Sunday News

Underdog champion

A new episodic caseof-the-week mystery series is a nod to old TV detective ‘hangout’ shows from the creator’s youth, writes Luaine Lee.


She doesn’t wear a rumpled raincoat or drive a smoking Peugeot, but the persistent detective on Poker Face does everything else that Columbo did.

The series, which is now screening on TVNZ+, was created by Rian Johnson, the architect of the very hot Knives Out and Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery who was greatly influenced by the TV detectives of his youth.

‘‘The intention with this show, the thing that got me really excited about it at the start, was the idea of doing a truly episodic case-of-the-week mystery show, like the kind of stuff I used to watch constantly when I was sitting in front of the TV as a kid,’’ Johnson says.

‘‘As much as those shows are mysteries, what really brings you back each week is you want to hang out with the main character. They’re really ‘hang out’ shows,’’ he says.

‘‘So Columbo, Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files, but also Quantum Leap, all those shows where what I was doing was just watching daily reruns. I had no idea what order they were in. And that was part of the pleasure of it,’’ he says.

Natasha Lyonne plays the singular sleuth, a woman on the run who can’t help herself when she encounters a mystery too intriguing to pass up.

Lyonne was influenced by her own group of gumshoes. ‘‘I have a great love of Peter Falk from all the [John] Cassavetes movies, and Wings of Desire,’’ she says.

‘‘I just love the guy. As somebody who is essentiall­y just self taught based on my interests, I’ve always gravitated to him. I would love to go on Finding Your Roots and discover that Peter Falk was some sort of deep, distant relation. But the other guy I love so much is Andy Sipowicz [played by] Dennis Franz [on NYPD Blue].’’

Lyonne, who has been on her own since she was a teen, says she is attracted to the lone-wolf type of investigat­or.

‘‘I’ve always loved particular­ly Elliott Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. And I think I love that particular kind of a lone wolf who is somebody who is really floating above a situation, sort of trying to crack a riddle of some sort, but also very much an Everyman who has really got their nose to the grindstone and is figuring out the sounds of the streets,’’ she says.

‘‘These are not whodunits,’’ insists Johnson. ‘‘These are ‘howcatchem­s’. These are modelled in that way after Columbo, where you show the killing and then it’s about Natasha versus the guest star and how they’re going to take them down.’’

Lyonne says she shares the ability to size up the phoney in the crowd.

‘‘I would say I have probably more than most very, very young women. I probably have more life experience,’’ she says.

‘‘So, innately, I’m sort of somebody who has a pretty quick read on people; something you might call ‘street smarts’. But certainly it would be more fun to have it in the way that [my character] Charlie does. . . Mine is, I guess, just intuitive.’’

Lyonne says that Johnson’s moulding of the character makes her more realistic.

‘‘The way Rian has crafted it, is it’s just enough that it kind of gets her in through the door, but it’s not a superpower.

‘‘So, still, she has to go about solving that sort of suspicion and following that thread all the way through in a very human, practical way that’s much more just a puzzle than it is a superpower,’’ she says.

‘‘It’s a way in to saying, ‘Hey! Something’s fishy’. And back of that – which is the thing I love so much about playing her – is she really cares about the truth ultimately, which is something I identify with a great deal.’’

Her character champions the underdog, Lyonne says.

‘‘When she sees something corrupt, it’s kind of like a nose for integrity and righting a wrong, especially if the type of person that’s been misimpriso­ned, is somebody that her heart is with.’’

Like Columbo, there will be guest stars each week, providing Lyonne’s character the chance to suss out the bad guys. Benjamin Bratt is one of them, as well as Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, Chloe Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Clea DuVall, Simon Helberg, Brandon Michael Hall, Lil Rel Howery and Hong Chau.

Bratt says he had no doubts about accepting a role on Poker Face. ‘‘When you get a phone call from Rian Johnson, it’s an automatic ‘yes’,’’ he says.

‘‘He is now one of my handful of whenever-wherever guys. He just has to name the when and the where, and I’ll be there. The thing about Rian is his writing. It’s totally unique.

‘‘When you see it in black and white [it’s] actually the best indication of what the end result is going to be. So, the truth is, I wanted to get on the phone with him after I read it, and I feigned concern that there might not be enough to do. I didn’t tell him that it was an automatic ‘yes’.’’

‘When she sees something corrupt, it’s kind of like a nose for integrity and righting a wrong...’ NATASHA LYONNE SAYS OF HER CHARACTER IN POKER FACE

Poker Face is available to stream on TVNZ+.

 ?? ?? Benjamin Bratt, seen here with Lyonne, is just one of the many guest stars to feature in Poker Face.
Benjamin Bratt, seen here with Lyonne, is just one of the many guest stars to feature in Poker Face.
 ?? ?? Natasha Lyonne plays Poker Face’s Charlie Cale.
Natasha Lyonne plays Poker Face’s Charlie Cale.

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