Between the runaway success of the Academy Award-nominated Knives Out and its recent sequel Glass Onion, there’s no doubt about it: Rian Johnson knows how to write a mystery. Johnson’s latest project, Poker Face, hits Peacock January 26, and sees him once again pulling triple duty as writer, director, and producer on a mystery: but this time, instead of one continuous feature, it’s a 10-part anthology starring Natasha Lyonne. From it’s fascination with exploring underrepresented American communities to its clever writing and endlessly-lovable lead in Lyonne, Poker Face is a mystery-of-the-week series as witty as it is endearing.
The series stars Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a free-spirited cocktail waitress whose preternatural ability to tell when someone is lying has accidentally landed her in the crosshairs of a powerful casino owner. As she travels across the country dodging the casino owner’s no-nonsense head of security (Benjamin Bratt), Charlie’s miraculous power and bleeding heart often find her playing amateur detective, solving small-town murders and forging unlikely friendships along the way.
There’s no doubt about it: the way Poker Face is written and structured, it would be virtually impossible for the show to succeed without the right actor as Charlie – and thankfully, Natasha Lyonne is more than up to the task. Like Benoit Blanc, Charlie Cale is a chatty, eccentric, sleuth with an unorthodox method – but she’s also an endlessly empathetic hero, and a genuinely compelling dramatic presence when she wants to be.
Yes, Charlie’s primary function is to be the vehicle for clever writing, and to help move the plot along, especially in a series that’s shooting to revitalize the mystery-of-the-week format. But it’s undeniable that Charlie’s presence in the series goes far beyond just giving the viewer all the pieces to put the mystery together on their own: without Charlie’s warmth, humor, and compassion, there’d be no Poker Face.
The sheer presence of Natasha Lyonne in your cast will always ensure at least one stand-out character, but here, she’s used (thankfully) to her full potential: effortlessly shouldering the brunt of the series’ dialogue while also serving as the audience surrogate and the show’s main emotional touchstone. Thanks to its structure as an anthology series, Poker Face needs to develop a precise eye for establishing tone and setting quickly – painting a speedy but effective picture of each new community it visits every week. Through Lyonne/Charlie, we not only have a way to get to know the major players each episode, but to connect and bond with them in a manner that feels singular to Poker Face.
Where most detective-types have some kind of professional obligation that prevents them from getting to personal or close with the suspects, Charlie has no such ties – leading to her forming quick but undeniably genuine bonds in the communities she’s ingratiating herself into (and eventually investigating. Not to keep comparing it back to Knives Out and Glass Onion, but one of Poker Face’s that beguiling quality, that homegrown warmth, is something that could only come from a lead who dives headfirst into getting to know the people around her.
It’s not that Charlie is trying to find murders to solve – she simply makes friends so quickly, and cares so authentically about the people she meets along the road that she can’t help but use her gift for good, even if it means putting herself in danger. It’s hard to overstate just how well-cast Lyonne is – yes, her signature raspy voice and comedic chops make her the perfect person to deliver weekly doses of Johnson’s acerbic dialogue (which is in fine form here), but it’s her dramatic chops that stay with you when the credits roll each week.
It’s a testament to both the strength of Johnson’s writing and Lyonne’s performance that it’s possible to be repeatedly emotionally invested in a new one-off story each week – and watching Charlie get to know and bond with a new group of strangers is a routine that never loses its novelty. It’s difficult to put into words just how effective Charlie’s infectious friendliness is as a viewer – her capacity for bonding with others in turn makes the inevitable betrayal and murder all the more upsetting.
That’s the other key aspect of what makes Poker Face such a resounding success – Johnson’s ability to craft a brand new world of characters to care about every week, and how well fleshed-out the supporting cast is. When writing within the confines of an hour-long tv episode, there’s not much room for complicated plot twists and carefully-laid minute details like their would be for a feature-length mystery.
Johnson recognizes this limitation, and instead of trying to shove every clever twist and turn he can think of into an overwritten mystery, he instead puts his energy towards writing characters that jump off the page – opting (cleverly) to shoot for emotional resonance where others might’ve wrung their hands about coming up with the cleverest solution to the mystery.
As for the murders themselves, Johnson’s familiarity with the genre makes the writing consistent but still fresh: Poker Face’s formula cold-opens with the murder being committed (and the killer(s) revealed to us) before then flashing back and showing us how, surprise!, Charlie has been there the whole time, and because she happened to be around when the murder was committed, we watch her go sleuthing around with her nose for liars.
Of course, credit needs to be given to Poker Face’s impressive ensemble cast: featuring guest stars like Adrien Brody, Stephanie Hsu, Chloe Sevigny, Hong Chau, and Lil Rel Howery, Johnson has picked an eclectic, all-star lineup of standout talent to populate his series. From barbecue aficionados to washed-up ex-metal singers, Poker Face cooks up stories frequently centered in unique, underrepresented pockets of southern American culture, all of whom feel three-dimensional.
Take a writer whose passion and penchant for murder-mysteries knows no bounds, a charmingly offbeat leading lady as your detective, pepper in a baker’s dozen of Grade-A guest stars, and top it off with a killer score, costuming, and sense of aesthetics, and that’s Rian Johnson’s Poker Face. Whether you’re tuning in for the brain-teasing mysteries or just want to get your weekly dose of Natasha Lyonne, this brilliant new series never disappoints.
Poker Face begins streaming on Peacock January 26.
Photo: Phillip Caruso/Peacock