Natasha Lyonne Puts on Her ‘Poker Face’ in Rian Johnson’s Deliriously Fun Series
When a director finds a storytelling form that feels like a natural vocation, they can begin to truly soar. For Rian Johnson, the murder mystery genre seems to define that special calling. Since 2019’s “Knives Out,” which has defined the revival of Agatha Christie’s narrative style for modern audiences, Johnson has found secure footing in spinning intricate webs enveloping strong ensembles. In late 2022 his “Knives Out” sequel, “Glass Onion,” delivered just as much fun. But now Johnson expands on the concept with more depth and darker edge with “Poker Face,” a crime-of-the-week series on Peacock driven by the director’s stylish eye, a great lead in Natasha Lyonne and a whole slew of pitiful, violent guilty parties.
Each episode is a different crime, featuring different guest stars that eventually orbit around Lyonne’s character, Charlie Cale. Charlie is on the road across the southwest in her Plymouth Barracuda, apparently on the run from some powerful casino boss. Just how Charlie got into trouble is established in the pilot episode, where we first meet her as a waitress who has an uncanny ability to detect when someone is lying. This skill brings her to the attention of Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody), whose father originally blackballed Charlie from his casino precisely because of her ability. But Frost Jr. believes he can use Charlie to get back at a big gambling whale, promising the waitress a lot of money in return. It sounds easy enough, but Charlie’s best friend, who was involved in an abusive relationship, is found dead. When Charlie begins to suspect Sterling and his henchman, Cliff (Benjamin Pratt), were involved, her big chance unravels. She hits the road and rides into more strange cases.
From then on, “Poker Face” becomes a great road trip full of quirks and sleuth sharpness. Aesthetically it’s a return to the southwestern desert zones where Johnson found attention as one of the directors on “Breaking Bad.” His visual palette has grown since and the series combines his knack for briskly-paced TV with the stylish compositions of “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion.” There’s also a subtle nostalgia component in how “Poker Face” brings back a particular form of TV that was a big weekly favorite back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Comparisons can easily be made to shows like “Murder, She Wrote” or “Walker, Texas Ranger,” where central characters with grander backstories had to solve new crimes every week. It’s refreshing considering you don’t need to keep track here of the more archaic, overly bloated plots typical recently in Peak TV prestige titles.
Natasha Lyonne, who was so great in Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” is a dream choice for Charlie, bringing the necessary combination of humor and scrappy wit. The crimes she walks into are all perfect for her presence. There’s the pitifully lonely small town New Mexico clerk, Jed (Colton Ryan), in “The Night Shift” who kills someone over a winning lottery ticket. The standout guest in the episode is Hong Chau as Marge, a New Agey truck driver who might take the fall for the killing. Chloë Sevigny channels her inner Courtney Love as Ruby Ruin in “Rest in Metal,” as the lead singer of the band Doxxxology, who’ve been desperate for any kind of break and might have resorted to murder. Lil Rel Howery stars in one of the season’s quirkier mysteries that also feels like a hilariously sly wink at our changing eating habits in “The Stall,” about the owner of a BBQ joint who feels the crushing guilt of having to kill animals, so he decides it’s best to go vegan.
In both the stronger and weaker episodes, Johnson and the writing/directing team make sure to give each crime just enough of an air of plausibility. There’s a human element driving each choice. In “The Night Shift” Jed commits his crime not so much out of greed, but because he’s obsessed with another local clerk, Sara (Megan Suri). “Rest in Metal” is relatable to any struggling artist desperate for any kind of solid validation, even if we haven’t all been pushed to murder. “Time of the Monkey,” is a lively commentary on age with a plot set in a nursing home where a group of tenants with rebellious streaks prove they are still capable of starting some real trouble. Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson are full of great spunk in this episode, gleefully talking back to their nurses (“do we have time to change our diapers and go watch ‘Teletubbies?”). The season will also feature other notable guest appearances from names like Ron Perlman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tim Blake Nelson in more cases confronting Charlie.
With television now seen as an art form in the streaming era akin to novels and arthouse cinema, a show like “Poker Face” skillfully combines a sense of higher artistry with classic entertainment. Johnson knows how to fashion intelligent, visually engaging material, while keeping the energy levels up and delivering plots anyone can enjoy on a popcorn level. The cases are odd, sad, endearing and nearly always funny in light and dark ways. Natasha Lyonne holds it all together with her keenness and street wise attitude. Unsurprisingly, the acting and structure can be even more absorbing then the cases on their own. And yet, the crimes on display tap into something very true about murderous schemes. They tend to nearly always be based on the basest human follies. Our worst mistakes are about the simplest things. “Poker Face” understands that while providing hours of pure enjoyment.
“Poker Face” season one begins streaming Jan. 26 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on Peacock.