How Poker Face And Cozy Murder Mysteries Helped Me Beat Insomnia

Back when I worked a desk job, I always looked forward to my business trips to the UK. It was great to have a little jolly on the company's tab and a few days off from regular dad duty. I couldn't wait for that big comfy hotel bed all to myself and get some solid sleep without kids waking me up in the middle of the night.

That was the theory, anyway. When I actually got into that big comfy hotel bed, I couldn't sleep at all. It was just too uncannily quiet and it felt so weird being the only person in the room. So instead of catching up on some sleep, I'd return to my family even more knackered than before.

I faced a similar problem when I separated from my partner and moved out last October. Sleeping by myself again proved a bit tricky after 18 years of living with someone. I'd usually doze off okay but then wake around one and struggle to get back off again. It was like my brain wanted to make up for the lost time by cramming in some extra intense thinking.

Luckily it only happened two or three nights at a time, leaving me drifting around the next day in a somnambulistic state. During those spells, I tried all sorts: Going to bed earlier, going to bed later; changing my diet, cutting back on beer; having a little nip as a nightcap; reading instead of watching a movie or show. I tried pills, relaxing music, rain sounds, and white noise. None of it really worked. When my brain decided it wanted to sit up all night thinking, I was its weary hostage. But then I found the solution and for that, I have to thank Natasha Lyonne.

Poker Face and its comparisons with Columbo

I don't generally watch a lot of TV shows. As a movie guy, I look at a season of 10 one-hour episodes as time I could spend watching five films instead. But when I saw headlines that Natasha Lyonne was playing a Columbo-like character in "Poker Face," how could I refuse?

Rian Johnson is carving himself out a niche as the murder mystery man after "Brick," the "Knives Out" movies, and now this, and that's a good thing. He certainly seems to have a lot of affection for the genre and he does a great job of evoking the vibe of the '70s heyday of "Columbo," all the way down to the font on the credits.

Lyonne lives up to the Peter Falk comparisons. She plays Charlie Cale, a cocktail waitress on the run, who rocks up in a new town each week just as someone is about to be murdered, then uses her in-built BS detector to solve the crime. With her offbeat delivery, she has the same kind of meandering style as Falk; she might not wear a crumpled raincoat but her mix-and-match wardrobe has the same lived-in quality. Most appealingly, Charlie is a kind person like Columbo, and much of the show's pleasure is how she interacts with the people she briefly befriends in each episode.

If there's a drawback, it's that the mysteries in "Poker Face" are pretty simplistic. Each "Howcatchem" story is restricted to a relatively short running time compared to the feature-length "Columbo" episodes, which doesn't give the writers much room to develop Charlie's rambling investigations. The solution often feels rushed, with our ad-hoc sleuth making some astonishing leaps of logic to crack the case. Still, it's incredibly moreish and an hour hanging out with Natasha Lyonne is always an hour well spent.

Revisiting Columbo helped cure my insomnia

I appreciate the schedule of "Poker Face" with one episode dropping per week, but it left me hungry for more. I turned to its inspiration, "Columbo," instead. I loved the show when I was a kid but I hadn't seen an episode in maybe 20 years. I didn't really remember much about it other than the smug murderers who think they're way too smart to get caught, and Columbo's technique of irritating the hell out of them until they slip up.

But where to start? There are 69 episodes spread over 10 seasons. The common consensus online seems to be that season 4 is one of the best, so I dived in there. When I watched the show as a kid, I knew the baddies were famous people, but not always what for. Now it's a real treat seeing the guest star in each episode and season 4 has some crackers: Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, Oskar Werner, and George Hamilton all put in memorable performances. The best of the bunch is Dick Van Dyke playing a conceited photographer who offs his wife and tries to frame an ex-con; the episode comes with a really great "Gotcha!" moment as Columbo uses the guy's pride against him.

Peter Falk is just so watchable and some of the murders are pretty fiendish, keeping you guessing about what will finally give the game away. As much as I enjoyed revisiting "Columbo," however, it took me two tries to finish each episode. The show is so cozy that I felt the perfect place to watch it was tucked up in bed, and I dozed off well before the end of each one. It's the best sleep I've had in years. What is it about "Columbo" that has made it a great cure for insomnia?

Why Columbo has made a comeback

Cozy mysteries, or "Cozies," are hardly new but they have enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past few years. A large part of it may be down to the pandemic; there are many articles out there about how "Columbo" made an unlikely comeback in the time of lockdown. This is hardly surprising. True crime has been huge for a while now, but perhaps being stuck indoors as a virus sweeps the globe called for something kinder, more comforting. Sure, someone dies at the beginning of each episode, but it's never done in a graphic way. There is no sex and very little violence or bad language. Columbo even refuses to carry a gun.

The show is pure comfort viewing, carrying with it nostalgia for simpler times. Of course, things were pretty bleak during the show's heyday in the '70s too, but you wouldn't know it from the episodes themselves. There are no grisly forensic details or twisted killers; "Columbo" presents a reassuring view of a world where the bad guy (almost) always gets caught and pays for their crime, a world with low stakes that feels like a reprieve from the troubles of our own.

Perhaps that is why "Columbo" has helped me sleep. It is so soothing that even my hyperactive brain decides to slip into its PJs and get a good night's kip after watching an episode. I've slept pretty well ever since and maybe I'm cured. Or maybe it's because I can relax a little now, safe in the knowledge that if my brain tries any of its old tricks again, I've still got another 60 episodes of "Columbo" to beat it into unconsciousness with. And if it really pisses me off, it knows I can always break out "Murder, She Wrote."