A streaming mystery worth watching


Poker Face review: Natasha Lyonne is magnetic in whodunnit series

The detective series from Knives Out writer Rian Johnson puts a refreshing twist on the mystery-of-the-week structure

Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face
Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face. Photograph: Peacock

Adrian Horton, @adrian_hortonThu 26 Jan 2023 15.44 EST

Poker Face, writer-director Rian Johnson’s whodunnit series for Peacock, is the rare show to deliver on the elusive promise of fun. Plenty of TV shows aim for it – fun via competency porn, addictiveness, skewering societal critique, sexiness, suspense or brain numbness. But fun, as in well-structured, confidently filmed visual treats with the aim of delivering pure, non-binged enjoyment? Hard to come by, and suavely delivered by Poker Face’s comfortable rhythm and Natasha Lyonne’s charismatic, bumbling detective.

If last year’s Glass Onion got bigger, more explosive and ludicrous than Johnson’s theatrical hit Knives Out, Poker Face represents ambition steadying out. (Johnson wrote and directed the pilot; the subsequent nine episodes are written and directed by numerous others, including one episode by Lyonne.) The six episodes made available for review are assured, stylish television that delivers on a near-unending string of scene-chewing guest performances, a reliable mystery-of-the-week structure and a magnetic Columbo update in Lyonne’s Charlie Cale.

We meet Charlie, a human lie-detector quick to call bullshit, as a cocktail waitress in a Vegas casino, living in a trailer and hiding out from a slandered poker reputation (turns out, it’s suspicious to have a 100% accuracy read for bluffing). Her unusual talent draws the interest of seedy casino boss Sterling Frost Jr (Adrien Brody, making the most of his screen time) for a revenge plot; Charlie’s enthusiasm for playing Encyclopedia Brown (as Sterling levels at her) following the death of a fellow waitress puts her on the run from Frost Sr (voiced by Ron Perlman) and casino muscleman Cliff (Benjamin Bratt), the only recurring character besides Charlie.

Not that there’s much to spoil. The show tinkers with the whodunnit formula by removing the who; each 45-to-60-minute episode opens with a murder – bloody but not gruesome, clever-ish but never hard to unravel – on to which Charlie stumbles and is, despite herself, compelled to sniff out the truth. Poker Face’s riff on the episodic formula, a structure familiar to broadcast sitcoms and procedurals but less common on streaming platforms, and rarely with the sense of play evident here, is the show’s chief comfort and biggest limitation. The bar for interest is much higher when we already know what Charlie has to find, which can make Poker Face’s leisurely pace and Charlie’s clue-finding feel too easy, at times a bit boring.

The structure puts an extra burden on Lyonne to make finding out what we already know entertaining, and she rises to it. Her Charlie has a savant’s ability for calling bullshit, but she’s winningly not a pro – she has a penchant for befriending people in their final hours and for explaining her hunches to the culprits’ faces. She wastes time firing off angry replies on Twitter. She forgets words, flails around, can pull off a neat reveal but often at the expense of her safety.

In other words, she’s a compelling ad hoc detective – not a cop, as she often assures – though Lyonne, fresh off a career resurgence as a detective of a more macabre sort in Russian Doll, makes her most interesting in Charlie’s off-duty, on-the-run moments. Adorned with tinted aviator sunglasses and a distinctive sun-bleached mop, fond of digressions with a New York Jewish bent, Charlie is an easy hang in some rough yet warmly captured places. I’d almost rather watch her navigate a casino floor, or befriend truckers at a Route 66 diner, or slink through midwestern dive bars than solve crimes; in her moments of itinerant extroversion, Lyonne appears almost unscripted, and highly watchable.

Though Peacock released the first four episodes this week, the show is not built for bingeing, in a good way. Latter episodes will debut weekly, better for appreciating the show’s meandering pace and an all-star roster of guest stars including Lil Rel Howery, John Ratzenberger, Tim Meadows, Ellen Barkin, Jameela Jamil, Judith Light, John Hodgman, Chloë Sevigny, Simon Helberg and Hong Chau, among others. Their faces, as with most elements of Poker Face, are pleasurably familiar, and the better for it. Poker Face may not be the harebrained, elaborate or sophisticated of murder mysteries, but it is never less than a good time.

  • Poker Face is now available on Peacock in the US and Stan in Australia from 28 January, with a UK date yet to be announced

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