In ‘Poker Face’ Natasha Lyonne Delights as an Amateur Detective – TV Review

Courtesy of Peacock

Rian Johnson clearly knows how to write a juicy, campy “whodunnit.” After reviving the subgenre with Knives Out and Glass Onion, he’s reviving the “howcatchem” in Poker Face, a 10-episode Peacock series. Each mystery of the week kicks off by revealing the culprit. The fun is watching amateur sleuth Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) piece the puzzle together by flexing her inner lie detector. Johnson wrote Charlie as a modern-day Columbo, complete with her own catchphrase: “Bullshit!” 

After a brief pause following the highly anticipated second season of Russian Doll, Lyonne once more graces the small screen with her signature smoky voice, curly bangs, and sardonic sense of humor, all familiar yet lovable tricks in her bag of roguish characters. If there’s one thing Lyonne does best — something she proved from the time she starred in But I’m a Cheerleader — it’s playing queer characters, metaphorically or literally. 

Charlie is rebellious yet perpetually underwhelmed; shuffling around in rumpled cardigans with a beer in hand at all hours belies her sharp wit and heart of gold. Lyonne’s performance as Nadia in Russian Doll has a deeply interior quality, inspired in part by her tumultuous childhood; Lyonne’s performance as Charlie in Poker Face flips the script by making her a conduit, the crochet hook that untangles all the knots in one messy case after the next. 

Poker Face kicks off at the Frost Casino in Las Vegas, where Charlie investigates the apparent murder of her good friend and coworker, Natalie (Dascha Polanco). Years ago, owner and former manager Frost Sterling, Sr. (voiced by Ron Perlman) let Charlie off the hook for playing dirty at his tables; she suggests she’s comfortable living a now-average life, but her lie-detecting ability makes her anything but. The casino’s new manager, Frost Sterling, Jr. (Adrien Brody), manipulates her into using her ability to help him illegally win a poker game worth 1.5 million dollars. But her inner polygraph won’t stop pinging — and by the end of the episode, Charlie is on the run from Frost Sterling, Sr. and his guard, Cliff (Law & Order’s Benjamin Bratt). 

Courtesy of Peacock

Like its no-nonsense heroine, Poker Face’s criminals are everyday people with complex problems. Driven by greed, loneliness, envy, or desperation, they commit acts straight out of a true crime podcast. (The fictional true crime podcast that features prominently in episode 4 reflects a delightful level of self-awareness in the writer’s room.) The cases are designed for rookie P.I.s at home. They’re also perfect for a would-be detective on the run who often reminds the perpetrators that she isn’t a cop. 

The writers occasionally fail to convey that Charlie is in real danger — and backtracking through the narrative to watch her crack cases can throw off the tempo. But the highlights are undeniably Charlie’s easy wisecracks and realistic investigation methods, from rifling through the trash to chewing on barbecue smoking wood. There are too many quotable scenes, including calling a heavy metal star “talc.” Johnson smartly balances Charlie’s ability to detect lies with her empathy and unwavering sense of justice. We root for her to avenge other outsiders-turned-victims she encounters on the road, sensing that she could end up the same way. 

Poker Face is enjoyable to watch for the nostalgia factor alone: Modern technology is often the only anchor to the present. The retro look of Frost Casino, Charlie’s trailer, and the opening and end credits; Charlie’s powder blue 1969 Plymouth Barracuda; the 70’s sleaze oozing from Sterling Frost, Jr.; and the vintage revolver speaks to Johnson’s love of old school television. And that’s only in the pilot episode. Equally nostalgic and comforting is the show’s roster of guest stars, some of whom are connected to Lyonne (like her best friend, Chloë Sevingy), some of whom have yet graced us with kick-ass performances (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nick Nolte, to name a few).

Johnson redeems Poker Face’s subtle slip-ups by fully capitalising on Lyonne’s type: women on the fringes of society who have no choice but to embrace their otherness with sarcastic flair, unapologetically quirky outfits, and grit. Charlie isn’t afraid to tell criminals who talk a big game that they’re playing a bogus hand. We don’t need a complex backstory outlining her unwavering desire for justice for us to root for the scales to tip in her favour. Lyonne often comes across as comically disoriented and chronically discomfited in her environment with a charm that’s uniquely hers. In being a fearless outsider who doesn’t always get it right, but never quits – much like Lyonne herself – Charlie lives up to her moniker of real-life hero.

Poker Face is now streaming exclusively on Peacock, with new episodes on Thursdays.

by Alexa Pellegrini

Alexa Pellegrini (she/her) is a writer and visual artist living in greater Philadelphia. Her work has been featured in Flip Screen and Wig-Wag. Alexa enjoys black comedies, horror movies, and everything in between by filmmakers who dare to think outside the box. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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