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Natasha Lyonne's Voice and Rian Johnson's Dialogue Are a Perfect Match on Poker Face

There's something luxurious about listening to the Russian Doll actress say pretty much anything.
  • Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)
    Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

    It's nearly 10 minutes into the first episode of Poker Face, the clever and crackling new mystery series, before we see the show's star, Natasha Lyonne. By the time we meet her character, Charlie Cale, we've seen the bad guy, a murder has already been committed, and we know who did it. Every episode in this Peacock series is structured this way; the real suspense lies in Charlie's arrival. How will she find herself mixed up in this particular case? What's her angle going to be to nail the criminals? Charlie isn't a cop or a private eye; she's a woman on the run from a mobster, who has a habit of forging connections with doomed people and an uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying. That's the entire premise of Poker Face, and it works incredibly well on its own Columbo-esque charms.

    When Charlie does finally enter the series premiere, the show wastes very little time establishing her as a very Natasha Lyonne character. If you've enjoyed seeing Lyonne on shows like Orange Is the New Black and Russian Doll, the vibe isn't entirely dissimilar: a little grungy; very opinionated; friendly, but in a small-town-bar-on-a-weekday-afternoon way. Besides her mane of defiantly unruly hair, the signature feature of any Natasha Lyonne character is that voice. Mellifluously raspy, like sandpaper draped in velvet, it's the voice of someone who has lived hard. The extra shot of whiskey is implied. It's a voice that says "I don't smoke cigarettes, the cigarettes smoke me."

    If Lyonne's voice were merely a handy character shorthand (in this case, someone who's rough around the edges but wise enough to have seen some shIt), that would be enough. But there's more to it. What places Lyonne in a league with such distinct voices as Tom Waits or Kathleen Turner is the incongruous elegance she brings to line delivery. Whether she's eulogizing the Lower East Side on Russian Doll or needling an exhausted Golden Globes audience, that Borscht Belt cadence and off-the-cuff erudition make you feel like you could listen to her all day. Magic happens when it’s paired with a talented screenwriter and given dialogue that can take advantage of a voice so rich in character.


    Enter Rian Johnson, who's coming off of back-to-back whodunit comedies in Knives Out and Glass Onion that have helped make mysteries effervescent fun again, having earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay. The connective thread of both films has been Daniel Craig's performance as Benoit Blanc, world's greatest detective, and possessor of the most ludicrously cornpone accent cinema has seen since Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Watching Benoit in action is like seeing Foghorn Leghorn doing Sherlock Holmes drag — it defies all logic and rules of sophisticated taste, and yet it works like gangbusters. You'd watch Benoit Blanc read the phone book. Only you don't have to, because Johnson's scripts provide Blanc with dense monologues and arch proclamations. In Daniel Craig, you feel like Johnson has found his muse.

    You don’t have to watch Poker Face for long to feel like Johnson's done the same with Lyonne. Like Benoit Blanc, Charlie is a peculiar figure who seems to get along with the right people and enthusiastically run afoul of the crumbums in her midst. Figuring out who are the former and who are the latter is much of what Charlie does on the show. That involves a lot of conversation, and Johnson gives Lyonne plenty of snappy dialogue to work with. In an early scene, where she and a casino operator played by Adrien Brody are talking about her gift for reading other people, he asks why she hasn't gotten rich off of it. "I been rich," she says. "How was it?" he asks. "Easier than bein' broke, harder than doin' just fine." It's a good line on the page but a great one as interpreted by Lyonne's laid-back, scratchy delivery.

    Within the span of an episode, Natasha Lyonne's Charlie joins the ranks of Rian Johnson's best and most vocally distinct protagonists. Long before Benoit Blanc, Johnson's breakthrough indie success was Brick, a deeply high-concept thriller that fashioned a teen murder plot as a highly stylized noir throwback. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's protagonist doggedly pursued the truth of his ex-girlfriend's death with the patter of a 1940s gumshoe, encountering femme fatales and shadowy figures in the halls of his high school. It was a high-wire act that won Johnson a lot of fans (and more than a few weary detractors), and as with Craig and Lyonne down the line, he found in Gordon-Levitt an actor who tore into the dialogue with relish.

    Poker Face is Brick with a better developed sense of humor, or Knives Out with some dirt under its fingernails. Listening to Charlie unravel the truth of a murder is a luxurious experience in a genre that's gritty and grimy by nature. And in Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson has once again found the perfect instrument for his words.

    New episodes of Poker Face stream every Thursday on Peacock. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Poker Face, Adrien Brody, Daniel Craig, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson