When Natasha Lyonne’s character Charlie Cale tosses back a swig of Coors Light and speeds away in her Plymouth Barracuda at the end of Poker Face‘s pilot, your body will buzz with the same exhilaration you feel when a Rian Johnson mystery movie wraps. Only this time, there’s an added thrill: You get to experience that unique euphoria over and over again.
Peacock‘s newest original series, a 10-episode mystery-of-the-week starring Lyonne as a casino employee with the special ability to tell when people are lying, is the first television show from the acclaimed Knives Out and Glass Onion creator. Born from his and Lyonne’s shared love of shows like Magnum P.I., Murder, She Wrote, The A-Team, and Quantum Leap, Poker Face meticulously crafts and skillfully unravels compelling mysteries with a twist. It isn’t another whodunit. It’s more of a howcatchem. By embracing the unconventional show structure of another major inspiration, Columbo, Johnson reveals the crime, the victims, and the killer at the top of each episode. The bulk of the excitement then comes from watching Lyonne’s Charlie use her uncanny bullshit detector to put the pieces together and choose a creative punishment that fits the crime.
After solving her friend’s murder — and pissing off a powerful revenge seeker in the process — Charlie is forced to go on the run, which sets Poker Face‘s delightful design in motion. With Charlie on the road, a new case, location, and cast are introduced each episode. And though the format means individual installments have the power to feel like short, stand-alone films, another recurring character — Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand, a casino security heavy tasked with tracking Charlie down — appears periodically (in the first six episodes available for review) to help anchor the pilot storyline. Throughout the season, Lyonne and Bratt are joined by a stacked lineup of powerhouse guest stars including Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, Dascha Polanco, Hong Chau, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Luis Guzmán, Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, Ron Perlman, Simon Helberg, Stephanie Hsu, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Meadows, and more. Johnson and Lyonne were able to tap talented friends and past collaborators for certain roles, and Poker Face’s Emmy-nominated casting director Mary Vernieu filled the rest of the roster perfectly. But the series shines so bright because of Lyonne’s undeniable charisma, which Johnson knew he needed from the start.
If you, like Johnson, fell in love with Lyonne as Nadia in Russian Doll — the Netflix series she co-created and writes with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland — then you know she’s a personality infectious enough to keep you coming back for more, no matter how many times Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” plays; or in this case, how many mysteries need solving. In the Peacock series, Lyonne remains a perceptive, comical, frantically phenomenal wordsmith who can seemingly talk herself out of any jam. But we see a new side of the actor in Charlie, who’s visibly less hardened — though equally bad-ass — and more hopeful for humanity than Nadia. She’s unafraid to turn her car around and put her life on the line to do what she feels is right, makes friends wherever she goes, and emits contagious excitement when cracking a case. In addition to starring in the series, Lyonne also wrote and directed Episode 8, “The Orpheus Syndrome,” which stars Nolte.
Poker Face isn’t on the big screen, but Johnson and his talented team spared none of his signature style when creating the show. The visual stunner of a series is filled with spanning wide shots that aren’t afraid to embrace simplicity, moody lighting, and camerawork that plays with perspective. Johnson’s longtime cinematographer, Steve Yeldin, helped capture the specific mood of each episode, as did crisp sound work, thoughtful music selection, and ambitious production design. Showrunners (and sisters) Nora and Lilla Zuckerman showed Johnson the ropes in his first TV writers’ room, which produced tight, sharp scripts with jokes that stick the landing — from “the cloud of boners” to a familiar fave uttering two simple words: “little jail.” The series breathes fresh life into a beloved genre and introduces quintessential components of classic series to a whole new generation, while keeping every viewer on their toes.
To put it simply, Poker Face is a triumph — for Johnson and Lyonne, for modern-day TV, for the mystery genre in general, and — crucially — for Peacock. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Johnson explained, “…When we were pitching it around town, boy it was crazy. I knew that there was a certain amount of gravity right now toward serialized storytelling, but I didn’t think that the notion of truly episodic TV in this mode was going to be seen as this big of a wacky swing. I was unprepared for the blank stares.” By taking a shot on Johnson’s original vision, Peacock secured a killer start to 2023 and a major FOMO show — one with the potential to run strong for seasons to come, and that might even inspire more of Johnson’s fans to subscribe to the platform.
The first four episodes of Poker Face premiere January 26 on Peacock. New episodes drop weekly on Thursdays.