Following the success of his Agatha Christie-inspired “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” movies, director Rian Johnson has become synonymous with the murder mystery genre. With "Poker Face," Johnson pays homage to another classic murder mystery format for his first television series, the crime-of-the-week shows that were popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those shows relied on audience connection with a charismatic crime-solving star, and Johnson finds his in Natasha Lyonne, the star of "Poker Face," premiering on Peacock tomorrow, January 26th. The “Russian Doll” star is the perfect fit for this successful crime drama which mixes murder and comedy to great effect.
“Poker Face” follows Charlie Cale (Lyonne), a woman on the run after crossing a powerful casino boss, but that’s not where it all starts for Charlie. In the pilot episode, “Dead Man’s Hand,” she works for a casino as a waitress, serving drinks and waiting tables. The boss’ son, Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrien Brody), has other plans for Charlie. He plans to teach one of his gambling whales a lesson, and he will use Charlie to do so. He’s aware of her exceptional gift: she is a human lie detector who can tell the truth from the bullshit. It’s not a magical power but more of an intuition, which comes in handy in gambling establishments. That’s until Frost Sr. discovered it and blackballed her from his casinos. This opportunity to help Frost Jr. comes with a lot of money, but there’s a problem: Charlie’s friend has been mysteriously murdered. She can’t help this nagging feeling that Frost Jr. and his associate Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt) are involved.
Each hour-long episode of “Poker Face” follows a very specific formula. The guest stars are introduced in the first act, leading to a crime. The second act reveals how Charlie has become entwined with this catastrophe, flashing back to before the murder. Each episode is like its own movie, taking place in very distinctive locations whether it's the aforementioned casino, a renowned BBQ restaurant, a home for the elderly, or even during a play. Outside of the pilot episode (and a few references to what happened in it), the series can be watched in any order because, like the crime dramas that inspired Johnson, each episode is its own self-contained story and doesn’t really have an effect on the loose overarching plot. Having a series that doesn’t rely on a serialized story is becoming more of a rarity and certainly adds to the nostalgic feeling that “Poker Face” often portrays.
A show like "Poker Face" requires two things: a captivating lead that audiences can follow week in and week out, and memorable guest stars to fill out the murder-of-the-week format. It’s one thing to be inspired by classic crime series like “Murder, She Wrote” and “Columbo,” it’s another thing to find a talent as captivating as Angela Lansbury or Peter Falk. Thankfully, Lyonne has a magnetic quality; she’s someone you’ll want to spend time with. It’s easy to see how “Poker Face”'s characters are drawn into her orbit. One of Lyonne’s other traits has always been the raspy voice that makes her instantly identifiable. The delivery of her lines, along with the inflection of her voice, does trigger memories of Peter Falk, and that’s not a bad thing.
Just as important as finding the lead in a show like “Poker Face” is to find guest stars able to stand toe-to-toe with the protagonist. Whether that’s in the case of a would-be victim, the falsely accused, or the murderer, half the fun of this series is discovering who’s involved with each episode. Johnson and Lyonne are working with a great list of stars including Ron Perlman, Stephanie Hsu, Clea DuVall, Lil Rel Howery, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and many others. Each episode, out of the six screened for review, had at least one standout performance—”The Night Shift,” for instance, has an appearance by actress Hong Chau, and she makes an outstanding impression in her limited screentime as a trucker framed for the murder of a local. In another episode, “Time of the Monkey,” Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson are elderly hippies with strong convictions. Just watching how they play off one another and interact with Charlie is a treat.
Perhaps not a big surprise to audiences familiar with Johnson’s “Knives Out” movies, “Poker Face” has plenty of hilarious moments. Lyonne is a talented comedian and the guest stars are just as prepared. In “The Stall,” a BBQ Pit Master suddenly decides to go vegan because he’s a murderer of animals and needs a career change. What ultimately led to that career change is easily one of the show's funniest gags. Plenty of other great moments peppered throughout the series are strong, and while the shows like “Columbo” had their laughs, “Poker Face” has a strong comedy focus that works without feeling like it's forced.
“Poker Face” is derived from a winning formula, but a few hiccups come with the mystery-of-the-week format. As each episode contains new characters and stories, certain episodes will inevitably work better than others. One of the weaker episodes, “Rest in Metal,” focuses on a has-been band and their desperate need for a new hit single. While not every crime on the show needs to be elaborately conceived, this one is too simple and doesn't work either. In this era of streaming television, “Poker Face” is almost an anti-binge show; it's better as a mystery to watch once a week rather than all the episodes at once. That might make returning to the adventures of Charlie Cale less enticing than other programs.
"Poker Face" was brought to life by nostalgia for a certain kind of crime drama, and Johnson and Lyonne have a lot of passion for the material. Homages to genre classics can be seen throughout the show's format, even in the title treatment. And Natasha Lyonne is the perfect actor to follow week in and week out as Charlie finds herself in the thick of countless murders. I’m already looking forward to what predicaments she’ll get into next.
Six episodes were screened for review.