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What ‘Poker Face’ Teaches Us About Writing Procedural TV

January 30, 2023
4 min read time

If you’re looking to create a ‘Who Dun It,’ the master to follow these days is Rian Johnson. Known for his clever murder mysteries Knives Out and Glass Onion, this writer/director can show you plenty of ways to write a suspenseful tale with quirky characters reminiscent of the ‘Who Dun It’ films and TV series of the past. Eager to bring those stories to audiences once again, Johnson has jumped from feature films to episodic TV with his latest creation on Peacock, Poker Face.

Johnson has mentioned his desire to bring episodic TV back and Poker Face is his first step. Natasha Lyonne stars as someone who can tell when people are lying. The series follows her roaming from town-to-town while on the run from vengeful pursuers and solving murders along the way.

Taking a look at the first episode of Poker Face, here are some lessons you can takeaway when creating an episodic murder mystery.

What is episodic TV?

Ask your parents, TV today is much different than it used to be. Nowadays, prestige TV follows a specific plot throughout the season, maybe even series, where each episode piggybacks off the previous ones and must be seen to understand the next one. Breaking Bad, Wednesday and Barry are examples of recent serialized TV.

But for much of TV history, the programs were episodic – you could watch any of them individually and understand what was going on. A story was introduced and resolved in its duration and you didn’t really need the context of the previous episodes.

A prime example is Law & Order and its multiple spin-offs. You could turn on an episode of Law & Order: SVU from this previous week or five years ago and not have to worry about what you missed. Same with ER, Columbo or NCIS.

Johnson is betting that the world wants more procedural TV, so he gave us Poker Face.

Creating a Template

If you ever break down a single episode of procedural TV series, you’ll discover the same beats that occur in every episode in the series. From detective shows to legal dramas to medical programs, there is generally a template that these shows follow. It’s perhaps one of the reasons they fell out of favor when more serialized TV started capturing audiences.

In most cases a crime occurs or a patient or series of patients enter the hospital. From there, the familiar characters must solve the problem, but not before coming across a wrong conclusion. They then must correct their mistake, use the resources they always have available and resolve the problem.

It’s why the first person the police capture is almost never the person who committed the crime and why the doctor’s initial diagnosis is wrong. It’s part of the template.

The template varies but it always involves the introduction of new characters (victim and/or patients and their circle of characters) who are now part of the storyline and how the established characters prevail.

Creating the Character

Quite possibly the most important thing you can do with episodic TV is introduce your character. This is the person or people the audience will follow, if they want to. In fact, most people remember the characters more than what happens in the show.

People remember Tony Soprano, Wednesday Addams and Chandler Bing more than the plot of their respective shows. Hopefully, they’ll remember Charlie Cale – the lead character in Poker Face.

How do you create a character compelling enough that people will want to go along on their journey for countless episodes?

One way to get your viewer invested in a character is to make them brutally honest or have them say things we wish we could say. Wednesday Addams is never shy to give her opinion no matter how insulting the comment is. Charlie is no exception. She spouts off several sentiments, often with a sarcastic tone, that tells it like it is. You may think that characters who are know-it-alls and flaunt that trait would be “unlikeable” but audiences love Tony Stark, Don Draper and Wednesday who can be honest to a fault.

Another character attribute involves wish fulfillment. Wouldn’t you love to experience the world as a drug kingpin, someone who can spot a lie or a crime fighting superhero? It’s not enough for someone to live this lifestyle, you’ll still want to create them with problems people can relate to. Tony Soprano was a masculine figure with mom issues who went to therapy. Wednesday was a non-conformist in a conformist world. And comic book characters are often young people trying to find themselves in a complicated world.

Deep down, many of the characters people come to love are everyday people with a hint of wish fulfillment.

Charlie is a relatively ordinary person with a gift of telling when people are lying (who wouldn’t want that ability?) and the viewer gets to play detective with her.

The First Episode of Poker Face

How did Poker Face set up their procedural series? Like many of the crime dramas that came before it, it starts out with a crime. What differentiates this series though is that we know who the killer is at the beginning of the episode. The show then becomes about how Charlie will figure out who did it.

This spin is quite clever because as the audience, we wonder what clues were left behind and how she will use her skill of lie detection to ultimately solve the murder. After the first episode, when the viewer recognizes the pattern of the show, they become invested as they search for clues along with Charlie. It’s similar to knowing the surprise ending of a movie and then rewatching to see where all the clues were left.

TV shows like Poker Face, similar to murder mysteries like Glass Onion, require a lot of exposition. At some point, the entire evolution of the crime is spelled out, often in front of the perpetrator. This connects all the dots and reveals the extent of the crime.

This piece of exposition though, often leads to an impossible out. Essentially, you have the character revealing that they know the person that did the murderin’, is the one they are talking to. How will that villain act? If they killed once and don’t want to get caught, then they’ll kill Charlie too.

Now, the conflict becomes how Charlie will ensure the person is captured by police while also escaping with her life.

And there’s the basic template:

  1. The murder
  2. Introduce Charlie to the scenario
  3. Charlie wants to find out who did it
  4. The confrontation
  5. Her escape from the villain and the town

There is also a throughline in the series. Charlie is on the run from people who want her dead, as the viewer finds out in the first episode. This has become a secondary storyline allowing anyone to watch any episode and not feel they are missing out if they missed the previous one.

Poker Face is now streaming on Peacock.


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