From the opening title in its block yellow font, idiot-box aficionados will immediately recognize that Poker Face is paying homage to Columbo, the beloved ’60s howcatchem that hinged on the soul of its titular gruff, clever and lovable L.A.P.D. detective, portrayed by Peter Falk.
…A what? A “howcatchem”! Some people call it an inverted detective story; creator Rian Johnson calls it a reverse “whodunnit.” All are acceptable but howcatchem, like whodunit, is the cutest.
Columbo fans thirsting for a reboot were thinking Mark Ruffalo might take up the mantle, but things quickly shifted when veteran actor Natasha Lyonne threw her hat in the ring. With the same raspy voice, earnestness, and passionate swagger of her predecessor, it seemed everyone could see the connection. More importantly, she shared a passion for the show with Johnson, cinema’s foremost cozy-mystery creator.
For a long time, there was talk of a total reboot of the L.A. detective—but Johnson and Lyonne did something smarter. They started from scratch, giving us someone new and modern to root for: Poker Face‘s rough-around-the-edges, full-hearted, empathic protagonist, Charlie Cale, portrayed by Lyonne.
When we look back at this era in television, it will be Poker Face that gets the credit for bridging the gap between streaming and network TV. By ending the practice of “dropping” entire seasons in one day, streaming sites have been forcing us back to the episodic, weekly cadence of the network shows we grew up with, while continuing to use the binge-worthy storytelling style we’ve come to know. They’ve ignored the fact that the way we consume the story and how the story is told, should be simpatico—and viewers have noticed.
Poker Face is the best of both worlds: gorgeous, cinematic standalone episodes week to week, with cream-of-the-crop guest stars like Columbo, but with an overarching story that keeps Charlie moving. It took us back to the proverbial water cooler by giving us breathing room between episodes, which is not only refreshing, but part of its larger success. It’s exciting to head out on the road with Charlie or meet her where she lands.
There is a precedent that predates streaming and binge-worthy TV; there were several shows like this over the years on networks, like The Fugitive, Nowhere Man, Quantum Leap, Highway to Heaven and (probably the best comparison) The Littlest Hobo. These characters moved from place to place for themselves but stumbled into situations where they ended up being needed, whether they wanted to or not. Making friends along the way, for the most part.
Charlie Cale has a need to help others even when taking that time could put her in danger. That sort of sacrifice is a beautiful thing to watch and is likely the main reason for the show’s success. Each week Charlie stumbles on to a murder—and that could easily be very dark and ruin one’s faith in humanity. But Poker Face might be the most human show on television for that very detail. Sure, Charlie has a superhero-level lie-detection power, but it can be compared to detective Columbo’s deductive genius.
Like Columbo, what’s human about it is how it’s based on intuition and gut. Charlie and Columbo help these victims because they both have a deep belief in justice and can’t be impressed upon or bribed. Their superpower is that they are incorruptible. It takes that kind of heart to look squarely into a calculating killer’s face and tell them that you know what they did —particularly for Charlie who doesn’t have a gun and doesn’t even seem to be able to bring herself to use one.
What further separates Charlie and Columbo, beyond his badge, is that he is tied by bureaucracy and took an oath to protect and serve, whereas Charlie didn’t sign up for that duty. She gets to know people and goes to bat for them regardless. Where in Columbo everything hinged on him, and his moral compass, much of what we feel in Poker Face is based on the people Charlie has connected to, often someone who lent her a hand when she was down and out. What’s more human than that?
The entire first season of Poker Face is available to stream on Citytv+.