Unexpected Delight? How ‘Poker Face’ Pays Tribute to ‘Columbo’ and Annoyingly Flirts With ‘Knives Out’ and ‘Glass Onion’
- But, while the director Rian Johnson’s pedestaling view of his female protagonists sometimes verges on benevolent sexism, one wonders if he can envision a world that doesn’t center White men.
For years I’ve been in a Facebook group for fans of the ‘70s detective series “Columbo” where any thread that asks, “Who would play Lt. Columbo in a modern reboot?” gets instantly locked. It’s a pointless question, per the moderators, because no one could ever replace Peter Falk in the role.
They are of course right. And yet when auteur Rian Johnson chose to follow up his “Knives Out” films (both of which earned him Best Screenplay Oscar nominations) with the Peacock TV series “Poker Face,” starring Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll”) as a woman who can instantly spot liars from observing their face and who uses this talent to bring murderers to justice, all the advance buzz dubbed it “Columbo” redux. As a die-hard fan of the rumpled lieutenant, I couldn’t not watch.
Viewing the first episode (written and directed by Johnson), I certainly noticed echoes of “Columbo” in the interplay between Lyonne’s earthy character, Charlie Cale, and her well-heeled antagonist (Oscar winner Adrien Brody); both the cat-and-mouse game and the emphasis on socioeconomic status are “Columbo” hallmarks.
Yet, troublingly, I also saw echoes of some of the most annoying parts of “Knives Out” and its sequel “Glass Onion.” Although there is some overlap between the premises of “Poker Face” and “Lie to Me,” a 2009-11 Fox procedural — inspired by the research of psychologist Paul Ekman — about a scientist (Tim Roth) whose team uses facial microexpressions and other bodily cues to analyze deception, Charlie’s special ability is depicted as entirely untrained and intuitive, flowing directly from her innate righteousness.
As “magical” virtues dropped into otherwise non-supernatural narratives go, it’s of a piece with Marta (Ana de Armas) being unable to tell a lie without vomiting in “Knives Out.” There’s nothing wrong with criticizing patriarchy, but Johnson’s pedestaling view of his female protagonists sometimes verges on benevolent sexism.
Both “Glass Onion” and the first episode of “Poker Face” betray Johnson’s equally simplified view of rich White men. Within his narrative systems, they are cowardly, pathetic, and evil … but also, he loves to hear them talk. It makes one wonder if he can envision a world that doesn’t center White men.
“Columbo” was one of many similar shows that formed part of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise, but it has outlasted its companions (like “McCloud” and “McMillan and Wife”) in the popular imagination because its cerebral approach — devoid of unnecessary subplots, romance, and action sequences — resonates with those who prefer Mystery and Detection in their mystery-detective stories. “Knives Out” felt like a slight letdown in this regard, while the paper-thin, howlingly contrived intrigues of “Glass Onion” were a massive disappointment. I regret to say that, with its casually dismissive approach to mystery plotting, the first episode of “Poker Face” is a lot like “Glass Onion.”
And yet: Inveterate optimist that I am, I took a slight break and then powered through the three additional “Poker Face” episodes released alongside the first. To my surprise and unexpected delight, they are … quite good?
Episode 3 is basically a full-on “Columbo” homage, done in a fun and stylish manner (with a thoroughly unexpected Bong Joon-ho shoutout). Episodes 2 and 4 chart some original territory. E2 does something “Columbo” never did — have a working-class main villain — and within its murder-mystery framework, it cleverly explores how the proletariat copes with a lack of opportunities, while also touching on themes of gender and patriarchy in a much more complex and less heavy-handed way than E1.
E4 takes some very interesting chances, turning into a thought-provoking meditation on fame and creativity while also featuring side-splitting cameos by John Hodgman (who I’m used to seeing be hilarious) and John Darnielle (who I’m not, though perhaps I should be). I loved the ironic O. Henry way it ended.
It is perhaps predictable that as Johnson’s fingerprints vanished from the show — he wrote only E1, and directed only E1 and E2 — its quality vastly improved. In much the same way that Taika Waititi used his influence to get “Reservation Dogs” on the air but then took a huge step back and let that show’s creative team take the wheel and flourish, so Johnson can perhaps best benefit “Poker Face” by giving it his imprimatur and nothing else.
Yogesh Raut is a freelance blogger, podcaster, and writer who currently lives in Vancouver, WA. Born in New York City, he grew up in Springfield, IL, and is a graduate of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Stanford University, New York University, the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, and the Washington State University Carson College of Business. He holds masters degrees in psychology, cinema-television studies, and business administration. You can read his blog at https://harpo84.blogspot.com and hear his podcast at https://recreationalthinking.podomatic.com.