episodes 3 and 4, she doesn’t immediately see either as a murder. She’s focused on the dog in Episode 3 and the song in Episode 4. And because Ruby freely admits that Gavin wrote the song, there’s no trigger lie to latch onto here. In both cases, she more or less stumbles toward the victims’ deaths being a murder. So she has no direct accusation to make up front.
Good points, but a small qualifier: I believe in Episode 4, the Sucker Punch resemblance to the Benson theme came independently from viewers of the dudes with the youtube channel. We didn’t see Charlie make that connection. However, the Murder Girl podcast got its evidence – including the pastiche of the song’s lyrics – direct from Charlie’s investigative discoveries, and the implication is that the podcast will have the rest of the clues as well, proving murder.