Words By Harry Moore
“Poker Face” (Peacock)
Television may be several years removed from the days of “case of the week” shows being a mainstay of airwaves with season-long stories and characters who endure growth becoming the vogue of the medium. But “Knives Out” director Rian Johnson has managed to bring the once reliable genre into the 2020s with his new show “Poker Face.” We all know how this works: There’s a murder (often committed by a famous guest star), and our hero sleuth rolls onto the scene to unravel the mystery and serve justice before the hour’s out. It’s a structure that worked for years for both Angela Lansbury and Scooby Doo.
The “Columbo” character in “Poker Face” is played by the always charming Natasha Lyonne, who deftly delivers the show’s quick-witted dialogue and effortlessly creates on screen chemistry with the revolving cast of supporting players. Lyonne stars as Charlie, a woman on the run and living off the grid, who also has the uncanny ability to read whenever someone is lying—and to regularly find herself tangentially tangled around a series of suspicious deaths. In the first episode, we meet Charlie working as a waitress at a Nevada casino. When her coworker is killed under suspicious circumstances, Charlie unravels a conspiracy that points toward the murder being ordered by the casino owner Sterling Frost Jr., played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody. After leaking her findings to the web, Charlie is forced to hit the road fleeing retribution from Frost’s mob-tied network. The road trip takes Charlie through the backroads of America’s heartland, as she looks for jobs that pay under the table to avoid leaving a paper trail, stopping at a variety of locations from a roadside Texas BBQ joint to a Georgia nursing home to a dinner theatre in upstate New York. Each stop is filled with memorable characters (played by guest stars such as Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Chloë Sevigny and Tim Meadows) and will inevitably be the scene of a strangely suspicious death. The unique and ever-changing locations are big part of what make the show work, as we see a glimpse into the way of life of underrepresented communities, which results in unexpected, small-town motivations for these murders. The conceit allows for each episode to be its own thing, while still sticking to a tried-and-true formula that has been clearly defined in these early episodes. “Poker Face” is an engaging and delightful reimagining of a series format that had been somewhat lost to the binge era of television. Johnson and his team are able to create consistently surprising mysteries that always have a distinctive sense of humor, and in Charlie, “Poker Face” has given Natasha Lyonne a part worthy of her unique talents.