Rian Johnson continues his detective work with Poker Face, a new Peacock series that gives the TV procedural a needed jolt.
Natasha Lyonne takes a thread from Russian Doll as well, albeit without the time travel. She plays Charlie Cale, a casino cocktail waitress who also happens to have a knack for knowing when people are lying, which is typically preceded by the word “Bullshit.” The pilot, which clocks in at more than an hour, sets up the inciting action: Charlie starts looking into her friend’s murder, and is eventually sent on the run.
Creator: Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson takes a stab at the detective show, with Natasha Lyonne channeling Columbo.
Poker Face is a howcatchem, in the tradition of Columbo (also streaming on Peacock), which is admittedly an influence here. After the pilot, each episode (critics were given six out of 10) starts out with a new set of characters and then a murder, before going back in time to show how Charlie eventually solved it. There’s no real backstory for how Charlie became a human lie detector, but we don’t need one. Seeing her work is entertaining enough, though there were some episodes where I found myself checking how much time was left, wondering when she would appear.
Part of Columbo’s charm came from his doggedness—while he also played up being the bumbling detective, to gain the murderer’s trust. Charlie is more a victim of happenstance when she shows up in a new location (New Mexico, Texas) looking for temp work, and there just happens to be a murder while she’s in town. But Lyonne thankfully doesn’t make Charlie an empty shell of a person, or “gritty”; she’s a people person and often befriends the murderers (or victims) before the murder happens, which has to be a bit of a mindfuck. (Maybe that is explored in later episodes?)
Poker Face also has to come up with inventive ways to murder people. At the end of an unevenly paced episode 3, which features Lil Rel Howery as a plotting Texas restaurant owner, Charlie essentially becomes a BBQ detective, which I’m not sure has been put to screen before. Her saying “Paprika?” at the end echoes Columbo’s “Just one more thing… .”
While this is Johnson’s first TV show, much like his whodunnit films Knives Out and Glass Onion, Poker Face leans on star-casting: Adrian Brody, Colton Ryan, Hong Chau, Chloë Sevigny, John Darnielle, Judith Light, and Tim Meadows show up in the first six episodes, and it’s exciting to see what combo of famous people will interact.
There’s also a connection to the Glass Onion universe, and its detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) specifically, which could set up something bigger: Johnson told Variety that in Lyonne’s brief Zoom cameo in the film, “She’s playing herself but she’s in hair and makeup as Charlie in her trailer… on the set of Poker Face.”
Its case-of-the-week format means there are no cliffhangers, no watching a certain numbers of episodes before you settle in. (Although, Peacock is releasing the first four episodes this week.) You can get in and out, and that feels liberating.