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Tribune News Service
Luaine Lee

TV Tinsel: 1-case-per-episode format has Johnson, Lyonne smiling about 'Poker Face'

She doesn’t wear a rumpled raincoat or drive a smoking Peugeot, but the persistent detective on Peacock’s “Poker Face” does everything else that “Columbo” did.

The series, which premieres with four episodes on Thursday, was created by Rian Johnson. He’s the architect of the very hot “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery” and was greatly influenced by the TV detectives of his youth.

“The intention with this show, the thing that got me really excited about it at the start, was the idea of doing a truly episodic case‑of‑the‑week mystery show, like the kind of stuff I used to watch constantly when I was sitting in front of the TV as a kid,” Johnson says.

“As much as those shows are mysteries, what really brings you back each week is you want to hang out with the main character. They're really ‘hang out’ shows,” he says.

“So ‘Columbo,’ ... ‘Magnum P.I.,’ ‘The Rockford Files,’ but also ‘Quantum Leap,’ all those shows where what I was doing was just watching daily reruns. I had no idea what order they were in. And that was part of the pleasure of it,” he says.

Natasha Lyonne plays the singular sleuth, a woman on the run who can’t help herself when she encounters a mystery too intriguing to pass up.

Lyonne was influenced by her own group of gumshoes. “I have a great love of Peter Falk from all the (John) Cassavetes movies, and ‘Wings of Desire,’” she says.

“I just love the guy. ... As somebody that's essentially just self‑taught based on my interests, I've always gravitated to him. But the other guy I love so much is Andy Sipowicz. I love Sipowicz, (played by) Dennis Franz (on “NYPD Blue”). I would love to go on ‘Finding Your Roots’ and discover that Peter Falk was some sort of deep, distant relation.”

Lyonne, who’s been on her own since she was a teen, says she’s attracted to the lone-wolf type of investigator. “I've always loved particularly Elliott Gould's portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's ‘The Long Goodbye.’ And I think I love that particular kind of a lone wolf who is somebody who is really floating above a situation, sort of trying to crack a riddle of some sort, but also very much an Everyman who's really got their nose to the grindstone and is figuring out the sounds of the streets,” she says.

“And I love that as a ‘noir’ device in general, just the idea of these small pockets and eccentric figures. ... and that you need that type of a Philip Marlowe lone wolf who also is really in communication with the witness or the clue or their cat.”

“These are not whodunits,” insists Johnson. These are ‘howcatchems.’ These are modeled in that way after ‘Columbo,’ where you show the killing and then it's about Natasha versus the guest star and how they're going to take them down.”

Lyonne says she shares the ability to size up the phony in the crowd. “I would say I have probably more than most very, very young women. ... I probably have more life experience,” she says.

“So, innately, I'm sort of somebody who has a pretty quick read on people; something you might call ‘street smarts.’ . . But certainly it would be more fun to have it in the way that (my character) Charlie does. . . Mine is, I guess, just intuitive.”

Lyonne says that Johnson’s molding of the character makes her more realistic. “The way Rian has crafted it is it's just enough that it kind of gets her in through the door, but it's not a superpower. So, still, she has to go about solving that sort of suspicion and following that thread all the way through in a very human, practical way that's much more just a puzzle than it is a superpower,” she says.

“It's a way in to saying, ‘Hey! Something's fishy.’ And back of that — which is the thing I love so much about playing her — is she really cares about the truth ultimately, which is something I identify with a great deal.”

Her character champions the underdog, Lyonne says. “When she sees something corrupt, it's kind of like a nose for integrity and righting a wrong, especially if the type of person that's been mis-imprisoned, is somebody that her heart is with.”

Like “Columbo” there will be guest stars each week, providing Lyonne’s character the chance to suss out the bad guys. Benjamin Bratt is one of them, as well as Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, Chloe Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Clea DuVall, Simon Helberg, Brandon Michael Hall, Lil Rel Howery and Hong Chau.

Bratt says he had no doubts about accepting a role on “Poker Face.” “When you get a phone call from Rian Johnson, it's an automatic ‘yes,’” he says.

“He is now one of my handful of whenever-wherever guys. He just has to name the when and the where, and I'll be there. ... The thing about Rian is his writing. It's totally unique. When you see it in black and white (it’s) actually the best indication of what the end result is going to be. So, the truth is, I wanted to get on the phone with him after I read it, and I feigned concern that there might not be enough to do. I didn't tell him that it was an automatic ‘yes.’”

'Night Court' convenes again

“Night Court” is back in session on NBC settling into its regular time slot Tuesday. The show, which was so popular 31 years ago, has been updated by Melissa Rauch and her husband-producer Winston Rauch. You may remember Rauch as the squeaky voiced Bernadette Rostenkowski from “The Big Bang Theory.”

This time Rauch will fill the judge’s robes as the daughter of the late Harry T. Stone. John Larroquette returns as Dan Fielding, but at first he was not in favor of the idea. “My initial reaction was, ‘That's funny. Talk to you later. Bye,’” says Larroquette.

“Because, you know, the ego of an actor thinking a double sword here, a double‑edged sword. The idea of trying to revive something that you did 35 years ago when you were young and agile and acrobatic and maybe funny to try and, at 75 years old — let's not forget that — to go back, that seemed a real error in judgment on my part if I had said yes,” he says.

“And while the original conversations were that, indeed Melissa was NOT going to be part of it, it was easier for me to say, ‘I don't really think it's a great idea.’ And then, once she told me that she had decided that she would like to be in it, I knew I was sort of stuck, as it were,” he says.

“Then, the other part of my ego as an actor sort of perked up and said, ‘Hold on a second. How often does an actor get a chance to revisit some character that he played three-and-a-half decades ago? And what was the length of that journey and what happened to him in his life?’ And that became interesting to me, of how he might appear in 2022 as opposed to 1992, when we last saw him.

“So, it became an exciting problem to solve as to how he can be funny at 75 even though he was still funny at 35 but in a different way. So, we worked on that, and you'll be the judge of whether or not it actually worked.”

Producer snags Harrison Ford for comedy

Bill Lawrence, executive producer of shows like “Scrubs,” “Ted Lasso,” “Head of the Class,” “Cougar Town,” is lucky enough to live next door to Harrison Ford. So instead of borrowing a cup of sugar, Lawrence showed Ford his latest script.

“Harrison's my neighbor and so I knew him a little bit,” says Lawrence. “And I just remember asking him to read the script. And he read it, he's like, ‘I like it. Am I going to be in the next one more?’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘I'm in London shooting “Indiana Jones,” so what do we do now?’

Lawrence acquainted Ford with the star of this series, Jason Segel, who plays a grieving psychiatrist who decides to tell his patients the unvarnished truth. Ford liked Segel’s comedic work and agreed to costar in “Shrinking,” which begins streaming Friday on Apple TV+.

The time-tested producer says he’s thrilled to snag a big movie star like Ford. “You get these rare opportunities in your career. I started when I was 25, a mere 12 years ago — I'm joking. I started when I was 25, writing a show for Michael J. Fox, who turned out to be just as you would hope he would be, as a kind and lovely, and hyper-talented, and a dude you still want to be in connection with even after work ends. And to now be at this point in my career, getting to repeat that experience with an icon from all of my life who is equally generous and awesome, and kind to everybody. Man, it's an absolute treat.”

Sarah Michelle Gellar joins 'The Wolf Pack'

It's been 20 years since Sarah Michelle Gellar starred as “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” Since then she’s been inundated with offers to head similar projects. She always turned them down.

But Gellar is back consorting with the supernatural in “Wolf Pack,” which begins streaming on Paramount+ Thursday.

“At first, I had no intention of saying yes,” she insists. “I read the script, and it was the first time where my interest was so piqued and I wasn't sure where it was going.

“And I think one of the beauties of ‘Buffy’ was the metaphorical aspect of it. We were using monsters. These real monsters were the metaphors for the horror of high school. For me that's what made the show so important, and why it still stands the test of time.

“When I read this script, and when I spoke with (creator) Jeff Davis, and we spoke about the issues that he wanted to speak about — mainly anxiety and depression among children, specifically having a lot to do with their use of devices, and the lack of connectivity that the youth has today. It is something that I think about all the time. It is so prominent. A big study came out yesterday linking the effects of depression and the brain synapses directly to this. I thought what a great allegory to use these horrors to speak about the horrors that we are facing now.”


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