Poker Face Review: Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne Deliver a Brilliant Fresh Take on a Classic Genre

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The Pitch: In the spring of 2020, a Twitter conversation began about who might be the best person to lead a reboot of iconic detective series Columbo, and while Mark Ruffalo was mentioned as an obvious contender, a galaxy brain-level thought emerged: What about Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne? Lyonne herself seemed very on board, and while that specific resurrection of IP never happened, just three years later we have Poker Face, created by Glass Onion helmer Rian Johnson — an original mystery drama packed with nostalgia for what came before, with its own special modern flair.

Starring Lyonne as Charlie, a “human lie detector” who uses her ability to sniff out bullshit to serve as TV’s least likely detective, Poker Face is packed with homages to the great ’70s and ’80s detective shows of yore. The new Peacock drama features more guest stars than we can easily list here, while cementing Lyonne’s status as one of our most watchable actors, a truly one-of-a-kind screen talent for whom this show has been tailored to perfection.

There’s Something That Bothers Me… The pilot episode introduces both Charlie as well as the show’s ongoing format, perhaps the biggest homage to the aforementioned Columbo: Each installment begins with a murder being committed, meaning that the viewer isn’t wondering whodunnit, but “howcatchem” — specifically, how Charlie will sniff out the truth, especially after the episode skips backward in time to reveal just how Charlie fits into the events we’ve already seen. (While Johnson is not the official showrunner on the series — Nora and Lilla Zuckerman of Fringe and Prodigal Son are — he writes and directs multiple episodes, bringing with him an approach we’re very familiar with after watching Glass Onion.)

While there’s a bit of an overarching plot-line connecting these episodes, tied to the events of the pilot, the point here is a return to classic mystery-of-the-week TV, with massive guest stars introduced in every episode to anchor those stories.

The first six episodes provided for review include Chloë Sevigny as the frontwoman for a heavy metal band (which also includes John Darnielle as a band member), Oscar nominee Hong Chau as a long haul trucker, Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as rebellious residents of a retirement community, and Tim Meadows and Ellen Barkin as faded TV stars reduced to dinner theater.

While all the guest stars are top-notch, the only occasional issue with this approach is that of pacing — with murder being a foregone conclusion, the audience is naturally eager to see how Charlie fits into each new scenario being introduced, and the payoff sometimes feels a bit long to wait for. But it speaks to how naturally compelling Lyonne is in the role — set up as anti-establishment but pro-justice, Charlie’s an immediately sympathetic protagonist, and the low-key swagger she brings to each situation is addictive.

Poker Face Review Natasha Lyonne
Poker Face Review Natasha Lyonne

Poker Face (Peacock)

Just One More Thing: On a production level, Poker Face never wants to escape the classic TV detective vibe established by Johnson in the first two episodes — even the opening credits feature the old-school touch of including the copyright info for the show right up front, and there are dramatic pans and zooms all over the place, accentuating the show’s rough-and-tumble vibe while also capturing the tiny details of these characters’ lives that make them feel truly lived in.

Composer Nathan Johnson brings a haunting Sufjan Stevens-esque twang to the show’s themes, and as befitting a road trip series, the cinematography relishes in capturing the great wide emptiness of America’s backcountry, and the strange environments you might stumble across when avoiding the main road.

That energy contributes to one of the show’s most memorable aspects: A charming quirk of Charlie’s is her uncanny ability to not just tell if someone’s lying, but know whether or not they’re a good person, despite whatever image they might project. She thus has a knack for looking beneath the surface and finding what’s beautiful or fascinating about the strangers she encounters — though she’s also vulnerable to being disappointed by people at times.

It’s at times a bit aspirational, to be honest: Even in crappy circumstances, she can find a way to enjoy the moment and/or the people she’s sharing it with. (Except, of course, when the bullets start to fly.)

The Verdict: There’s something to be said for knowing exactly what kind of show you’re trying to make, and hitting the bullseye clean and true. You could accuse Poker Face of lacking ambition by drawing so heavily on the past, but that would be missing the point. What Johnson, Lyonne, and the Zimmermans have done is identify what was so magnetic and crowd-pleasing about Columbo and his kin, and translate it to a whole new era, in ways that feel of the moment and fresh.

And also, it cannot be stated often enough how refreshing it is that rather than actually hunt down the rights for rebooting the original Peter Falk favorite, Johnson has created a unique take for Lyonne, who’s right at home wearing a trucker hat as she drives her beater across the country. In this age of constant revivals and reboots, we’ve learned to appreciate the ones which bring some creativity to the assignment. But that also means that when something that’s actually fresh and new comes around, we savor it all the more.

Where to Watch: The first four episodes of Poker Face premiere Thursday, January 26th. Subsequent episodes will debut weekly.

Trailer:

Poker Face Review: Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne Deliver a Brilliant Fresh Take on a Classic Genre
Liz Shannon Miller

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