There are, I think, two things that we need to talk about if we’re really going to discuss Poker Face, the new big-deal mystery-of-the-week Peacock series that stars Natasha Lyonne and comes from the brain of Knives Out creator Rian Johnson. One of the things is smaller, more targeted, and probably more relevant to you if you clicked on this to see if some guy you don’t know thinks the show is good and worth your time. The other is a bigger macro thing about, like, television in general, and the way we tell stories. Both are important. The second one is probably more interesting to me, just because I’m into that stuff. But let’s start with the first. That’s why you’re here. You’re not made of time.
Poker Face is fun. Natasha Lyonne plays Charlie, a woman with a mostly unexplained but 100 percent accurate ability to look at someone and know if the thing they just said to her was a lie. It’s not that she knows the truth all the time, or that she can tell why someone isn’t being honest, but she definitely knows when someone tries to yank her chain. This is a useful skill to have in your pocket, sometimes, but it turns out it can also get you in trouble. When we meet her in the first episode, she’s working as a hostess at a rinky-dink casino in Nevada because she used her gift in a way that a) kind of kneecapped her career options, and b) you can pretty easily guess by seeing the title of the show. It’s a whole thing. They explain it about a third of the way through the first episode. Adrien Brody is there when it happens, giving it the full Adrien Brody, which I mean in the best way possible.
Then… some things happen. For… reasons. There are spoilers here that I want to dance around a bit, in part so you get to experience them with fresh eyes and in part so that people on the internet do not yell at me. The point of it all is this: she needs to go on the run a little bit. And while she’s on the run, she stumbles into mysteries that could use solving. A murder here, a wrongly accused trucker there, justice needing to be done for any number of reasons. And she uses her gift to get that justice, often in — you will be shocked to hear, given the Natasha Lyonne of it all — quirky and/or eccentric ways. Again, it’s fun. A little dark sometimes. There are guest stars galore. John Ratzenberger shows up in one episode. I enjoyed that.
It’s a really great use of Natasha Lyonne, too. You know how sometimes you’ll see an actor or actress in a particular role and things snap together in your brain and you’ll be like “ohhhhh, right, this is what they should be doing”? That’s what we have here. She gets to use all of her tools: the fast-talking, the sideways glances, the thing where you — and the other characters on the show, especially the ones in this show — underestimate her a little bit at your own peril. Combine all of that with the gravelly voice and disheveled appearance and it’s almost impossible to avoid the Columbo comparisons here. Which is kind of the point. This brings us to the second thing.
At some point in the last 20-30 years, television started veering away from using episodes as little individual stories and started using them as little pieces of a larger puzzle. Not every show, sure, of course. There are dozens of shows with titles like NCIS and FBI and CSI and any other combinations of capital letters that still do this. But what happened is these shows started falling out of favor a bit. They didn’t win awards. People like me didn’t watch and recap them every week. You started hearing showrunners say things like “actually, this season is more like a 12-hour movie,” which is, in hindsight, a wild thing to use as a selling point. Who would ever want to see a 12-hour movie? Movies should be two hours or less. I’ll go as high as two and a half, tops, if it’s really necessary and a committee of sensible people from the Midwest watch it and agree. Anything longer is madness.
But it brought us some really good stuff. And then some less good stuff. Lots of things tried to become addictive binge watches in ways that hurt the quality of the show. You had a cool first episode and a cool finale with lots of… stuff… in between. It’s an exhausting way to tell a story if you do it wrong. And anyway, what’s so bad about entertaining people for an hour a week and then letting them get on with their lives? There’s something admirable about that, especially when there are an almost unreasonable amount of options out there.
And so, enter Poker Face. And Rian Johnson, himself no stranger to taking an old formula people liked and giving it a glossy new sheen in the present. The Knives Out movies are basically just Agatha Christie stories with Daniel Craig doing some accent work, no superheroes or monsters or plans to take over the world. It’s easy to forget because it’s James Bond investigating a slew of very famous people for murder, but those movies are shockingly small in scope compared to the other blockbusters out there. That is what’s going on with Poker Face, too. We are going back in time, but with the resources of the future. There’s something cool about that.
Yes, Columbo is the obvious inspiration here, right down to the yellow-font title cards and the thing where each episode opens with 10-20 minutes without the main character and with a very clear depiction of who did the murder and why. It’s not a whodunnit as much as it is a hows-she-gonna-get-em, which can be just as satisfying when done right. Also, like Columbo, there’s barely anything connecting the episodes from one to the next. A casino tough guy played by Benjamin Bratt is trying to hunt her down and sometimes he shows up five minutes too late and grumbles into his cell phone about it, but that’s all. It’s… I don’t know. The word I want to use here is refreshing. The stakes are low in a macro sense but extremely high on a micro level. This is still the wildest stuff that has ever and probably will ever happen to the characters in each episode. But then Charlie leaves and stumbles into another mystery and life goes on. That’s okay, too.
Let’s close with two more things, both of them equally important.
ONE: We should be doing stuff like this. A lot. Isn’t that the point of having all these options? I said a similar thing a few weeks ago when Netflix dropped Kaleidoscope, their CYOA heist series that was probably better on paper than in practice, but it applies here, too. We can have big huge television projects that play themselves out over a whole season (or multiple seasons if we want to get crazy), and we can have fun/intense little mysteries that wrap up after an hour each week. Neither one is inherently better or worse. Either can be great if done at a high level. Variety, baby. Mix it up. Give the people some choices.
TWO: There was once an episode of Columbo where a robot helped him investigate a murder. I rarely have an excuse to bring that up and I don’t know when I’ll get one again, so I’m going to say it here. And I’m going to post the picture of Columbo shaking hands with the robot. Here, look.
We are all doing pretty great here. Rian Johnson, Natasha Lyonne, me, Columbo, that robot, all of us. Really nice work.
The first four episodes of Poker Face premiere on Peacock on January 26, with the remaining episodes dropping weekly after that