SERIES "Poker Face"
WHERE Streaming on Peacock
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Living in a trailer in the desert, Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne, "Orange Is the New Black," "Russian Doll") has been down on her luck since leaving a Las Vegas casino gig where her special gift was useful — she can always tell when someone is lying. Now, the new casino boss (Adrien Brody) wants her to return for a lucrative freelance chore. She reluctantly agrees, but when the gig goes sideways, she is forced to flee town in her seen-better-days 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, with the casino security chief (Benjamin Bratt) in pursuit.
In this 10-episode murder-mystery-of-the week, loosely based on "Columbo'' (which sporadically aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978, then ABC from 1989 to 2003), Charlie goes from town to town, where murder awaits. Rian Johnson ("Knives Out") and Lyonne are the showrunners.
MY SAY: The great "Columbo" was what was called a "howcatchem" as opposed to a "whodunit." This meant that viewers knew who the murderer was before the first commercial break, while Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) needed the rest of the show to figure that out for himself, clue by clue, or question by question ("just one more thing").
Columbo always did catch 'em, and the fun was in the "how." Same here, with minor adjustments, all of these fun, too. Forced to hit the road, Charlie just happens to arrive at each destination before the commission of a villainous deed. But before that occurs, she has bonded with the local color — all hard-case eccentrics who inhabit the far opposite end of the American dream. Like Charlie, most are graduates from the school of hard knocks, while one or two have decided that murder is their ticket out of Podunk. Because crime never wins in a howcatchem, nor in "Poker Face," she'll solve the mystery, then skip town herself.
If this sounds like a parboiled formula, then you've obviously been paying attention to your prime-time crime serials — "Monk," "Law & Order," "Diagnosis: Murder," and so on. But "Poker Face" adds a few other elements to get past the obvious homages to a place that is pure television circa 2023.
There's a flash-forward scene to start each episode, followed by a flashback to reveal how Charlie may (inadvertently) be tied to the crime. There are lots of cameos from established actors who turn in some energetic, sharply drawn performances. There are trick endings, or at least funny twist endings. And there's that chase element that keeps Charlie off-balance and on the run.
But obviously, the real key to "Poker Face" is Lyonne herself. There's something particularly comfortable about her Charlie, and effortlessly appealing too. Like Columbo, she shuffles amiably along, only to drop the affectation when the clues finally line up. She's an old soul with a sharp tongue and sharper eye — unafraid, but not exactly unwary either. It's a dangerous world out there, and not a little strange either. Charlie is attuned to all the weird rhythms and beats of life on the road, but especially to the oddballs and misfits she meets along the way. Yet with open heart, and open mind, she embraces them all, no doubt seeing some of herself in them too.
As creative partners, Lyonne and Johnson are clearly in agreement that something precious has been lost in this all-streaming-all-the-time world of ours. In "Poker Face," they've eliminated violence, or tamped it down, to get back to a kinder, gentler, "Murder, She Wrote" era — one abetted with a savage wit, and hard stop to each episode. Nice to be back there again.
BOTTOM LINE As always, Lyonne is great and her new show a winner.