Columbo. Kojak. Murder, she wrote. These are the shows most commonly mentioned when describing Peacock’s new show, PokerFace. And, it being from Ryan Johnsonthe mastermind behind the Knives Out films (as well as The Last Jedi), the comparisons are accurate and logical. PokerFace is, at its core, about a woman named Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) who travels the country and solves murders.
But there’s a twist. Charlie is a human lie detector. She can instinctively tell, for a fact, if a person is lying about something. So if you step back and describe that in a different way you might say she has an innate, unexplained power that makes her superior to others. Or, in other words, a superpower.
We here at io9 have been debating this conclusion for weeks leading up to Poker Face’s January 26 debut on Peacock—and to get the definitive answer while diving a bit more into this mysterious ability of Charlie’s, we went to the man himself, show creator Rian Johnson.
Germain Lussier, io9: Mr. Johnson, how are you doing, sir?
Ryan Johnson: Great man. How you doing?
io9: I’m doing great. So io9, as you may or may not know, is primarily a sci-fi website.
Johnson: Check it every single day. I read it everyday.
io9: Oh. Wow. Thank you. Well, in the past few weeks, we’ve been debating something about the show, so I want to explore and ask this question. Do you think Charlie’s ability to detect a lie is a superpower?
Johnson: [Deep inhale] Where do you draw the line? It’s like the Asimov thing of any significant scientific advancement is indistinguishable from magic. And in that case, I don’t know. What’s the difference between just having something baked in the back of your brain that can pick up subtle little things that trigger that, and quote-unquote ESP? So I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t know. I mean, he’s definitely superhuman. In that, it’s beyond reality in terms of what humans can do, but it’s also something that’s weirdly plausible. So if it means you’ll cover it on io9, I think. Yes, it’s absolutely [a superpower].
It’s pure science fiction! It’s pure sci-fi [Laughs].
io9: That was my instinct, too, because the show is so great [and I want to cover it]. So where did the idea behind that power come from? How did it become the crux of the whole show?
Johnson: I mean, that kind of came into play once I realized the character was not a detective and it was not going to be her job to solve crimes, and yet this show is very much a throwback, obviously, to the kind of case-of -that-week mysteries I grew up watching on TV. I knew [it] was going to have the Jessica Fletcher thing of anywhere she’s at, there’s a murder. To a certain degree, you’re just asking the audience for a buy-in with that. To a certain degree, it’s just, yeah, that’s the show, let’s have fun with this.
Also, though, I felt like it’s got to be something. There has to be something. And so in my mind, the lie detector thing, it would function a bit like in The Dead Zone, like when Walken touches people’s hands and goes “Bzzzzz.” The notion that if you could detect little lies, you’d probably notice a lot more nefarious stuff happening all around you every single day. That was a little bit of the way into it—we’ve got to give her something that will give her a reason for being good at this.
io9: Yeah. And like I said, I’m diving into this. Does power have an origin? And will we ever explore the origin of that power?
Johnson: [Laughs] You know what, it’s interesting. We thought about doing—we don’t this season, but we thought about doing an episode that’s a flashback to her childhood, or with her dad, or something where you kind of see [where it starts]. It’s hard though because I still haven’t cracked exactly what—maybe I will come up, but figuring out what that would be, that’s not just kind of a psychological thing that feels like something we’ve seen before. I don’t know. And I’m still on the fence whether or not that would be interesting to explain where it came from; I don’t know. But it’s something that’s still on the table, I think. Or she went into a gamma ray tank and it went horribly wrong. And for the sake of this website, that’s obviously what happened. I’ll go with that. [Laughs]
io9: Yes! Fully endorsed. And the last thing on this, does the power have any kind of kryptonite? Will you explore that or you’ve thought about that?
Johnson: That’s a very interesting thing. Yes. There is one thing. I don’t even know if I should say it because we might use it for season two. But, actually, there are a couple of different things where we thought in this situation it would be interesting for her to meet somebody who she can’t read. And so I’m not going to say too much about it because I think it is something we’ll use in the future. But I’m very excited about exploring that, and the fact that we got a whole season’s worth of stuff and didn’t even tap into that well to me is exciting.
io9: What I love about the show is it’s not a single mystery. It’s kind of four mysteries in one. It’s who was killed, how Charlie fits in, how she’ll figure it out, and what she’ll do about it. So, which comes first, and how do you fit it all together?
Johnson: Well, it’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing. I mean, in the writer’s room, we would kind of pitch, first of all, worlds. Like locations. Like it’d be fun to see an episode in dinner theater, in a snowed-in motel in the Rockies. And then we would pitch murder twists, basically. Like, what if it’s this type of murder and you think it’s… So it was kind of like a mixture of all of those.
And then once we got those basic building blocks, what you’re describing in terms of the structural procedural elements of it that kind of comes in breaking the show. So that’s the next step once you know the big concept of it. But one thing that I really love is like in the first act, the little Where’s Waldo aspect of once you know how the thing is structured, spotting, “Oh, that’s the Barracuda back there,” trying to guess where Charlie’s going to fit in. And that’s something we tried to hide, little things in every episode.
PokerFace debuts January 26 with its first four episodes. The final six will then drop weekly, all on Peacock.
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