Ever since his debut film “Brick,” writer-director Rian Johnson has been a reliable creator of intricately structured thrillers that deftly weave plot, theme and character into perfectly calibrated pieces of intelligent and satisfying entertainment. Johnson’s Peacock show “Poker Face,” a mystery series that follows eccentric fugitive Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) as she solves crimes using a unique gift (she can tell when someone is lying), is no different, but in telling the his story over the course of 10 episodes, adds a whole new dimension to Johnson’s form of storytelling.
“Poker Face” has many standout qualities, but perhaps most impressive is the combination of standalone episodes with the serialization of Charlie’s story – it’s the closest a show has come to Johnson’s beloved “Columbo” since that series aired and it came as a surprise to fans that they were essentially getting a new Natasha Lyonne movie every week.
The appeal to viewers was also part of the appeal for one of the show’s editors, Glenn Garland, who reveled in the variety Johnson’s format offered. “I like that it’s always evolving because each episode is a bit of a mini movie where you meet different characters along the way,” Garland told IndieWire. “When the other editors and I started talking, we noticed that the tone of the episodes was very different, so we were wondering if we needed to reduce the comedy in some episodes or make it more suspenseful in others. Then talking to Rian, he said, ‘Follow the script, follow the story, follow the actors. Let them dictate where you take it.’”
For Garland, that meant that some episodes, like “Rest in Metal” (in which Charlie goes on tour with a band who runs into foul play) were more stylized than others — something that was challenging when he first started, especially since “Rest in Metal,” the fourth episode of the series, was the first Garland edited. “That one had heightened reality, so I wasn’t sure how it would fit tonally,” he said. Garland had read all the scripts but none of the other episodes had been completed, and the process was further complicated by the fact that casting and location issues dictated that the show be shot out of order.”Nine was hit first, then the pilot. The second, the episode directed by Rian that I cut, it was shot last.It was all over the place.
Garland credits Lyonne with keeping it all together. “She was perfect in knowing where she was at any given time,” she said. For Garland, one of her challenges was knowing when to put the audience in Charlie’s shoes and when to let them precede her. “You never want the audience to be in front of the story, yet the audience AND always a little ahead of Charlie because they know it happened. (Each episode of “Poker Face” begins with a prologue showing the crime Charlie will ultimately try to solve.) They’re trying to figure out how she’s going to connect the dots, and it’s a very interesting structure because she always has a clock ticking. She needs to get out of each place as quickly as possible, yet she needs to piece all these pearls together to find out how this person committed the crime and how she can get them to eat their rightful dessert.
As with “Columbo,” one of the unusual aspects of “Poker Face” is the fact that its protagonist often doesn’t enter an episode until 15 or 20 minutes into the run, a conceit that has raised pacing issues. “It’s always been a challenge to calibrate it, trying to get to Charlie as quickly as possible,” Garland said. “Because you also want the audience to love the person who is about to be killed. You want to have feelings for them and you want to understand their relationship with Charlie later. So you’re really trying to establish who they are and get a feel for them, and yet get to Charlie as quickly as possible.
While each episode is meticulously crafted on the page and clarity is key, the creators of “Poker Face” allow viewers some freedom in terms of how they process information. “There were many times where things were happening in the background, clues that some people could pick up on and some people couldn’t. Then there were other times we felt we needed an insert to make sure something was clear and that everyone understood. But then there were all these other things where we just said, ‘Let’s see if people get that.'”
In the end, the fact that each episode had its own flavor and kept the audience guessing was Garland’s favorite thing about the series. “The funny thing about the show is that there are a lot of misdirections. There are all these different things that you weren’t expecting that keep you guessing all the time.