Rian Johnson’s Homage to Columbo

Poker face

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of mysteries: closed and open ones.

The closed form is what most folks think of when they think of a mystery story: a murder or other crime is committed and the reader (or viewer) doesn’t find out who the culprit is until the end when the detective reveals all. Whodunits, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple stories, fall into this category, as do Rian Johnson’s homage to them in his Knives Out series with detective Benoit Blanc.

The open category is where the reader (or viewer) knows who the culprit is from the start, and the fun is in watching the detective match wits with the killer. One of the most famous examples of this is the Columbo television series that ran in the 70s and was revived in the late 80s to run off and on into the early 2000s.

Starring Peter Falk as the title character, the show usually started out with a roughly fifteen minute depiction of the crime followed after the first commercial break by the introduction by the seemingly outmatched Lt. Columbo as he began his investigation, with the killer usually underestimating the detective’s intelligence. The show was a lot of fun and still holds up well today, although generally the 90 minute episodes are stronger than the later episodes that were padded to two hours (although some of the later episodes are pretty good as well).

Enter Rian Johnson. Seemingly not satisfied with creating only an homage to the classic whodunits of the Golden Age of Mystery, he has now created one to Columbo as well, although of course he has shifted everything around and modernized the heck out it.

Starting with his protagonist, Charlie Cale, played to absolute perfection by Natasha Lyonne. She speaks with a similar gravelly voice as did Columbo, and she smokes cigars as he did (alas, a lot of Johnson’s characters are [cough, cough] smokers, including Benoit Blanc). She even drives a distinctive old car, but don’t ask me to name the model. Given that the series premise requires Charlie to move to a different location every episode, she doesn’t (yet) have a pet dog (let alone named Dog or anything else), but perhaps in the next season.

I really don’t want to say too much more about the series, as the scripts are extremely smart and carefully plotted. Suffice it to say that each episode begins with a depiction of the crime, usually a murder, and following that we back up in time and see that Charlie has been hanging around in the background the entire time, we just didn’t see her. Sometimes she has befriended the victim, sometimes the perp, and sometimes the wrongly accused. Given that she’s not a leo (law enforcement officer), each episode comes up with a clever way to allow the viewer to feel that justice has been served.

Oh, one more thing. Remember Marta in Knives Out, the person who couldn’t tell a lie without barfing? Well, Charlie has the ability to see when people are lying. As it turns out, this is more of a curse than a blessing as it’s usually what gets her involved in solving the mystery.

The first episode serves to establish Charlie’s backstory and explain why she has to keep on the move, and well, I hope I’ve given you enough information for you to want to check it out for yourself.

Oh, and the series title: Poker Face 

Do you think it’s just a coincidence that it has the same initials and syllables as Peter Falk? I don’t.

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