‘Poker Face,’ Starring Natasha Lyonne, Is a Clever, Winning Mystery Throwback: TV Review
Natasha Lyonne is not a performer who holds a lot in reserve. Her great gift is for charging into a scene and electrifying it with a stream of chatter, suddenly resetting the temperature for all those around her. It’s a talent that self-consciously throws back to the screwball comedy era, and one that was leveraged well on shows including “Orange Is the New Black” and “Russian Doll.” But one perhaps did not previously have a sense of this star as one with much of a poker face at all.
Which makes her casting on, yes, “Poker Face” an intriguing development, and a welcome chance to stretch her talent. Here, in collaboration with show creator Rian Johnson (of, most recently, the “Knives Out” films), Lyonne finds a new gear as a Columbo-esque accidental sleuth who perennially knows a little more than she’s saying.
Not that she’d have you think that. In the first episode, Lyonne’s Charlie tells a potentially sinister Las Vegas tycoon played by Adrien Brody, “I’m still pretty much a dumbass, and I’m doing just fine.” She’s sure she’s about to be fired from her job as a casino cocktail waitress, and is serene about it; the character is a profound underachiever, capable of detecting any lie (and, as such, dominating at the card table) but content to take whatever job comes her way.
As can happen in Vegas, things get out of hand, and Charlie ends up on the lam, smashing her smartphone with a rock before taking a long pull from a Coors Light and hitting the road. The America she meanders through in the following episodes is one of boundless venality and small cruelties: Every town Charlie pulls into presents her with a murder to untangle, a cause she takes up with somebody’s-got-to-do-it gumption.
The crimes Charlie investigates are not difficult to crack — and, as with “Columbo,” we’re ahead of the game, watching what has happened first, before our detective puzzles it out over the next hour or so. But the stories are creatively built and beautifully cast (my favorite installment of the first six that were provided to critics concerns a pair of dinner-theater actors played by Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows). And Lyonne fits into them jaggedly, usually just encountering a small drama and unable to resist the temptation to involve herself. There’s a canniness to the Lyonne performance, a careful calibration of her zaniness. Charlie is garrulous and nosy, but she has an instinct for manipulation and for self-preservation. She carefully wheedles information from her sources, and as carefully ducks out of the danger that we aren’t allowed to forget for too long is right on her heels.
Which makes “Poker Face” a double pleasure — a road narrative with different characters cropping up all the time, with a backbone made up of Lyonne’s clever performance and the threat of violence she’s just barely outsmarting. Surely one of the strongest series yet to launch on Peacock, this streaming drama feels like the best sort of vintage, comfortably spread-out TV. This elegant set of mystery stories allows an established star the time and space to crack a new sort of case, that of how to evolve a familiar persona and bring fans along for the ride.
“Poker Face” will launch with four episodes on Thursday, January 26, with new episodes streaming Thursdays.
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