The new Peacock mystery series Poker Face premieres January 26, and Executive Producer Rian Johnson has revealed which classic video games helped inspire the show and his career in general.
Poker Face stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, who travels the country and solves mysteries thanks to her innate ability to tell if someone is lying. Johnson created the show with Lyonne and serves as both a writer and director of several episodes.
“When I was a teenager, the computer games I was playing were Infocom games. And those were the text-based adventures like Zork and Planetfall,” Johnson says of a pair of games that contained no graphics or images, just a series of prompts where the player would type in commands to keep the story going.
“It would literally just be text,” Johnson says, “and would describe the room. And you’d type in ‘open the mailbox’ and you (would) open the mailbox.”
The fact that Johson is a fan of some decades-old classics should come as no surprise. In fact, he even snuck in a reference to Zork in The Last Jedi.
But those weren’t the only classic games that have been pivotal in Johnson’s creative process. More specific to the origins of Poker Face, which he describes as a “howcatchem” instead of a “whodunnit,” Johnson says a different kind of old-school game may have influenced him.
“There was one called Deadline,” he says of the 40 year old Infocom mystery. “That kind of went a long way along with all of this other stuff I was absorbing.”
Johnson also admits that growing up he was a fan of Sierra On-Line’s 1989 game The Colonel’s Bequest and later Rockstar’s L.A. Noire.
“Any time games veer into the mystery element [interests me,]” he says. “I liked L.A. Noire. I really enjoyed that game with the element of questioning people and looking at their facial expressions.”
Beyond games, Johnson says that he brought the same sensibilities from both Knives Out and Glass Onion to Poker Face. In fact, the process of crafting a weekly episodic series was not all that different from creating a big-budget theatrical feature.
“I didn’t approach it differently than I approach my movies,” Johnson says. “I embraced the whole thing and dove into it as if it were one of my films. [I] tried to give it the same care and the same level of craftsmanship I give to my movies.”
At the center of Poker Face is Lyonne, who Johnson is friends with and whose work on the Netflix series Russian Doll helped expedite their collaboration.
“I realized she’s got that charisma,” says the director. “It’s just a thing. You just wanna hang out with her, man.”
In fact, Johnson sees some similarities between Lyonne’s Charlie Cale and his other charismatic detective, Benoit Blanc: “I think [she] does have something in common with Benoit Blanc in that she has a moral center and she has a genuine curiosity about people.”
When asked who is the better detective of the two, particularly given Charlie’s ability to sniff out liars, Johnson instead suggests the pair might make ideal colleagues.
“I think they would work as a perfect team. And although I can’t promise [anything] mostly for legal reasons with Netflix and Peacock… I have a feeling they would work as a perfect team and be pretty unstoppable,” he says.
In addition to Lyonne, Poker Face employs a murderers’ row of guest stars including Adrien Brody, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Ellen Barkin, Chloë Sevigny, Lil Rel Howery, Hong Chau, Nick Nolte, Jameela Jamil, and more. One star Johnson didn’t nab for the first season that he’d like to snag for Season 2 is one of his Knives Out collaborators.
“If I can pull my old friend Jamie Lee Curtis into one of these, I would be thrilled,” he says. “If I can somehow convince JLC to come in for one of these, I’d be a happy, man.”
Given the current landscape of streaming and television, it may be tough to understand why Johnson would be invested in resurrecting a classic TV detective format. But with Poker Face, Johnson sees an opportunity to give the audience something that they might be missing by bringing a “Prestige TV” approach to the format.
“It’s definitely trying to bring back the case of the weekly episodic vibe,” Johnson says. “I kind of missed the old-school thing of ‘you can sit down and just watch an hour of TV and you’re gonna get an entire story.’”
And while there are serialized elements in Poker Face, Johnson believes that the benefit of the series — once you make it past the premiere episode — is you can watch however many episodes you want, in whichever order you want to view them.
“In the middle episodes, you can kind of watch them in any order,” he says. “You can just skip ahead and watch [what] you want. That sounds like freedom to me.”
This interview has been condensed and formatted for clarity.
Michael Peyton is the Director of Events and Partnerships at IGN, where he leads coverage for tentpole events including San Diego Comic Con, gamescom, and IGN Fan Fest. He’s spent over 15 years working in the entertainment industry, and his red carpet adventures have taken him everywhere from the Oscars to Japan to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow him on socials @MichaelPeyton.