How ‘Poker Face’ Turned Natasha Lyonne Into a Modern-Day Columbo
On his 1999 Inside the Actors Studio appearance, Peter Falk referred to the instantly recognizable Lieutenant Columbo ensemble as “a symphony of brown.” A drab green tie isn’t exactly a pop of color, but the iconic TV detective doesn’t need flashy attire when the people he investigates are putting as much effort into their clothing as the crimes they commit.
Traditional case-of-the-week shows that dominated TV in the past have fallen out of favor in the 20 years since Columbo’s final case aired—Matthew Rhys is the last killer caught. Now, Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne are tipping their hats back to the days of Columbo, Magnum P.I., and Murder, She Wrote with Poker Face, a 10-part series on Peacock.
(Warning: Some spoilers lie ahead.)
Lyonne’s Charlie hasn’t chosen to become an investigator, nor is she a best-selling whodunnit author. Rather, her ability to pinpoint a lie (though not necessarily the reason behind the fib) is a skill that comes in handy on a road trip dominated by death.
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“It is a sort of throwback to Columbo but with a contemporary feel. That was important to Rian, Natasha, and me. I feel like each episode is very stylized in the way that Columbo episodes were stylized,” costume designer Trayce Gigi Field tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed.
While Johnson has mentioned other TV titles as a reference, it is Falk’s beloved sleuth whose DNA is in Poker Face’s inverted “Howcatchem” format and retro aesthetic choices. Like Columbo, the opening act reveals the who and the how of the murder. Even the title font and color match the legendary detective series, but make no mistakes: This is not a remake or reimagining of Falk’s character. Charlie doesn’t use her bullshit detector to work with the police. Instead, she finds herself entangled in deadly disputes she can’t help but solve.
As the costume designer, Field ensures the unique characters the charismatic Charlie meets along the way possess memorable style. “Any chance to be creative and not have someone in a polo shirt and jeans is great for me,” she says.
Original Columbo costume designers Burton Miller and Grady Hunt set the sartorial tone in this star-driven subgenre. Among the celebs who lent the series star power in cameo roles are John Cassavetes, Janet Leigh, Donald Pleasence, Leonard Nimoy, and Faye Dunaway. Catching a Columbo rerun is endlessly entertaining (and something I often do), and the glamorous attire never disappoints.
“I grew up watching Columbo with my grandmother, and then I did go back and watch a couple of episodes,” says Field. It is immediately clear that the Poker Face culprits are as preoccupied with their appearance as those who went toe-to-toe with Columbo. When Adrien Brody, as casino boss Sterling Frost Jr. appears in the first episode, he sports an arresting pale aqua John Varvatos blazer and perfectly coordinated gold accessories that capture the essence of the ’70s period in a modern setting.
Field’s recent projects, including The Afterparty, Dead to Me, and even Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar blend comedy, friendship, and murder, pointing to Field’s prowess in this area (“I’ve never thought about the theme of murder in a lot of my shows but accurate,” she says). The designer worked on Sarah Cooper’s Netflix special that Lyonne directed, and the duo instantly clicked. The star introduced Field to Johnson and his producing partner Ram Bergman, and she “got the job like five minutes later” after their first meeting.
The challenge of Poker Face is that Charlie lives a nomadic existence, so this road trip structure leads her to scenarios ranging from a truck stop to a retirement home. “Every eight days, we were in a new state, new location,” Field says. “The background is indicative of where you are, not just what you see production design-wise or location-wise—it’s the people.”
Guest stars and background actors are equally crucial in distinguishing a Texas BBQ joint from a Milwaukee heavy metal concert, giving each episode a specific visual flavor. It is a veritable feast of familiar faces who cross paths with Charlie, including Chloë Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, and many more. Each killer featured in the six episodes of Poker Face I have seen (except for Colton Ryan as greaseball Jed) fits the Columbo tradition of a murderer with a flair for fashion.
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“Right off the bat, you want them to have some sort of vibe, some sort of feel where you’re interested in who’s speaking,” says Field about the killers. Brody’s rich guy casual outfits during his recent guest turn in Succession showcased a particularly DGAF attitude that’s not shared by this casino boss, who projects a slick image in “Dead Man’s Hand.” Frost wants to prove he has what it takes to stand in his father’s shoes, leading to drastic measures. Ah, the classic case-of-the-week murder motive.
This location and Frost’s penchant for eye-catching blazers set a distinctly retro-meets-modern vibe that helps capture an old Vegas essence. Field sourced blazers from ASOS and John Varvatos, highlighting that “it’s all about how you style things” when mixing affordable and designer brands. This blend of “attainable and exclusive” is how Field “keeps the characters interesting.”
Field references Martin Scorsese’s Casino as inspiration for Frost’s “pop of flair, in terms of the brooches” (you will notice he has a different gold brooch for each blazer). “It’s a casino that’s off the beaten track, so it’s not as glitzy, but it’s still cool,” she says. Field used personal experience to inform the uniforms—including Charlie’s custom-built waitress attire—to capture the remnants of the past in this older establishment. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Vegas, and I’ve also been to Laughlin because my parents like to gamble,” Field says. “I remember the glitz, and with Episode 1, yes, there’s glitz, but it’s also a little dated.”
“Dead Man’s Hand” also establishes Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt), a recurring character who is the reason Charlie hits the road and the man Frost gets to do his dirty work. Cliff’s military background is why he is a skilled enforcer, and he sticks to a uniform that switches fatigues for another form of camouflage. “He wears the same polo, the same sort of suit, but in various muted tones, so he’s inconspicuous,” she says.
Darker colors add a dangerous quality to emphasize “he’s a man that means business.” Cliff’s clothing does make him stand out at the Krampus concert in the fourth episode, allowing Charlie to escape when the crowd mistakes him for law enforcement. The gregarious crowd ruins Cliff’s unflappable aesthetic—“It was fun to have his shirt rip, you know?”
Destroyed clothing is an occupational hazard on a series like this: “Working with murder and blood—which seems to have become a specialty as of late—is a challenge.” Field mixes contemporary off-the-rack and small business items with vintage pieces she has scoured from vendors like Worship in LA and New York and antique marts near where they shot some of Poker Face in upstate New York. “When you use vintage pieces, it’s hard to find two of those things,” says Field about the production demands.
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A ’69 Plymouth Barracuda doubles as Charlie’s closet, and space is limited. A leather Saint Laurent jacket is almost a second skin (Field thinks Charlie bought this pricy garment during her poker days) and a callback to Falk’s “symphony of brown” comment. “We wanted to have a little bit of a Columbo-type feel thrown in there,” Field says about a beige blazer Charlie sports in the premiere episode. A knit cardigan from Banana Republic is Charlie’s “Lebowski sweater,” and she picks other pieces up on the road.
Showing the murder in the opening act means the audience is looking for specific clues that will come up late. It might be a mistake or even a deviation from typical behavior that reveals their nefarious actions. Fashion has given the game away in Columbo, such as Cassavetes’ conductor dropping his buttonhole carnation. Field relishes this opportunity to turn costumes into a plot point, “I love it when the clothes are involved in what’s happening because then it gives a spotlight on the clothing.”
Killer style is timeless on Poker Face and Columbo but comes at a price.
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