Los Angeles Times
‘Poker Face’ hits the jackpot
Love ‘Columbo’? You’ll devour this TV comfort food starring Natasha Lyonne.
“Poker Face,” a new series starring Natasha Lyonne and created by Rian Johnson of “Knives Out”/ “Glass Onion” fame, is a work of pure pleasure, a comedy-mystery with roots that reach down half a century into the heyday of broadcast television. Its specific antecedents are “Columbo,” whose opening credits it apes, in that we first see the murder and then watch the star bring the killer to justice; and “The Fugitive,” in that Lyonne’s character is on the run and finds herself in a new place, wrapped in a new drama, every week. (I say drama, which is true enough given that people are killed, but “Poker Face,” which premieres Thursday on Peacock, is on balance a comedy, and a consistently funny one.)
It also calls back to an earlier age in that it is firmly episodic and follows a formula. That isn’t to say it’s uninspired — what keeps the formula from becoming formulaic are the writing, acting and staging, which tell us a lot in a little time without ever feeling baldly expository or manipulative. But each episode has a simi
lar shape, an order of business. Streaming made serials de rigueur; here you’re drawn back not by a cliffhanger but for a variation on the very thing you liked last week. There are still plenty of these shows on network television, generally sitcoms and procedurals, where a problem is created and solved between the opening and closing credits, but it’s rare to find them on a streaming platform.
(Amateur) detection suits Lyonne. “Russian Doll,” the series that, after “Orange Is the New Black,” cemented her return to the spotlight — she got famous young, but there were later years in the personal and professional wilderness — was a mystery story as well: a mystical detective show in which her Nadia needed to discover why she kept dying in the first season and traveling through time in the second. “Poker Face,” for all its cleverness and modern attitudes, is as straightforward as can be, made simply, and expertly, to be enjoyed — comfort food, not “elevated,” but delicious.
As Charlie, Lyonne is the series’ only regular character, though Benjamin Bratt recurs as her pursuer, a security chief employed by the casino where we meet her working as a cocktail waitress. The pilot sets up the terms of her f light, which are too much of a spoiler to spell out, but there’s a murder, and in solving it Charlie incurs the wrath of a powerful person (with the voice of Ron Perlman). It’s a star turn, which is to say the actress herself is inextricable from the fun, the case with most every successful detective series. Her vibe runs from Brooklyn to the Borscht Belt — like “Columbo’s” Peter Falk, she’s New York Jewish — and she comes across onscreen as colorful, friendly, eccentric, determined, existentially rumpled and, if we may detour for a word into Yiddish, heimish, even when her character is vexing or problematic. She’s like an uncle — aunt doesn’t really capture it — who tells jokes you can’t always follow and every so often leans in to pull a nickel out of your ear.
Like Nadia, Charlie is special. She has a nonsupernatural superpower: the ability to tell when a person is lying. We learn that before she was serving drinks at the Frost casino and living in a trailer in the desert, she used this ability to make a lot of money playing poker; but that part of her life has been forced to a conclusion, which she doesn’t mind at all.
Still, as the series opens, the casino is being managed by the owner’s son, played by Adrien Brody, who has learned her secret and has a proposition that will make her rich.
“I been rich,” says Charlie.
“How was it?” “Easier than being broke. Harder than doing just fine.”
Once we see the murder — its setup, its execution — we hop back a little in time to find that Charlie has already entered the scene. She might be working a low-profile job — a waitress at a dinner theater, a cook at an open-air barbecue joint, an attendant in a retirement home, selling merch on a sad little rock tour — or stuck in
town overnight while her Plymouth Barracuda is being repaired. But she’s been around long enough to establish a connection. Charlie’s a talkative, amiable, social creature, which, mixed with her innate sense of right and wrong, makes her helpless to keep from helping where help is needed. (She will even take charge of a stray dog that seems to hate her.) “I think in another life you were, like, a knight,” a friend tells her. “Lady Galahad.”
With her built-in bull detector, Charlie is also unable to rest when something seems off, and so she’ll stick with a problem — getting to the bottom of what looks like an accident, death by natural causes, suicide or murder at the hands of someone already in custody — until she works it out. She does have an unfortunate habit of explaining to the killer or killers just how they did it, without a policeman’s power to then hang the cuffs on them, and so regularly puts herself in danger.
Nevertheless, she manages to deliver some form of justice each episode before moving on to the next setting, where, again, someone will be murdered. The absurd frequency with which this happens might, one would think, be a cause for comment — she’s a compulsive commenter and a born ironist — but such is the lot of the incidental detective, from Miss Marple to Father Brown to Jessica Fletcher.
The changing milieus and a delightful guest cast — including John Ratzenberger, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Meadows, Ellen Barkin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Judith Light, John Hodgman, Chloë Sevigny, Simon Helberg, Hong Chau and K Callan (the old lady in Johnson’s “Knives Out”) — keep “Poker Face” colorful and fresh. Leaving aside the essentially magical talent that will help Charlie crack a case, not everything is completely plausible, and the mechanics of the murders, which reach into the Big Book of Establishing an Alibi, can feel a little familiar. But with 136 years of mystery stories since Sherlock Holmes opened shop, how could it be otherwise? And familiarity — which breeds contentment as easily as contempt — is in part the point. Although it will be mentioned more than once to Charlie that she isn’t in a television show, of course she is. That’s why we’re here, and sticking around.