Jessica Fletcher, Lieutenant Columbo, Veronica Mars, Olivia Benson, Sherlock Holmes…these are some of television’s top sleuths whose traits blend to create Poker facethe charming lead role, Charlie Cale. Peacock’s new mystery drama strives to add Charlie to an enviable list of fictional small-screen sleuths. The biggest hurdle is how the show and its protagonist can stand out while being (inevitably) compared to those that came before it. Thankfully, Rian Johnson’s triumphant writing paired with Natasha Lyonne’s enigmatic performance makes for one hell of a TV show. And that’s evident right away with the first two stellar installments.
Poker face pays homage to hits like Colombo– as also evidenced by the font of the opening credits – but successfully stands out with a new and fun perspective on a “howcatchem”. That’s right. PF is not a thriller like Johnson’s recent Knives out movies. He still carries his ability to invent captivating narratives and esoteric characters related to Charlie’s escapades. Johnson and Lyonne create such a fascinating world for Charlie, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t stay in one place too long or only solves one crime throughout the series. In fact, it’s the most entertaining aspect, if a bit circumstantial.
Each episode begins with the reveal of who the killer is and exactly how he committed the murder. And it’s fun to watch Charlie figure it out after the audience knows how to use his deductive skills and his knack for spotting liars. Lyonne’s portrayal is effortless. In less competent hands, Poker face might be too slow or structured. Lyonne inhabits Charlie with brazen vulnerability, whether it’s riffing opposite Adrien Brody and Benjamin Bratt, becoming pals with Hong Chau and Megan Suri, or bonding with an old friend, played by Dascha Polanco. (And it all happens in just a few outings.)
GRADE FOR SEASON 1, EPISODE 2: B+
Poker face does not initially dwell on Charlie’s larger personal background. We glean that she is prolific at telling when someone is lying; it’s an atmosphere that she captures perfectly. (Honestly, what a talent.) She used that in the past to win big at poker tournaments in cities like Denver and Cheyenne before reaching Las Vegas. She landed a job at the Frost Casino because, instead of letting her “abuse” her powers, the owner gives her a job as a hostess.
This feels like an arc with layers that need to unravel at some point: Why did Charlie take the gig instead of continuing her shenanigans and making money? In episode one, “Dead Man’s Hand,” she admits she used to be rich (“It was easier than being broke, harder than doing just fine,” she wisely adds). So what made her stop? Was it just the idea of settling down with a well-paid job? If so, it’s tragic that she has to give it all up now for a life on the road.
“Dead Man’s Hand” opens with Natalie (Polanco), a Frost Casino maid and Charlie’s good friend, who spots something dangerous on a rich man’s computer while cleaning his room. She takes photographic evidence, but instead of running to the cops—who can blame her?—she confides in the casino’s new leader, Sterling Frost Jr. (Brody), and his security aide, Cliff (Bratt). Unfortunately, they would rather kill Natalie and her drunk, abusive husband than turn in a wealthy whale who brings the casino a ton of money. And that’s exactly what they do after falsely lulling her into safety.
Charlie can’t stop herself from investigating because she doesn’t believe how Natalie died. She fixates on tiny clues (a missing gun, a missed call) and breaks into her friend’s devices to correctly figure out the true story. Charlie was meant to team up with Sterling Jr. and Cliff to scheme affluent clients in poker games using her “supernatural infallibility” to pick up who’s lying. Instead, she turns on the duo and gets Frost Casino blackballed, leading Sterling Jr. to jump off the balcony (so long, Adrien Brody). Charlie barely escapes Cliff’s gunshot and goes on the run because the big boss (a.k.a. Sterling Sr., whom we meet via a brief phone call) is after her now.
Poker Face is clearly Charlie’s story, but each episode presents enticing and serious subplots even if we don’t spend sufficient time with them. The premiere’s case deals with a child pornography ring that Frost Casino may or may not benefit from. Since Charlie is our lens into it all, and she’s embarked on a road trip far away from Vegas, it’s all we’ll ever know (for now, at least). But that’s alright because, as established, Charlie’s journey is compellingly told.
Episode two, “Night Shift,” also has meaty ideas on the periphery. The victim, Damian (Brandon Michael Hall), is a war vet struggling with expenses while working at a Subway chain—so much so, he even buys a lottery daily. His killer, Jed (Colton Haynes), has mental health issues, as seen in his obsession with the neighborhood convenience store employee, Sara (Suri). These key details add value to their characters without taking over Poker Face’s main goal: Charlie coincidentally being drawn into their case.
Her car breaks down close to the garage where Jed works with his uncle. She goes in to get it fixed, but she’s told to wait overnight because he’d rather watch Top Chef live over help a customer. (He’s got his priorities straight). It’s sadly the same night Jed decides to kill Damian, not knowing a burgeoning detective is nearby. The crime itself isn’t shocking: Damian finally wins $25,000 and reveals it to Jed while confronting him over his creepy attitude toward Sara. Jed then pushes him off the roof and steals the lottery ticket.
Meanwhile, Charlie finds respite in this small town with Marge (a splendid Hong Chau), a stranger who helps her superglue her wound and gives tips on how to stay hidden (no social media, ATMs, or credit cards—I feel like I could’ve told her all this too). Marge and Charlie bond immediately, but it’s short-lived because Marge is blamed for Damian’s death. First, a friend is killed. Now, another friend is arrested? You bet Charlie will get involved, even if it means getting caught by Cliff.
Channeling her inner Olivia Benson and Veronica Mars (and with a whole lot of original Lyonne-inspired sass), Charlie questions town locals to map out Damian, Jed, and Sara’s daily routines. She inspects Jed’s hangout—the garage rooftop—gains Sara’s trust, and learns about trucking calls in time to solve how and why Jed bludgeoned Damian and dumped his body in Marge’s truck. She doesn’t stick around to see the cops reach the garage lest Cliff finds her. But she’s done her amateur sleuth duty of solving the crime and saving Marge.
Poker Face isn’t hesitant to remind us that, yes, Charlie is a novice at playing detective. In episode one, she takes quite a while to connect the dots that Natalie’s phone password is the same as her locker code, and she openly interrogates killers knowing they’re capable of murder. She didn’t expect to use her powers for this work, but here we are anyway. Poker Face begins with a luxurious pace as Charlie adapts to her surroundings, but it’s a strong start; our patience is well-rewarded in these hourlong episodes.
“Night Shift” ends with Charlie on the road again, barely escaping Cliff after he tracked her down because she withdrew bills from an ATM. Who knows where her adventure will lead her next?
- Look out for the Poker Face episode three/four recap tomorrow. The show will continue with one weekly episode for the remaining six installments.
- I love that Dascha Polanco continues to appear in Natasha Lyonne’s projects after starring together in Orange is the new black. First, Russian doll the first season, and now the Poker face opener.
- Natalie’s remark about Charlie watching the news when there’s never anything good hits home: “Every day you’re angry about something you can’t do anything about.”
- In case you were wondering, Charlie’s Twitter account is @C00rsGalnnLung3Dartz. I have to assume it’s because she likes her cans of Coors.
- Admittedly, I cracked at Cliff’s Burn notice reference when he calls Charlie “Michael Westin”.
- I am delighted that Benjamin Bratt is the other common thread of all Poker face episodes.
- Who do we think is playing Sterling Frost Sr., based on the voice behind the phone call?
- shout at (Oscar nominee!!) Chau’s wonderful delivery of “I’m getting no-gonna-hook-up vibes” in Lyonne.
- Another exchange that I really enjoyed, in part because of Lyonne’s expert enunciation:
Marge: “The pain is in your mind.”
Charlie: “Ma’am, you have no idea.”
- Technically, there is not much to expect Poker face except when Cliff catches up with Charlie (and what happens after that?), but I’m excited to start this Poker face travel here.