With his big hit Mystery Knives out and the recent sequel Glass onion, filmmaker Rian Johnson gave 21st century America its own analogue to Agatha Christie’s gentleman detective Hercule Poirot. Not that whodunnits or formulaic mystery fiction had gone anywhere — CBS has some government abbreviations on the matter — they just weren’t fun anymore. Now Johnson is teaming up with star/producer Natasha Lyonne to bring that same modern polish to another much-loved detective series, Columbo. From the “howcatchem” story structure to the playful tone, to the goldenrod font of the credits, the new Peacock series Poker face is a delightful revival of the episodic, star-studded movie-of-the-week mystery, complete with a quirky and sweet sleuth.
Natasha Lyonne (Russian doll) stars as Charlie Cale, an affable burnout with the uncanny and unerring ability to tell when someone is lying. When this ability earns her some dangerous enemies, Charlie goes off the grid and goes on the run, bouncing from town to town and job to job. (“Like Cain from kung fu‘, as Sam Jackson says in it Pulp Fiction(which plays handily in Charlie’s trailer in the first episode.) It’s inevitable that someone will get killed everywhere she goes, and it’s up to Charlie to sniff out the truth. It’s an ideal setup for standalone mystery plots, as you can put Charlie in just about any scenario with the bare minimum of explanation. In the first episode, set in a casino in Nevada, she is a cocktail waitress. In a later episode, she works in a nursing home; and so on. Aside from Lyonne (and occasional appearances from recurring antagonist Benjamin Bratt), each case has its own unique cast, showcasing the talents of character actors such as Adrian Brody, Hong Chau, Chloë Sevigny and Tim Meadows, all of whom are here for a good time.
What brings cohesion to the series is a rigid inverted mystery story format. Like Columbo, Poker face show you the crime in its entirety first, rather than challenging the audience to solve it with the detective. The fun part is watching Charlie interact with the suspects, encountering clues and trying to understand what her internal lie detector is telling her. People lie all the time, as Charlie himself will tell you, and sensing a lie is not the same as knowing the truth. Since her superpower is no secret, the narrative tension of Charlie’s informal interrogations comes from watching perpetrators struggle to answer her questions without setting off any alarms. Lyonne, Johnson and company clearly understand what’s fun about formulaic fiction: creating a reliable set of rules and then applying them to new settings, where new characters can try to beat the champion and fail. The longer the show goes on, the more familiar the audience becomes with the formula and the more rewarding it becomes to subvert their expectations. Even halfway through the first season (I’ve seen six episodes out of ten), Poker face occasionally throws a narrative curveball.
Poker faceThe reputation of the company usually works to its advantage. Charlie Cale is one such thing Russian doll‘s Nadia Volvokov, basically just Natasha Lyonne thrown into a new situation. She’s a charming mess with an endless supply of clever comebacks that hover somewhere between brilliant and corny; born in 1979 and somehow still living there, like America’s youngest, hottest Jewish grandmother. If you like the cut of her jib in other series or talk show appearances, you’re in for more of the same. (For me, this is no problem.) Likewise, Poker face is tonally about what you would expect from Rian Johnson; it’s sassy, it’s timely, it’s a little in love with itself. Preventing an hour-long runtime and a rotation of other writers at the helm Poker face vanish from too far up his own ass. (Although, as Benoit Blanc of Knives outCharlie Cale often becomes a white knight to protect or avenge a holy, victimized person of color.) Poker face embraces modernity, weaving technology often into the fabric of a mystery rather than avoiding it, but it’s not as specifically “about now” as the Knives out series, which might give it a better shelf life in the long run.
Of course, it’s way too early to say whether or not Charlie Cale will be joining the canon of great screen detectives alongside Jessica Fletcher and Inspector Clouseau. She is at a slight disadvantage in the beginning as her series is definitely riding the surprising new wave of Columbo nostalgia and Columbo not become Columbo by trying to be Dragnet. However, she has one of the essential ingredients of any TV lead: you can get attached to her very quickly. Part of the show’s formula is that Charlie bonds with people instantly, and strong enough that she risks her safety to solve their murders or prove their innocence. Such an empathetic character is instantly endearing and a welcome change from the troubled anti-heroes that have dominated television for most of this century. Such probity can occasionally make a protagonist dull or unrelatable, but this is Natasha Lyonne we’re talking about, so “boring” seems out of the question. The potential is definitely there for it Poker face to make a long, prosperous run, but with the gushing bubble at the center of the eruption, nothing is a safe bet. For my part, I’m all in.