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Poker Face review: a charming ode to a bygone TV era

Natasha Lyonne wears a trucker hat and sunglasses in Poker Face.
Poker Face
“Poker Face is a quirky, clever homage to classic TV detective shows like Columbo that is anchored by Natasha Lyonne's endlessly delightful central performance.”
  • Natasha Lyonne's pitch-perfect lead performance
  • A clever, serialized on-the-run gimmick
  • An endless array of well-cast guest stars
  • Some episodes don't use Lyonne as well as they should
  • A straightforward episodic formula that may wear thin for some viewers

Poker Face wears its influences on its sleeve. From its “howcatchem” episodic structure to even its placement on NBC’s streaming service, the new series’ love of classic detective shows like Columbo is clear from the moment it begins. While there is one ongoing subplot that loosely connects its episodes together, Poker Face even bucks against the widespread serialization of our current, prestige TV era by opening with a batch of installments that, for the most part, can be watched in whatever order the viewer decides.

For some, Poker Face’s attempt to revitalize its classic TV formula may only make the series seem more antiquated or, even worse, disposable. Poker Face wasn’t made for those viewers, though. Together, creator Rian Johnson and star Natasha Lyonne have crafted a straightforward love letter to classic TV thrillers like Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, and The Fugitive that’s not only unabashed in its affection for those titles, but perfectly content to live in their shadow. Much like Johnson’s Knives Out films, Poker Face also quickly emerges as the rare love letter that manages to stand on its own.

Natasha Lyonne holds a gas station windshield wiper in Poker Face.
Karolina Wojtasik/Peacock

Johnson, who wrote Poker Face’s premiere and directed its first two episodes, knows that no detective show can work without a great sleuth at the center of it. While she’s by no means the kind of no-frills police detective that viewers may expect, Charlie Cale (Lyonne) fills the show’s central role with deceptive ease. Born with the unique ability to instinctually know whenever someone has told a lie, Charlie is an inherent thorn in the side of anyone who makes the mistake of trying to commit a crime in her presence.

The series’ patiently paced premiere, which counts actors like Adrien Brody, Benjamin Bratt, and Dascha Polanco among its guest stars, effectively establishes Charlie’s unique ability and relentlessly inquisitive nature. The events of the episode see her graduate from a casino cocktail girl to a woman on the run, which is the turn that provides Poker Face’s first season with its road trip format. The series’ subsequent episodes all follow Charlie as she nabs odd jobs in different American small towns only to inevitably get caught up in her own private investigations into various local murders.

This format provides Poker Face with a small dose of prestige TV-esque serialization and opens the door for the series to feature at least 10 different locations and even more noteworthy guest stars. Brody, for his part, brings a dash of slimy movie star authority to the series’ premiere, while actors like Lil Rel Howery, Chloë Sevigny, Simon Helberg, Colton Ryan, and others all show up for similar guest parts throughout the five episodes that follow. Among the show’s guest stars, Hong Chau makes a particularly lasting impression as an unfiltered truck driver in the series’ second installment, while S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light turn in two memorable, comedic performances in one Lucky McKee-directed, nursing home-set thrill ride.

Natasha Lyonne crowdsurfs in Poker Face.
Sara Shatz/Peacock

Poker Face’s long list of guest stars does occasionally result in it making the same mistake that so many past TV murder mysteries have. Of the series’ first six episodes, which were the only installments that were provided early to critics, the least effective invariably prove to be those which prioritize their guest stars over Lyonne’s Charlie. That’s the case during the series’ Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows-led installment, which casts the two veteran performers as a pair of vain former TV co-stars and lovers.

The oddball installment is directed with considerable style by High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair, but its intense focus on its guest stars leaves Charlie’s inevitable investigation in the episode’s second half feeling disappointingly rushed. Fortunately, that’s a flaw most of Poker Face’s first six episodes manage to avoid. The first season will have a total of 10 episodes.

In classic Columbo fashion, every Poker Face episode opens with a murder, and it’s only after said crime has been committed that Lyonne’s Charlie shows up again. Nonetheless, most of Poker Face’s opening installments still find the perfect balance between the series’ guest stars and the kindhearted, unofficial detective who connects them all together. Even in its weaker episodes, watching Lyonne’s Charlie slowly but surely deconstruct the details of Poker Face’s various crimes is a pleasure that never lessens or wanes.

Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt sit in a car together in Poker Face.

Poker Face’s infectious charm is partly the result of just how well-suited Lyonne is for her role as Charlie. The character is written in such a way that it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing her better than Lyonne. Charlie’s various eccentricities, as well as her unbending pursuit of justice, fit Lyonne about as well as Columbo’s tan raincoat fit Peter Falk. Lyonne even gives a mumbly, endlessly questioning performance as Charlie that only makes her feel even more like a worthy spiritual successor to Falk’s iconic TV detective.

Of course, unlike Columbo, Charlie Cale is not an actual detective, which means that she often has to resort to more creative means of finding justice than her TV predecessor. Poker Face, thankfully, manages to plant the seeds for its inevitable conclusions about as seamlessly as one would hope. The series’ puzzle-box scripts all seem to delight equally in their moments of cleverness and absurdity, which only helps Poker Face’s episodes further match the lighthearted yet measured aesthetic that Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin create together in its premiere.

Poker Face | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

Even when Johnson steps away and lets filmmakers like McKee, Ben Sinclair, and Iain B. MacDonald take over for him, Poker Face’s first six episodes don’t deviate much from its initial, sun-burnt color palette. The series, consequently, looks purposefully similar to some of Johnson’s previous films — namely, The Brothers Bloom and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Its cinematic style only helps it stand out further from the rest of TV’s current offerings, as does its adherence to its classic detective show formula, which offers pleasures that now feel familiar yet forgotten.

Anyone who has seen an episode of Columbo will know what they’re getting into with Poker Face, but Johnson and Lyonne are aware of that fact. They also, even more vitally, know that there aren’t any other TV shows on the air right now that are designed to offer the kind of experience Columbo once did. Poker Face sets out to change that, and it does so while marching to the beat of its own charmingly anachronistic drum.

Poker Face premieres Thursday, January 26 on Peacock. Digital Trends was given early access to the series’ first six episodes.

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