In any given week of American television, there are no fewer than 15 crime shows trying to satisfy the public’s craving for murder mysteries with potent doses of copaganda fashioned into tales “ripped from the headlines.” At first, it almost seems as if Poker Face — Peacock’s new comedy drama from Rian Johnson — is merely trying to riff on that style of storytelling with its slightly offbeat premise and consistently superb cinematography. But rather than scratching our collective whodunit itch with overwrought stories about how cops are the only people really fighting for justice, Poker Face calls bullshit on the entire idea and focuses instead on being a series of fascinating character-driven puzzles.
Poker Face chronicles the adventures of Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), an industrious former poker player who is definitely not a cop and doesn’t think all that much about her unique ability to tell when people are lying as the series first opens. While Charlie can’t always intuit exactly how people are being willfully deceptive, she knows when they’re being honest with her and how to think on her feet — the ideal skills for a woman looking to avoid too much trouble with the shady gambling types she once ran with.
After Charlie’s lie-detecting power turns her into a blacklisted pariah in poker-playing circles, she’s more than happy to spend her days waiting tables at a local casino run by Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody) and steering clear of the shady characters that seem to gravitate toward her boss. But when a good friend and co-worker of Charlie’s mysteriously turns up dead one day in a way that sets her sixth sense ringing, she finds herself becoming pulled into the world of amateur detective work and pushed to flee town in order to save her own life.
Caught somewhere between Columbo and Quantum Leap, the brilliance of Poker Face is how seamlessly it falls into the steady rhythm of a network crime-of-the-week procedural. After detailing the specifics of why Charlie’s on the run from hired killer Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt), Poker Face follows her from town to town, where she never means to stay too long. She always does, though, both because of how hard Charlie’s gift makes it for her to leave other people’s unsolved mysteries behind and because of how some part of her yearns for community and companionship regardless of where she finds it.
Poker Face is an open mystery that puts you a few steps ahead of Charlie
Much as Poker Face is about Charlie — a good-natured rolling stone Lyonne brings to life with her signature blend of cigarette smoke and moxie — each episode stands on its own as a unique showcase of Johnson’s storytelling sensibilities and the sizable talents of its guest roster. It isn’t until you meet Hong Chau as a horny long-haul truck driver or Lil Rel Howery as a conniving barbecue magnate that Charlie’s knack for ingratiating herself to people while briefly becoming part of their lives starts to make sense. In those other characters, she’s able to find some sense of normalcy in the midst of running for her life, and through all of their interactions, Poker Face is able to build out a world that feels both vast and surprisingly intimate.
Poker Face being an open mystery, the show always puts you a few steps ahead of Charlie as she’s simultaneously figuring out who killed who and making friends with heavy metal rocker types or race car drivers. But rather than ever letting you get too comfortable with or attached to any of the new faces Charlie meets during her travels, Poker Face kills many of them off and really tries to keep your focus on the details of the murder mystery at the center of each episode.
For obvious reasons, many coming to Poker Face will be inclined to draw parallels between it and Johnson’s Knives Out franchise. While the two share some similarities, like focusing on flamboyant detective types and featuring scores from Nathan Johnson, they’re also very distinct and working toward different ends. With Knives Out, you’re meant to be trying to work through the mystery along with Benoit Blanc and appreciating the craftsmanship that goes into building a narrative puzzle like Glass Onion. The same is true for Poker Face to a certain extent. But between the show’s episodic format, and the space it gives its guest stars to chew up the scenery before Charlie solves the case, it ends up feeling much more lived-in and less twee than its Netflix cousins.
Poker Face feels way less twee than its Knives Out cousins
The deeper you get into Poker Face’s 10-episode-long season, the more recognizable some of its plotting patterns become, and watching too many episodes back to back can lead to it feeling a bit more formulaic than Johnson intended. But because Lyonne and every single one of Poker Face’s featured players are clearly having so much fun playing these outsize roles to the back of the room, it’s hard not to get swept up in the madness of the show and feel like it might be the kind of thing that’ll make people consider signing up for Peacock.
Poker Face also stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephanie Hsu, David Castañeda, Dascha Polanco, Ellen Barkin, Chloë Sevigny, Tim Meadows, Jameela Jamil, Judith Light, Nick Nolte, Ron Perlman, Tim Blake Nelson, and Clea DuVall. The show’s first four episodes hit Peacock on January 26th, with the remaining six dropping every Thursday afterward.