Deal Us in for ‘Poker Face’

Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson play a strong hand in the outstanding murder mystery series

What would your life look like if you could detect a lie with 100% accuracy? Everything done in the dark eventually comes to light, and Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) is truth’s wandering, flickering spotlight: half Joan Jett, half Columbo, dropping self-deprecating tangents and verbal rope-a-dopes in a raspy New York accent, Charlie is a fallible person with an infallible ability to spot deception – and calls it with a terse “bullshit” delivered like a spray of kicked gravel. But as the tallboy-swilling, bed-headed cocktail waitress says, “the real trick of it is to find out why someone is lying,” as she bumbles cleverly through a series of murder mysteries in Rian Johnson’s TV series debut Poker Face.

For being a human lie detector, Charlie herself is a cypher: shrewd but rough-mannered, shamblingly agreeable with a defiant streak and an octogenarian’s vocabulary, complete with Felix Unger references and old-timey quips like “it’s starting to stack matches” and “it’s a hat on a hat!” She seems content with her rootless life, such as it is: living in a peeling trailer on the outskirts of Las Vegas, swigging Coors Lite and driving a sun-blistered Plymouth Barracuda to her job serving whiskey sours to day gamblers. Resigned to the knowledge that most human interaction is pitted with small, pointless lies “like birds chirping,” she’s developed an affable indifference toward the circumstances of her own life.

But her own relationship to the truth is hazy: the casino workers she shares smokes and jokes with have no idea she was hired by the casino’s gangster owner (Ron Perlman) to keep eyes on her after he caught her card-sharping and got her blackballed from the circuit. Charlie is also less than honest about her feelings, ditching the “just fine” life she claims to appreciate for the chance to fleece a powerful high roller for major cash–but when the scheme collides with a cold-blooded murder, she has to go on the run.

Each episode brings a mystery for Charlie to solve in a new community, creating a narrative roulette wheel with a fresh celebrity cast: a dead military veteran with a winning lotto ticket is dumped by a trucker with a secret. A hotel maid witnesses a horrific crime in a high-roller suite and dies in a bloody cover-up. A barbecue mogul slays his brother when he threatens his business by turning vegan. A washed-up metal band goes to electrifying lengths to revive their career. Two aging peaceniks may not be who they seem when their past returns to confront them. Johnson tightly stitches each oddball tale with excellent writing, washed in a warm desert palette and steadied by Charlie’s tough-chick cynicism.

Lyonne, a child actor who appeared in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse at age 6 and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You at 16, cemented her indie queen status with Slums of Beverly Hills and cult film But I’m a Cheerleader in the late 90s. She endeared herself to a new demographic of streaming viewers with admirable performances as salty heroin dealer Nicky in Orange is the New Black and time-haunted Nadia in Russian Doll, where audiences fell into the troubled worlds she inhabited and came to terms with them alongside her. Now her slam-dunk performance as rumpled punk sleuth Charlie has steered Poker Face to the top of viewer rankings, Twitter mentions, and Stephen King’s recommendation list: in an entertainment space bounded by self-aggrandizing illusion on both sides of the camera, Lyonne’s flawed, sailor-mouthed realists are the antiheroes we’ve been waiting for.

Johnson, who directed Knives Out and Glass Onion, is a veteran filmmaker (Looper, Brick, Star Wars Episode 8) with an obvious talent for turning a well-wrought riddle into box office and streaming profits. He’s known for stuffing his ensemble casts with big names from comedy and drama, and Poker Face plays a full ring game with plenty of genre-crossing star power: Adrien Brody (Blonde), Ellen Barkin (The Man From Toronto), Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Luis Guzman (Wednesday), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Snowden), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), Cherry Jones (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Jameela Jamil (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law), and Hong Chau (The Menu, The Whale) all play their hands against Charlie’s prescience. Lyonne’s fellow Russian Doll actor and longtime friend Chlöe Sevigny and Cheerleader co-star Clea Duvall also appear, along with Cheers alums Rhea Perlman and John Ratzenberger.

Johnson’s previous hits are Clue-like whodunits that camouflage the killer within a confined pool of shifty, wealthy suspects, but Poker Face is a series of blue-collar state-hopping howcatchems: inverted detective stories that make the audience privy to the murderer’s identity from the jump. Like Hitchcock’s The Rope or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the point is not to create suspense for the audience, but to play on the tension of moral perspective in watching someone else’s suspense while the audience holds a murderer’s omniscience.

Johnson is a lifelong mystery fan who drops classic detective references in most of his work: Glass Onion lead Benoit Blanc plays the online game “Among Us” with Angela Lansbury and Lyonne as herself – and one Poker Face episode features a group of elderly crime buffs called The Fletchers. He modeled Charlie’s offbeat wackiness after the greats, saying his lead characters are “slightly buffoonish” to set the killer off-guard and keep the players guessing until the incisive takedown in the final act. As he told ShortList in 2019, “I think whether it’s Columbo or Poirot or Miss Marple, they always have something about them that makes you not take them seriously. And that’s really important.”

Johnson clearly thrives within episodic storytelling, and the retro narrative blooms under sharp writing (besides a very terrible pop-punk song that Poker Face portrays as a metalhead’s grand opus). But there’s a wistfulness behind the buzzy show with an already-loyal following. Even with her uncanny knack for ferreting out a lie, scrappy outsider Charlie is Thelma without Louise, Columbo without Dog, Matlock without Julie or Conrad.

Smelling BS from a mile away has the disappointing side effect of exposing the white lies and truth-fudging behind most human interactions, and Charlie stays friendly but aloof, zooming in and out of lives as abruptly as she changes them forever. As she fumbles through one man-made quagmire after another searching out the truth, here’s hoping that she finds a way to anchor her cynicism within the ambivalence of human behavior and one day park her Barracuda for good. New episodes drop every Thursday through March 9.

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Rachel Llewellyn

Rachel Llewellyn is a saucy media mercenary who's worked at Curve Magazine and Girlfriends Magazine in San Francisco, and ghost-edited two noir novels. She's also translated academic material, written corporate website content, taught adult school, and produced morning television news. Rachel lives in Bakersfield, California, where she hikes with her dog and pushes paper in the government sector.

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