Rian Johnson & Natasha Lyonne Team Up For A Clever, Funny Mystery Series
Jan 25, 2023
Where have all the Columbos gone? Why don’t they make shows like “Monk” or “Murder, She Wrote” anymore, programs about the smartest person in the room solving a mystery of the week before the cops can even get there? Has true crime supplanted the viewer’s need for shows about immediate justice, or are people just too accustomed to the death of the episodic structure wherein every showrunner thinks they’re making a ten-hour movie instead of ten individual chapters? The brilliant Rian Johnson has teamed up with the phenomenal Natasha Lyonne to solve the case of the missing TV genre, launching the very fun “Poker Face,” a show that brings a bit of that “Knives Out” energy to Peacock but with a less-polished, spontaneous sense of humor and intrigue. Like any “case of the week” show, “Poker Face” can be a little inconsistent, but Lyonne really anchors all six chapters sent to press, and the revolving door of guest stars makes for a fun, unexpected winter TV treat.
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The star of “Russian Doll” plays Charlie Cale, a casino worker with a special gift—she can tell when people are lying. She can’t always figure out why they’re lying, but she knows a lie, which has made her an enemy of the gambling powers that be, represented by a casino boss played perfectly by Adrien Brody in the premiere. Despite his casino magnate father wanting Charlie away from the tables, Brody convinces Charlie that they can scam one of the whales at the establishment with a rigged game. It all falls apart when Charlie’s friend Natalie (Dascha Polanco) catches said whale with something illegal and goes to her boss, who promptly instructs his right-hand man (Benjamin Bratt) to kill the whistleblower.
Before you scream spoiler, there’s something you should know: this isn’t a whodunit. It’s a variation on the concept, sometimes called a “howcatchem.” The first act of every episode of “Poker Face” reveals the murder for that chapter. The second act then flashes back a day or two to reveal how Charlie got here, often casting scenes from the first act in a new light. The third act features Charlie busting the killer(s). It’s a clever structure for a show in that “Poker Face” isn’t about who did it but about the process that Charlie uses—intuition, charm, and her gift—to bring down the villains.
How does Charlie keep stumbling on homicides? The action of the premiere sends her on the run, making Bratt’s hired gun the only other recurring character (although just barely in the episodes sent for press). So she basically jumps from job to job and hiding spot to hiding spot, allowing the writers to really play with setting. Most of the time, it’s about Charlie making friends with victims or suspects and then having to solve their murders or clear their names. In the second chapter, she befriends a trucker, played by Hong Chau, who ends up framed for the murder of a Subway employee. In the third, she meets a master BBQ pitman who threatens to go vegetarian after watching “Okja,” leading his brother (Lil Rel Howery) and wife (Danielle Macdonald) to knock him off to keep the business going.
The cleverest of the six episodes sent to press is the fourth, anchored by a fantastic Chloe Sevigny as a former punk rock star willing to do anything to find fame again. The fifth chapter features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as homicidal nursing home residents (and has great turns by Simon Helberg & Reed Birney too). The final one sent for press (the entire season will be ten) has a marvelous Ellen Barkin as an aging star who forces her ex-husband (Tim Meadows) to do one more revival of the stage show that once made them icons, even if it kills them.
The revolving door of familiar faces will be a draw for viewers, but the stars here are really Lyonne and the writers. Johnson only gets credit on the premiere, but his writer’s room rarely loses a step, finding a way to connect these different murderous journeys with a similar tone. This isn’t the arguable over-plotting of something like “Glass Onion,” but the writers have a blast imagining ludicrously-staged crimes in a funny and engaging way. The actual crimes of the fifth and sixth chapters stretch all suspension of disbelief, but “Poker Face” isn’t meant to be realistic. It’s escapism that tends to comedy more than realism, and the ability of the writers to throw in out-there character beats or unexpected plot twists is one of the show’s many charms. Don’t ask questions. Let Charlie do that.
None of it works without a performer who knows exactly how to sell this kind of modern Columbo riff, and Lyonne completely gets “Poker Face.” She’s funny, engaged, charismatic, and perfect for the part, finding a great blend of wit and eccentricity. She’s the kind of person you don’t just want to solve the case, but you want to have a drink with when she’s done, and she’s got a rock-solid moral compass, often putting herself in jeopardy to do what’s right. It’s one of the most instantly engaging characters on TV in a long time, a reminder that the most successful case-of-the-week shows have all been character-driven. We don’t remember the cases that Columbo solved as much as the title character himself.
It’s also worth noting that anyone coming to “Poker Face” looking for the same social commentary as the “Knives Out” movies might be slightly surprised. Sure, there’s a sense that Charlie is looking out for people who would otherwise have no allies, like a casino waitress or a solitary trucker, but the writers have a habit of turning the tables on expectations of who would be a clear villain or hero, especially in episodes five and six, which set up situations that aren’t exactly what they appear.
It also helps a great deal that “Poker Face” has a sharp crew behind the camera, including editor Bob Ducsay (“Glass Onion”) on the premiere and truly excellent cinematography by Christine Ng (“When They See Us”) that allows the show to exist somewhere between realism and the old-fashioned shows that inspired it. The show has an on-the-road charm that’s well-captured in places not often seen on TV, like middle-of-nowhere gas stations, tents of BBQ fans, and seedy nightclubs.
Through it all, there’s Charlie Cale, making friends who often end up dead and then taking the time to solve their murder. Even when she’s in mortal danger, Lyonne finds a way to keep “Poker Face” buoyant, bright, and fun. She’s exactly the kind of person one would want to play poker with on a late Vegas night. As long as it’s not your murder, she has to solve next. [A-]
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