The new murder-comedy Poker Face (on Peacock now) plays a very dangerous game indeed. It walks right up to the line of smugness, of tweeness—maybe it even puts a toe over the edge here and there—before it pulls back. The show is built, in some ways, as a testament to its own cleverness. Which should be irksome, and yet mostly isn’t. That’s a credit to the show’s creator, Rian Johnson, this year best known for writing a directing Glass Onion, and to its salty star, Natasha Lyonne, who wears the show’s quirky, hang-out energy like a comfy vintage suit.
Lyonne plays Charlie, a Nevada casino dweller with a special gift: she can always tell when someone is lying. She once used that to her advantage in gambling, but now she’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow—minus all the booze and cigarettes. But, of course, malfeasance finds her, and Charlie has to go on the lam, keeping one or two steps ahead of her pursuer, played by Benjamin Bratt. As Charlie drives across America, working odd jobs, she keeps stumbling into murder mysteries, which she solves using her unique powers of deduction.
I say mysteries, but they’re not really that. At least not to us in the audience. Like its obvious inspiration, Columbo, Poker Face shows us who did the murder right from the jump. Each episode introduces us to a new crime and a new cast of guest stars—bored twentysomethings working a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, scheming older ladies at a retirement community, a barbecue master who’s had a change of heart about cooking meat and wants to go vegan. The show can be a bit flippant about all the death that Charlie encounters, but it does take its characters seriously. Or, at least, it addresses them thoroughly.
Poker Face has an inviting, humane demeanor. Charlie can be prickly at times, a little rude, a bit blunt. But for the most part, she’s a kind person, cool and decent in the way that recognizes coolness and decency in others and thrives off that common energy. Her unassuming air makes her a surprising detective, which ultimately proves vexing to the many murderers with whom she crosses paths.
The cast of killers and killed is an interesting olio of familiar faces. Chloë Sevigny plays the laid-low lead singer of a one-hit-wonder band, desperate to return to the glow of fame and success. Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson play former 1960s radicals now stuck in the mundanity of their twilight years. Newly minted Oscar nominee Hong Chau plays a friendly trucker, Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows are faded TV stars still nursing old grudges. Everyone seems to relish the opportunity to play around in Johnson’s oddball little world. Should Poker Face get a second season, it will probably have no trouble getting guest stars.
My hope, though, would be that the show maintains its modest scale. The first season, or at least the six episodes I’ve seen, has a pleasing shagginess. It’s slickly made, but not haughty about it. That’s a delicate vibe, one that could easily be disrupted by too much self-impressed showboating. A bit of that is already present—“Look how ingenious this writing is,” the show sometimes seems to say as Charlie goes about unraveling the intricacies of a case. Any more preening flash would throw the whole thing out of whack.
As is, though, Poker Face is groovy entertainment. It’s pretty faithful to its case-of-the-week format, removing any pressure to remember mythology or, really, even character names. It’s easy to watch, to dive in and out of, which is rarer in today’s TV landscape than it should be. That’s all part of Johnson’s throwback intent, and yet he keeps the show free of too much cloying nostalgia. (The retro opening titles in the pilot feel a bit stale, though, so many years after Jackie Brown.) Compared to Glass Onion, Johnson’s over-adorned 2022 film, Poker Face is restrained in its references. It is less reactive to cultural discourse, though there are plenty of amusing, timely allusions.
Lyonne is an actor perhaps uniquely suited to the job of Poker Face, to keeping one foot in the cozy past and the other in the contemporary zeitgeist. As Charlie, she feels both fresh and familiar at once, an old pal who you’ve never seen before. That quality serves this peripatetic show quite well. Lyonne is an invaluable constant as the bodies fall, and that’s the truth.