Fresh off the success of last year’s “Glass Onion” (2022), writer-director Rian Johnson has created another compelling addition to the murder mystery genre with his new Peacock series “Poker Face” (2023–), starring the uniquely talented Natasha Lyonne as casino worker Charlie Cale. The first four episodes of the series premiered on the streaming service on Jan. 26 with new installments coming out each Thursday.
The 10-episode case-of-the-week detective show is not a whodunit, like Johnson’s “Knives Out” films — instead, it’s a ‘howcatchem,’ a format popularized by the classic detective series “Columbo” (1968–1978; 1998–2003). The opening scenes of each episode introduce viewers to a new cast of characters in a new setting.We meet the murderer and the victim and even see the crime being committed. So what’s left to be discovered? That’s where Charlie comes in.
Charlie Cale is a waitress at a Nevada casino with a unique superpower: She can always tell when someone is lying. When her friend is mysteriously killed, she uses her human lie-detector abilities to figure out the true culprit. After implicating some powerful people in the murder, Charlie is forced to hit the road to escape from the casino’s head of security (Benjamin Bratt).As she travels around the country, murder seems to follow her wherever she goes: a sleepy New Mexico town, a BBQ joint in Texas and even a charming retirement home. The challenge is not to determine who the killer is: It’s easy enough for Charlie to suss out the murderer using her lie-detecting skills, and the audience already knows who committed the crime. Instead, she must determine how the crime was committed and gather enough evidence to incriminate the killer before moving on to the next leg of her journey.
The series is filled with retro design elements that harken back to “Columbo” and other detective shows of the past. With her shag haircut and vintage Plymouth Barracuda, Charlie feels like she came straight out of the 1970s, and Lyonne’s raspy voice and down-to-earth likability make her character hard not to root for.
In his “Knives Out” films, Johnson faces the challenge of introducing a large ensemble of suspects quickly, but this is not the case in the series. With a new supporting cast every week, “Poker Face” can take its time fleshing out each character. An added benefit of characters that come and go in the span of an episode is that the series boasts an incredible roster of guest stars: In just the first few episodes, you’ll see wonderful performances from Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, Lil Rel Howery, Chloë Sevigny and Judith Light.
The challenge of setting each story in a unique location is that every episode needs to feel distinctly different in terms of its tone, set design, costuming and even music. For the most part, “Poker Face” succeeds in this challenging task. While Rian Johnson helmed several episodes himself, many of them are directed or written by others, giving each story its unique voice. And Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie is the glue that holds the show together; her laidback attitude allows her to fit in anywhere, befriend nearly everyone she meets and eventually expose them for their crimes.
Despite the chaos that seems to follow Charlie on her journey, the show is nothing if not consistent: A murder is committed, and the story flashes back to reveal Charlie at the scene of the crime. Charlie uses her lie-detecting powers to identify the killer, and then she looks for hard evidence to prove their guilt. Naturally, this format gets a little repetitive, but the strength of each episode’s ensemble cast and the thrill of watching Natasha Lyonne get to the bottom of each mystery make the series a joy to watch.
What makes the premise so appealing is that Charlie’s not the kind of character you’d expect to see solving mysteries; instead of a cop or an FBI agent, she’s an ordinary person who’s been forced to take justice into her own hands. The series makes some subtle points about the inequities of the American justice system, but the commentary never goes too deep. Lyonne’s remarkable performance keeps the show’s momentum going, along with some excellent writing that ties up each story’s loose ends in around an hour. Every character and every detail — no matter how small — has a role to play in the mystery. Even if you’ve got everything figured out, there’s always another surprise just around the corner.