Ever since his debut feature “Brick,” writer-director Rian Johnson has been a reliable creator of intricately structured thrillers that skillfully weave plot, theme, and character into perfectly calibrated pieces of smart 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 whenever someone is lying), is no different, but in telling its story over the course of 10 episodes, it adds a whole new dimension to Johnson’s form of storytelling.
“Poker Face” has many remarkable qualities, but perhaps the most impressive is the combination of standalone episodes with the serialization of Charlie’s story — it’s the closest any show has come to Johnson’s beloved “Columbo” since that series went off the air and a treat for fans who got essentially a new Natasha Lyonne movie every week.
The appeal for viewers was also part of the appeal for one of the show’s editors, Glenn Garland, who luxuriated in the variety offered by Johnson’s format. “I like the fact that it’s ever-changing because each episode is a bit of a mini movie where she’s meeting different characters along the way,” Garland told IndieWire. “When the other editors and I started talking, we noticed that tonally the episodes were very different, so we were wondering whether we needed to pull down the comedy in certain 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 some episodes, like “Rest in Metal” (in which Charlie goes on tour with a band that meets with foul play) were more stylized than others — something that was challenging when he began, especially since “Rest in Metal,” the fourth episode in the series, was the first one Garland edited. “That one had a heightened reality, so I wasn’t sure tonally how it was going to fit,” he said. Garland had read all of the scripts but none of the other episodes were completed, and the process was complicated even further by the fact that casting and location issues dictated that the show be shot out of order. “Nine was shot first, then the pilot. Two, the episode Rian directed that I cut, was shot last. It was all over the place.”
Garland credits Lyonne with holding it all together. “She was perfect at knowing where she was at any given time,” he said. For Garland, one of the challenges was knowing when to place the audience in Charlie’s shoes and when to let them get ahead of her. “You never want the audience to be ahead of the story, and yet the audience is always a little bit ahead of Charlie because they know it happened. [Each episode of ‘Poker Face’ begins with a prologue showing the crime that 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 ticking clock. She needs to get out of each location as quickly as possible, and yet she needs to string all of these pearls together to find out how this person committed the crime and how she can get them to have their just desserts.”
As in “Columbo,” one of the unusual aspects of “Poker Face” is the fact that its protagonist often doesn’t come into an episode until 15 or 20 minutes into the running time, a conceit that raised pacing questions. “It was always a challenge to calibrate that, trying to get to Charlie as quickly as possible,” Garland said. “Because you also want the audience to love the person who’s going to be murdered. You want to feel 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 sense of them, and yet get to Charlie as quickly as possible.”
Although each episode is meticulously crafted on the page and clarity is key, the creators of “Poker Face” allow the viewers some latitude in terms of how they process the information. “There were a lot of times where we would have things happening in the background, clues that some people can pick up and some might not. Then there were other times when we felt like we needed an insert to make sure something is clear and everyone gets it. But then there were all these other things where we just said, ‘Let’s see if people pick it up.’”
Ultimately, the fact that each episode had its own flavor and kept the audience guessing was Garland’s favorite thing about the series. “What’s so fun about the show is that there’s a lot of misdirect. There are all these different things that you didn’t see coming, and that always keeps you guessing.”