If you loved the Netflix movie Glass Onion and the Netflix TV show Russian Doll, you’ll love the new series Poker Face on… not Netflix. Created by Rian Johnson and starring Natasha Lyonne, this freewheeling murder mystery show from Peacock is a charming throwback for anyone craving more delicious detective shenanigans.
Having written and directed Knives Out and its sequel, Glass Onion, Johnson is an expert at putting a twist on the ever-popular whodunit genre. Instead of Daniel Craig’s suave sleuth Benoit White, the crime-solver in this new series is Lyonne’s raspy and rumpled Charlie Cale. A sort of trailer-park Columbo drifting along in a muscle car, Charlie has an infallible ability to call bullshit — literally, as she blurts out the word whenever someone lies.
The first four episodes of Poker Face are now available on NBC’s streaming service, peacock, with a new installment of the 10-episode series each week. On the one hand, Peacock has shrewdly scooped Netflix to capitalize on the hype around Johnson and Glass Onion, which reportedly cost Netflix millions and millions of dollars, as well as the love for Lyonne off the back of Russian Doll, another Netflix hit. On the other hand, you can’t help feeling that a lot more people would see Poker Face if it was actually we Netflix. Why Netflix didn’t make Poker Face is a mystery worthy of Benoit Blanc.
But let’s get down to the boxes. We first meet Lyonne’s Charlie Cale as a croaky casino cocktail waitress, a self-proclaimed dumbass glued to her phone gobbling up conspiracy theories. Her relaxed approach to life is tested by the death of a friend, pitting casino bosses (played by Adrien Brody and Benjamin Bratt), high rollers and other wealthy sharks against the lowly folks who serve them. Like Knives Out and Glass Onion, this first episode is a deliciously intricate thriller streaked with dark humor and touches of class satire.
The following episodes see Charlie hit the road. Listen for a snippet of the Pulp Fiction diner scene (“Walk the earth… like Kane in Kung Fu…”), which is a pop culture reference nested within a pop culture reference. Very meta — like a Russian doll!
The retro yellow titles and on-the-road format bring to mind vintage classics like Highway to Heaven. At the same time, the midwest setting, pulpy comic tone and ambivalent hero are reminiscent of more recent crime drama TV like Breaking Bad or Justified. It also has the feel of a Coen brothers movie, as ordinary people are pushed to do extraordinary (and violent) things by greed, bad luck and lots of sheer stupidity.
In theory, once Charlie hits the road, you can watch the series in any order, as each week brings a fresh murder and a fresh guest cast. The murder element is more of a “howcatchem” rather than a whodunit — because, as in Columbo, the dirty deed is seen at the start of each installation. But although Charlie is our nominal detective, watching her play catchup to what we already know is only part of the fun. The most interesting aspect of the show involves figuring out why the murders happened, especially as the show teases new motives and new suspects by unfolding intricate plots and rug-pulling twists. And the fact that Charlie isn’t actually a cop but just a random passer-by with a nagging sense of right and wrong adds an interesting thrill, as justice can be something more quirky, cathartic and even comic.
Sadly the series doesn’t quite get to grips with that idea, and it’s disappointing when clever and absurdist stories end with the cops showing up thanks to yet another confession caught on a hidden recording device. The other downside of Charlie’s nonprofessional sleuthing is that it’s natural for a cop to be called to crime after crime, but Charlie just happens to be on the spot time after time when people get murdered. The contrivance begins to wear thin almost immediately.
Still, get past that glaring issue and the show is a huge amount of fun. Charlie’s presence isn’t even that important to the narrative, as each episode opens by focusing on the murderers and murderees, setting up their petty squabbles and fatal feuds in long unhurried stretches before Charlie even shows her face. These murderous morality plays draw you into each idiosyncratic little world — an isolated truck stop, a BBQ hotspot, a colorful retirement village — full of quirky characters, peeling back the onion of means, motivates and opportunity in tricky twists and turns.
Although Johnson wrote and directed the opening episodes and much of the show (which is co-produced by Maya Rudolph), it’s also a showcase for other talented creators and directors. Episode 5, in which two aged hippie retirees (delightfully foul-mouthed S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light) find their past catch up to them, is a particular standout with roving, golden-tinged photography from director Lucky McKee and cinematographer Christine Ng.
Among the guest cast, Chloe Sevigny and Ellen Barkin are particularly good in their respective episodes (I saw the first six, with stars including Clea DuVall, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, Ron Perlman and Tim Blake Nelson still to come ). Sevigny plays a washed-up rock star determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past with a winning worldweariness, while Barkin vamps it up as a melodramatic actress. Hong Chau, nominated in this year’s Oscars for her performance in The Whale, is also scene-stealingly good in an all-too-brief appearance.
With its dip-in-and-out weekly format, Poker Face is something of a throwback in more ways than one. Anchored by Lyonne at her most watchable and filled with just enough twists to keep things interesting, Poker Face makes murder into highly snackable comfort viewing.
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