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The 10-episode series stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie, who has a special ability to determine when someone is lying and uses the skill to solve the strange crimes that come across her path. The show is a return to a mystery-of-the-week format — featuring a mostly new cast and wrapped-up story in each episode — and began with casual conversations between Johnson and Lyonne about how much they missed that era of TV.
“We’d been talking about it but then he actually put pen to paper, which I always think about as just about the most generous and loving act that we can do. It’s really like writing someone a song or something, like, ‘Oh shit, you’re all the way in. OK, buckle up!” Lyonne told The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s premiere on Tuesday. “He’s such an incredible filmmaker, but he’s also a beautiful writer. It was a no-brainer.”
Johnson said when thinking back on shows he loved growing up, like The Rockford Files, Magnum P.I. and Columbo, “I don’t watch them for the mysteries, I watch them to hang out with James Garner and Tom Selleck and Peter Falk. It’s really kind of a hangout show,” he explained. “I’d become friends with Natasha and I adored her, but when I saw Russian Doll and I saw the charisma that she has on screen when she created that character, I thought, ‘This is somebody who can really center and ground a show like this.’ And we were off to the races.”
In creating the character, who Johnson joked is the first person she’s played who actually likes people, Lyonne said she tapped into her longtime love of Philip Marlowe and his portrayal by Elliot Gould.
“A lot of my talking to myself just walking through the streets, I’m usually thinking, ‘If Elliot Gould could get away with this so can I,'” she teased, noting that with the character they shifted away from a city slicker and more into a seasoned ex-gambler with the desert sun on her back.
“I think I’m in my Gene Hackman Night Moves era, just solidly middle-aged, back-foot,” Lyonne added. “Lebowski, Jeff Bridges, The Dude — somebody who’s kind of taking it easy but just can’t stand bullshit, sees the truth and sees the lie and has got to follow it until the end because they love a puzzle too much not to.”
The series, which costars Benjamin Bratt, also features a star-studded lineup of guests including Adrien Brody, Charles Melton, Chloë Sevigny, Clea DuVall, Dascha Polanco, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Rhea Perlman, Ron Perlman, Simon Helberg, Stephanie Hsu, Tim Blake Nelson and Tim Meadows.
“Every single new episode it was trying to get a movie star in it, and it was bonkers trying to convince the most famous people in the world to come out to upstate New York for a few weeks and do our weird little show,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe the roster of talent that we got for it.” Added co-showrunner Lilla Zuckerman (who partnered with her sister Nora on the show), “We really did go out of our way to write these big juicy, fun wild parts where people just got to go nuts either planning the perfect murder or getting disturbingly killed — or a lot of people end up being Charlie’s sidekicks, because every week she needs to find somebody she’s going to be bouncing ideas off of and connecting with. Every part I think was enticing for these people to come and play.”
Johnson wouldn’t reveal if there are any guest stars he tried and couldn’t get for the show, with hopes they could take part in a second season, but a logical candidate for a potential guest spot is Maya Rudolph, who is Lyonne’s producing partner and serves as a co-executive producer on the show.
“Maya and I definitely talked about it, but I think we were waiting for just the right one,” Lyonne said of the future possibility of Rudolph turning up on screen. “So I think we were like, ‘Oh shit, if we do this right now maybe this ain’t it.’ Maybe it’s gotta be if we make another dozen — and by a dozen I mean 10 — then maybe.”
The series marks the return of a mystery-of-the-week style that has largely vanished in today’s TV landscape, as Johnson pointed to the current trend of taking a whole season to tell one mystery that even then isn’t fully solved.
“I feel like there’s been so much good work done in that model that people who make TV had kind of become trained that that’s what makes audiences watch. The reality is, everything I watched as a kid was not that, that’s a fairly recent phenomenon,” Johnson said. “I got some blank stares from people when I pitched this, and I had to just kind of fall back on my memory of no, I would tune in every single day to re-runs of these shows. I wanted to keep watching because I wanted to keep seeing Peter Falk beat the bad guy. I knew I would want that with Natasha Lyonne, so that’s what we’re putting our chips down on.”
Poker Face starts streaming on Peacock Jan. 26.
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