By: Bill Cushing – 3/23
Take a look at any episode of the old detective series ‘Columbo’ and you’ll see that the title’s yellow letters and font are echoed precisely in the new Peacock series ‘Poker Face,’ created by Rian Johnson, the creator of The Knives Out film franchise.
Like Peter Falk, ‘Poker Face’ star Natasha Lyonne has one of TV’s most distinctive presences, with that raspy voice and a personality that is down to earth, yet a little out there. Like Lyonne’s other series ‘Russian Doll,’ ‘Poker Face,’ puts her in a time-travel story of a different kind: a contemporary revisiting of the nostalgic detective crime stories of network TV from days past.
The series follows Charlie Cale (Lyonne), a Vegas cocktail waitress with the ability to tell when someone is lying…. Or bluffing, which comes in handy when you’re playing poker, which just so happens to be Charlie’s former profession.
The murder of a friend makes Charlie realize that she can also use her intuition to solve crimes — and after she implicates a powerful casino boss, she ends up on the run down the back roads of America stumbling into murders at every turn.
Like ‘Columbo,’ each episode of ‘Poker Face’ begins with a murder, with a victim, perpetrator, and smoking gun all in plain sight. Before long, the clock rewinds to discover how Charlie fits into the proceedings, and ultimately utilizes her uncanny gift of knowing whenever someone is lying. So ‘Poker Face’ isn’t so much a whodunit as it is a how-dunit or a why-dunit.
As Charlie says about her ability, “the real trick of it is figuring out why: why somebody is lying”. People spout lies and deceptions all the time. Mostly, they’re minor and have little impact on anyone else, Charlie advises. But it’s the reasoning behind the bigger lies that she’s interested in. So, the show moves her from place to place, has her hear a lie just as a body shows up, then saddles her with puzzling out what’s going on — and, yes, why.
Rather than trying to guess who the murderer is, that work is already done. Instead, you wonder: How does Charlie know this person? Where does she fit in? What job is she working behind the scenes this time? Charlie’s not a cop and she’s on the run herself, which changes how she approaches each murder. So how can she make them pay for their acts? The show sometimes finds clever and surprising answers to that last question; sometimes it’s a little more conventional.
Lyonne is terrific in the lead role as Charlie, a real delight to watch, and the show capitalizes on her charm. But ‘Poker Face’ also has a line-up of impressive guest stars including Ellen Barkin, Adrian Brody, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nick Nolte, and Judith Light, and it’s Lyonne’s interaction with them that lets the sparks fly. The writing is excellent too, the stories are creatively built and are consistently funny and surprising, with great attention to details both criminal and comic.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this age of prestige TV and the slow burn TV Drama. But It’s a nice change of pace to see a TV show that actually wants to be a TV show instead of a 10-hour movie. A show where you can basically watch an episode without having to worry too much that you missed an episode somewhere along the way and may not be able to follow what’s going on.
The show has already been renewed for a second season. Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne have said that they’d like to keep making it for as long as they possibly can. I hope they get the chance, because it’s a blast.
‘Poker Face’ is available to stream on Peacock.
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