Richard Levinson and William Link are the creators of two of the most iconic series in television history: ‘Columbo’ and ‘Murder Wrote.’ The first is a milestone in crime fiction, the series that took the narrative mechanism of howcatchem to the highest levels, as opposed to the classic whodunit, “who-did-it.” The list of directors of the series is amazing: Steven Spielberg, John Cassavetes, Jonathan Demme, Richard Quine… The second, ‘A Murder Wrote’, was more conventional, but worked very well as a reworking of the Agatha Christie novels starring by Miss Marple.
Rian Johnson, about to turn 50, grew up with these two series. Skilled “reformulator” of generic codes – the hard-boiled one in ‘Brick’ (2005), the science fiction and time travel thriller in ‘Looper’ (2012), the space adventure in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ ‘ (2017) -, the director gracefully reinterpreted the universe of Christie and ‘Murder Wrote’ in the successful saga ‘Daggers in the Back’.
Now, with ‘Poker Face’ (SkyShowTime), it’s ‘Colombo’s’ turn. Johnson pays an explicit tribute to the series starring Peter Falk. Not only because of its “inverted mystery” narrative structure, where we first see the execution of the crime and then its clarification, but also because of other details: the typography of the credits, the characterization of the protagonist (a fabulous Natasha Lyonne, known for ‘ Russian Doll’), the guest stars and other winks for many fans such as ‘This Old Man’ playing in the casino, the traditional melody that Lieutenant Colombo whistles when he already knows who the culprit is.
‘Poker Face’ is a series that seems from another era. But it is not a simple pastiche supported by the accumulation of knowing winks, nor a nostalgic reworking for homesick boomers, nor an outdated stylistic exercise protected by a taste for retro. ‘Poker Face’ is more like Tarantino’s cinema. A joyful re-reading of aesthetic codes and narrative mechanisms from the past, transferred to the present through a very careful staging, plots full of ingenious twists, a contemporary social discourse (gender, class) and a very current sense of humor .
In short, you don’t need to have seen ‘Colombo’ or a similar series to enjoy the ten episodes of ‘Poker Face’. Even younger generations, who have been trained with other types of television, may find this way of narrating “new”, so far removed from the current serial format (although a slight diachronic plot is maintained).
‘Poker Face’ has been this year’s surprise hit in the US (it’s from NBCUniversal’s newly created Peacock platform). Natasha Lyonne has been nominated for best actress at the Emmys and the series has been renewed for a second season. Will it be the beginning of a new trend in television fiction: updating old-fashioned formats? I’m betting on the next one: the sitcom, with canned laughter included.