How Poker Face Inverts the Traditional Murder Mystery Show
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There's a new murder in each episode of Poker Face—and a fast-talking, charismatic woman solves the crime each time. But don't call it a murder mystery. In fact, don't call it a whodunit. Or a procedural. Or even a "case-of-the-week" show. Because while on the surface the Rian Johnson series fits into those categories, when you dig a little deeper, it doesn't look anything at all those genres.
The cast and creatives behind Poker Face are, instead, calling it a "how-done-it," a twist on "whodunit," or a "howcatchem," a term was coined by mystery writer Philip MacDonald in the 1960s. At the start of each episode, the murder occurs. The viewer knows who is dead, who the murderer is, and often, why the crime occurred. You think you have all the answers. Spoiler: You don't.
Through this inverted mystery, the viewer comes into each story through the eyes of the villain. Then, the plot follows the aforementioned fast-talking charismatic lead, Charlie (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who can tell when someone is lying, as she solves the murder and seeks out justice. "You really are almost on the side of the villain at the beginning, and then Charlie comes in and you are watching them circle each other like sharks," co-showrunner Lilla Zuckerman tells Town & Country.
Poker Face is the antithesis of streaming television's current obsession with serialized storytelling, where watching each episode is vital to understand the full story. Instead, the broader arc of the season kicks off in the first episode—we meet Charlie, and learn she has to go on the run from casino security head Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt) after the death of her close friend (Dascha Polanco)—but then that storyline takes a backseat, becoming an undercurrent to each subsequent episode, which focuses on Charlie solving a new murder. Nearly every episode can stand alone.
Johnson and Lyonne, along with the showrunners (and sisters) Nora and Lilla Zuckerman and the rest of the Poker Face team, looked to classic TV programs like Magnum P.I., Murder, She Wrote, Quantum Leap, and Columbo for inspiration—all shows that featured a consistent main character with a different mystery each week. "Everything just coalesced to make it feel like something really special," Lyonne tells Town & Country of creating Poker Face. "Something that was simultaneously a throwback, and something we just hadn't a chance to see before."
This inverted detective story, or "howcatchem," has appeared on TV throughout the years, like in Criminal Minds, Luther, and Monk, but never without a detective at its center. That's what sets Poker Face apart: Charlie isn't a cop; she isn't a private detective; she's extremely wary of law enforcement; she's just a person with an acute sense of justice.
"You have this unique, totally compelling, fascinating personality—both the character and the actress," her co-star, Benjamin Bratt, tells T&C of Lyonne's performance. "It's just endlessly watchable." Over the course of Poker Face, Bratt adds, "you recognize very quickly that Charlie's an empath. She cannot move on without answering her instincts—which are always consistently to help the little guy. If someone's in need or distress, despite her better judgement, she's going to reach out and help them."
Since Charlie is a fugitive on the run, when she does have contact with law enforcement, "it has to be very tenuous, and she risks exposure when she does," Nora Zuckerman, the other co-showrunner, tells T&C. The Zuckerman sisters have worked on police procedurals before, but approaching Poker Face with no traditional cop or detective at its center presented a new type of creative challenge.
Charlie's work in the margins—she doesn't own a cell phone, can't use Google to look something up, or check an Instagram profile for an alibi—was a fresh way into the "mystery of the week" format for the writer's room. Nora explains, "If you're on a classic cop procedural, you can go, 'okay this is where they check the DNA database,' and, 'okay, let's go knock on somebody's door.' That's not really how Charlie operates. She'd rather just kind of slide up next to somebody at the bar and start up a conversation with them and get information." It became "freeing" for the Poker Face writers to think beyond the conventional patterns of a procedural and envision crime-solving with more old-fashioned means.
Indeed, if a cop were a human lie detector, Lilla says, it wouldn't be very interesting. Cops, she says, already are in a power position. But because Charlie is "an everyman, she's on the run, she's a drifter, she doesn't have the systems, and law and order, to depend on... She might have this wonderful ability, but what good does it do her? Half the time she can't do anything about it. That's really fun to to write."
"She's sort of her own force of nature going through these stories," Lilla continues. "You probably know that Charlie is gonna get her man at the end of the day, she's going to solve this crime. But how she does it is always so surprising. We wanted to subvert the audience's expectations, because they might think that they know where we're going, but they do not. That, to me, is the pleasure of the show: All of those twists and turns and subverting expectations."
Poker Face's non-traditional murder mystery structure was partly a reaction to the over-abundance of mystery stories in today's entertainment landscape, from true crime docuseries to the ever-expanding Law & Order franchise. "Audiences are very sophisticated now," Nora says. "We consume so much mystery, we're used to seeing the twist coming. You always want to be the person that's like, 'I think so-and-so did it.' That's a common way of watching a mystery show. Poker Face doesn't let you do that: You know who do it, but what you're going is, 'Charlie, notice this!'"
And even though viewers know the murderer, each time it's surprising how Charlie figures it out. The "how-done-it" is still for the hyper-observant viewer who wants to solve it all—you're just solving something different.
The first four episodes of Poker Face are streaming now on Peacock. The next six episodes will be released weekly on Thursdays.
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