From the start, it’s no secret that the new series Poker Face is a throwback to an earlier era of television — to Columbo, especially. The opening titles even recall the yellow Columbo font. And while it might not be instantly obvious that Natasha Lyonne is the Peter Falk of her generation, by the end of a couple of episodes, you will believe.
Poker Face was created by Rian Johnson, the writer and director of Knives Out and Glass Onion, who directed and wrote some, though not all, of the episodes. His sense of structure — the idea that you don’t withhold everything until the end, even in something that’s done in the style of a mystery — recalled Columbo to begin with. (Every episode of Columbo, for those who may not be fans, started with the viewer seeing what actually happened, and the rest was watching Columbo figure it out.) So it makes sense that he’s created a show here that, in a similar fashion, shows the crime itself at the top, then tells the longer story of how it came to happen and how it unravels. But instead of a detective, these stories intersect with the life of Charlie Cale, played by Lyonne, whom we first meet as a casino worker prized for her ability to tell when people are lying.
The first episode sees Charlie get tangled up in a mess that involves her boss (Adrien Brody) and his henchman (Benjamin Bratt). That mystery, in turn, puts her in danger and sends her on the run. Subsequent episodes find her in various parts of the country, scratching together cash in odd jobs.
One advantage of this format is that it allows Charlie to cross paths with an impressive lineup of guest stars. There’s trucker played by (new Oscar nominee for The Whale) Hong Chau, feuding actors played by Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows, a barbecue entrepreneur played by Lil Rel Howery, retirement community residents played by Judith Light and Law & Order legend S. Epatha Merkerson, and musicians played by Chloe Sevigny and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. All these stories are self-contained, because even as she tries to escape her own perilous situation, Charlie stumbles into a crime in every town.
Naturally, Charlie’s story is in part a travelogue. Poker Face takes her to a lot of different locations, but Johnson’s love of the dusty landscapes he shot in a couple of great episodes of Breaking Bad is echoed in Charlie’s initial Vegas home (there’s a terrific shot of her sitting in a folding chair outside her trailer) and in some of the desolate roads she ends up on later. But these standalone episodes (critics have gotten to see six out of what will eventually be 10) take the series into a marvelous variety of different worlds.
And at the center of the show and its appeal is Natasha Lyonne. On the one hand, she is an actor who is always herself — she doesn’t often disappear into roles in a way that will make you say, “Oh wow, that’s Natasha Lyonne?” But at the same time, there are shadings to her work here that are different from, for instance, her highly regarded role in Netflix’s Russian Doll. She’s more relaxed and under control in this part, still funny and still utterly unique, but also careful and deliberate. Charlie is a good bit happier, too, even when she’s in trouble.
Lyonne’s affect is almost always one of world-weariness, of having seen a lot, which makes her a natural as a woman like Charlie, whose accumulated experiences make her skeptical, quick on her feet and sympathetic. If Columbo was always getting tied up in mysteries because he’s a detective and it’s his job, Charlie keeps getting tied up in them because she doesn’t like liars and it bugs her when unfair things — whether violence or false accusations — happen to people she meets and likes.
And the focus remains on the characters, because fortunately, Poker Face makes sparing use of Charlie’s special talent for knowing when people are lying. As she explains it, as long as a person is lying intentionally — that is, they know what they’re saying isn’t true, as opposed to being wrong — she can always tell. This could easily become an lazy shortcut, where she always suddenly solves the whole case based on her magical abilities. But her special radar is deployed rarely, to the point where you’ll forget she even can do this until it comes up. And it isn’t usually about a big and central lie (like “I didn’t kill him!”), but about a small and seemingly insignificant lie (like “I had fish for dinner”) that sends her looking for an explanation.
The drop schedule for Poker Face honestly is a bit baffling; a natural candidate for a week-to-week release, it’s instead getting four episodes dropped on Peacock on January 26, and then the rest will be one per week. But whatever pacing you choose, this is a terrific show, funny and smart, that accomplishes exactly the combination of homage and experimentation that it promises.