By Alan Sepinwall
During the course of reporting a feature on Peacock’s delightful upcoming mystery series Poker Face, we got far more material from creator Rian Johnson and star Natasha Lyonne than could comfortably fit. So as a bonus, we’re giving you some highlights from the rest of our conversations. First up is Johnson, who produced Poker Face Season One — including writing and/or directing multiple episodes — at the same time he was in post-production on Glass Onion.
Below, Johnson talks about why every detective show is secretly a hangout show, the challenges of writing a mystery series where the main character (Lyonne’s Charlie Cale) has the superhuman ability to recognize when someone is lying, the importance of crafting standalone TV episodes even in an increasingly serialized era of TV and a lot more.
Because Poker Face is an “open mystery” — i.e., we start out each episode by seeing who did it, how, and why, before Charlie begins to investigate — we of course had to start off by talking about the best and most famous open mystery TV show of all time, Columbo.
Tell me about your relationship with Lt. Columbo.
Growing up, I was very aware of the show, but I really got into it, like a lot of people, over lockdown in 2020. I binged the entire series, and came to appreciate it in so many ways as an adult. My big revelation from bingeing it is, I wasn’t coming back for the mysteries. Although the mysteries are fun, I was coming back to hang out with Peter Falk. And in that way, I feel like those shows have as much in common with sitcoms as they do anything else. It’s not really about the story or the content. It’s about just hanging out with somebody that you like, and the comforting rhythms of a repeated pattern over and over with a character that you really liked being with. That’s kind of what I saw when I watched Natasha in Russian Doll, that made me think this could be interesting.
One of the things I love about Columbo is when we get the little in-between bits, where he’s looking for something in his coat or talking with the uniform officers before he actually gets to the suspect.
When they did the 90-minute format, they had to stretch the episodes out. So they would have three-minutes sequences where he’s just cooking with Martin Landau, or they build a three-minute sequence that’s just him being fascinated by this computer game.
Or the scene with Jamie Lee Curtis in the Mensa episode. It has no reason to be there, except that it’s fun.
Jamie Lee told me about that when we were making Knives Out. Because it was a mystery, the first thing she told me is, “You know, my first gig was in Columbo.” And she enacted the whole scene for me.
Brilliant comic seen from The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case sees a surly @jamieleecurtis confiscate #Columbo’s contraband donut! Love it! 🍩😄♥️ pic.twitter.com/j4tHeakVNx
Where did you come up with the specific premise that her character is this human lie detector?
That initially came out of a practical thing. Once I landed on the idea that she’s not a cop or a detective, she’s not a mystery writer like Jessica Fletcher — this isn’t her job — then there was no specific thing that she’s got. So let’s give her a specific thing. What is something where credibly, she’ll be pulled into these things. I mean, it’s always going to be a stretch, there is a buy-in from the audience of every week, every town that she’s in, she runs into a murder. As an olive branch to that, she has this gift where she can detect lies, infallibly. And I pictured it a little bit like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone — the notion that there probably is pretty terrible stuff going on around us all day, and we just don’t sense it. But she has this slight extrasensory perception.
But then once [co-showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman] and I got the writers’ room together, it very quickly became a really interesting obstacle. How was the show just not over within the first five minutes, if she can tell when people are lying? So I had her give a speech in the pilot about how it’s less useful than you think because everyone’s always lying. So it’s about looking for the subtlety of why is somebody lying about a specific thing. And we found really fun ways to play that at different episodes going forward.
In the pilot, the killer knows about her power, so they’re very careful about how they phrase things, like trying to ask questions instead of making statements.
That’s another really fun game. And it’s tough, because we don’t yet want to repeat that every episode. We take a lot of different tacks as we go forward. But when we do play the game of the killer knowing about her gift, it’s really fun. I got a little bit of practice on Knives Out, because Ana de Armas was playing a character, Marta, who couldn’t lie. And so sometimes she’d have to specifically word stuff. We played the opposite game here a bit.
I’m curious why you’re interested in these related but opposing ideas of people who can either not lie or can always see through lies.
If you’re doing a mystery, it’s a very interesting obstruction — a very interesting either gift or handicap to give your main character. With Marta, the intention of it was to make her life harder. She has a situation she has to get out of that she can only get out of by lying. So let’s take that ability away from her. And in the case of Charlie Cale, it’s the opposite. Here’s a complete outsider, we need something that’s going to enable her and make her particularly good at this sort of thing. So let’s give her this. This lie detector.
You will often take some model of storytelling that’s fallen out of fashion, and you find a way to make it feel fresh and modern. If anyone was doing Agatha Christie-type stories before Knives Out, they were just literal adaptations of the books, and few people are making shows like this. What interests you about that, and how do you go about doing it?
It’s less of an intellectual exercise of, “Let’s take this old thing and dust it off and do it” than it’s that I’m trying to do stuff I love. So it means thinking in terms of the deep roots of things that I grew up loving, and then trying to get to the heart of why I love them, and tap into that original source of pleasure that I got from them, and translate that as directly as I can onto the screen. Which I guess sometimes means figuring out ways just to shake the dust off of them a little bit, or to give them some kind of a twist, so audiences can’t lean on their expectations coming into it. I guess it’s probably not healthy for me to analyze it too much.
But when you go and you pitch a Knives Out or you pitch this, are you greeted with a lot of resistance or skepticism — people asking, “Do you really want to do that?”
Yeah. With Knives Out, I was coming off making a Star Wars movie. Even with friends of mine who liked the script, there was a little bit of a feeling of, “You just made this huge movie, you have a certain amount of juice, you can probably take a big swing here. Are you sure you want to just make a whodunit? And for me, it was just the thing that made me the most happy thinking about doing. And with this show, the folks at Peacock had been absolutely awesome in terms of getting what we’re going for, and totally supporting it. But when we were pitching it around town, boy it was crazy. I knew that there was a certain amount of gravity right now toward serialized storytelling, but I didn’t think that the notion of truly episodic TV in this mode was going to be seen as this big of a wacky swing. I was unprepared for the blank stares. And then the follow-up questions of, “Yes, but what’s the arc over the season?” I think there is right now this odd assumption that that’s what keeps people watching, just because there’s been so much of that in the streaming world that I think people equate the cliffhanger at the end of an episode with what gets people to click “Next.” But TV before incredibly recently, it was entirely in this episode mode. So I know it can work because I grew up tuning in every day for it.
When you directed Breaking Bad, it was a serialized show, but you made clearly individualized episodes.
Yeah, absolutely. “Fly” [an episode where Walt and Jesse go on a bug hunt in their meth lab] definitely is a specific thing. With good serialized TV, every episode has its own identity — a beginning, middle, end, all of these things. This is just taking away the thread that runs through the entire season. Cutting back completely is kind of a scary thought. Or is something that we’ve gotten away from.
Even back in 2010, “Fly” was a divisive episode. There were fans who were already conditioned to complain, “Nothing happened in terms of the bigger story. Why am I watching them chase a fly for an hour?”
The thing is, I can relate to that perspective. With Vince [Gilligan], it’s not like I got to pick which episode I did. When they were sending me the outlines for the season, episode by episode, I was going, “What’s that?” “What happens next?” “What happens next?” And I got to “Fly,” and I loved it, but I had kind of the same reaction. It’s part of the genius of what makes Vince Vince. Moira Walley-Beckett and Sam Catlin, with that script, they were able to totally commit to that and make something that’s self-contained. But it also resonates throughout the rest of the season, and gives it a greater amount of depth and ends up paying off, even in [the Johnson-directed third-to-last episode of the series] “Ozymandias,” which very much echoes that moment in “Fly” where you wonder if Walt’s actually going to spill the beans to Jesse about about what he did to Jane.
You got to direct the two extremes of that show: “Fly,” which is mostly on its own, and “Ozymandias,” which is basically the climax of the whole series.
“Fly,” where nothing happened, and “Ozymandias,” where everything happened. Yeah, and I feel so lucky. I got to ride that train for a few stops. Episode two of Poker Face is one of the other ones that I directed, and we shot it in Albuquerque. I haven’t been back there since we shot “Ozymandias.” It was so much fun being back in town. A lot of the same Breaking Bad crew were on our crew, and it felt like a little homecoming.
Did Vince and Peter [Gould] ever reach out to you about directing Better Call Saul? Or were you just too busy by that point?
Yeah, I was too busy. I think at some point, Melissa Bernstein got in touch about it, and I would have loved to but the reality is, it gets harder and harder to block out the time.
At the end of the pilot, Charlie has to go on the run. How would you describe the structure after that?
It’s The Fugitive, it’s Highway to Heaven, it’s The Incredible Hulk. Every week, a new town. One thing I set out to do here is to do an almost anthropological study of a new little universe every single time. So we have an episode set at a Texas barbecue. We have an episode set at a dinner theater. We have an episode set around the world of stock car racing on dirt tracks. The only thing that is even slightly serialized about it is her being on the run. I will say that at the finale, we bring it back around and pay off some of the things from the pilot. But everything in the middle is pick and choose. You can skip around.
Other showrunners say one of the reasons it’s harder to do episodic case-of-the-week stories is the expense and the production challenge. But you keep having to bring in new guests and go to new locations. How much of a headache was that?
Holy crap, it was a headache. Making a TV show is hard, period. But I don’t think we even realized what we’re up against. No standing sets. No recurring characters besides Natasha and occasionally Benjamin Bratt. But we’re very purposefully going for, again, the Columbo approach of big fish guest stars. And so every single one of these episodes, we try and get somebody very exciting to play either the killer or the victim. And it was a lot. Our incredible crew, our heads of departments, our production designer, Judy Rhee, I have no idea how she did what she did. It’s extraordinary. I’m still kind of baffled that we were able to pull it off.
Benoit Blanc and Charlie Cale are not exactly the same character, but they both have this larger-than-life quality to them, and a flair for oratory. How important is that in a detective who you’re going to watch over and over again?
It’s hugely important, but even more than a big personality, like I said, it’s got to be someone you like being around. One of the very first things Natasha and I figured out about this character was she’s not a cynic. That was a big revelation for Natasha. She was like, “Oh, she likes people. This is something different I can do.” In every episode, we do the exact same structure as the pilot, where the first act doesn’t have Natasha, and you see the crime happen. And then we flash back and we meet Natasha and see her overlap with the build-up to the crime. Which means we’re always coming to Natasha after the first act, and it feels like a ray of sunshine coming in to the episode when she enters. And that’s kind of the feeling you want, and you want people to be tuning in, because they’re happy to see her show up and see her win.
When I binged Columbo early in the pandemic, I thought about how hard it would be to get this greenlit now, when the star is never in the first 15 or 20 minutes of an episode.
I can tell you exactly how hard. But all to the credit of Peacock, they went with it. Part of the fun of it, I think, is really building that first act so that it’s its own little thing. It’s not like we’re rushing to get to Natasha in the first three minutes. We take our time. We set it up. We have incredibly cool guest stars who come in, and the first act belongs to them. Peacock, there were always notes of, “Can we speed up the first act a little bit?” Usually, those notes were also correct. But they never blinked. They were always like, “Yeah, this is what the show is, and we’re gonna commit to this and we think this works.”
Poker Face begins streaming January 26 on Peacock.
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