Poker Face: what’s in it for Columbo fans?

Columbo Poker Face
Charlie Cale has a lot in common with Lieutenant Columbo

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.

Poker Face Adrien Brody
Adrien Brody makes for a cracking villain in the first episode of Poker Face

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.

Natasha Lyonne’s earthy charms make Charlie Cale an engaging screen presence

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?

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Some similarities between Poker Face and Columbo are more obvious than others…