Rian Johnson, the writer director behind a successful film franchise is quick to describe his new television series using an interesting moniker.
“As opposed Glass Onion and Knives Out, these are not ‘whodunits,’ these are ‘howcatchems,’” he says succinctly.
He’s talking about Poker Face, which stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a woman on the run who has an extraordinary ability to determine when someone is lying. In each episode, she encounters a new cast of characters and strange crimes she can’t help but solve.
Johnson adds, “These [episodes] are modeled in that way after Columbo, where you show the killing and then it’s about Natasha versus the guest star and how they’re going to take them down.”
Guest actors who go toe-to-toe with Lyonne’s Cale, include Nick Nolte, Cherry Jones, Luis Guzman, Adrien Brody, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others.
What got him excited about the taking on the case-of-the-week show , says Johnson, was “the kind of stuff I used to watch constantly when I was sitting in front of the TV as a kid. So yes, Columbo, but [also] Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files, [and] Quantum Leap. All those shows where I was just watching daily reruns.”
Casting was key for the narrative, for a very important reason, says Johnson. “The big ingredient I knew I needed for a show like what I just described is a charismatic figure at the heart of it, because [like] Columbo or Rockford Files, as much as those shows are mysteries, what really brings you back each week is you want to hang out with the main character. They’re really ‘hang out’ shows.”
When he saw Natasha in Russian Doll, he knew she was the one. “I thought, ‘here is somebody who has the presence and the charisma on the screen that I would just want to come back and be with her every week and see her win.’”
Lyonne says that what she found so interesting about the character is, “I love that particular kind of a lone wolf, who is somebody who is really, sort of floating above a situation, trying to crack a riddle of some sort, but also very much an everyman who’s got their nose to the grindstone.”
She adds, “And I love [using] noir device in general. The idea of these small pockets and eccentric figures, you need that type of Philip Marlowe lone wolf who also is really in communication with the witness or the clue.”
With regard to the aforementioned Colombo DNA of Poker Face, Lyonne admits, “I have a great love of [series star] Peter Falk, I’ve always gravitated to him, but the other guy I love so much is [the character] Sipowicz [from NYPD Blue].I love Sipowicz [and] Dennis Franz [who played him]. I would love to go on Finding Your Roots and discover that Peter Falk was some sort of deep, distant relation.”
Johnson had previously dipped his toe into the world of television, having directed episodes of Terriers and Breaking Bad, but he says it’s very different when you’re the one creating the series. “I really dove into it like it was one of my movies. I really jumped completely into the deep end of the pool.”
One aspect of television that gives Johnson a thrill is the pace. “I loved that, with each episode, we’re in a different environment. It’s a whole new cast. It’s like making 10 little movies. Every three weeks, we were starting work on a new movie, whereas usually I’m used to doing the same one for several years.”
How the medium is written delighted Johnson as well. “In terms of my own features, where I just sit in a room and eat horribly and feel constantly stressed that I’m way behind on my deadline, this is much more fun — being in a room with a group of people. I still felt like I was driving the stories and really shaping them, but having a staff of incredibly talented people there to bring their voices to it, I really loved it.”
The writing staff was an eclectic mix of people who’ve worked on different shows, says Johnson, including some who had experience in crafting crime stories, because, “at the end of the day, this has very much the DNA of a procedural.”
While Johnson says that intention for the series was that all episodes are standalone, he says that there is a bit of ‘connective tissue’ throughout.
“At the end of the season, we come back a bit to what happens in the pilot. But the intention with the show is that you’re going to get an entire meal in each episode. “
Continuing the food metaphor, he adds that there’s, “a smorgasbord of possibilities of different worlds we can dip into in each episode, and whole new mysteries in every single one.”
‘Poker Face’ premieres Thursday, January 26th on Peacock with four episodes at launch. New episodes stream every Thursday thereafter.