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TV Review: ‘Poker Face’ Isn’t Bluffing As Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson’s Mystery Series Deals a Strong Hand

When I was a kid, way back in a world without entertainment options in every room and on every device with batteries, my siblings and I were held hostage to whatever television show the old man chose to watch. Typically the menu consisted of private detectives, cop shows, and more detectives. Not by choice I watched my fair share of the murder-of-the-week TV, only to be shooed out of the room when things got good.

When I started watching Poker Face I instantly flashed back to those days. The series stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a former poker player turned cocktail waitress turned drifter whose special gift to read others, specifically to detect a lie, not only helps her solve crimes, it also gets her into a lot of trouble. The series, created and often written/directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out) has the case-of-the-week structure right out of the classic 70s & 80s private eye series – namely Columbo or Kojak.

POKER FACE — “Dead Man’s Hand” Episode 101 — Pictured: Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale — (Photo by: Phillip Caruso/Peacock)

Each episode they are introduced and the weekly crime is committed during an extended opening sequence that keeps viewers a few steps ahead of Charlie. The return of the revolving door of star-studded guests is welcome here. It’s straight out of The Love Boat, but instead of Don Knotts, Charo, Bert Convy and Florence Henderson, Poker Face‘s guests include a modern day who’s who of actors and actresses. It is a stacked deck of talent with familiar names spanning generations such as recent Academy award nominee Hong Chau (The Whale), others are welcome returning faces such as Cheers star John Ratzenberger

A few notable names from the extensive guests I have seen so far include: Adrien Brody, Benjamin Bratt, Chloë Sevigny, Megan Suri, Ellen Barkin, Jameela Jamil, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Reed Birney, Simon Helberg, and Tim Meadows. Based on this list alone it seems like there’s someone for everyone who will get wrapped up in the intrigue. And Johnson puts them to all good use with cleverly designed murders involving bigger than life characters. He allows the special guests to chew up the scenery while setting the stage for our main feature, Charlie.

She avoids danger in the next friendly town up the road. Unfortunately for her, (and fortunate for us) murder seems to follow her. Charlie also has a knack for making friendly acquaintances along her journey, only to learn they are in the middle of a mystery. The way the relationships and the ensuing mystery are revealed are all part of the fun. Johnson uses a jagged timeline approach with flashbacks and different perspectives putting the pieces together while keeping us strung along for more reveals. Most episodes we do not even see the star of the show, Charlie, until about 15-20 minutes into each case.

POKER FACE — “The Stall” Episode 103 — Pictured: Lil Rel Howery as Taffy — (Photo by: Peacock)

Some opening setups work better than others, but whenever Charlie gets to work each episode really hits its groove. Natasha Lyonne has never been better. Rian Johnson created just a star vehicle with the right person in mind to drive it. She’s quirky, confident and carries herself with immeasurable moxie. Every time she made that first appearance of an episode, I was almost expecting cheers from a live studio audience.

As the weekly murders are revealed we soon learn how the wandering Charlie happens entwined in the lives of the victims or suspects. This is followed by watching her often unorthodox, in-your-face approach to solving said murders, drawing from a slew of clues I missed just about every time. Charlie is as unpredictable as they come, keeping viewers and suspects on their toes. You never know just what is going through her brain and it is a pleasure to learn the answers. 

While the murder mystery will grab your interest, what holds it is the stylish way it is told and Lyonne’s infectious performance. The raspy-voiced, cigarette smoking, don’t-give-two-shits, character fits right in on a list of iconic television detectives. She is hard not to like especially since she takes on these cases with no training and few resources besides her intuition and a touch of genuine kindness. While every episode ends with her solving the case it is not always as smooth you may expect. Charlie is often in danger and leaves most mysteries with her fair of threats, bumps, and bruises.

POKER FACE — “The Night Shift” Episode 102 — Pictured: (l-r) Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, John Ratzenberger as Abe — (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

Poker Face is easy to consume. It is obvious Johnson waxes nostalgic about the era of television when you could plop down and watch one highly entertaining episode – commitment free, with only the slightest continuing storyline. They seem so rare these days. Also adding to the 70s/ 80s vibes are the fonts and design of the opening credits – which feel right out of Taxi, the choice in color grading, and the classic muscle car she drives. The series plays homage to the tv detective series of the past without losing its own flair. There is such a throwback feel, that at times the series had me forgetting what time period it was really set in. Then the use of a cell phone or computer quickly reminded me that this is not the 70s or 80s. 

One note, back to watching tv with the family, be cautious with Poker Face. It does not take long to establish this is for a more mature audience – thank goodness. The language, the crimes and parts of the conversations are geared toward adult ears.. Luckily for me I shooed away my daughter (a family tv tradition) just in time to avoid her seeing a screen of dick pics. 

It looks like Peacock has one of 2023’s big hits on its hands. Poker Face is addictive. It is both straight forward yet irreverent and slick, while enjoyably dipping into both noir and nostalgia. Each case is interesting but watching Lyonne go to work While intending to only watch 3 episodes for this review, I found myself finishing all six episodes provided. This is not really a binge watch series though. The series is incredibly entertaining, but at some point along my binge, a few formulaic qualities did start to come to the surface. I’d recommend instead taking it in like we did back in the day, savor it one episode at a time. I’m hooked.

Poker Face begins streaming January 26 on Peacock with its first four episodes followed by weekly episodes releases each Friday.

SCORE: ★★1/2


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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Awards Circuit and Screen Radar. He has conducted interviews with some of the best in the business - learning more about them, their projects and their crafts. He is a graduate of the RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.

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