This new era of prestige television that we are lucky enough to enjoy has seen the balance of power shift from the networks to streaming services, as the most awarded, critically acclaimed, and popular shows are now found on any of the multitudes of streaming platforms, each one with their own slate of lauded original programming. Every major streamer has joined the party, even Roku hitting the critical jackpot with their highly-praised original film, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which premiered in November. It seems as if the only major streaming service that hasn’t jumped on the prestige TV bandwagon is Peacock, seemingly happy to bask in its vast catalog of popular shows from NBC’s archives, in addition to churning out under-the-radar original programming marked by reality series, competition shows, and formulaic sitcoms.
Well, the powers-that-be at Peacock were not messing around when they decided enough was enough with the fluff. If they wanted to be taken seriously and drive subscribers (and critics) to their premium platform, they knew that they needed help in creating a series that would be Peacock’s first big thing, a new, original show that would get them to be finally taken seriously as a content creator. Who better to turn to than Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne, two of the industry’s hottest and most respected artists, each one riding a wave of success and acclaim, Lyonne coming off her award-winning and critically praised Netflix series Russian Doll, which she co-created and starred in, and Johnson, still riding high from the massive critical and popular reception of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which he wrote and directed for Netflix.
Glass Onion is the follow-up to Johnson’s equally popular Knives Out from 2019, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for writing. As for Lyonne, her career is back in high swing, a comeback story for the ages, having overcome a well-publicized battle with addiction to earning an Emmy nomination for acting in Orange is the New Black in 2013, followed by co-creating one of the most original, creative and intelligent shows of the decade in Russian Doll, for which she was Emmy-nominated for producing, writing and acting in 2019.
Whatever you imagine can come from Johnson and Lyonne working together, double it, and you get Poker Face, Peacock’s original mystery comedy series, created by Johnson (who also writes and directs several episodes) and starring Lyonne (who also serves as executive producer). Poker Face has all the charm and wit of Knives Out and all the Lyonne-infused quirkiness of Russian Doll, but what happens when Johnson and Lyonne come together is a magic carpet ride of devilish fun, as Poker Face is not only the most clever and entertaining new show of the year, but it’s one of the best shows of the decade so far.
Peacock, you sure do know how to make an entrance.
The premise of Poker Face is blissfully simple. Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a woman gifted/cursed with the ability to know when someone is lying. It’s a talent that she is unsure of how best to use. Even though it seems ready-made for the game of poker—she can totally tell when someone is bluffing–Charlie finds herself on the run from a crooked casino owner (Adrien Brody) when she chooses to use her skills to out him as a killer rather than help him take down a whale in a card game. It turns out solving murders is Charlie’s real talent, as, while she’s on the run from the casino owner’s goons (headed by Benjamin Bratt), she keeps happening upon people dying mysteriously, and ends up being the only one who can figure out what really happened. Much like Angela Lansbury’s famous crime-solving character Jessica Fletcher in the popular ’80s series Murder, She Wrote, Charlie solves a new murder each week, but she is far less elegant in doing so. Instead, Charlie bumbles around, going with the flow, until someone is killed, and she feels motivated to seek justice.
Each episode has Charlie in a new place, as she continues to be on the run. She needs to be low profile, so she gets jobs that pay cash and don’t ask questions. The first six episodes have her in such disparate settings as a dinner theater in Chicago, an outdoor BBQ restaurant in Texas, and a sleepy one-stoplight town in the middle of New Mexico. Each episode unravels a new story, each with its own characters, which is one of the true delights of Poker Face. The show’s setup allows each episode to have its own cast (apart from Lyonne), so the bevy of guest stars is unlike anything we’ve seen since the days of Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The trailer alone shows off some of the great actors that make appearances in Poker Face, and, let me tell you, not a single one is wasted. Each guest actor gets their moment to shine, some for just a single scene, some for an entire episode. And they are all brilliant.
It is a true testament to the writers and directors that they manage to keep the tone, which is a combination of playfulness, mystery, and comedy, all underlined by constant tension, consistent throughout the series. Obviously inspired by Johnson’s snarkily comedic sensibility that makes both Knives Out movies so delectable, Poker Face is utterly charming while being darkly macabre. The laugh-out-loud moments are everywhere and take you by surprise, as do the much more subtle yet equally genius dry, black comedy moments. Each episode is brilliantly structured, designed to draw viewers into each new story before it crosses paths with Charlie. The writers could so easily and lazily have relied wholly on the gimmick of Charlie being a human lie-detector to propel each story, but, instead, this curious resource she has is just another facet of who she is, and it’s not even the most interesting thing about her. The show is whip-smart, clever, and wholly addictive. I found myself excited to see what new story and location each new episode would bring and how Charlie would find herself entangled in it, a new generation’s own Quantum Leap, without the time travel.
It’s all led by the seemingly haphazard but exquisitely controlled performance from Lyonne, a whirling dervish of tics and quirks whose crime-solving methods are much more Columbo than Poirot. It’s hard not to compare Charlie’s style to that of Rian Johnson’s most famous sleuth, Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, especially as she shares much of Blanc’s same charm and affability. But, other than that, Charlie is wholly her own character, and much of that is due to Lyonne’s devastatingly appealing and smart performance.
Although Lyonne was excellent in both Orange is the New Black and Russian Doll, there is something about this character of Charlie that fits the actress like a glove, and she turns in the best work of her career. Lyonne’s outsized personality, brazen, bull-in-a-china-shop persona, and kooky, quirky delivery is absolutely magnetic here, and each story is shaped not only around each guest star but how Lyonne can work herself into and play with each actor. Her comedic skills are second-to-none here, as each script seems like nothing more than a sandbox for her to play in.
It’s rare to have a show whose scripts, episode to episode, are as enthralling as the actors who bring them to life, but such is the case in Poker Face, as every new installment is just as entertaining as the last. I was only given six of the first ten episodes to screen, and I couldn’t watch them fast enough. Each episode is so disgustingly clever, funny, and engaging, it reminds you of how truly rare it is to find a show this well done or this purely enjoyable.
It’s not just the top-notch acting and writing in Poker Face. The direction in each episode is crisp and captivating, and the brilliantly-toned banjo-infused score is punctuated by sumptuous needle drops, as varied as Christopher Cross and Tom Waits, that is utter perfection. The opening credits are a throwback/homage to ’70s and ’80s classic TV shows, which sets the perfect tone for a show that is inspired in every way by everything that’s come before it but forges a bold new path as an endlessly creative, original and entertaining show that blends populist with prestige, veering very nearly towards perfection.
Each episode is basically a stand-alone, with a new cast and a new story, so there are endless opportunities to bring in different actors each episode, having Charlie solve a new mystery each week, which means this show could potentially go on forever. We should only be so lucky.