One good thing that emerged during the pandemic? A resurgence of love for Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo, the shambling, seemingly absent-minded mensch with a knack for driving overconfident murderers up the wall. Why did so many of us seek out old Columbo DVDs or reruns? Nostalgia surely plays a part but perhaps it had something to do with certainty in an era of anxiety. In every Columbo episode, we know who the killer is because we spend the opening act watching them do it. We also know that no matter how ingenious the execution, the Lieutenant will smoke them out. It was – and remains – a comforting thought.
Falk’s final Columbo was broadcast in 2003 but two decades later the unassuming Lieutenant is back (in spirit, at least). After making its US debut in January, Poker Face – the new series from Knives Out creator Rian Johnson, a man who knows a thing or two about twisty whodunnits – launches this Friday in the UK. It is a murder-of-the-week show that explicitly steals both the classic yellow Columbo font and its dramatic structure: in each standalone episode, we see the circumstances leading up to a killing. Only then does our hero join the action. But rather than a scruffy LA homicide detective, here it is frazzled ex-waitress Charlie Cale, played by Natasha Lyonne (an avowed Falk fan).
If you enjoyed Lyonne’s free-spirited performance in Netflix hit Russian Doll, you’ll love her in Poker Face. Charlie is friendly but forthright, often hungover and communicates in a hard-earned smoker’s rasp. She also has a wily superpower: Charlie can unerringly tell when someone is lying. That gift is enough to land her in some serious trouble in Las Vegas, so Poker Face follows her on the lam across the USA in a dinged-up Plymouth Barracuda. Untangling murders while also trying to stay off the grid creates some stressful tensions but Charlie values truth above self-preservation (mostly).
If one pleasure of clicking over to an old Columbo is identifying the killer guest star – will it be Leonard Nimoy? Robert Culp? Johnny Cash? Lee Grant? – Poker Face applies enviable Hollywood casting across the board, with juicy one-and-done roles for Adrien Brody, Chloe Sevigny, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Barkin, recent Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu and many more. (Nick Nolte turns up late in the season to show Lyonne how you really do a husky voice.) Each episode also introduces an intriguing new milieu – from the low-and-slow intricacies of Texas BBQ to touring with an over-the-hill metal band – and populates it with offbeat characters, lived-in production design and dizzying hopscotch plotting. It might be an intentional retro throwback but Poker Face is deluxe 21st century television in terms of its care, craft and wit.
All 10 season one episodes will be available at launch, and while you could theoretically watch them in almost any order, a strange thing happens if you binge the lot. Johnson and his think tank of writers begin to tinker with the formula in unexpected ways. Without getting too spoiler-y, the show tackles theoretical questions like: how would Columbo investigate his own murder? Or: instead of hearing Columbo ramble about his off-screen wife to put a killer off-balance, what would it be like to hear the perspective of a family member who really knows them?
Sprinkling in these unexpected angles helps give Poker Face its own distinct identity but it would all be for nothing if not for Lyonne’s formidable – and, unlike Columbo, occasionally enjoyably foul-mouthed – central performance. The woozy, cackling, smoke-wreathed Charlie is a joy to spend time with. What better way to stay true to the spirit of its inspiration?