If you somehow managed to hit Play about the new Peacock series Poker face without absorbing any of the preceding hype surrounding it, you could be in for quite a shock. For the first eight minutes, it looks like our hero will be a casino housekeeper named Natalie (Dascha Polanco from Orange is the new black), who stumbles upon scandalous information while cleaning a high roller’s suite and reports it to her superiors. But by minute nine, Natalie is dead – shot in her own home by the casino manager’s right-hand man.
This is not a spoiler, I promise. Because, as anyone who has seen as much as a trailer already knows, the real amateur detective is central Knives out and Glass onion mastermind Rian Johnson is awesome Poker face is played by Natasha Lyonne. The show, which premieres Jan. 26, is an unashamed homage to television’s classic mystery-of-the-week, namely the touchstone of the 1970s. Columbo, which began each episode by walking viewers through the murder. First we met the victim and the perpetrator; some time later, Peter Falk’s eponymous scruffy detective would arrive on the scene. Instead of playing along at home, fans got to see a strange, unassuming but brilliant sleuth who conducts interviews, interprets clues and sniffs out motives.
Poker face maintains that howdunit-not-whodunit structure, but trades Columbo, who derives his authority from the LAPD, for Lyonne’s uprooted casino employee Charlie Cale. Quippy, scrappy and disarmingly caring, Charlie has a superpower befitting Lyonne’s street-smart persona: she can always tell when someone is lying. Before she was hired at the casino (because the owner was motivated to take her away from his own tables), her hidden talent won her poker games all over the country. The manager (an unctuous Adrien Brody), who happens to be the owner’s black sheep son, can’t understand why she’d give up a lucrative side hustle to serve drinks to tourists in a campy cocktail-waitress outfit. “I’ve been rich,” she explains. “Yes?” he says. “How was it?” “Easier than being broke, harder than doing fine.”
The attitude serves her well when things go south at the casino, after Charlie begins to dig into the death of Natalie, who had been her close friend. By the end of the premiere, she’s on the run, picking up random gigs to fund her flight from her former employer, and Poker face will be both a great American road trip adventure and a mystery show. Each hour-long episode takes her into a different environment, from an auto repair shop in New Mexico to a barbecue joint in Texas. And wouldn’t you know it, Charlie rolls to each new location just in time to solve a murder.
While both are popular and critically acclaimed, in our age of endless reductive discourse, some viewers have reacted somewhat strangely to Johnson’s Knives out movies. Rather than enjoying them for the self-consciously silly, low-stakes, Agatha-Christie-esque mysteries that they are, a certain subset of the public has insisted on questioning their vaguely progressive politics, only to conclude that they are insufficiently rigorous. . The good news is that – unless I underestimate Twitter, which is a distinct possibility –Poker face is just too fun, and Lyonne too endearing, to let the show get caught up in that conversational swamp. Like Columboit’s a magnet for amazing guest stars, from Brody and Polanco to Ellen Barkin, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Luis Guzmán and Everything Everywhere Everything at once Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu.
And if the format is lovingly pinched Columbo, along with some memorable plot points, the social worlds Charlie dives into are not only inspired, but vividly fleshed out. In my favorite of the six (out of 10) episodes sent to critics, Chloë Sevigny plays the frontwoman of Doxxxology, a struggling one-hit-wonder metal act who peaked in the 90s and would do anything for another chance on fame. (Like many of Charlie’s cases, this story smuggles delicious cultural Easter eggs under the radar, from a band named after a Nell Zink novel about a band to an appearance by metal-loving Mountain Goats mainman John Darnielle as the group’s guitarist. , but would also be completely understandable to viewers who have never heard of either.) A close second is the one that Judith Light and Law & authority legend S. Epatha Merkerson as 1970s radicals in the form of Weather Underground, who now routinely scandalize their assisted living community.
Of course, since the cult that formed around Lyonne when she was the thinking girl teen idol in the 90s recommitted after her comeback in Orange and then Russian doll already know, the best reason to watch Poker face is its only star. While her performance certainly owes something to Falk’s shuffling savant, she’s also reminiscent of the larger-than-life personalities of old Hollywood; Lyonne clearly has talent and beauty, but more than that, she has an obvious on-screen charisma that makes you want to spend time in her presence.
That makes her the perfect collaborator for Johnson, who – however you feel about his skills as a satirist – excels most at creating distinctive characters. With Charlie, he plays off Lyonne’s unusual combination of blunted affect and humanistic warmth, freeing her from ill-fitting female tropes without drawing too much attention to the character’s identity cues. She is a natural detective, not only because she is an outsider who can sniff out lies, but also because she cares about people and is fascinated by their psychology. “Everyone, they lie all the time,” she marvels during the premiere. And they usually don’t lie to cover up some deep, dark secret, but just about stupid, pointless shit. The real trick is to find out why. From the many bespoke details that make Poker face a true midwinter gift, the greatest pleasure is in watching an extraordinary character, played by an extraordinary actor, make his way through the bottomless mysteries of the human psyche.
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