Were we complaining about new shows being helmed by flashy big names for the first couple episodes, only to then slip into using other writers and directors to mimic the showrunner’s style? Couldn’t have been us! Especially not with the winning combination of creator and star we get in Poker Face. In this Peacock series, Rian Johnson leads a barnstormer of a murder mystery show, kicking us off with an exquisite pilot before we head out on backroads and highways through America’s undergrowth, solving a different crime every week. It’s a show that loves three things equally: Natasha Lyonne, Columbo, and getting us hooked on stories.
Johnson has been enjoying his fair share of praise and dissent for his knowingly goofy humour and tricksy narratives, but even his most diehard fans will have missed the darker, noir-stamped feeling of his earlier work. Brick and Looper aren’t devoid of humour, but they feel more muted and restrained when compared to the visually arresting but showy pep of the Knives Out films. It’s amazing, then, that in Poker Face’s pilot (the only episode screened for critics that’s both written and directed by Johnson) we don’t just return to the dark and twisted—it ranks among his best work.
At a ratty casino hotel that nevertheless holds huge sway over a backwater town, a murderous cover-up pricks the ears of the shaggy-haired Charlie (Natasha Lyonne), who until this point has coasted on odd jobs and occasionally cheating at card games. This is because she has one uncannily perceptive advantage: she can always tell when someone is lying. The rules of this gift are laid out pretty succinctly (she can’t predict the future, can’t read minds, doesn’t immediately know why someone’s lying), so we can quickly get to its real benefits: solving crimes.
Johnson has said before Columbo ranks among his all-time favourite series, and his and Lyonne’s love for the scrappy, unassuming Lieutenant is not just visible in Charlie’s characterisation, but baked into the show’s structure. Poker Face is case-of-the-week, yes, but it’s not a conventional “whodunnit;” rather it’s an inverted detective story—commonly referred to as a “howcatchem.” In this model, the crime unfolds at the top of each episode, introducing us to new characters, scenarios, and vendettas before our detective is introduced. The drama is not who committed this crime, but will the criminal get away with it? Can Charlie parse through circumstance and plausible alibis to find the presence of a cold-blooded murder hiding in plain sight, and even then, will they be able to find enough hard evidence to get justice to occur?
By about the fourth episode, the favoured structure becomes clear. We meet our standalone characters, watch the crime unfold, then jump back to the point where, unbeknownst to us, Charlie had joined from the sidelines, usually just to pick up work. At the midpoint we push ahead with the crime’s aftermath, getting into the mess that is solving a crime. It’s clear Poker Face loves unravelling each of its introductory vignettes; watching ugly human impulses play out in incredibly specific and unlikely interpersonal conflicts is enough to rope you in regardless of Natasha Lyonne’s bristling charisma. TV shows are being increasingly celebrated for rejecting serialisation and choosing episodic adventures, but while Johnson’s writing team make sure no story feels the same with narrative subversions and idiosyncrasies, hopefully we’ll be going into less familiar structural territory in the final four episodes and beyond.
But it’s not just the writing that feels Johnson-esque; Poker Face’s team of directors do a commendable job of keeping up the high standard of camera movement, shot composition, and general visual dynamism Johnson showcases in the opening episodes. It helps, also, that the ensemble cast is so brilliant, with guest stars Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, Chloe Seviny, Simon Helberg (and so, so many others) grabbing our attention for the short amount of time they spend with us, helping paint a darkly oddball portrait of America, where people can fix themselves on taking another’s life in the most convoluted ways in less than a minute, but they’re shit out of luck for doing it near Charlie. She’s a character with the most baffling relationship with culture, and she’s out of the loop on how to be a regular person enough to see what others can’t. Her “bullshit” detector (it’s like rolling a perpetual 20 on perception) gives her the right amount of an advantage without making her superhuman. Hey, some people are just really good at solving murders.
While Johnson fanatics will be saddened he wasn’t hands-on with every episode, it’s exciting to see him blueprint a world that very capable creatives can authentically replicate and extend as the season progresses. Alice Ju, Christine Boylain, Lucky McGee—these are writers and directors that show a clear passion for the ways that mysteries satisfyingly scratch a very particular itch, and with Natasha Lyonne a credited writer for the eighth episode, it’ll be exciting to see how her tastes and instincts fit into the story. Columbo as a dame on the road is enough to sell any mystery fanatic; we’re lucky Johnson, Lyonne, and the rest of the Poker Face team have also stacked the deck so much in our favor.
Poker Face premieres Thursday, January 26th on Peacock.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.