Between his entry in the Star Wars saga and a current Oscar nomination for Glass Onion, the second installment in his self-created Knives Out universe, writer-director Rian Johnson’s film currency couldn’t be much higher. What’s a guy to do next? Go to TV, naturally. NBC’s Peacock streaming platform is currently playing the first season of his murder-mystery-of-the-week show, Poker Face.
And it is sensational.
The show’s major asset is Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black, Russian Doll) as modern-day gumshoe Charlie Cale. We first meet her in the series pilot as casino waitress with a unique talent for sniffing out lies – a gift that suits her well in a gambling locale but gets her in trouble with the boss’s son, Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrien Brody), when she starts sniffing out his own untruths.
After the first episode, though, Poker Face reveals itself to be a different kind of a show than you’d think: it’s a procedural. Charlie finds herself on the run, chased by a character from the first episode. But each subsequent offers a new tableau: Charlie finds employment of various kinds in different arenas, in different locations, with a new cast of characters, and, of course, a new murder that she’ll inevitably end up solving.
Structurally, it’s a familiar amalgam of Columbo, and descendants like Monk and Murder, She Wrote, combined with The Hitchhiker and The Mandalorian, with Christine Ng’s cinematography giving real throwback vibes to these antecedents. And like some of those forebears, the villains du jour are revealed upfront. First we meet the guest stars, then we witness their crime, then we find out how Charlie is connected, and then we see how this human lie detector puts the pieces together. (And it rarely involves the police.)
No, Poker Face is not a whodunit. And it’s not really about how she’ll nab the baddies, or even if she’ll survive (she’s rarely in danger, and if she is, it isn’t for long). This show isn’t about the stakes. It’s about watching all the plot points come together and realizing there hasn’t been a wasted minute, an errant plot point. Our time watching has been well-spent. And it’s about watching Lyonne, who cottons to the underdogs and the truthtellers she encounters. A betrayal of her trust becomes a betrayal of ours.
Lyonne, whose own grizzled delivery makes Peter Falk sound like Haley Joel Osment circa The Sixth Sense, has an easy rapport with all of her co-stars. This show is her career best. Much of the show’s charm comes from the compassion Charlie has as she non-judgmentally befriends strangers from all pockets of life. In one episode, she befriends aging counterculture nursing home residents played by Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson. An intergenerational sisterly bond is formed, and Charlie is genuinely devastated to learn they might be up to no good. In another episode, directed and co-written by Lyonne herself (Johnson penned the pilot and some of the early episodes), Charlie befriends a special effects genius (Nick Nolte) undone by an accidental death on set during his directorial debut. (The only spoiler you’ll get from me here: the death may not have been accidental.)
Some of the other best episodes also traffic around show business: in one, Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows played former TV stars who reunite years later for a benefit performance that she needs in order to jumpstart her flagging career. In another, Chloe Sevigny (Lyonne’s real-life bestie) plays a faded metal singer who thinks she might have found a new hit to chase the old one-hit wonder for which they’re best known. That episode comes with a bonus: co-star John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats, wrote the songs, and they’re real-life bangers. Give him the Emmy! (Kudos to the casting team of Mary Vernieu and Bret Howe for conscripting such top-shelf talent throughout the season. Other guest actors include Reed Birney, current Oscar nominees Hong Chau and Stephanie Hsu, Joseph Gordon-Levitt Tim Blake Nelson, and an especially Emmy-worthy Cherry Jones.)
A show that reveals its hand and still keeps you involved? Now that’s entertainment.