To outrun a Vegas casino fixer who wants her head, Poker Face’s accidental sleuth Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) zips around the American Midwest in a beaten-up Plymouth Barracuda. As one mechanic (and murderer) scathingly notes, “It’d run amazing if you took better care of it.” One can’t resist the symbolism: Like the 1969 muscle car, Poker Face’s weekly mysteries are built on an episodic television structure that feels reliable but anachronistic. The case-of-the-week format isn’t entirely dead, but it’s practically nonexistent amid streaming originals, especially ones with a team and cast as prestigious as this.
Created by Rian Johnson (with some episodes written and directed by him) with showrunners Lilla and Nora Zuckerman (previously writers on Fringe), the 10-episode Peacock series finds the Knives Out director grappling yet again with the tropes of detective fiction. Brick riffed on hard-boiled detective noir, the Benoit Blanc films on the whodunits of Agatha Christie, and Poker Face falls right in line with TV mainstays like Columbo (the show even replicates the title font of Tumblr’s favorite 1970s crime series). Johnson’s films and TV work have become known for being rather aggressively postmodern, so it’s sort of surprising in itself to watch a show that’s so classicist in its storytelling, with only occasional offhand — and genuinely funny — references to contemporary cultural ephemera. Even the cut-to-commercial-break moments (which may not have ads depending on your Peacock plan) hit with a classic cadence. And whereas Knives Out and Glass Onion reveled in social commentary, even with its own pockets of satire, Poker Face’s number-one priority seems to be falling in love with Lyonne’s Charlie. She works for everyone but answers to no one. She solves mysteries because it’s the right thing to do.
Charlie’s aimless drifting, fueled by a bloody inciting incident in the pilot and the isolated nature of each case, means that the show can, technically, be watched in any order following the first episode; every new stop brings with it a new story and new cast of characters. It’s a canny choice of adapting the stray ideas that have circulated on Twitter for years about how good it would be if Lyonne played such a type of investigator. Turns out, it is very good.
Like Columbo, each episode of Poker Face begins with a murder, with a victim, perpetrator, and smoking gun all in plain sight. Before long, the clock rewinds to discover how Charlie fits into the proceedings, and ultimately utilizes her uncanny gift of knowing whenever someone is lying.
The fun of Poker Face is in seeing every time Lyonne is able to call bullshit (literally), which is often. Both Poker Face and Columbo find intrigue in the execution of murder and investigation, and delight in the idiosyncratic way that their sleuths follow the trail, instead of leaving breadcrumbs of evidence for the satisfaction of solving the mystery at home. And in Poker Face’s cleverest twist, each episode connects Charlie to the victims and perpetrators through whatever odd jobs she takes to survive on the road, and thrives on the ripple effects of the murder.
While the formula is familiar, it doesn’t feel old-fashioned, thanks to charming production design, energetic camerawork, and the right dramatic complications. The big twist is that Charlie is not a cop, which changes how the bumbling detective with a winningly husky voice approaches each murder. By the time an episode’s target is murdered, Charlie is usually already connected to everyone involved by way of side gigs or detours. The investigations become personal, giving each episode a strong emotional hook as well as the goofy comedy of watching Lyonne interacting with small-town weirdos. And her status as a (framed) fugitive means that police assistance is out of the question; she has to rely on the relationships she’s struck up, and usually on some form of citizens’ justice. It feels in line with what Johnson called in interviews the paternal state of detective fiction, something Poker Face often sidelines. Charlie’s brand of justice is usually the denouement, with the implication that arrest probably isn’t far behind.
Such instances become part of the intrigue and ritual of watching Poker Face: Rather than impressing yourself by immediately guessing that the murderer is the prolific guest star, that work is already done. Instead you wonder: How does Charlie know this person? Where does she fit in? What service industry job is she working behind the scenes this time? And how can she make them culpable for their acts when she’s a fugitive from the law herself, with only inadmissible evidence to work with? The show sometimes finds poetic and surprising answers to that last question; sometimes it’s a little more conventional.
Such rituals feel somewhat absent from what many consider “prestige” television. Though serialized storytelling isn’t a bad thing, it’s too often mistaken for prestige itself (which is most apparent when filmmakers and showrunners call their series “eight-hour movies”). So it feels like a breath of fresh air that Poker Face fills a niche of one-and-dones, and has a lot of fun doing so as it rotates through an astounding guest list. Adrien Brody is fueled by a Succession-esque mix of overconfidence and desperation in the premiere as the failson heir to a casino; Chloë Sevigny lets decades of frustration rip as a washed-up rocker; Lil Rel Howery and Danielle Macdonald channel Macbeth as the owners of a brisket place; and in one case, Hong Chau plays (with hilarious, awkward forthrightness) a strange, lonely trucker mistaken for a murderer.
Directed and written by Johnson (with buddy and cinematographer Steve Yedlin on camera duty), the first episode, “Dead Man’s Hand,” is tragic and compelling as it establishes not only Charlie’s backstory but also the structure and style of every subsequent episode, as Charlie investigates her friend’s murder in the casino in which they both work while grinding on a card shark scheme. Episode 3, “The Stall,” directed by Iain B. MacDonald and written by Wyatt Cain, might be the best of the first six episodes previewed for critics, handily the funniest and the zippiest the scripting has felt as it delves into a murder over a brisket business, catalyzed by, of all things, a DVD of Okja. (A non-Criterion Netflix disc release? Unheard of.)
The team behind Poker Face telegraphs that, while the formula goes down easy, everything can change. In the fifth episode, “The Time of the Monkey,” surly geriatric hippies commit a murder against an old man for unknown reasons — a crime that creates a mystery within the mystery. (The episode also features one of the most surprising end-credits needle-drops I’ve experienced: a Zamrock song by my fellow countrymen Ngozi Family, pioneers of a music movement with roots in Zambian independence.) Still, episode 6 might be the juiciest murder setup of them all, an hour loaded with twists and turns and suspense in seeing who is going to fall victim to a decades-old spat between former TV co-stars, played by Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows, as they bring high drama to a low-rent theatrical production.
No matter the circumstances, Lyonne’s line readings in Poker Face are phenomenal, and the show always capitalizes on her character’s shabby charm. Sometimes that’s through costume (often a mix of rather sharp ensembles compromised by a trucker hat), or simply letting sparks fly with the vivid personalities she comes across as she follows her natural investigative intuition. The writers know viewers need a thrilling conclusion, but they’re also sharp enough to realize that letting Lyonne do the work — or in the case of episode 3, taste bits of firewood, with each flavor establishing its own musical motif — is its own form of joy. A secret to making good TV: If there’s a reason for Natasha Lyonne to snap and tell a truly evil little dog he’s a fascist, you put it in the show.
Poker Face is a reupholstering of a classic television formula that’s both more manageable to watch as well as more memorable. The intentional isolation of each episode feels like something that tentpole genre shows, and streaming television in general, could embrace as viewer attention continues to strain over the golden age of TV simply turning into Too Much TV. Perhaps the solution to the increasing homogeneity lies in the same methods of detective work — in retracing the steps and history and finding what makes the format tick. Then, finally, it needs a show like Poker Face, with a team that can put two and two together and crack this case.
Poker Face episodes 1-4 are now out on Peacock. New episodes premiere on Thursdays.