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Poker Face Owes Just as Much to The Fugitive as It Does to Columbo

Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson’s Peacock series is more than just a “howcatchem” Columbo clone.
  • Natasha Lyonne stars in Poker Face (Photo: Phillip Caruso/Peacock)
    Natasha Lyonne stars in Poker Face (Photo: Phillip Caruso/Peacock)

    If you pay any attention at all to TV reviews and news, you’ve likely heard by now that Poker Face’s creator Rian Johnson and its star Natasha Lyonne intend their Peacock mystery-comedy series to be a throwback to classic ’70s and ’80s detective dramas like Columbo and The Rockford Files. If you’ve watched the show, it’s hard to miss the influences. The opening credits’s font looks charmingly vintage, for one thing. 

    The episodes themselves are pretty old-fashioned too, in that they tell complete stories, with Lyonne’s scruffy vagabond Charlie Cale stumbling onto murders and then skillfully shattering the killers’ alibis — all in a running-time of under an hour — thanks to her unique ability to tell when somebody’s lying. It’s as though the heroine of Murder, She Wrote were a raspy-voiced, wisecracking nobody, with a weird super-power.

    Ironically though, Johnson hasn’t been telling the whole truth when he describes Poker Face as an alternative to prestige dramas with long, complicated narrative arcs. Because Poker Face actually does tell a longer story. The first episode ends with Charlie on the run, having cracked a case that involves a powerful casino boss and his hired gun, Cliff (Benjamin Bratt). So while 98% of this series remains episodic — to the extent that once viewers know the premise, they can watch the episodes in any order — occasionally the larger narrative returns, as Cliff closes in on Charlie.

    In other words, Poker Face isn’t just a mystery show, it’s also a “fugitive hero” show, like… well, The Fugitive

    Before The Fugitive was a hit Harrison Ford action movie, it was a gritty TV drama, which ran on ABC for four seasons, beginning in 1963. Each week, escaped convict Richard Kimble (David Janssen) — a doctor wrongly accused of murdering his wife — would take a low-wage, low-profile job in a fresh town, trying to stay off the local law enforcement’s radar. And each week some crisis would pop up, often calling for a doctor’s skills, which would push the conscientious Kimble to risk blowing his cover. A few times each season — including in the two-part series finale, which set ratings records back in 1967 — Dr. Kimble would end up in the same place at the same time as his most dogged pursuer, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse).

    The Fugitive was one of the earliest of producer Quinn Martin’s long string of hit series, preceding the likes of Cannon and Barnaby Jones. The QM Productions’ shows would often introduce its weekly guest stars in the opening credits with full-screen pictures and an announcer’s voice. Poker Face doesn’t go that far, alas. But big names do pop up on the screen as each episode starts, with the likes of Hong Chau, John Ratzenberger, Lil Rel Howery and Chloë Sevigny all playing the random folks that Charlie will befriend and in some cases destroy. Like Richard Kimble, Charlie drifts into other people’s lives and does what she can to bring a little justice to them, before she has to exit again, one step ahead of Cliff.

    Charlie is also a lot like Kimble in that it’s in her best interest to tell people as little about herself as possible. Even the audience doesn’t learn much about her past, at least in the early episodes. When the series begins, she’s a mediocre (at best) Las Vegas cocktail waitress, who was forced out of her former job as a professional poker player once people learned that she could spot any bluff. Robbed of any particular ambition beyond getting through any given day with minimal hassles, she finds she has one reliably marketable skill: She can blend into any situation she rolls into.

    And so, again like Kimble, she has a series of alternately mundane and dangerous adventures, across the country. Backwoods Texas BBQ stand? Retirement home? Regional dinner theater? Charlie may not be any good at the jobs she takes, but she’s good at making friends, because she listens to other people and remembers what they say, which makes them feel appreciated. At one point, accused of being a flaky millennial, Charlie bristles and says, “I’m a cusper!” — which is really a good description, beyond generationally. She dwells in the margins and shadows, keeping an eye on everyone.

    The biggest difference between her and Kimble is that Charlie isn’t as wary. She finds the people she meets fascinating, whether they’re making sandwiches at a truck stop Subway or they’re a hyperactive drummer for a heavy metal band. That’s her biggest weakness, too. In more than one episode, Charlie identifies so strongly with the outcasts and underdogs that she can’t tell they’re actually the bad guys. (When these first 10 episodes are done, we may even find that there has been a secret character arc to this season, as Charlie gradually realizes that the people she trusts are often rotten.) 

    Johnson brings one great narrative innovation to Poker Face that sets it apart from both Columbo and The Fugitive. In each of the six episodes provided to critics, the story is completely Charlie-free for about 10-15 minutes, as we follow the murderer or murderers and their victim, right up to the kill. Then Charlie is introduced, in what amounts to an extended flashback, showing what she’d been doing in the hours, days, and even weeks leading up to the crime. It usually turns out that she was actually around during everything that happened at the start of the episode — either away from the action or just out of frame. She is, quite literally, off the grid.

    Columbo and Jim Rockford (and Frank Cannon and Barnaby Jones and many other ’70s and ’80s TV sleuths) were often underestimated too, but with rare exceptions they weren’t hiding anything, and they weren’t going anywhere when the case was done. They lived in one place, they had some legal authority (be it a license or a badge), and they didn’t change much from episode to episode.

    Heroes like Kimble and Charlie though are constantly on the move, adapting. If they could truly lay low and let other people’s problems go, they could probably lead quiet, untroubled lives. But Charlie’s the kind of person who stumbles on an injured dog (an annoyingly yappy dog, no less, who loves right-wing talk radio) and can’t help but start digging into what happened, for the sake of, as she mumbles, “Dog justice.” That’s what keeps her hopping — and what keeps her running. And that’s what makes Poker Face more than just a “howcatchemColumbo clone. This show borrows from a lot of old television. But Charlie Cale is something new.

    New episodes of Poker Face stream Thursdays on Peacock. Join the conversation about the show in our forums.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.

    TOPICS: Poker Face, Peacock, Columbo, The Fugitive, Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson