Not since Columbo have we seen an inverted detective story, a structure known as “howcatchem,” told in such an exciting fashion. The inaugural season of the murder mystery series Poker Face, which has already been renewed for a second season, kicked off with a fast-paced story that set the stage for an eventful journey across the U.S. Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) has an incredible talent: she’s a human lie detector. She can look into someone’s eyes and her gut tells her if they are lying or telling the truth, with almost flawless accuracy.
Through a series of events in the first episode involving wealthy billionaires, murder, and the reputation of a respected casino going up in flames, Charlie goes on the run. Sure, she’s being chased, but the real story is what happens to her along the way.
As Charlie tries to get as far away from trouble as she can, she takes odd jobs, and each time, she meets an eclectic mix of people. Coincidentally (and morbidly), each stop involves the death of someone she befriends. And each time, Charlie uses her talents and amateur sleuthing to solve the crime and bring down the killer. Are the stories in Poker Face believable? No. Is the show formulaic? Yes. But it’s also deeply entertaining and gets better with each unique episode.
The events go from Charlie using lottery ticket serial numbers to catch a murderous young man named Jed (Colton Ryan) in a lie to performing her own Keyser Soze moment to figure out that the young drummer who mysteriously died (Nicholas Cirillo) had actually penned the track his has-been band was trying to pass off as theirs (and thus gave them a perfect motive to kill him). In most cases, it’s not difficult to spot the clues along the way that point Charlie in exactly the direction she needs to go to solve the whodunit. But it’s also fun to play along with the sleuthing.
As Charlie travels and happens upon one death after another, the anchor storyline is woven into the plot. In episode 2 (The Night Shift), the head of security at the casino, Cliff (Benjamin Bratt), manages to track Charlie down after she uses an ATM. But a friend she meets along the way (Megan Suri) suspects he’s trouble and lies that Charlie went West to California. In episode 6 (Exit Stage Death), he locates her once more but again loses her in the hustle and bustle of a busy theater scene.
Every episode has its own unique story, setting, and even look and feel, shifting from comedy to soap opera, horror to action. Given this, Charlie’s odd jobs along the way are diverse as well. She goes from working at a Texas barbecue restaurant to being a stagehand for a rock band, helping in a retirement home, serving drinks in a theater, working in an arcade, and even helping a reclusive and retired special effects artist (Nick Nolte). She meets everyone from a has-been rock star (Chloe Sevigny) to a pair of elderly, radical hippie felons (Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson), an egotistical race-car driver (Charles Melton), and a selfish movie industry executive (Cherry Jones).
As the episodes continue, there’s less of Charlie and more of the “before” stories about the guest stars, while the stories also seem to get darker and far more intense. The show starts like Columbo but ends up being, at times, something more akin to Black Mirror.
In the penultimate episode Escape from Shit Mountain, Charlie almost meets her maker. With a more horror-movie feel, she literally crawls out of a hole and finds herself severely injured in a cabin in the woods with two men who might very well murder her.
Despite the tease of death at the hands of the unhinged Trey (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Charlie once again thinks quickly on her feet and grabs his ankle bracelet, which leads authorities right to her and several other dead bodies in the secret “tree hole.” She’s badly injured and will be in hospital for at least a few months recovering.
But there’s a silver lining: realizing that the police think her new friend “Mortimer” (Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Stephanie Hsu) was her, Charlie is on top of the world, convinced she’s presumed dead and can stop living in fear. That is until, in the season finale episode The Hook, she is told her hospital bills have already been paid in full. Puzzled, she finds Cliff waiting patiently outside for her discharge. There’s nowhere to run anymore.
Believing these will be her last moments, Charlie goes with the flow until meeting face to face with Sterling Frost Sr. only to discover that he doesn’t want to harm her at all. He had secretly been recording his son’s conversations and knew junior was going behind his back and cutting a deal with the one rival casino his dad never told him to work with. Frost sees this as an opportunity to make his own deals and have his secret weapon Charlie in the room with him to ensure he’s getting a fair shake.
She agrees, but before the proverbial ink dries on the deal, the casino lights go black, there’s a gunshot, and the new gun Charlie had just been gifted and was pointing in Sterling’s direction presumably goes off and kills the wealthy casino mogul.
Charlie knows she didn’t kill Sterling, but the evidence against her is substantial, including her fingerprints on the gun and video showing her pointing it at him right before the lights go off. Thankfully, Charlie still has the number for Agent Luca (Simon Helberg), the FBI agent she met at the retirement home. He had taken a liking to her (perhaps a flirtation?), grateful that her information helped him solve several cases and raise his profile at the bureau.
In a side perspective, it’s revealed that it was all Cliff’s doing. He was working with the rival Hasp family the whole time, switched the guns, and set Charlie up to be a patsy. It takes Charlie a while to figure this out, but it doesn’t matter because the FBI is after Cliff anyway after hearing the tapes of him admitting to killing Natalie (Dascha Polanco) and her husband. He turns on the Hasps, which clears Charlie’s name.
She gets offered a job with the FBI for a second time but turns it down again, just before getting a call from the Hasp casino-owning crime family boss. The woman knows about Charlie’s unique talents and is giving her one last opportunity to save herself: come work for them, or else.
Charlie doesn’t seem worried. She’s excited to continue her journey on the run, and fans are ready to join her. It’s the perfect set-up for season 2 where we can expect more of the same with even juicier stories and, more than likely, an even more impressive list of guest stars.
You can stream season 1 of Poker Face on Peacock.
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