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Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne Crack the Code on Mystery Shows With Poker Face

The Peacock series will make fans of detective shows giddy with pleasure.
  • Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face (Photo: Peacock)
    Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face (Photo: Peacock)

    Like every good riddle, Poker Face is exquisitely artificial. Almost everything about Peacock’s new mystery series — the acting, the writing, the props -– winks at us while we watch, reminding us that nothing’s on screen by accident. The pleasure comes in seeing how the pieces fit together, but really, “pleasure” is too gentle a word. When mysteries are as well-constructed as they are on this show, when the wit and craft are executed at such a dazzling level, then the effect is more like being drunk. Fans of the genre may find their heads spinning at what the show achieves.

    Part of the joy comes from Poker Face’s familiarity. Series creator Rian Johnson (also the mastermind of the Knives Out franchise) has clearly watched murder-of-the-week detective series like Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, and Matlock, where a charming investigator solves homicides with breezy aplomb. To continue that tradition, he’s created Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), a wise-ass drifter who’s also a human lie detector, immediately aware if someone’s telling her the truth. As she roams the country, moving from odd job to odd job, she keeps stumbling across dead bodies, and by using both her superpower and her knack for annoying people until they tell her what she wants to know, she inevitably smokes out the killer.

    But about that: Because the series is a “howcatchem” and not a “whodunit,” the audience learns the murderer’s identity near the beginning of every episode. However, that’s never the whole story. The fun comes in watching Charlie suss out clues, motives, and double crosses that weren’t immediately apparent. Her detective work inevitably revises our understanding of what we’ve already seen, and there’s brain-tickling satisfaction in realizing that, oh look, a throwaway joke about a recipe was actually the linchpin of the whole affair. This sense of play also guides the tone: While series like Mare of Easttown and True Detective are engrossing because of their moral seriousness, Poker Face assumes that cracking cases is a lark. Characters have real stakes, but they’re presented in a way that foregrounds the gratification of the intellectual puzzle over the harrowing circumstances of someone’s death.

    Lyonne, who’s also an executive producer and key collaborator on the show, drives that sense of adventure. Just like in Russian Doll, her fundamental intelligence as an actor is perfectly suited to the formalized storytelling. With her crooked smile and the glint in her eye, she suggests she’s having an absolute blast dropping into whatever world Charlie enters in a particular episode. Her comic timing lets her craft Charlie’s Columbo-esque, “here’s how it happened” speeches so that they sound spontaneous, even though they’re carefully constructed. She’s also a master at tossing in parenthetical comments — a dig at somebody’s fashion sense, a chuckle about how something reminds of her a song lyric — that make her seem alive as she delivers exposition about the crime.

    The writers more than rise to her level. The team includes veteran TV scribes like Christine Boylan (Castle), Joe Lawson (Modern Family), and co-showrunners Nora and Lila Zuckerman (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and they all produce sophisticated mysteries, where the trail of clever clues is tucked inside a crackerjack story. For instance, Episode 3, “The Stall,” written by Wyatt Cain, finds Charlie working at a Texas BBQ joint where one of the founders has decided to go vegan. His reason for giving up meat is laugh-out-loud ludicrous (it involves a popular indie film), and it creates believable tension with his brother. It’s just as entertaining to see how their family dynamic plays out as it is to follow Charlie as she solves the eventual crime.

    In fact, the series always makes the week’s new characters as engaging as Charlie herself. Sometimes, Lyonne doesn’t arrive until almost a third of the way through the episode, which gives the A-list guests a chance to shine. (There are at least two Oscar winners, indie faves, or living legends in every installment.) But there’s a sly trick in this approach that’s crucial to the howcatchem formula. The interesting story beats and string of good jokes are so engaging that they distract us from the clues that Charlie picks up later. In Episode 4, “Rest in Metal,” Chloë Sevigny is utterly convincing as a bitter, washed-up rock star, and when she’s trying to put together a team for a low-budget tour, it’s easier to focus on her character development than on the little things that point to the reason someone ends up dead. In Episode 2, “The Night Shift,” Hong Chau plays a salty truck driver named Marge, and it’s tempting just to laugh at her excellent one-liners without hearing what’s underneath them.

    Marge also highlights how Poker Face adds depth to its murder-of-the-week format. Charlie cares about her, and their genuine connection in a greasy spoon diner motivates her to solve that week’s crime. She’d much rather stay out of everyone’s business, but in case after case, her empathy pushes her forward anyway. She may enjoy the thrill of solving the puzzle, but if it weren’t for her sense of duty to someone she quickly loves, then she’d keep her head down and move on. That’s partly because she’s being chased by a character from Episode 1, and it’s partly because she’s a wandering spirit. It’s a lovely touch, letting her kindness battle with her restlessness. And Lyonne can play the occasional moment of pathos without sacrificing the overall spirit of fun.

    The show also breaks the mold with its social commentary. Just like he does in the Knives Out movies, Johnson uses the series to take satirical digs at everyone on the political spectrum. There are jabs at conservative talking heads, young radicals who think they invented sexual politics, and the general way that online discourse warps the rest of the world. These moments don’t overwhelm the mystery at hand, but they add a jolt of urgency, inviting viewers to consider how the outlandish stories are rooted in reality. It’s a little something to chew on after Charlie has driven off to her next escapade.

    Four episodes of Poker Face premiere January 26 on Peacock. New episodes drop Thursdays through March 9. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Poker Face, Peacock, Columbo, Chloe Sevigny, Hong Chau, Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson