Editor’s note: This interview took place before the Writers Guild of America strike began on May 2.
Is Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) a superhero? He is a human lie detector, as stated over and over again throughout “Poker Face”. The world of the Peacock series is admittedly elevated, full of killer actors, killer race car drivers, killer Joseph Gordon-Levitts – all kinds. The show’s tone and, for lack of a better term, physics never stray quite as far from reality as “Wonder Woman” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but thinking about Charlie’s ability through the framework of genre conventions sci -fi/fantasy helped showrunners Lilla and Nora Zuckerman tap into what makes the character tick.
Miles Morales can throw cobwebs all day, but that doesn’t help him solve the dilemma of asking out a cute girl or figuring out a new, more mature relationship with his parents. Likewise, it was important to both Zuckermans, who are veterans of genre shows like “Fringe” and “Agents of SHIELD,” that Charlie’s ability to always know the truth creates more problems than he solves. “Although he may help her solve crimes, he doesn’t help her get justice,” Nora Zuckerman told IndieWire.
“It’s something that goes back to our sci-fi roots or our superhero roots, where you love to throw obstacles at your characters and go, ‘Oh, you think you’re invulnerable to X? Well, it happened’ and see how that affects them as a character and the choices they make,” Zuckerman said. “That’s one of the funniest things I have on my mind when writing for genre television: How do you sharpen a character’s dilemma? They might be Superman, but how is that a problem for them instead of a benefit?
Looking for the “problem” that Charlie’s ability presents led the writing team to emphasize his optimism and compassion, which are as responsible for his taking on a case as his instincts about people who lie. “There’s something really wonderful about someone who can tell if someone is lying, but he’s not a cynic,” Zuckman said. “Maybe they consider everyone imperfect, but they accept it. And I think there’s something really wonderful about Charlie’s ability not to become the biggest misanthrope in the world. If I knew that everyone was lying to me every second of the day, I think I probably wouldn’t be Charlie Cale.
Likewise, thinking of Charlie in heroic and exalted genre terms also inspired the creative team on the Peacock show to get even more ambitious. “I think when you write in the genre space and you have these characters with these supernatural abilities, you’re always trying to find creative ways to use those abilities,” Lilla Zuckerman said. “And like Nora said, sometimes it works against them, sometimes it works for them, but you want to change that so the audience isn’t watching the same thing every week.”
“If you’re writing ‘The Flash’, it’s like, how many ways are we going to use his Flash-y ‘run Barry’ vulnerabilities, but in an innovative, interesting, unique way? And we tried to do that with Charlie’s ability as well. Sometimes he sees a lie that seems tangential. He sometimes he hears the truth and that’s the core. He sometimes overhears someone lying and makes a false assumption, so we played with it like you would if you were writing a genre show,” said Lilla Zuckerman.
You can track how Charlie deals with the lies he encounters throughout the first season of “Poker Face,” and each episode plays a different game with the truths and lies Charlie hears. Episode 3, “The Stall,” gives Charlie enough lies to talk shit to the owner of BBQ restaurant Taffy (Lil Rel Howery) soon enough. The challenge of the episode is that no one else would be inclined to believe her, so Charlie needs to figure out how to get him to make a mistake.
Meanwhile, in episode 7, “The Future of Sport,” Charlie remains on the side of up-and-coming driver Davis (Charles Melton) because, even though he knew his car had been tampered with, when he “discovers” the sabotage with Charlie, he says only things that are, mechanically, true. It keeps her in ignorance and us in suspense until much later, when a lie about the lucky photo he keeps in his car unleashes Charlie’s power.
“(Our genre background) definitely helped write ‘Poker Face’ because a lot of writers may have approached Charlie’s skill and how this show presents him as a story problem. We saw it as a story opportunity,” Nora Zuckerman said.
The story problem that gets in the way of the mysteries is much more everyday than Charlie’s intuitive powers. “Cell phones become like the poison of stories,” Lilla Zuckerman said. The obvious solution to many of the situations Charlie is in would be to ask for help, look for something, google something other than Shit Mountain. “And Charlie can’t do that because he doesn’t have a cell phone,” Lilla Zuckerman said.
But not having a cell phone is a superpower in “Poker Face” too. “His face isn’t in a phone like all of ours are. We’re all guilty of screen escaping and Charlie can’t do that. So instead, her head is up, she’s listening, she’s listening to the harmless lie that makes her say, ‘Why would you lie about this?’” Lilla Zuckerman said. “And that leads to a wider investigation. So, we’ve already joked that maybe all of us would be solving murders on a regular basis if we weren’t so buried in our own technology.