“Poker Face,” a new series starring Natasha Lyonne and created by Rian Johnson of “Knives Out”/”Glass Onion” fame, is a work of pure fun, a comedy mystery with roots spanning half a century in its heyday in broadcast television. Its specific predecessors are Columbo, which attributes the openings to apes, in that we see the murder first and then watch the star bring the killer to justice; And “The Fugitive,” in that Leon character, is on the run and finds herself in a new place, wrapped in a new drama, every week. (I say drama, and that’s true enough given how people get killed, but “Poker Face,” which premieres Thursday on Peacock, is comedy balanced and consistently funny.)
It also calls back to an earlier era in that it is aggressively episodic and formulaic. That’s not to say it’s uninspired — what keeps formula from becoming formulaic is the writing, the acting, and the staging, which tell us so much in a short time without ever feeling bald or manipulative. But each episode has a similar shape, working order. Streaming has made it into a stable series; Here you can’t fall back on a cliffhanger but for a variation on the thing you loved last week. There are still plenty of such shows on network television, generally sitcoms and procedurals, where an issue is created and resolved between the opening and closing credits, but it’s rare to find them on a streaming platform.
Discovery (buffs) suits Leon. “Russian Doll,” the series that cemented her return to the spotlight after “Orange Is the New Black” — she became a young celebrity, but there were years later in the personal and professional wilderness — was also a mystery story: a mystical detective show in which Nadia had to discover a reason Her death continues in the first season and time travel in the second season. ‘Poker Face’, for all its wit and modern attitude, is as straightforward as can be, made simply and expertly, to be enjoyed – comfort food, not ‘loud’, but delicious.
As Charlie, Leon is the only regular character in the series, although her stalker is recurring by Benjamin Bratt, a security officer who works at the casino where we meet her working as a cocktail waitress. The pilot lays out the terms of his flight, which is a pretty big spoiler to spell out, but there is a murder involved, and in solving it Charlie invokes the wrath of a powerful person (voiced by Ron Perlman). It’s a star role, and that means the actress herself is inseparable from the fun, which is the case for most successful detective series. Her act spans from Brooklyn to the Porsche Belt — like Peter Falk’s “Columbus,” a New York Jew — she’s come across on screen as colorful, friendly, eccentric, determined, ontologically wrinkled, and if we can wrap one word into Yiddish, heimish, even when Her personality is annoying or problematic. She’s like the uncle — the aunt doesn’t really catch it — who tells jokes you can’t always follow through with, and more often than not she’s tempted to pull a nickel out of your ear.
Like Nadia, Charlie is special. She has a non-supernatural superpower: the ability to tell when a person is lying. We learn that before she served drinks at Casino Frost and lived in a trailer in the desert, she used this ability to make a lot of money playing poker; But that part of her life has been forced to end, which she doesn’t mind at all.
However, as the series opens, the casino is being run by the owner’s son, played by Adrien Brody, who has learned her secret and has a proposal that will make her rich.
“I was rich,” says Charlie.
“how did you find it?”
“Easier than breaking. Harder than doing well.”
Once we see the murder – its preparation and execution – we travel a little further back in time to find that Charlie has already entered the scene. Maybe she’s working a low-key job—waitress at a dinner theatre, cook at an outdoor barbecue joint, hostess at a retirement home, selling merchandise on a sad little rock tour—or stuck on the town overnight. Plymouth Barracuda is repaired. But it has been around long enough for a connection to be established. Charlie is a social, talkative, and friendly creature, which, combined with her innate sense of right and wrong, makes her powerless to withhold help when needed. (She’ll even take charge of a stray dog that seems to hate her.) “I think in another life you were, like, a knight,” a friend told her. “Lady Galahad.”
With her built-in bull detector, Charlie also can’t rest when something pops up, so she’ll still have trouble getting to the bottom of what looks like an accident, death by natural causes, suicide or murder at the hands of someone actually in custody until she works. to solve the problem. She has the unfortunate habit of explaining to the murderer or killers how they did it, without the authority of a policeman to hang handcuffs on them, thus regularly putting herself in danger.
However, it manages to deliver some form of justice in each episode before moving on to the next setting, where, once again, someone is going to be killed. One would think that the absurd frequency with which this occurs might be grounds for comment – she’s a compulsive commentator and a born cynical thinker – but that’s the lot of the occasional detective, from Miss Marple to Father Brown to Jessica Fletcher.
The changing environment and delightful guest cast – including John Ratzenberger, Lil’ Real Hurry, Tim Meadows, Ellen Barkin, S. Ipatha Merkerson, Judith Light, John Hodgman, Chloe Sevigny, Simon Helberg, Hong Chau and K Callan (The Old Lady in Johnson’s Knives Out) – Keep your “poker face” colorful and fresh. Leaving aside the magical talent that will help Charlie solve a case, not everything is entirely believable, and the mechanics of the murders, which reach into the big book to establish an alibi, can seem a bit familiar. But with 136 years of mystery stories since Sherlock Holmes opened shop, how could it be otherwise? Familiarity – which generates contentment as easily as disdain – is in part the key point. Although it will be mentioned more than once to Charlie that she is not on a TV show, of course she is. That’s why we’re here, and we’re still walking around.
when: Any time, starting Thursday
evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)