The Problem with Poker Face

As you may or may not know I am a huge Columbo fan. I’ve see every episode of the original 7 seasons 4 or 5 times each. I’d consider it one of the best shows of all time. You can read more of such gushing here. So when I heard that there was a new murder mystery show inspired by Columbo, I was hesitantly excited. Hesitant, because Hollywood is 99% certain to completely fuck up and ruin anything it ever touches.

But there was hope, because this is not a remake or reboot, this is a new idea that is simply inspired by the old show, and it seems to have been made from a place of passion instead of a nostalgia cash grab. So I watched it, and, you know, it’s pretty good.

Right from the opening it’s Columboesque. The font and color of the credits are exactly the same. See below:

And here from a Columbo episode:

And the entire show, in fact, has a very 70s vibe and look, despite being based in modern day with modern technology.

The similarities are not just in the design, either. The main character, Charlie, played perfectly by Natasha Lyonne, is a complete slob who drives a beat up junker yet is still somehow relentlessly charming, and is underestimated by everyone. She even speaks in a similar dialect and cadence as Columbo–granted, that’s just how she talks in real life, but it works.

Even the plotting and structure works the same as Columbo. Each episode opens up with the murder, and the audience is shown exactly how and why the murderer did it, from the murderer’s POV. Then Charlie shows up and solves the crime by hanging around and talking with the criminal until she realizes that they’re guilty through some clever clue or inconsistency.

And even though modern TV is completely and utterly incapable of being simply episodic, this one really tries. The first episode wastes a lot of time with stuff we don’t care about, like setting up Charlie’s origin story and giving her a reason to be on the run and thus in a different city each episode. It’s a bit forced, and parts of it are actually incredibly stupid and nearly ruin the show (more on that later) but, for the most part, once this pointless plot is set in place, the writers heave a sigh of relief and basically ignore it for the rest of the show. I sighed right along with them. In short: in the first episode Charlie pisses off some rich powerful criminal, and so a rich bad guy thug is chasing her from city to city for the rest of the show. But, we don’t have to see the bad guy but for a few seconds here and there, so thankfully we can forget about this choreography and just enjoy the dance.

Another thing we don’t have to worry or care about: Charlie’s personal life, and thank god for that! The most annoying part of any mystery show is the huge chunks of time spent on notmystery. I don’t care if the detective is going through a divorce, I don’t care if it’s his daughter’s birthday and he forgot to buy a gift, I don’t care if the in-laws are in town and causing difficulties at home, oh my god I just DO NOT CARE please go back to the crime. This is something that Columbo has held over almost every other mystery show that came after (with few exceptions like Murder She Wrote [same creators as Columbo] and Poirot): no time is wasted on Columbo’s personal life. We know zero details about Columbo other than stray facts he mentions in dialogue. We never see him at home, we never see him involved in anything personal, we never seen him outside the context of investigating the crime (except in some episodes from the 90s and on, but those episodes kind of start to stink), he mentions his wife constantly but we never see her, because none of that matters. All that matters is the crime, and the battle of wits between Columbo and the murderer.

And so it is with Charlie. Outside of a few scenes to establish her in the first episode there is no boring personal life stuff, just mystery. Great!

It sounds like a great successor to Columbo, like someone finally picked up the torch of real mystery-of-the-week episodic fun.

Except… just one more thing…

There’s just this little thing that’s been bothering me. You know, it’s just my brain, it won’t let go of these little things, I gotta keep poking at them until it makes sense. Did you know, there’s a logical explanation for everything? So, there’s gotta be some kind of explanation for this:

Who the hell and why, decided to give Charlie a literally magical power in this crime mystery show?

And I am only slightly exaggerating. In the first episode Charlie goes into a several minutes long explanation about how she ‘just always knows when someone is lying,’ and the accuracy of this lie-detection is at such a level that, although the show doesn’t describe it as such, it could only be supernatural. To demonstrate her powers, she has a virtual stranger pull random cards from a deck, look at the card without showing her, and then tell her what the card is, and she knows with 100% accuracy when he’s lying or telling the truth about the cards.

And it’s not just that she’s good at reading people, which would have been fine. It’s not that she’s studied body language and facial tics and a million other things to learn how to read people, which also would be fine. The show actually goes out of its way to make it clear that she is a 100% accurate lie detector all the time, and she doesn’t know why or how. In probably half the episodes there is a scene where she is walking past a complete stranger, overhears them say some offhanded comment, and says ‘Ah, that was bullshit.’ She is able to instantly determine that this person who she’s never met (nor even seen, sometimes!) and who was not even talking directly to her, was lying. That is a superpower.

And it really sucks a lot of fun out of the show! It’s hard to be impressed with Charlie when she didn’t work for her skills. And besides that, it just feels extremely lazy. But I guess why come up with a reason that Charlie can tell someone is lying, why write a clever hint that makes her suspicious when you can just have a magical lie-detector ping in her ear…

In the end, it’s a really well made show with great acting and a ton of fun guest stars, and it really does seem to have a lot of genuine love for Columbo and Murder She Wrote and those style of mysteries. I just really wish they wouldn’t have made that bizarre choice…

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