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In 2023 TV terms, it’s hard to say which represents the bigger artistic risk: a half-hour dramedy featuring temporal disruptions, Jewish mysticism and Harry Nilsson, or an hour-long faithful reproduction — right down to the title font — of the sort of character-driven crime procedurals that were popular in the ’70s and ’80s and definitely aren’t in vogue today.
Let’s just say that Natasha Lyonne doesn’t play it safe. Less than a year after launching the surprisingly solid second season of Netflix’s Russian Doll, Lyonne is back on the small screen as star and executive producer of Peacock’s Poker Face, from creator Rian Johnson and showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman.
Cast: Natasha Lyonne
Creator: Rian Johnson
The format for Poker Face is so apparently strange and off-putting — a show with standalone mysteries… on streaming… in this economy? — that even Peacock doesn’t quite know how to handle it, launching the series with a four-episode binge that nearly negates its entire watch-every-week ethos.
I don’t think you need to know the rhythms and structure of Columbo or Rockford Files to get Poker Face any more or less than you need to recognize the rhythms and structure of Dashiell Hammett to get Brick or the rhythms and structure of Agatha Christie to get Knives Out. (You do NOT want to go head-to-head with Rian Johnson in a game of mystery storytelling karaoke.) But it probably helps, at least initially. Poker Face would be very conventional if we were in a time loop, but it’s frequently odd in terms of how it takes its inspirations and repurposes them for a streaming world.
In some of the six episodes sent to critics, the pacing is a bit off, and the show’s best resource — a magnificently skeptical Lyonne — is almost underused. In the balance, the show is a fun romp featuring great guest stars and some carefully detailed puzzles. It’s a whodunit fan’s delight — for TV mystery fans, by TV mystery fans.
Poker Face begins with an extensive — 67 minutes, before Peacock starts tossing ads in — premise pilot, written and directed by Johnson. It establishes Lyonne as Charlie Cale, cocktail waitress at a slightly tawdry Vegas casino far off the Strip. When something very bad happens to Charlie’s friend Natalie (Dascha Polanco), Charlie starts to poke around, much to the chagrin of the casino’s reptilian manager (a perfectly slimy Adrien Brody) and skulking head of security (Benjamin Bratt). Charlie has no experience as a gumshoe. What she does have is an infallible internal lie detector, a gift or curse that has gotten her into a lot of trouble in the past.
The pilot concludes with Charlie on the run, setting up the actual show, in which she goes from town to town in her beat-up, powder-blue Plymouth Barracuda, taking odd jobs and solving murders everywhere she goes. This, of course, makes her more like a combination of Jessica Fletcher (a group of crime drama-watching old ladies in one episode are even called The Fletchers) and Caine from Kung Fu (referenced in a Pulp Fiction scene featured in the pilot) than the more stationary Columbo. She still uses her truth-spotting powers to help her get justice, but despite a heavy emphasis in the pilot, it isn’t some magical gift that everything hinges on and, in fact, after a long expositional explanation in that first episode, the need to spell it out diminishes with each subsequent installment.
Following in that Columbo footprint, episodes of Poker Face are more “howcatchem” than “whodunit.” After the title and a list of episodic guest stars, we see the commission of the crime, before backtracking to show how Charlie came to be there and what her emotional involvement was. At no point in the first six episodes does Charlie express concern that she has become a magnet for murder, but that’s probably coming soon — probably with a Murder, She Wrote acknowledgment, because if there’s anything Poker Face loves more than a recognizable guest star committing murder, it’s a nerdy pop culture nod. Although the events of the pilot would seem to be traumatizing, subsequent episodes immediately set a far lighter tone, and the only real continuity comes from occasional, completely unnecessary appearances by Bratt’s character, whom the series wants to simultaneously depict as horribly menacing and remarkably easy to evade.
Episodes are long, but diminishing, starting at 62 minutes for the second installment, but down to 46 by the sixth. Johnson and subsequent scribes take advantage of the extra running time by stretching the prologues, meaning that you get several episodes in which Lyonne doesn’t make her first appearance until between 15 and 20 minutes in. Throw in several episodes that have somewhat anti-climactic endings, caused perhaps by the inconsistency of Charlie’s actual investigative skills, and you’re looking at maybe only 20 or 25 minutes of Natasha Lyonne cracking wise and following clues per episode. If that happens to be the thing you’re tuning in for, the balance can be a little disappointing. It’s such a superb vehicle for Lyonne’s trademark schtick — Charlie gets irritated with Oscar winners, Emmy winners, Tony winners and alt-right dogs with equally quizzical joy — that the prioritizing of structure over star doesn’t always work.
It helps, though, that the standalone mysteries are solid. With most broadcast procedurals these days, the format fails because the cases-of-the-week stink — yes, I’m looking at you, Fox’s Alert: Missing Persons Unit. But it isn’t surprising that with Johnson leading the charge, the Poker Face mysteries are carefully constructed and efficient, attuned enough to clues and red herrings to keep viewers guessing as to how things will resolve.
Maybe they aren’t of equal merit, but there isn’t a straight-up dud in these half-dozen episodes. I liked guest stars Megan Suri and Colton Ryan — plus a hilarious Hong Chau — in the second episode, which involves an ill-fated love triangle on a remote stretch of New Mexico road. That episode, written by Russian Doll veteran Alice Ju, also has the purest distillation of Lyonne’s sensibility. I enjoyed the BBQ-centric episode featuring Lil Rel Howery and loved the performances in a later episode with Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as ’70s political revolutionaries now living in a retirement home. The sixth episode, with Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows as former TV co-stars reuniting for one night of community theater, is full of amusing inside baseball details. I guess that leaves “Rest in Metal,” featuring Chloe Sevigny as the vicious frontman of a one-hit-wonder band as my least favorite.
Generally, the series has a confident throwback style, with solid location shooting and the occasional ’70s flourish — an unexpected zoom or whatnot — as a reminder of the project’s origins. Maybe I didn’t love Poker Face quite as much as I wanted to, but it’s doing its odd thing with great enthusiasm and I can easily see how it could get more and more comfortable with its derivative-but-distinctive voice. And don’t listen to Peacock. Watch the first two and then treat yourself to one episode per week. It’s what Lieutenant Columbo would want.
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Robert De Niro