Natasha Lyonne is A 21st-Century Columbo in Rian Johnson’s Brilliant ‘Poker Face’

Lyonne teams up with the Knives Out filmmaker for Peacock’s new murder mystery series, and the result is some flat-out fantastic procedural television.
Poker Face Review

Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) is the type of person who would meet you once and proclaim that you’re “good people.” Charlie would also lend you a smoke, or five dollars, or an ear while you complain about whatever’s on your mind. She’s the exact person you’d want to meet at a gas station during hour fourteen of a road trip when your eyes are bleary, and you’re at your wit’s end. With Charlie Cale, Rian Johnson has created the perfect Natasha Lyonne protagonist. With his new series Poker Face, he’s created a near-perfect heir apparent to one of the most enjoyable crime shows of all time, Columbo.

Poker Face isn’t a Columbo reboot, but it’s about as close as an homage can get without having to credit the original, and I mean that as a compliment. The series follows familiar rhythms episode-to-episode, but the details of its case-of-the-week vary wildly. A-list guest stars populate richly imagined worlds that Charlie pops into for the course of an hour, solving a crime before hitting the road for the next destination. Like Columbo, Poker Face is a great comfort watch in the making. Also, like Columbo, it’s clever, funny, visually interesting, and laced with confidently relayed insights about a particularly American brand of desperation.

Rest assured, the show is far from a complete retread of a classic. The series has some semblance of an overarching plot, one that’s tied to the hot water Charlie finds herself in during its first episode. She’s also not a detective but a traveling gig worker who has a near-psychic penchant for sniffing out bullshit. Charlie is a human lie detector, but her parlor trick can only get her so far. As she continuously stumbles upon murders (the show asks us to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the case of the week premise, and it’s so great that it’s easy to oblige), Charlie heads towards danger rather than away from it, bugging suspects with a charismatic recklessness that would make Peter Falk proud.

Johnson updates the typical whodunnit structure with a clever gimmick. As with Columbo, each episode begins with a fairly extensive cold open involving a murder – and revealing the murderer. But in Poker Face’s case, the first act is actually a chapter from the middle of the book, as viewers then return to the main story in which the murder hasn’t actually happened yet. It’s a small distinction but an extremely fun one, as we get to see Charlie make friends (or enemies) with all parties involved with the crime before it even happens. There’s not a weak link among the rotating guest stars, but Hong Chau, Judith Light, Chloe Sevigny, and Tim Meadows are a few standouts in the six episodes available for review.

It’s difficult to overstate just how great Lyonne is in this role. She’s honed her swagger, and brassy wit in TV shows like Russian Doll and Orange is the New Black, but Poker Face brings out a whole new level to a classic Lyonne performance. There’s a balance to Charlie that her more chaotic characters don’t have. She’s a perfect mix of effortlessly cool, unapologetically blunt, and appropriately empathetic. She also makes Poker Face, already a charming and well-paced procedural, an extremely easy watch – the kind of show you can cut through like butter.

Johnson’s artistry is also on full display here. There are signature Johnson-isms, like loving genre inversions, fully-realized fake pop culture touchstones within the show, and a penchant for creating memorable characters who only briefly appear. But the slow build of a TV show structure also allows the Knives Out filmmaker to expand upon the themes that have preoccupied his recent works, including Trump-era politics and wealth inequality. While Columbo often cast wealthy elites as its killers, Poker Face instead focuses largely on small-town characters whose crimes are in part motivated by capitalistic daydreams. Johnson’s works tend to wear their ideologies on their sleeves. Still, Poker Face is satisfyingly sly about its morals, letting viewers make what we will of an endless pile-up of thwarted, desperate American dreams.

The show also takes a realistic – if sometimes purposely heightened or theatrical – approach to its blue-collar characters. Lyonne makes Charlie feel like someone who’s truly of the people, so her crime-solving road trip eventually feels like a vibrant travelogue as much as a traditional mystery. Don’t let Poker Face’s easy-going vibes fool you; it’s one of the more ambitious tapestries Johnson has ever woven. He and a slate of talented directors match the show’s narrative ambition with often-cinematic visuals, while a fantastic, plucky score accompanies Charlie’s meanderings.

Each element works in tandem to create something that’s at once familiar and new, comfortable and electrifying, and most importantly, wholly entertaining.

Poker Face begins airing on Peacock starting January 26th. Watch the series trailer here.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)